Published by William Morrow and Harper Collins
“Ten little soldiers went out to dine; / One choked his little self and then there were nine.”
Ten people are summoned to a weekend on Soldier Island, a rugged piece of rock off the Cornish coast with a single large house. Some have received invitations that purport to come from friends, while others have been hired through a lawyer.
When the group arrives, they find no sign of their hosts, a Mr. and Mrs. Owen, who have sent apologies for not being there. The odd thing is that none of the people on the island—including the butler and cook—has ever met the Owens.
The hosts appear to have a macabre sense of humour. Each guest room has a print of Ten Little Soldiers, a child’s counting rhyme, in which the soldiers die one by one. The theme is echoed in the dining table centrepiece with its ten soldiers.
On the surface, the ten people have nothing in common with each other. They include a retired Justice of the Peace, a schoolmistress, a doctor, a young man who is part of the jet set, an uptight, older woman, a retired general, a private detective, and an adventurer—and of course the butler and cook.
The reason they are on the island becomes clear on the first night. When they assemble in the living room, after an excellent dinner, they are startled by a disembodied voice accusing each one of them of murder—murders that they have gotten away with.
It turns out that the voice comes from a record that the butler has been instructed to play after dinner by the mysterious Mr. Owen. Later that night, the first person dies from a poisoned drink. One by one they are killed off, in accordance with the poem hanging on their bedroom walls.
It is evident that there is no one else on the island, which is now cut off from the mainland by a storm. Therefore, the killer has to be among the ten. But as suspect after suspect is murdered, the possibilities narrow.
As each one dies, one of the ten soldiers on the dining room centrepiece disappears.
I think this is Agatha Christie’s best book. The plotting is brilliant, with enough clues to help you work it out but I imagine not many do. I love the way the book begins. You get a sense of each character (except the butler and cook) as they travel to the boat that will bring them to the island. The writing, however, gets a bit repetitive: there are several references to Justice Wargraves’s small, precise, cold voice, and the predator-like teeth of the adventurer, Philip Lombard. But this is just a quibble.
The book was written in 1939, and reflects the attitudes of its time, although more recent editions have been cleaned up. The original title was Ten Little Niggers with the rhyme based on the minstrel song. It was then changed to Indians and finally to soldiers.
Over the years, there have been several filmed versions of the book. The most faithful adaptation—although a bit steamier than the original—seems to be the 2015 BBC three-part series that actually uses the original end (most film versions tend to shy away from it). I also have a soft spot for the 1945 black and white film by René Clair, which captures the claustrophobic atmosphere beautifully. This plot was so successful that it was copied, both in books and films (including a Hindi movie called Gumnam, complete with song and dance).
This is one of Christie’s darker books, written at the start of the Second World War. The point she makes in it is that murder can often be disguised: for example, withholding a drug from a sick person, refusing shelter to a young woman in need, giving false testimony that condemns a man for a crime he did not commit, and a drunk surgeon’s negligence on the operating table. All of the resulting deaths are treated as accidents and are, therefore, not investigated, allowing the murderer to get away.
Christie said, “I had written this book because it was so difficult to do that the idea had fascinated me. Ten people had to die without it becoming ridiculous or the murderer being obvious.”
She succeeds brilliantly. Personally, I find the book’s ending very satisfying, more so than any of the film versions.
Read my review of a Japanese version of this story, The Decagon House Murders by Yukito Ayatsuji.