Three Grand Dames of Mystery: “And Then There Were None” by Agatha Christie

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And Then There Were NoneThe Agatha Christie wrote her most popular and creepiest book in 1939’s And Then There Were None. Six men and two women get invitations to Soldier Island from a U. N. Owen, each being offered a different explanation for his or her invitation to lure the person there. Upon arriving, they discover that their host has been delayed, and none of the others know him either. They find it cute that in each bedroom is a framed copy of the poem “Ten Little Soldier Boys,” along with ten ceramic soldiers on a table in the living room. After dinner, served by a married couple who arrived two days earlier, a voice suddenly comes from the next room. It announces that each of them is under judgment for murder and lists the names of the people each of the ten, counting the two servants, is supposed to have killed. As each decries the accusations and explains away the supposed murders, one man suddenly falls dead in front of them, killed by cyanide. They assume that this is suicide, but they become a little uneasy when they find one of the ceramic soldiers missing. Their uneasiness rises to concern when the next morning, another is dead, and only eight soldiers are left on the table.

As the book continues, one by one, characters are killed off, each following the method used in the next line of the nursery rhyme (see below to read the rhyme), accompanied by a similar decrease in ceramic soldiers. While the book is indeed a thriller, it also contains a mystery to it. Who is behind all these deaths? It also gives us insight into each character’s persona and the nature of each crime that character committed.

This book is considered Christie’s greatest and is certainly her most popular, having sold over 100 million copies in over 50 different languages. In writing this, Christie created a whole new premise that now looks like a cliche because it has been used so often. According to www.agathachristie.com, Christie said of writing the book: “It was so difficult to do that the idea had fascinated me.” What makes this book stand out from other adaptations in particular is the thought Christie gives to creating a plausible solution to the situation to explain how the events transpired. Very few, if any, readers will be able to guess the solution upon their first reading, but it seems almost obvious upon later readings of the book.

Christie cleverly uses the nursery rhyme to guide the plot of this book. Each new death corresponds to the action in the next line of the rhyme. For example, the first line reads, “Ten little Soldier Boys went out to dine;/ One choked his little self and then there were nine.” To correspond to this line, the ten visitors to Soldier Island are seated around the dinner table when one gasps and falls over dead, killed by cyanide. Christie loved to use nursery rhymes as the bases of her books, and she does this nowhere better than in this book.

The book did not always carry the title And Then There Were None, though it has always been published under that name in the United States. In its first release in England in November 1939, it came out under the title of Ten Little N*****s. The “N” word that seems so abhorrent to our ears now was not used as a racial slur in 1939 England as much as it was in the U.S., though it still likely had a negative meaning to it. The word was actually used in the original nursery rhyme that Christie uses as the framework for her book. In choosing to use this word in the title of her book, Christie draws attention to the way society teaches racism and similar forms of hate and cruelty from the nursery. It is clear from reading other writings of Christie’s, in particular Come, Tell Me How You Live, her memoir of living on digs as the wife of Max Mallowan, a prominent archaeologist, that Christie not only saw the inherent humanity in all individuals but sought to dispel the hurtful racial stereotypes that seek to divide us.

Using the “Ten Little N*****s” version of the poem and setting the book on N****r Island while having ceramic black men represent the guests instead of soldiers shows how each of these characters, while seemingly respectable and even important people, is no different from the ones they least value. This attitude toward blacks is shown especially in the character of the explorer, Philip Lombard, who openly admits to having taken all the rations on one trip to East Africa, abandoning his native guides to die: “Story’s quite true! I left ’em! Matter of self-preservation. . . . And natives don’t mind dying, you know. They don’t feel about it as Europeans do.” He sees these black men as having less human value than himself, yet he is represented by the ceramic figurine as being one himself. Further, with N****r Island’s being located within England itself, Christie shows that the feared Other is within each of us and not just faraway Africa.

Dan Stevens performs the audio edition of this book and does an excellent job of bringing it to life. He adds to the sense of eerieness with his inflections and voices used in his narration.

As one might imagine, And Then There Were None is a very creepy book, certainly the creepiest of all of Christie’s books. The premise is creatively imagined and the development well performed. The writing is much more complex and deeper than most of Christie’s works. It is no wonder that this book is the best selling mystery novel of all time. I give this book five stars.

“Ten Little Soldier Boys ”

Ten little Soldier Boys went out to dine;
One choked his little self and then there were nine.

Nine little Soldier Boys sat up very late;
One overslept himself and then there were eight.

Eight little Soldier Boys travelling in Devon;
One said he’d stay there and then there were seven.

Seven little Soldier Boys chopping up sticks;
One chopped himself in halves and then there were six.

Six little Soldier Boys playing with a hive;
A bumblebee stung one and then there were five.

Five little Soldier Boys going in for law;
One got in Chancery and then there were four.

Four little Soldier Boys going out to sea;
A red herring swallowed one and then there were three.

Three little Soldier Boys walking in the zoo;
A big bear hugged one and then there were two.

Two little Soldier Boys sitting in the sun;
One got frizzled up and then there was one.

One little Soldier Boy left all alone;
He went out and hanged himself and then there were none.

To purchase this book for yourself, click here on Amazon.

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