Ask just about any fan of Agatha Christie's mysteries to name their favorites, and one title will almost invariably be on their list: And Then There Were None. It doesn't feature either of her regular sleuths - no Hercule Poirot, no Miss Marple - but it is probably her cleverest thriller-mystery by far.
I have always been a fan of Agatha Christie, widely acknowledged as being among the reigning "crime queens" of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, widely defined as the period between the two world wars of the twentieth century. Her skill at misdirection, at pointing her readers carefully the wrong way while still providing clues to her mysteries, was virtually unequalled. Even though she died more than 40 years ago, almost all of her books - perhaps all - remain in print. Here's some of what I had to say about And Then There Were None in my original podcast review back in 2007:
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Ten people are invited to spend a few days on a lonely island off the British coast. When they arrive on the island, they discover a peculiar setup: the person or persons who invited them to the island aren’t there, a children’s nursery rhyme has been framed and placed in each of their rooms, they are completely cut off from the outside world – and even more disturbing – it quickly becomes apparent that there is nobody else on the island except the ten of them. And then the deadly countdown begins.
In this book, Agatha Christie set out to accomplish a number of goals, not the least of which was writing one of the finest “impossible crime” novels ever.
We soon discover that the ten people who have been invited to Soldier Island, on a variety of pretexts, all have been involved in crimes before – but the kind of crimes that could not be punished. Shortly after they arrive on the island, they hear a voice – from what turns out to be a recorded message – accusing each of them of murder. The accusations may be true, although the deaths involved may or may not have been what the law would call “murder,” but they have never been punished and the perpetrators are beyond the law.
But the reason for the summons quickly becomes clear when the first person is murdered.
If you don’t remember the nursery rhyme, it begins:
Ten little soldier boys went out to dine
One choked his little self and then there were nine
And the countdown continues, verse by verse.
The murderer is following the guidelines set forth in the nursery rhymes. It becomes apparent (with the second murder) that he or she plans to continue the countdown until there are none.
So, naturally, they decide to search the island. And they discover that there is nobody hiding anywhere on the island. Which means the murderer must be one of their group.
If it sounds suspenseful, it is. Freed from the need for a detective character to act omnipotent, Christie looks to different characters among the group of ten to provide some insight. You learn a great deal about what each character is thinking at any particular time – but you will probably learn very little about what is really happening, or how. And the suspense continues to build.
One of the characters, Justice Wargrave, a retired criminal court judge, sums it up this way, as the frightened survivors meet after the third murder:
“We have inquired into the circumstances of these three deaths to the best of our ability. Whilst probability in some cases is against certain people being implicated, yet we cannot say definitely that any one person can be considered as cleared of all complicity. I reiterate my positive belief that of the seven persons assembled in this room one is a dangerous and probably insane criminal. There is no evidence before us as to who that person is.”
As we will see, Agatha Christie does play fairly with the audience – providing some clues along the way, had we deciphered them correctly. I suspect most of us will not.
And Then There Were None, according to Wikipedia, is Agatha Christie’s best selling novel, with more than 100 million copies sold to date. I believe it is among the best and most gripping novels she ever wrote. The paperback should be readily available at your local bookstore. Enjoy it.
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For more details, you're welcome to listen to my original podcast review from 2007 by clicking here.
Next week: The Case of the Baker Street Irregulars, by Anthony Boucher