In which ten strangers receive a summon to visit a rocky island off the coast of Devon, expecting either a holiday, a reunion or an offer of work; and then one by one each of them is murdered by the mysterious U. N. Owen. As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to tell you whodunit!
Firstly, a warning. Acceptable words in the English language change over the decades, and when this was published in 1939, Agatha Christie’s original title referred to no more than a 19th century minstrel song. There was no sense of racism or offence. I’ve photographed my original copy of the story, which bears the original British name, simply because that’s the book that’s on my bookshelves. However, I’m not going to use that word in this blog post. Interestingly, even back in 1939, the N word was not acceptable in the US, where it has always been known as And Then There Were None.
The book bears no dedication. It was first serialised in the UK in the Daily Express in June and July 1939; and in the US in The Saturday Evening Post over the same period; significantly the last chapter, which contains the explanation for the puzzle, was published on exactly the same day in both the UK and the US – July 1st, 1939. The full book was first published in the UK on 6th November 1939 by Collins Crime Club and then subsequently in the US by Dodd, Mead & Co in December 1939. Over the years, the British title has changed to Ten Little Indians, (which was also the name of a 1946 play adaptation), then Ten Little Soldiers, and since 1985 it has been called And Then There Were None.
My first comment has to be that if you haven’t picked it up yet, please PLEASE PLEASE do not do that silly thing and read the last page first. That’s what the ten-year-old me did and in doing so I deprived myself of the excitement of finding out whodunit in what must be one of the most fascinating and gripping mystery stories ever written. If you read the last page first you will very clearly and instantly see the name of the murderer, and it isn’t worth it!
As far as whodunits go, this is a stunner. Re-reading it now, you appreciate how beautifully it is written (racist language aside). The crime is so carefully planned and immaculately carried out and, although the clues are there, it would be a major achievement for the general reader to solve it. It’s written as purely third-person narrative, completely sticking to the facts apart from one short catastrophe-laden comment near the beginning of the book. When Mr Blore arrives by train and meets an old man with Old Testament leanings, “he looked up at Mr Blore and said with immense dignity: “I’m talking to you, young man. The day of judgment is very close at hand.” Subsiding on to his seat Mr Blore thought to himself: “He’s nearer the day of judgment than I am!” But there, as it happens, he was wrong…” That’s Christie’s only personal aside to the reader in the whole book.
Christie’s own observations about this book in her autobiography are worth mentioning here. I quote: “I had written the book […] because it was so difficult to do that the idea fascinated me. Ten people had to die without it becoming ridiculous or the murderer being obvious. I wrote the book after a tremendous amount of planning, and I was pleased with what I had made of it. It was clear, straightforward, baffling and yet had a perfectly reasonable explanation; in fact it had to have an epilogue to explain it. It was well received and reviewed, but the person who was really pleased with it was myself, for I knew better than any critic how difficult it had been.”
Stylistically, it’s an exciting read; take the second chapter, for example. It’s divided into twelve parts, each one getting shorter and shorter as the chapter progresses. It’s almost like a fugue of thoughts; each character involved in the story is given their chance to express their feelings about the forthcoming stay on the island, so that they overlay each other, creating a cacophony of unspoken anxieties. The continued use of short divisions within each chapter add urgency to the narration; no sooner have we observed one character absorbed in one activity, we move on to another, piling up the considerations for the reader to deal with. The device of the constant discovery that each of the china figures is smashed one by one as each death is discovered, adds to the sense of inevitability that they’re all going to get murdered, and also to an almost mystic or supernatural feeling that an invisible hand is doing the killing. I don’t know about you, but if I’d found myself on that island, after a few deaths I’d simply go looking for the rest of the china figures and smash the lot of them. At least that way you’d ruin part of the murderer’s fun. Of course, the powers of psychology end up playing a very big part in this story – if Poirot had read about it afterwards he would have been so jealous not to have been there, to apply his little grey cells to it. As the numbers of survivors dwindle to five, then four, then three, then finally two, the surviving suspects simply know that the only person who could have done it, is/are the other one(s). It’s then a straightforward battle to survive.
Because everyone is cut off on the island, there’s a tremendous sense of claustrophobia permeating every aspect of the book. There’s also a rather intense and stagey drama to the whole thing; a nice example of this is when the pre-recorded message on a record is played from a side room, accusing all the inmates of former crimes. It’s very much a story of its era; the crime could not have been committed in this way today, with the availability of mobile phones and the Internet. For the story to come true, it’s essential that there is no way that the inhabitants of the island can be in contact with anyone on the mainland. Today, all you’d need to do is dial 999 from your mobile. Or at least get the local fisherman to come on over with his boat.
OK, so we’ll have to deal with the language in the book now. At some point, I think in the 1980s, someone, probably an editor, had to go through this book with a fine tooth-comb and eliminate all the N words, and similarly offensive phrases. In almost every case, the N word has been replaced by the word Soldier; so for example, the poem reads Ten Little Soldiers, it takes place on Soldier Island, the smashed ornaments are china soldiers, and so on. A few other changes that were seen fit to make were: “Soldier Island […] had got its name from its resemblance to a man’s head – a man with negroid lips”; in the current version, that final phrase has simply been removed. A later reference to the strange shape of the rock formation of the island also simply describes it as “the boldly silhouetted rock with its faint resemblance to a giant head”, whereas the original described it as a “giant negro’s head”. There are only two other, now unacceptable, references in Christie’s original, both times using the phrase “N in the woodpile”. On the first occasion that has been changed to “fly in the ointment” and in the second, “the unknown soldier”.
Let’s have a look at the locations that the book mentions. Soldier Island is meant to be a nod to Burgh Island off the south coast of Devon, which is also, apparently, the inspiration for the location of Christie’s 1941 book Evil Under The Sun. Therefore, Bigbury-on-Sea, which is the nearest town to Burgh Island must be the real life version of Sticklehaven. The nearest train station for Soldier Island is at Oakbridge, and it’s no great leap of the imagination to think of this as real life Okehampton. I see that not far from Okehampton lies the village of Sticklepath (which again suggests the fictional Sticklehaven) and Belstone (which perhaps suggests the Belhaven Guest House, where Emily Brent had stayed with Mrs Oliver). There’s also the village of South Brent which might be where Emily gets her name! Mere, where Tony Marston drives recklessly, is the name of a real place in Wiltshire, but maybe there is also the suggestion of Bere Alston or Bere Ferrars, both near Plymouth. There is no such place as St Tredennick, the seaside spot where Vera recollects her tragic memories with Hugo and Cyril, but there is a Tredinnick, not far from Wadebridge. For once, Christie has made it easy for us to identify the sources of her place names!
Let’s also have a look at a few other references. All the gossip about the ownership of Soldier Island was found in the salacious articles in Busy Bee and Merryweather magazines. Busy Bee appears to be an American journal relating to the antiques industry, and Merryweather seems to bear no resemblance to any kind of publication, so I presume these are both fictitious, as is the Regina Agency in Plymouth, who supplied the services of Mr and Mrs Rogers. Tony Marston drives a Super-Sports Dalmain; I can’t find out too much about that particular vehicle but, if it existed, I think it was made by Alfa Romeo, so it sounds pretty sporty.
Ever come across a person with the first name Ulick? That’s the first name of U. N. Owen. It’s a fairly antiquated name nowadays, probably of Irish extraction, and rather noble. Talking of old-fashioned terminology, Lombard tries to work out the possibility of heliographing the mainland. Heliographing? It’s a form of communication, a little like Morse code, using the flash of the sun against a mirrored device. “Echo answers where” says Lombard on another occasion – this is a quote from Lord Byron that refers to the Latin myth of Echo, the nymph tricked by Juno and lover of Narcissus.
And of course, there’s the famous rhyme. Ten Little Soldiers – or originally, Ten Little Injuns, a song written by Septimus Winner for a minstrel show in 1868. It was then adapted and rewritten by Frank J Green the following year, who renamed it using the same title that Christie did for the book in Britain. Christie’s words for the rhyme are pretty similar to Green’s, with just a little modernising. Today, the structure of the poem is still used throughout the world for satirical purposes: Ten little Country-boys, and Ten little Banker Boys, for instance.
There are a few names mentioned that also crop up in other Christie books, both before and after. Miss Brent is convinced that Mrs Oliver had invited her to Soldier Island, having met her at the Belhaven Guest House, as mentioned earlier. Mrs Oliver is of course the name of one of the assistants in Parker Pyne Investigates, and would go on to play a much greater role in the Christie’s later books as an associate of Poirot. Marston has a friend called Badger, just like Bobby has in Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? I suppose at a pinch it could be the same chap. The pub in Sticklehaven where the guests assemble before crossing to the island is The Seven Stars, which was also the name of the rather nefarious establishment in Murder is Easy where Harry Carter was the proprietor. I also thought the story of Emily Brent’s maid was reminiscent of the plot of J B Priestley’s An Inspector Calls – although Christie’s work predates Priestley’s by six years.
You’ll recollect, gentle reader, that I like to research the present-day value of any significant sums of money mentioned in Christie’s books, just to get a more realistic feel for the amounts in question. There’s only one instance of money being mentioned in this book; the fee offered by Morris to Lombard for his attendance on the Island – one hundred guineas. In today’s values that translates to about £4800, not bad for a few days’ work… if he were to get out alive, that is.
Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for And Then There Were None:
Publication Details: 1939. Fontana paperback, 16th impression, published in January 1973, priced 30p. The cover illustration by (presumably) Tom Adams shows a hanged golly in the foreground, representing the death of the final little soldier boy left in the rhyme. There’s an abstract display of the sea and coastline, with a rather large and, frankly irrelevant, iguana. Nevertheless, it’s a disturbing and eerie image, and one I remember I had to keep face down under the bed when I was a kid so I couldn’t accidentally see it.
How many pages until the first death: 45. There’s a sensible amount of scene-setting before the bloodbath ensues; and it’s full of intrigue and suspense even before the first death.
Funny lines out of context: “One fancied things sometimes – fancied a fellow was looking at you queerly”. “That fellow Lombard now, he was a queer chap. Not straight. He’d swear the man wasn’t straight.”
I’m not sure it’s in the characters themselves that the strength of this book is to be found; it’s more in the growing suspense and the inevitability that the mysterious U. N. Owen will work his way inexorably through the entire cast. The characters of the pompous old lawyer and the puritanical old maid are rather “stock”; that said, there is an interesting relationship growing between Vera and Lombard.
Christie the Poison expert:
Potassium Cyanide is the cause of two of the deaths; but Veronal and Trional are also discussed during the course of the book, and the role of amyl nitrite in preventing a cardiac arrest is also considered.
Class/social issues of the time:
Maybe because this book is totally plot-driven rather than character-driven, Christie’s usual themes take more of a back seat – providing you ignore the constant use of the N word. There is of course some racism: the character of Morris is described as a “little Jew”, with “thick Semitic lips”. Lombard reflects on Morris that “that was the damnable part about Jews, you couldn’t deceive them about money – they knew!”
Lombard is also the source of another thread of racism. When all the guests are assembled and the recorded voice announces its accusations against each one, Lombard’s alleged crime was that he was “guilty of the death of twenty-one men, members of an East Africa tribe”. Lombard doesn’t deny it: “self-preservation’s a man’s first duty. And natives don’t mind dying, you know. They don’t feel about it as Europeans do.” He clearly values the life of a white Englishman more highly over an African tribesman. When recollecting this account, in a later conversation with Miss Brent, Vera makes an excuse for Lombard’s behaviour: “they were only natives…” That’s a thoroughly unpleasant attitude to take. Lombard has obviously been a bad influence on her.
I’m not sure how current a theme it was at the time – particularly just before the start of the Second World War – but I enjoyed observing how Rogers, the manservant, carries on with his duties, with hardly a thought to his own predicament. He’s been accused of a crime too, plus his wife has died, and yet he’s splendidly making up breakfasts, fetching coffees and chopping up firewood. Christie – or, perhaps more accurately, Miss Marple – always had an appreciative eye for a domestic servant who knew her place and carried on through thick and thin. I think Rogers is a marvel, frankly. Miss Brent had already held a brief conversation with Vera where they wondered how anyone could live on the island during the winter months. “I’ve no doubt the house is shut up in winter,” she said. “You’d never get servants to stay here for one thing.” Vera murmured: “It must be difficult to get servants anyway.”
Classic denouement: In one sense, yes, in another no. No, because the very structure of the book means there are no detectives on the island in a position to point the finger of accusation at the guilty party. Yes, because it’s a complete one-off. When the police do arrive, they are left to piece together whatever they can, but it’s totally inconclusive and they’ve no idea who the perpetrator was. However, the murderer wrote a confession which was sealed in a bottle and chucked into the ocean, in that time-honoured traditional fashion. And the denouement is simply the reader digesting all the ins and outs of the confession, without any professional or police input. Don’t worry, if you like the old-fashioned denouements, you won’t be disappointed with this one!
Happy ending? No. It’s an apocalyptic wipe-out.
Did the story ring true? There are two aspects of the story that, to me, don’t ring true, but it will be hard for me to describe them to you without giving the game away. The final death – that is, the one before the confession was written – strikes me as possible but not probable, and I have a sense that it is included to keep the perfection of the structure of the story. As for the other one… no, I can’t tell you!
Overall satisfaction rating: It’s a brilliant read. Fast, exciting, suspenseful, and totally impossible to solve. No reason not to give it a 10/10.
Thanks for reading my blog of And Then there were None and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. The next book that Christie wrote was The Regatta Mystery and Other Stories. However, it was the only book of hers to be published in the United States but not in the UK. The stories in that volume weren’t printed in the UK until The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding (1960) and later. So, as I am a Brit, and I’m doing it Brit-style, we won’t come to those stories until we reach their UK publication. Therefore, next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge is Sad Cypress, and the welcome return of Hercule Poirot. I’m afraid I can’t remember anything about this one, so I’m looking forward to my memory being jogged. As usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!