A clever apparatus

Burgh Island, Bigbury-on-Sea, South Devon

Agatha Christie:
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.

Looe Island, Cornwall: http://andrewhugill.com/looeisland/attiesmap.html

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

47 thoughts on “A clever apparatus

  1. The 2015 tv version of this is chilling. And like so many well-known books, I can’t recall if I read this one years ago or simply knew it because it’s very hard not to!

    (I’m always surprised by the claim that Looe Island is a mile off shore. A mile from the harbour perhaps but standing opposite it, it’s hard to concede that it’s really a mile away. I’ve always been hopeless at distances!)

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    1. Yes, I saw that BBC version and found it as you describe, Sandra, chilling and … rather far-fetched. I’d come across the basic plot summary so many times that, like you, I was sure I knew it from reading it — but I didn’t!

      That ‘mile offshore’ is poetic license, perhaps. On Google maps it looks closer to 650 yards from the cliffs, but perhaps with a bit of tacking it might be a nautical mile from Looe harbour.

      Anyway, inaccessible except by boat and maybe not at all in bad weather, unlike Burgh Island. (Even when the tide is in it’s possible to wade across to Burgh Island without getting your shorts wet.)

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  2. This is one of my favourite Agatha Christie books. It didn’t really bother me that there were no characters to sympathise with, because it was the puzzle-solving aspect of the book that I enjoyed (I hadn’t seen any of the film or television adaptations so the twist near the end really took me by surprise). I actually tend to prefer Christie’s standalones to the Marples and Poirots!

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    1. Don’t get me wrong, Helen, I enjoy puzzlers, as much as I enjoy the occasional cryptic crossword (or used to, I enjoy fiction too much now, though I suspect social media plays more of a part than is desirable). But I think I may sample a few more Christies now, maybe those standalone you prefer!

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  3. Definitely an exercise in ingenuity if not full entertainment.

    As for the vilified word, I find myself irritated by the prissiness of the avoidance because of perceptions of racism which in such contexts are capable of being regarded as amusing nicknames, just as I introduce myself to Afrikaans people as a Rooinek (a red-neck of British origin, and originally intended as an insult) thereby de-sensitizing the term. I was equally annoyed when references to a k-dog were cut from Jock of the Bushveld, when this was purely a descriptor commonly used without any insult intended.

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    1. I think the key issue here is: who is saying what to whom, and about whom. You describing yourself as Rooinek is acceptable when you’re amongst an audience that sees it as self-deprecatory, me or anyone else using it as an insult is not. In street talk one African-American calling a fellow person of colour a nigger is, depending on context, acceptable, but — given the history of its use by Americans of European origin — definitely not by those who are not African-American or Afro-Caribbean. Ditto for Jewish jokes told by Jews, those with a disability about their disability, and so on. We are justified in thinking that Christie using a minstrel song with this term in the context of execution is insensitive at the very least.

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      1. I take another view: to sensitise or desensitise. Like bare feet; constant exposure to sharp stones makes them impervious to them. The same goes for making a great hoo-ha about certain names and descriptors, and substituting entirely unsuitable ones like ‘gay’.
        Where it is obvious that the speaker is trying to use the term in hate speech, they will still be treated with deserved contempt.

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        1. I take your point about sensitivity and sensitisation, Leslie, and won’t argue about that. However words are constantly evolving, whether we like it or no — and mostly we don’t like it because we like familiarity more than change we haven’t instigated ourselves — but history, as you know, waits for no man. I think we agree, though, that context is all, do we not?

          I had a quick look at the etymology of ‘gay’, which is interesting though maybe not as instructive as I’d hoped. Coming via French gai from Occitan and either Gothic / Frankish words meaning “impetuous” even “pretty”, or alternatively from the Latin vagus “wandering, inconstant, flighty” (hence ‘vague’ and ‘vagrant’ presumably) tells us a lot about its own shape-shifting in the past and no doubt in the future.

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          1. From my era ‘gay’ was if a merry or happy disposition, and I used it as such from schooldays. I take your point regarding the evolution though. At least better than degeneration.
            At least ‘gaily’ is still available to me.

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            1. Leslie, you’re not much older than me (I’m the other side of three score and ten, as you know) so I do remember when ‘gay’ had a more innocent connotation. And yes, there’s still ‘gaily’ to bandy around! 🙂

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  4. Huh! And can you believe I have not read this one? I will, as a mandatory ritual for any serious reader of classics, but your opinion of it will always loom in my mind, 🙂

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      1. Lol. I have come to love your rebellious spirit. I am going for it. In my ‘small’ way, I am rebelling too, -just against myself, hajaha-, and reading things this summer that I had no intention to read.

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  5. I agree with you on this one, Chris! I never could find much love for this book, despite its laudable cleverness – I found none of the characters relatable and didn’t really pity their fate (just as Christie intended, I expect). But because of that, the novel felt more an exercise in literary neatness than a real story.

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    1. I think my strictures about unrelatable characters aren’t peculiar to me, but I still am glad that there’s variety in literature and that plotting is one of Christie’s strengths: it clearly outweighs characterisation for her legions of fans and that’s not necessarily a bad thing!

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      1. Oh yes, I do believe this book is a literary work of art in terms of technical prowess and cleverness – it’s just one I can admire cooly from a distance, and not in the terms of a heartwrenching or heartwarming experience 😉

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  6. I loved this one although as you say it’s hard to sympathise with the characters. I did originally find myself on the side of the young woman whose name escapes me now… hmm, google will know… ah, yes, Vera! Although on a recent re-read I realised that my sympathy was probably misplaced. My copy is so ancient that it has that original title, so not one to read on the bus!

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    1. Maybe we were intended to subconsciously identify with Vera because her name suggests truthfulness, and of course she appears to have survived the bloodbath without being the cause of it. But her mostly passive vulnerability and her cold-blooded abandonment of her young charge rendered her as unattractive as the others. Misplaced sympathy, as you say.

      Oh, and you have one of those early editions too? You must have mixed feelings about it!

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      1. Yes, it’s one of the fantastic Tom Adams’ series of covers that Fontana produced back in the ’70s, of which I have an almost complete set, so I don’t want to get rid of it. But on the other hand…

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        1. Tough call. I have old paperbacks that are falling apart but they have some sentimental value — if I get a new edition do I chuck them or somehow squeeze them back onto over-stocked shelves?

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            1. And yet, in my humble opinion, the edition has value, and keeping it doesn’t mean you are vowing to what it represents, but as a sign of what’s been overcome, -hard to express what I’m trying to say-… squeeze it is, ha ha ha. I’d squeeze it, couldn’t bear to ditch it.

              In Spanish, no problem, only one title, Diez negritos, Ten Little Blacks, that’s all. No re-titling it or anything. And the island is called The Island of the Black (implying black man).

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            2. Yes, in the same way as we try to make allowances for outdated attitudes in texts, I suppose we should do the same for titles and covers – they all cast a light on a particular time and culture, and remind us that we might have a long way still to go, but we’ve already come a long way too…

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  7. Chris, I happily announce I’ve read this in three days.

    I left this quick review at Goodreads, you may want to read it, -or not-, 🙂 truly no hurt feelings. I’m just trying to selfishly unload my thoughts, for this is a book that won’t leave us indifferent.

    At loss after finishing this staggering title. The plot was frantic. I got to keep reading, keep reading, is it this person?, no, that one? I could never in a million years have found out who or how, and yet it ‘made sense’, one may say.

    One thing I have to say it’s that reading it in Spanish, -and though the book has biases for sure and uncouth comments we have thankfully overcome-, we only have the words blanco and negro for white and black. Negro is equivalent to black, for color and person. We don’t have two words, black/nigger. Ten little black people, -that’s what our title says, it’s seen as a nursery rhyme, as when you say, ‘five little fingers’. (Correct me if I’m wrong, but it didn’t elude anything prejudiced in the reader). What was immoral it’s the “savage” comment as in “oh, he killed some savage men, that’s nothing”. And yet it’s not a comment that the author would necessarily have subscribed to, but that the characters she wrote would have held. When a society or some of its individuals are like this, there’s no sense in bettering them. Also, if that’s how an author thinks, we should always remember context. Context doesn’t justify, it explains.

    That said, there’s a lot of other on point criticism and much to say about hypocrisy, the lure of evil, when man acts like God, justice, corruption, human frailty, madness… The book is valuable, both for the thoughts it ignites, and for the literary accomplishment. We may like it or dislike it, but one has to give credit where credit is due, -at least, that’s my reader’s belief-.

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    1. Spoke too soon… it’s been re-titled also to “Y no quedó ninguno”. And now I see the old covers with the original title… I get it. I still think that for a Spanish reader who has not seen any particular cover, either title won’t predispose her in any particular way, but there are offensive parts, no doubt.

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    2. I think, Silvia, that it’s that gradual transition in pronunciation — one could say corruption — of the Spanish negro via ‘nigro’ to ‘nigger’ that happened in American English, from a European perception that people from sub-Saharan Africa could conveniently be categorised as black (despite wide variation in skin colour and tone) to a demeaning and dismissive blanket judgement that is at the heart of this problematic semantic issue. Putting individuals in an out-group is too often the first step in a short walk to dehumanising them, and language is one of the most powerful weapons in that horrid armoury. I’m glad Christie was persuaded to adjust the details, albeit rather belatedly in some cultures, and that at least in English the pejorative overtones have been pared away.

      There’s no doubt that this is a clever book, as you say, but it’s not one I could be over fond of, for all its well-oiled mechanism.

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  8. It’s good, the adjustment. And fair to not be over fond of it. I also admit it reads more as an “exercise” in mystery, and abstraction. I only like whatever good discussion it prompts me to think, whatever shortcomings in human nature it shows.

    The conscience, and the way all these people dealt with the wrong they did. The evilness of the murderer, the way man wants to play God, how we turn into each other in a Lord of the Flies style, our clinging to life, or the strange peace some felt when they figured out their fate.

    I hope I didn’t sound like justifying or approving of the original title, not at all, I am glad for the adjustment made by the author. I just give her the benefit of the doubt because she doesn’t come across as holding immoral and inhumane beliefs herself. But I can be wrong.

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  9. Ye gods, is this how far back I am? Crikes!

    Anyway, I respect your point here. I never really thought much about sympathizing with the characters until I saw that newish adaptation from a few years back:

    This version really does bask all the characters in the harshest light–fitting, yes, but I realized I just couldn’t bring myself to care ABOUT anyone. I wanted justice to find them, which…maybe that’s what Christie wants of us? That we go beyond the niceties and pretty exteriors to know what muck’s been hidden beneath?

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    1. Yes, this is the TV version I watched when it was first broadcast and you’re right, hard to feel for any of the characters — except maybe for the teacher who perhaps we’re meant to hope will survive but, alas…

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      1. True. we come with her first, and the reveal of her dirty deed comes towards the end. Plus she’s a young woman, so we’re to be immediately sympathetic.

        What if we had come into the story with the one character who freely admitted to his doings without shame? Shoot, who played him….he was Kili in the Hobbit films…anyway, I wonder how following him would have affected our experience in the story.

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        1. Irish actor Adrian Turner was Kili. I remember seeing him first as Dante Gabriel Rossetti in a miniseries about the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood; more recently he has been causing female viewers to swoon as Winston Graham’s Poldark, set in Cornwall in the Georgian period.

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          1. Ha! oh yeah, he does those. I was confusing him for a while with Keith Urban, who had HIS LOTR fame with being Mr. Rohan Prince Person. Women love their dark-eyed brooders…. 🙂

            But I wonder if we started with him, who was unsympathetic from the get-go, if we would maybe have a different feel for this story. Maybe start with his suspicions, or his “don’t give a f***” attitude, and find ourselves wondering what is happening on this island. I don’t think we’d be scared for him like we fear for the teacher, but we would still be engaged, maybe, because we’d think him capable of surviving…until he doesn’t.

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            1. Yes indeed! Now I’m trying to think of a good example of this…playing against type…damn my pre-dawn brain…Oh! Hugh Jackman is so often seen as a tough Wolverine of a guy, right? And yet he was limp noodle of a softie in the movie Flushed Away. Well his voice was, as he played a pet rat flushed down into the sewer. His girly screams were absolutely precious. 🙂

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            2. Also, Hugh Grant in ‘About a Boy’ (2002), which also featured Nicholas Hoult as the boy, the latter now starring as JRR Tolkien in the biopic about the writer. And he was in ‘Warm Bodies’ which I haven’t seen.

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            3. Woah! I was just telling Bo how the boy who played Eustace in the Dawn Treader movie was all grown up for Little Stranger and MIdsomer. (sigh) what’s with these kiddos growing up? Gah!

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            4. It’s good when they fulfill the promise of their early roles (Freddie Highsmith is another such) compared to, say, poor Macaulay Culkin whom fate has not treated well.

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