(This is to note that my post contains a lot of egregious spoilers. DO NOT READ IF YOU WISH TO READ THE BOOK AND DON’T WANT TO KNOW THE DETAILS OF THE PLOT. Even the second paragraph, which talks about its structure, mentions details that pretty much telegraphs the ending.)
Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None is the one of the most well-executed specimens of the cozy mystery, a singular achievement marred by some hilariously Victorian racism. It would’ve been quaint had it not been so dehumanizing.
This isn’t something that I say purely out of facetiousness, since it is well-documented that the publishers decided to change the novel’s original title and some of its language to omit an egregious and dehumanizing slur. (The rhyme used, for example, had been replaced by an equally egregious but not as censured slur against Native Americans. My copy has the “Ten Little Indians” rhyme, a modification of the original “Ten Little N_____,” but later editions have apparently edited it further into “Ten Little Soldiers.”) I mention this in order to marvel at Christie’s ferocious storytelling ability, yet still acknowledge valid avenues of critique and examination.
The story begins with eight people arriving at a remote island off the coast of England, all lured by an anonymous letter promising various rewards. On their first night inside the manor a recording automatically plays on a phonograph, accusing each of them of a crime for which they are meant to pay. They then die one by one in very colorful ways. This set up is such a staple of the mystery genre that it has has even seeped into popular culture, laying the groundwork for the slasher films of today. The plot of I Still Know What You Did Last Summer, for one, is a pretty obvious lift from Christie. Bet you never thought that Freddie Prinze, Jr. and Agatha Christie would ever be mentioned in the same breath, did you?
For me, the greatest strength of this novel lies not in the amazing plotting that Christie has perfected but in the specificity of her characterization. Her characters are wide archetypes, but they are all grasping and venal in very distinct ways. One of the characters named Philip Lombard, for example, is a “soldier of fortune” who is accused of causing the demise of an African tribe, while Vera Claythorne is a governess who allowed her charge to drown so that the child’s uncle could inherit his money and marry her. The breadth of these guilty lives are fleshed out not only by the backstory sprinkled throughout, but also by the interactions between them, even as they initially try to mask their true selves. In their struggle to survive, they measure their cunning with others of their ilk, while at the same time trying to outwit the architect of their demise.
My one quibble lies in the idea implicit in the novel that the last people to die are the most guilty of all. Which would mean that according to the mastermind behind the killings, Vera Claythorne (child drowner) is somehow more culpable than Philip Lombard (initiator of tribal genocide). Really? I would think the destruction of an group of people would somehow rate more highly than the death of one child, but you can never really argue with obsessively detail-oriented and sadistic serial killers when it comes to moral justice.
Christie succeeds in sustaining the atmosphere and psychological claustrophobia even as the reader expects the deaths after the first chapters, a structure that is different from her other, more sedate murder mysteries. It’s like a perfect clockwork machine of storytelling, and seeing how the levers work makes the reading process that much more pleasurable. And Then There Were None encapsulates its genre while rising above it at the same time, leading to the cottage industry of murder mystery games, TV shows, movies, and parodies. Every one who has quoted the words, “Flames on the side of my face,” has Christie to thank for kickstarting the form.