And Then There Were None has always had an interesting reputation; originally titled “Ten Little N******”, it required a vehement re-baptism which does leave something of a spoiler. It got the small-screen treatment over Christmas time this year and has been voted the nation’s favourite Christie, so clearly the novel’s merits have allowed it to overcome its uneasy origins. Even all these decades later, Christie remains the Queen of crime fiction, with her elegantly crafted mysteries portraying a world of crime far tidier than their modern equivalents. There is something strangely reassuring about a Christie even in a novel such as And Then There Were None, which advertises from the very beginning that there will be no survivors.
Christie acknowledges in her brief preface that this had been a tough novel to write and that for this reason any and all positive feedback was appreciated. With such a huge body of work, Christie has tested almost every possible convolution of the murder mystery – there is the novel where the narrator is the killer, the one where everybody is the killer (if you don’t know which ones those are, you cannot be a true fan but I’m still not going to risk naming them) and now here is a story where each of the characters are picked off one by one and nobody is to be saved. This is effectively a vintage slasher novel – a few years ago there was the so-so television series along the same lines, Harper’s Island – I am always interested to see how various narrative formulae can be used and re-used down the decades.
The novel begins with Vera Claythorne travelling to Soldier Island (N***** Island in the original), contemplating the mystery around who has bought the house and estate and looking forward to what ought to be a pleasant sojourn. As a games mistress in a third-rate girls’ boarding school which does not pay holiday wages, she has to take what she can get – in this case, a post as secretary to Mrs Una Owen, who is convening a house party with her husband. Seven other guests also make their way there, each revealing a little about their personal history as they do so and awaiting them are Mr and Mrs Rogers who are the newly-arrived servants. The players are set but the puppet masters are delayed – and then delayed again. And then as the guests begin to unwind over dinner, a strange record begins to play, a voice from nowhere brings forth an accusation against each and every person present on the island.
None of these crimes are directly punishable by law – Emily Brent cast her maid out of the house when she discovered her to be pregnant and the young girl took her own life, Judge Wargrave sentenced an apparently innocent man to death, Inspector Blore was bribed to give false testimony which sent an innocent man to prison and from there to his death undsoweiter. Subtlety in characterisation was never something that Christie seemed to aspire towards – her chessmen are caricatures with few more nuances than the figurines on the mantelpiece whose disappearances mark the doom of each player.
Christie always brings an element of detachment to the violence itself – she takes no pleasure in the gruesome and indeed each death feels more like the tearing up of a paper doll than the true end of a human life. Yet beside all this, the reader watches bewildered as the survivors take tea, aware that one of their number is the murderer. We are encouraged by Christie to eye her creations dubiously – their very exhibition of British values rendered suspect not only by their secret culpability but also by the incongruity of the situation. They may have strayed temporarily outside of this set of rules but they do not really know how to survive without them.
The degrees to which Christie plays with her characters’ guilt is intriguing. Anthony Marston is barely even aware of his crime, having run over two children via his irresponsible driving – more concerned with his own inconvenience with his suspended licence than the tragedy of two foreshortened lives. He will commit the same crime again without batting an eyelid – he must be stopped. We are intended to be appalled by Emily Brent’s lack of feeling, her utter lack of responsibility for her maid’s suicide but yet I was shocked more by Christie’s revulsion for the elderly spinster – as if merely being old and unmarried made her disgusting enough. Even stranger was the case of Philip Lombard – guilty of killing a group of African tribesmen, Vera excuses him to Emily by saying that they were ‘only natives’ and then that Emily responds that they are ‘all our brothers, black or not’ seems to be merely a sign of her peculiar nature. Yet there is a tragedy to General Macarthur who arranged for the death of his young wife’s lover and then was never able to free himself from the shame of it.
Having read a fair amount of Christie, I can see that this is amongst her finest efforts. We are treated to the whisperings of the terrified victims as they await their turn – Christie does not bother with ‘X said’ or ‘Y responded’ which gives their conversations a very claustrophobic feel. The distrust between each of the players is palpable and as the pressure mounts, hysteria rises and their minds wander, each forced to confront their own darker self and their guilt. There are strong themes of light and dark, which would indeed have been even more apparent had the novel held on to its original title (abhorrent though it clearly was). From the idyllic summer day on the beautiful island, we watch this group of sinners travel down deeper and deeper into Hell, up until the point when there are none.
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Published by HarperCollins UK on October 14th 2010
Genres: Fiction, Mystery & Detective, General
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