And Then There Were None: Agatha Christie

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.”[1]

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.

Buy from UK / USA


11 thoughts on “And Then There Were None: Agatha Christie

  1. Pingback: The Decagon House Murders: Yukito Ayatsuji – Talking About Books

  2. Sophie

    Hi Suroor

    I found this novel in my father’s library a long time ago (we’re talking decades here!) and I loved it. It is now mine, in an old and dog eared edition with its original title.

    I’m devastated about the murder attempt on Sir Salman Rushdie, whose Golden House I recently read, and whom I regard as one of the most brilliant authors of both 20th and 21st centuries. I do hope he will be alright.

    1. suroor alikhan

      I know, Sophie, it’s shocking. I am also an admirer of his. The latest news is that he is recovering.

      Glad you loved And Then There Were None!

  3. Sophie

    Who wouldn’t love And Then There Were None! It’s a classic! 🙂
    I never saw any of the movies you mention though. I enjoy going to the theatre from time to time, but I’m not what you would call a ‘cinéphile’.

    I read your review on The Decagon House Murders and I’m afraid it’s not available in French, unless you buy the graphic novel, but I’m not interested.

    I’ve also followed the news concerning Salman Rushdie, and yes, there are some encouraging news.

    1. suroor alikhan

      That’s a pity. So you haven’t been converted to graphic novels yet? 🙂 You should try one. Maus, maybe?

  4. Sophie

    I DO love graphic novels Suroor!!! 😀

    I do love comics with a passion, I’m also your absolute Tintinophile.
    I’ve been converted to comics and graphic novels in my 20’s, through V for Vendetta, Watchmen, The Killing Joke to name a few works (beware I’m devoted to Alan Moore- bought his first (very good) novel Voices of the Fire decades ago, well I think I’ve bought and read everything done with A. Moore.

    I’m not into Japanese graphic novels or animes, with the exception of almost all of Studio Ghibli works. Yet, a couple of years ago, I read and enjoyed an excellent graphic novel called La Cantine de Minuit (have no idea if it’s been translated into English) by Yarô Abe.

    Maus of course!! Parts of the book are often studied in secondary school in France.
    And I have a feeling you enjoy graphic novels as well!

    1. suroor alikhan

      Love them! I haven’t read The Killing Joke and Alan Moore’s Voices of the Fire, although Watchmen and V for Vendetta are among my favourites. Will look out for Cantine de Minuit (I do read in French, so no problem if it hasn’t been translated).

      I was thinking that I need to include more graphic novels on this blog. Will work on it. I have a couple on my shelf that I read pre-blog, so might reread those.

  5. Sophie

    Including graphic novels to your blog is a exciting idea! I’m always on the lookout for good stuff (I like a good plot and I’m quite picky as to the graphic artist).

    The Cantine de Minuit is very very good, and it is worth reading (I’m glad you can read French). Its minimalist art really serves and enhances the story. I’m a bit late on the series (11 volumes) yet I’m afraid I’m addicted.

    1. suroor alikhan

      You’ve started with the best! Not that her other books aren’t good, but this is her darkest. I’d recommend The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and Murder on Orient Express, which I also love. (Kenneth Branagh’s film of the latter was awful, so don’t judge the book by that!)

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