Book Review: And Then There Were None

My copy of the book (and I must note, I’m glad the title isn’t the original 1939 title. Sheesh.)

In the midst of life, we are in death, and in the midst of an Agatha Christie novel, from which that quote derives, we are in an unraveling mystery even a seasoned mystery reader, such as myself (if I say so myself!), can’t fathom its solution. I’m gobsmacked, quite frankly, that it took me this long to read an Agatha Christie novel, 1939’s And Then There Were None. For one, she basically started the sort of books (mysteries) I most love to read! But also, she absolutely lives up to her billing as one of the forerunners of the mystery novel; this book was clever, with exquisitely punchy dialogue and yes, a mystery that kept me guessing until the end. No, I did not solve it before it was put on a silver platter — or uh, written in a letter shoved into a bottle dropped into the sea and picked up by a fisherman to be delivered to Scotland Yard, as it were — before me. Having finished my first Christie novel, it makes me want to read all of her books now, all 66 of them.

Heck, even the premise of And Then There Were None is a classic one, albeit perhaps that wouldn’t be the term in 1939 since it would still be considered inventive and fresh, where 10 unsuspecting murder victims are bamboozled to come to a remote island, all concealing secrets of one kind or another, and are dispensed with one-by-one, each suspecting the other and each finding their doom. What is particularly brilliant about this novel is that it’s quite literally called, And Then There Were None, and on page 31 of a 276-page book, we are given the entire plot, as it were, in a nursery rhyme about Indian boys, “The Ten Little Indians.”:

  • Ten little Indian boys went out to dine; One choked his little self and then there were nine.
  • Nine little Indian boys sat up very late; One overslept himself and then there were eight.
  • Eight little Indian boys travelling in Devon; One said he’d stay there and then there were seven.
  • Seven little Indian boys chopping up sticks; One chopped himself in half and then there were six.
  • Six little Indian boys playing with a hive; A bumblebee stung one and then there were five.
  • Five little Indian boys going in for law; One got in Chancery and then there were four.
  • Four little Indian boys going out to sea; A red herring swallowed one and then there were three.
  • Three little Indian boys walking in the zoo; A big bear hugged one and then there were two.
  • Two Little Indian boys sitting in the sun; One got frizzled up and then there was one.
  • One little Indian boy left all alone; He went out and hanged himself and then there were none.

That is essentially how the plot plays out. Yet, despite Christie telling us that all 10 are going to die and largely the manner in which they will die (for instance, one doesn’t die from a bee sting, but a hypodermic needle filled with poison mimicking a bee stink with a bumblebee fluttering near the windowsill for a theatric flourish, but close enough!) following this 1869 nursery rhyme, I still couldn’t figure out who was doing it and how. I love that! I love being a mark to the mystery and being fooled. That’s the fun of reading such books.

Thing is, for most of the book, I didn’t suspect our cast of characters: Mr. Marston, the hothead young man; Thomas and Ethel Rogers, the butler and cook/housekeeper on the island, respectively; General MacArthur, a troubled retired WWI hero; Emily Brent, a religious fanatic; Dr. Armstrong, who was the main one inspecting each dead body and given how a few died of poisoning, was a good suspect; Mr. Blore, a former police inspector; Mr. Lombard, a mercenary who killed scores of people; Vera Claythorne, a young woman with a troubled past; and Mr. Justice Wargrave, a retired criminal judge.

The reason I didn’t suspect any of them was because they were all basing their own suspicions, largely thanks to the direction of Wargrave naturally leading the group as the “judge,” on the notion that the killer must be among them. That is, the island they were on is such a small island and with ample searching, it was clear they were on the island alone; ergo. My suspicion, therefore, trying to be clever in my own way, is that their starting premise was wrong: The killer was someone else either mentioned as an aside earlier or not yet mentioned, and therefore, not known to the group. Well, I was wrong. Even by the time I got to the prologue and the aforementioned 10 were all dead, I still was thinking it must be an outside killer and I was thinking perhaps it was the man who drove the boat with the guests from the mainland to the island.

Alas, in the alluded to letter, or confession, in a bottle dropped at sea, we learn that it was Justice Wargrave all along. He had two motivating factors: a.) to see if he could pull of a mastery, grandiose and clever murder, or series of murders, and get away with it; and b.) to bring those who had absconded the law in some form or fashion to justice, hence all the people brought to the island having some varying degree of a seedy past. Dang, that was clever. It made perfect sense for it to be Wargrave. And the way in which he pulled off his own “murder” was clever, too: He was, obviously with hindsight now, this part of the nursery rhyme: Five little Indian boys going in for law; One got in Chancery and then there were four. He died dressed as a judge with robe (a shower curtain) and a wig, seemingly shot in the forehead. Or at least, it appeared. In actuality, he had conspired with Dr. Armstrong to make it appear as if he died so they could catch the real killer. Dr. Armstrong didn’t suspect a man who had overseen the administration of justice would be the real killer dispensing justice in a new, murderous form. Again, clever! I will say, a small part of my brain thought if the killer was within the group, someone might fake their death to throw them off (after all, part of the rhyme mentions a “red herring,” but a.) that is as far as the small thought in my head went and I didn’t put much weight to it and b.) even if I had that thought, given how everyone was dying, I couldn’t figure out how they could fake their death.

Agatha Christie rules. Not that popularity is everything, but I think it rather indicative of how great and timeless this book is — more than 80 years later! — that it has 1.1 million ratings on Goodreads and has a 4.28 rating (out of a possible 5). That is extraordinary. Because the book is just darn clever, with well-written dialogue and despite being only 276 pages, Christie manages to convey all 10 characters’ character well enough for us to get a sense of them; nobody on the island is a mere cardboard cutout. Plus, I’m always going to shower a mystery writer with plaudits if they fool me and she definitely fooled me.

If, like me, you’ve waited all this time before reading your first Agatha Christie novel, I highly recommend this one! That said, shame on you for reading the spoilers and missing out on the good fun of being fooled.

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