It was their first night on the small Soldier Island, and the group of eight guests had just dined on an excellent supper, served by Rogers the butler and prepared by his wife Ethel. Their host U.N. Owen was not expected until the next day.
This is early in Agatha Christie’s 1939 novel And Then There Were None, one of the best mystery books ever written.
They were satisfied with themselves and with life. The hands of the clock pointed to twenty minutes after nine. There was a silence — a comfortable replete silence.
Into that silence came The Voice. Without warning, inhuman, penetrating…
“Ladies and gentlemen! Silence please!”
Everyone was startled. They looked round — at each other, at the walls. Who was speaking?
The Voice went on — a high clear voice:
“You are charged with the following indictments…”
What followed were single-sentence accusations of murder against each of the people present — Dr. Edward Armstrong, elderly spinster Emily Brent, former policeman William Blore, former nanny Vera Claythorne, soldier of fortune Philip Lombard, retired Gen. John Macarthur, socialite Anthony Marston, Judge Lawrence Wargrave and the Rogers couple.
And Christie’s story is off and running.
One of them
The Voice, it turns out, came from a gramophone record that, on written instructions he had received, Rogers put on the machine moments before, knowing nothing of its contents.
It quickly becomes clear that similar arm’s-length subterfuges have been employed — by U.N. Owen or, as someone observes, Unknown — to get each of the ten people onto the isolated island. The large modern home is fully stocked with food, but there is no boat or other way to get back to the mainland. A motorboat that’s supposed to visit every day doesn’t appear the next morning, and a storm rises, making future visits impossible for the time being.
Most, but not all, of the ten deny having anything to do with murder although, as time goes on, the real facts of each of their cases do come out.
Fear of exposure, however, takes a back seat to fear of death. Within moments of the Voice’s accusation, one of the ten refreshes his drink and promptly dies of poisoning. This is awkwardly put down to a suicide, but that doesn’t last.
Another of the ten is found dead in the morning, and the remaining eight come to the realization that they are being stalked. Even worse — after searching the house and the small island from top to bottom — they come to recognize that the killer can only be one of them.
Picked up by a trawler
And Then There Were None has been ranked often as one of the great mysteries of all time, and it works so well because Christie takes the genre and turns it on its head.
Ten years before the novel was published, Ronald Knox, a Catholic priest and an author of such books, promulgated the ten rules of detective fiction.
The first is this: “The criminal must be mentioned in the early part of the story but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to know.” Well, Christie violates that rule during the first few pages when she enters the thoughts of each of the people heading to Soldier Island.
Then, she breaks basically all of the rest of the rules because she does away with the detective completely.
Well, not exactly completely. In an epilogue, Scotland Yard investigators are called to the island when it’s found to be littered with ten dead bodies. They, however, aren’t able to figure out what happened.
Only when a message in a bottle (!!!) is picked up by a trawler does the reader get the full story of what happened.
And Then There Were None is a fully satisfying mystery, shrewdly complex and convolutely simple.
There is one caveat, however.
A key plot element is a children’s rhyme that, in the American edition I read, begins: “Ten little Soldier Boys went out to dine; One choked his little self and then there were nine.” With each new verse, another solider boy dies until the last one hangs himself— “and then there were none.”
Another version of the rhyme is about Ten Little Indians.
But, in the novel that Christie originally published, the rhyme was one, dating from 1869, that starts: “Ten little niggers…,” and the island where the action takes place is Nigger Island, and the title of the novel, as published in the United Kingdom, is Ten Little Niggers.
In 1939, Americans were far from enlightened when it came to racial tolerance. Even so, the U.S. publishers of Christie’s book balked at her title as offensive, and it was changed to And Then There Were None. In the U.K., it remained Ten Little Niggers in every edition until the mid-1980s when it was changed to Ten Little Indians.
The book is a great mystery. But its publishing history is an example of the depth of racism in Western culture.
Patrick T. Reardon