Tuesday, May 17, 2016
Pages: 264 (paperback)
First, there were ten - a curious assortment of strangers summoned as weekend guests to a private island off the coast of Devon. Their host, an eccentric millionaire unknown to all of them, is nowhere to be found. All that the guests have in common is a wicked past they're unwilling to reveal - and a secret that will seal their fate. For each has been marked for murder. One by one they fall prey. Before the weekend is out, there will be none. And only the dead are above suspicion.
It's strange to think that I had never read a single Agatha Christie novel before deciding, on a whim yesterday, to pick up And Then There Were None.
I generally will read every genre with the notable and pretty strict exceptions of romance and mystery. In the case of mystery, I have to admit that part of my prejudice stems from my utter lack of skill in predicting "whodunit" or what will happen next. I so do not find it elementary, Watson, and frankly, this is partially a result of the way I operate as a reader. I'm not a speed reader of the kind that you can find on Youtube, apparently absorbing whole books at the rate of five seconds a page. However, I do read quite quickly and I read for information, purposefully picking out the most necessary bits on every page and somewhat skimming over the little details. But in mystery novels it is these little details that matter the most, and this is definitely the case with And Then There Were None. Tiny details of setting and dialogue that Christie briefly alights on turn out to be key to the twists and turns of the plot. Even as a reader generally uninterested in the genre, I found myself captivated by the book and appreciative of her mad skills--truly, Christie was the "Queen of Mystery."
I also appreciated that this is not at all a detective story in the usual sense. There is no central detective figure trying to wrap up the mystery of a previously-committed murder, but rather the murders are happening in the present. Readers who share my aversion to mystery and detective stories but embrace horror will enjoy the sense of suspenseful inevitability of the murders on Indian Island, a sense created not only by the title And Then There Were None (note: the novel was originally published as Ten Little N******; click the link to read an article about the racist title's evolution through the years) but by the device of the morbid nursery rhyme which each of the characters find posted in their rooms upon arriving at the empty house on Indian Island. The murders of the guests adhere strictly to this rhyme about "ten little Indians," so that we have a rough idea of how the next victim will die, but now when or who the victim will be. For example, the rhyme declares, "Six little Indians playing with a hive; A bumblebee stung one and then there were five." Just as in a number of good horror films, apparently childish things or nonsensical rhymes turn on to have a eerie power of life and death over the characters.
As far as the characters, one among the ten people on Indian Island is presumed to be the murderer, causing all these gruesome deaths that accord with the creepy nursery rhyme. The rest of the guests are essentially accused of murder by a mysterious disembodied Voice who terrifies them by announcing their respective crimes during their first evening in the island house's sitting room. Taken together, these two facts kind of discourage the reader from getting too attached to any of them, and the novel is plot-driven to say the least even though knowing the characters is central to figuring out what is going on. Christie does a good job characterizing the island guests considering that her writing is pretty sparse, and so is the dialogue. We quickly see that Philip Lombard is cold-blooded like a character out of Heart of Darkness, Vera Claythorne is smart and intuitive, and Emily Brent is one of those well-meaning but frustrating ladies who thinks of herself as a living saint. As always, I was completely stumped by the question of who the murderer might be! All of my speculations turned out to be wrong, and the revelation at the end relies on a wild and ingenious twist which I don't think even many readers better-versed in the mystery genre would guess if they weren't already familiar with the story.
The novel is absorbing and fast-paced, the sort of book that appeals to a huge variety of readers. One can see why it has been adapted into so many films and series and plays over the years. As usual, though, nothing can be better than reading the original novel and spending a few hours of a rainy day appreciating Christie's craft and the diabolical eeriness of it all, watching the twisted nursery rhyme play out.
I wholeheartedly recommend this classic suspense story and intend to pick up another Christie book soon, although I don't know which one. She wrote so many! I must be in the mood to scare myself to death by reading about old, haunted, secluded houses and the ghosts and murderers and madpeople in the attic who inhabit them, because I've also just started reading Stephen King's Bag of Bones and have contemplated yet another reading of Jane Eyre.