And Then There Were None
HarperCollinsPublishers 2003 (1939)
“Ought to ferret out the mystery before we go. Whole thing’s like a detective novel. Positively thrilling.” — Tony Marston, not long before he becomes a victim.
Positively thrilling, maybe, but definitely chilling: quite possibly the Grande Dame’s most renowned whodunit, And Then There Were None is justly famous as a puzzler to end all puzzlers. Contrived? Yes. Gripping? Undoubtedly. Keeping you guessing till the end? In my case, absolutely, even though I knew the premise.
Eight decades on one can still appreciate the plot intricacies of how several unwitting people can be invited to an isolated rock and then be bumped off, one by one, according to the sequence determined by lyrics of a popular song. Their crime? To each be responsible for the deaths of one or more people and yet to have avoided justice for the part they played in cutting short those lives, whether from abandonment, reckless driving, wilful manslaughter, drunkenness or perjury.
As we discover, none are totally innocent; but do they deserve to die their gruesome deaths? As the tally rises towards its predicted end we have to admire the perverse dedication of whoever is responsible for judging, sentencing and executing this random set of individuals with such clinical efficiency — much as we of course condemn it.
A group of apparently random people, some of whom have been contacted by a Mr and Mrs Owen of their supposed acquaintance, accept an invitation to spend a few days in August on Soldier Island, this being an isolated rock a mile off the Devonshire coast, opposite the settlement of Sticklehaven near Oakridge. A grand mansion in ‘modern’ style, built by a rich American, is theirs to enjoy courtesy of their strangely unfamiliar hosts.
The guests consist of a retired judge and a general, an army captain and a surgeon, a games mistress and a spinster, a playboy and a private detective, while a manservant and his wife have been employed to do housekeeping duties. Just as they start to relax, having been informed that their hosts have been delayed, a terrible recorded announcement informs them that their guilty secrets have been found out. And, one by one, they begin to be bumped off by an unknown assailant.
The sequence of execution follows the order prefigured in a now notorious minstrel song, the original victims (and the island’s name) replaced by the more innocuous word ‘soldiers’. Christie’s original offensive word, taken directly from the Christie Minstrels’ text, was retained for a while in UK editions even as it was substituted when first published in North America; quite rightly the less offensive last line of the song is now the accepted title of the novel.
This scenario, in which a group of people are ‘cast away’ somewhere isolated, is a classic trope. Though Robinson Crusoe is a literary progenitor, there is more inherent interest in stories in which individuals have to interact with others similarly marooned, particularly with the possibility of fatalities. William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (itself inspired by R M Ballantyne’s classic adventure The Coral Island) plays on the same sort of tensions and anxieties that Christie’s novel does, while the film of Alien, in which the crew of a spaceship get picked off one by one, riffs on a similar plot. The crucial factor for this set-up is the lack of any obvious escape route from the island prison.
And Then There Were None appeared before Evil Under the Sun, but both were based on Burgh Island, Bigbury-on-Sea where the author sojourned in the 1930s. Burgh Island is not, however, a mile off Devon’s coast, being a mere 250 metres away from the mainland whenever it’s cut off by the tide. However, Christie may have had Looe Island in Cornwall as an additional model; though in the neighbouring county the island — originally another St Michael’s Island, as Burgh Island was — is indeed a mile off the coast, though it lacks an Art Deco building.
Now, as there is no one left at the end — not a spoiler, because the clue’s in the title — there is an additional puzzle as to how the final revelation will be brought about, but the author does engineer a explanation as ingenious as it is, of course, preposterous.
For here, at one and the same time, is both the strength and the weakness of the novel: in devising such a clever apparatus to ensure no one is left alive at the end Christie has also left no one for whom we can sympathise with. All are guilty of being cavalier with human life, with motives that are deeply suspect; there are no real foils to counter the worst excesses; there is no survivor — or indeed any true protagonist, such as Miss Marple or Monsieur Poirot — for the reader to identify with.
An admirable exercise, then, but not a story that I can find affection for.
The fourth and last title in my holiday reading this summer