And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie

On a small island off the coast of Devon, ten people have been summoned, each lured there by a different enticement. The host, a Mr U N Owen, is nowhere to be found. On entering their rooms, they each find a framed copy of an old children’s nursery rhyme.

“Ten Little Soldier Boys went out to dine, One choked his little self and then there were nine.”

At dinner, a recording plays, accusing everyone in the room of being a murderer who has escaped justice. And the first death occurs – Anthony Marston chokes to death, just as the rhyme predicted…

Hmm. Do I dare put the image of the edition that I just read? No, I don’t think so. Not only is it the original title (and the original poem) but the picture itself is stunningly inappropriate – it’s the Fontana paperback edition, if you want to look it up.

Right, I’m back. Sorry for the relatively long absence – the Puzzlies might end up being a rather short list this month – but I’ve been plagued by a number of irritatingly minor but distracting medical issues over the last couple of weeks. Not that I’d prefer something major, obviously…

As such, I’ve been reading less than usual and have reverted to guaranteed easy reads – apologies to the authors who are awaiting reviews for books sent to me. They will be coming soon, but I felt that I wouldn’t give them a fair crack of the whip if I read them while feeling as under the weather as I do right now.

So, where were we? Oh, yes, Ten Little N… I mean, And Then There Were None.

I know, it’s a bit ridiculous, but I’ve never read it before. My sister read it a long time ago and I remember her telling me something of the basic plot – including something rather crucial. And so I didn’t read it then and for whatever reason, only came back to it over thirty years later. So I came to it with an idea of the plot structure, a spoiled part of the killer’s MO, but no knowledge of the killer themselves.

This is often up there as one of Christie’s masterpieces, and I can see why. It’s a daringly different style of book from her, and it works a treat, mostly.

She makes a real effort with the character of the ten victims – the only one who seems rather one-note is the first victim, the only one who really seems to be asking for his fate – and I found myself really caring about the fate of at least one of the characters. The pacing of the deaths – slow at first, then speeding up – is perfectly timed and the tension as the body count rises is palpable.

Unfortunately, as is often the case with books that let you see into the minds of the characters, it’s too easy to eliminate most of the characters from your suspicions. I was pretty sure who was behind everything, but Dame Agatha made me doubt myself with one of her cleverer tricks – I was right, by the way. But I wasn’t sure…

OK, if you’re going to bring reality into things, the murderer is lucky far too many times to be plausible – but this isn’t an exercise in plausibility. It’s a book rightfully considered a classic of the genre, and it comes highly recommended.

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About Puzzle Doctor

I'm a mathematician by nature and as such have always been drawn to the logical side of things. Hence my two main hobbies being classic mysteries and logical puzzling. Oh, and cats. No logic there, I'm afraid.
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15 Responses to And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie

  1. lesblatt says:

    “And Then There Were None” has always beenj my favorite non-series Christie – and it’s pretty high up there among all the mysteries I’ve read. I agree with you about her mastery of timing – the pacing of the murders, the development of the characters, the gloomy setting are all beautifully handled. As for the three clues which, according to the final chapter, should have tipped us off, I’m not at all sure than any human merely being is likely to pick up on them when they go by! Great review.

    • In some ways, it’s a shame that the epilogue confession needs to be there, as it deflated the atmosphere a tad, but unfortunately the trick needs to be explained. But the clues part of the confession did seem a little heavy-handed and, to be fair, aren’t really clues per se. But given the nature of the story, the actual explanation was always going to be difficult to pull off.

  2. I also have an edition with the original title, but in hardback – I take it you have the paperback with the gollywog on the cover? Truly diabolical stuff! I agree that from a plotting standpoint this is clever stuff – in the stage adaptation the ending is softened and this was used very well in the 1945 movie version co-starring Barry Fitzgeral and Louis Hayward, which turns it very successfulyl into a black comedy.

    • Yup – not completely clear but I think it’s a hanged golliwog. Couldn’t be dodgier if they tried…

      The unfortunate part about the various “happy ending” variation is the rather excellent chapter with only two characters left. It’s one of the highlights of the book.

  3. Sarah says:

    I’ve always found this book a bit unsatisfactory and it’s one of the few of hew books that I don’t go back and reread very often. Clever plot but once you know it…

  4. TracyK says:

    Sorry to hear that you have been under the weather. But comfort reading is good for you. I liked this review but skimmed parts of it because I haven’t read it yet… and I am working my way through all the books slowly. Since I love book covers I had to look up the Fontana cover. Interesting.

  5. Interesting piece and good comments. I haven’t read this but saw a touring production at Leeds Grand Theatre. It worked very well on stage.

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  8. eddiejc1 says:

    It’s three months later, and I hope that you are feeling better than when you first wrote this review. I can’t really blame you if you think the murderer is obvious, because thanks to both the numerous film versions (which keep the killer’s identity the same even as they change the characters around at stick on a happy ending) it’s as difficult to find a new reader to this book who doesn’t already know whodunit as there is finding somebody seeing Star Wars for the first time who doesn’t know who Luke’s father is.

    When they first changed Ten Little N—— to And Then There Were None, the only changes made were the name of the island and the nursery rhyme itself. Whenver a character would mutter about a “n—– in the woodpile” that quote would stay—until now. In some cases, the changes are awkward—in my opinion the phrase “Something’s rotten in Denmark” works better than “a fly in the ointment.” If all the changes were as brilliant as “The Unkown Soldier!”, I wouldn’t have minded, but I don’t want Christie’s text further bowlderized because of someone’s sensitivities. I can live with “Indians” becoming “soldiers”, and I sure don’t want them to be “n——“, but the people on the island (including the murderer) are all guilty of SOMETHING and their language should reflect that.

    Keeping this in mind, it occured to me that all the “woodpile” references that used to be left in were in reference to the original title of the book. It never occured to be to ask why Wargrave referenced the island when he said, “Indian Island, eh? There’s a n—– in the woodpile.” Restore the original name of the island, and Christie’s wordplay is revealed. Why does Vera Claythorne laugh hysterically when Emily Brent says “black or white, they are our brothers”? Probably she is thinking of the china figurines which were originally Negro boys and she’s realzing everyone left on the island is her black brother or sister.

    Anyway, I’m a quarter of the way through Nine Man’s Murder and unlike Christie’s book, this looks like it will be a serious puzzle. My only problem with it is that I am mentally comparing Eric Keith to Agatha Christie. I probably should be comparing him to Ellery Queen, instead.

    • Yes, I’d put Keith’s puzzle plotting sonewhat closer to early Ellery Queen rather than Christie – that’s a very good point.

      As for your comparisons, I’m glad I read the original.

  9. eddiejc1 says:

    P.S. I’m also re-reading ATTWN, and it would only be appropriate if I finish it tomorrow since August 11th is the date when the last of the ten soldiers finally fell on Soldier Island.

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