For March, I crossed off another Reading Challenge item by reading a mystery. I chose And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie. Selecting a book by the ‘Queen of Crime’ seemed like a pretty fun choice, and it was. I must confess though – I have read this book once before. About ten years ago, I went through an Agatha Christie phase, where I read almost all of her books, except for the ones with Tommy and Tuppence. Seriously, they’re so annoying. However, I seem to have only retained a memory of about 25% of the books. I did not remember who the killer was in And Then There Were None.
I did remember the premise: ten murderers are stranded on an island together until they all die, mostly of murder, as one might expect.
This is a pretty gripping premise. Hence my decision to re-read this book. Also, there’s a recent BBC adaptation of the story that I want to watch, so I brushed up on the story again first. (How else can I critique the accuracy of the adaptation?)
Eight of the characters arrive at the island after falling for various fake invitations, many of which seem to be on the behalf of a friend of a friend. I feel like this probably wouldn’t happen nowadays. People would be tweet or text or Facebook about it, and their friends would immediately shoot that down. But in 1939, I guess it’s more plausible. The other two characters are a married couple, Mr. and Mrs. Rogers, who have been hired unseen by the island’s owner to be the caretaking staff.
On the first night, as per instructions he was given by the owner, Mr. Rogers plays a record titled ‘Swan Song’. This turns out not to be a piece of music, but a categorization of each of the guests and the murders they have committed.
Everyone denies their murders vehemently, and they are all duly worried. After all, these are pretty severe accusations, and the group begins to realize that none of them know each other, or the owners of the island, whose names have been given as Mr. and Mrs. U.N. Owen – or Unknown. It becomes clear very quickly that this is a trap. As a reader, you don’t really care in terms of pitying their plight, because they are all terrible people. But you sure do care about watching the drama unfold! And murder. Let’s not forget all the murder.
As the group puzzles out their situation after dinner, things get more complicated. Pandemonium ensues when one of the guests, a handsome young man called Anthony Marston, carelessly confesses that his murder story is true – he ran over two kids when he was driving too fast. He displays little regret over this. In fact, he doesn’t even definitively recall their names, and he seems to blame the kids for being in the way. He takes a sip of his drink, and then dies almost immediately of cyanide poisoning.
I won’t go through every murder, and I won’t give away any spoilers, but this is the beginning of the guests being picked off one by one, and of their increasing mistrust against each other. After searching the island thoroughly, they conclude that there are no other people on the island, which means that one of them is the killer.
In the dining room, there are ten little figurines, which correspond with a rhyme that hangs on the wall in each of the bedrooms. The rhyme is the guideline for the upcoming deaths. Every time someone dies, one of the figurines disappears, for added suspense and terror for the survivors.
About halfway through, I remembered who the murderer was, but it did not in the least diminish my enjoyment, because I couldn’t recall how most of the deaths occurred, or what order they happened in. I was really looking forward to the bear crushing death, because I had no idea how that would be carried out when the victims were on an island and far away from a zoo. And that’s the first, and hopefully last, time I’ll ever say that I looked forward to a bear crushing death.
And Then There Were None was fairly well-received when it was published, and Agatha Christie’s reputation already well-developed. Compared to her usual mysteries featuring Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot, there is not much detection – there are no detectives in this story at all. It’s still a mystery because the reader doesn’t know who the killer is, but the story serves as a thriller as well as a mind puzzle. It’s quite carefully plotted.
I feel that it would be remiss not to mention that And Then There Were None is not the original title. The original title was racist. (Warning, the link also contains plot spoilers further down the page from the original title). I poked fun at how the planning of social gatherings have changed since 1939, but a lot of other things have changed, too, for the original title would thankfully not be permissible today. In fact, the book could use a little more modernizing, even. The rhyme I shared above uses ‘soldiers’ as the characters, but the copy of the book that I read used ‘Indian’ instead, and the figurines were described as Indians as well. I guess this is one of those cases where it’s more historically accurate to leave the story as original in order to understand the cultural mindset and societal norms of the time, but where the history isn’t exactly glorious and maybe we don’t want to hold on to it anyway. Historical context isn’t always uplifting, that’s for sure.
As a story, though, I thoroughly enjoyed And Then There Were None. It started me on another Agatha Christie binge. I’m reading After the Funeral right now. It’s supposedly a Poirot mystery, but I’m a fair ways in and he has barely been in the book. Allegedly, Agatha Christie grew to loathe Poirot and wanted to kill him off much earlier than she was able to. I think this book must be a sign of that.
If anyone else is familiar with And Then There Were None, or has seen the BBC adaptation, you might enjoy this link from The Toast, on revising the order in which the characters of the story are killed. There are spoilers, though, you have been warned! Also there seem to be some differences from the book – for instance, Mrs. Rogers is not blind in the book, but she is in the show.
And that’s all for now – it’s so hard to talk about this book without giving away the plot points! I am dying to talk about Armstrong’s guilt, and how horrible Emily Brent is, and how silly it is that in the play adaptation Vera and Lombard survive and fall in love. But I can’t do that without ruining the surprise if you haven’t read it!
So that is March’s Reading Challenge item crossed off the list. Next up: a graphic novel.
2016 Reading Challenge:
- A National Book Award winner– complete, Fifteen Dogs
- One of Shakespeare’s plays– complete, Hamlet
- A mystery – complete, And Then There Were None
- A graphic novel – This one is next. I have never read a graphic novel and am very excited. I think I am going to read Deadpool Kills the Marvel Universe.
- Book you haven’t read since high school
- A book translated to your native language
- Non-fiction about a subject you’ve been curious about
- Book about or set within a culture you’re unfamiliar with
- A book that’s at least 100 years older than you
- Book in a genre you usually avoid
- A classic novel
- At least three poems