The world’s best-selling mystery, And Then There Were None was published on 6 November, 1939 and was commented as “the most baffling mystery that Agatha Christie has ever written” by The New York Times. In the novel, ten strangers are invited as weekend guests to a private island off the coast of Devon, call the Indian Island. They all hold different occupations including a judge, a mistress, a soldier, a doctor, and a former inspector, but they are all lured into coming to the island for offers of employment, to spend their summer time, or to meet old friends. Their host, an eccentric millionaire unknown to all of them, however, is nowhere to be found on the island. As each of the guests has been charged with a murder in the past, one by one becomes murdered eventually. After three days, all ten guests are found dead, and there are no one else on the Indian Island. So who killed them?
That’s the question that Christie makes us think about throughout the novel. The word “queer” is used more than 30 times in total since everything on the island indeed is very queer to the guests. They discover that no one actually knows the millionaire host, the Owens, and conclude that the name “U.N. Owen” is shorthand for “Unknown.” After dinner on the first night, a gramophone record is played, and an unknown voice reveals the wicked past of each guest and accuses each of a guilty secret, and soon one of the guests is dead. To make the whole thing of murdering more interesting, the murderer follows a nursery rhyme as closely as possible, and there are ten little soldier figures on the dinner table representing the ten prey. As soon as one victim dies, one china figure disappears too. It is intriguing to me as a reader that the rhythm gives a clue about what is going to happen to the next person, but I still found it completely puzzling and surprising when the next one dies. Same for the characters. Each time a murder happens, only the result of a death is shown in the text, but the process is never described or mentioned. Neither the other characters nor the readers have any ideas about how the victims are killed. The “ten little Indians” cannot fight their fate.
As there are ten characters thinking and acting in the story at the same time, it could be hard for the readers to distinguish between them clearly, but Christie does a wonderful. While reading, I was able to match the ten guests with their ten different jobs and their secret stories in the past. Each of the ten has a sub-plot for how the person directly or indirectly caused others’ death and what the person feels about it. Anthony Marston, a handsome but amoral and irresponsible young man, killed two young children while driving recklessly, for which he felt no guilt or personal responsibility at all, complaining only that his driving license was suspended as a result. Vera Claythorne, a young, efficient mistress, deliberately allowed the child she taught as a private teacher to swim out to sea and pretended to swim out too to “save” the boy but in fact let him drown. She did that with intentions that she believed good because her lover, the boy’s uncle, could become the family heir, inherit the estate and marry her. When the guests come together, for example for a meal, their thoughts inside are described in turn from a third-person omniscient point of view. After Christie writes that “six people, all outwardly self-possessed and normal. And within? Thoughts that ran round in a circle like squirrels in a cage…” she displayed their thoughts each in a short paragraph in italics. All the characters thus are portrayed very three-dimensional in their own ways.
And Then There Were None is not only widely considered as Agatha Christie’s masterpiece but also described by herself as the most difficult of her books to write. She said in her autobiography that “I had written the book… because it was so difficult to do that the idea had fascinated me. Ten people had to die without it becoming ridiculous or the murderer being obvious. I wrote the book after a tremendous amount of planning, and I was pleased with what I had made of it.” She crafted the language with a really clear, straightforward, yet baffling style throughout the book. I found it easy-to-read, but I was still able to feel the intense and mysterious atmosphere and was captivated and stimulated every moment I read it. And Then There Were None is special because it’s a mystery without a detective — no Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple to make sense of things like they do in other Christie novels. She ingeniously includes a manuscript document recounted by the actual murderer after the epilogue. The murderer confides the crime processes and the true intent behind: to punish the guilty ones that are not convicted. It is said that “…there were many cases of a similar nature going on all the time—cases of deliberate murder—and all quite untouchable by the law,” which reveals the profound meaning underlying all the murders on the Indian Island. I was touched to see such a just mission that the murderer carried out.
If you are a mystery fan or simply intrigued by the plot thus far, And Then There Were None, an undoubtedly outstanding work by the Queen of Crime, is highly recommended. You should go read it; otherwise, you only “will find ten dead bodies and an unsolved problem on Indian Island.”
Reviewed by Nina X ’18