Author: Agatha Christie
Title: And Then There Were None
Year of publication: 1939
Page count: 257
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Something by Agatha Christie I actually really enjoyed! I had almost given up hope. Then again, And Then There Were None is considered her masterpiece and is the best-selling crime and mystery novel in the world (as well as one of the best-selling books of all time, period), so I could’ve given right up if this hadn’t done it for me, either, but I could’ve easily read it in one sitting, this tale on the dealing out of arguably overdue justice was suspenseful to the very end!
The title—I always thought it was a really lovely one—is derived from the final line in the famous minstrel song/counting rhyme, in which ten soldier boys die, one, by one, until none are left. [Sidenote: The original version features the n-word, but it was deemed too offensive for the US market even at the time of publication (which I actually find quite surprising, for 1940—just four short years after no one batted an eye at the publication of the very racially problematic Gone With The Wind—so hats off to the American publisher), and changed in subsequent years for the international editions as well, and there’s one scene in the book that doesn’t make much sense if you’re not aware of the original title.] The rhyme itself as well as the way the soldier boys expire are pivotal in the novel, in which ten random people are invited to a privately owned and secluded island under false pretenses. Each is accused of having committed a murder untouchable by the law through a gramophone recording, and one by one, they are disposed of, in the name of justice, in eerie accordance with the counting rhyme.
“There was something magical about an island—the mere word suggested fantasy. You lost touch with the world—an island was a world of its own. A world, perhaps, from which you might never return.”
The story is certainly improbable, borderline ludicrous, and requires a certain suspension of disbelief and willful ignorance of slight plot-holes, but it’s a twisty, thrilling ride if you choose to trust Christie and let her take you where she will. The murders start feeling inevitable, their regularity a horrible farce, but she paints a vivid picture of the oppressiveness, mistrust, confusion, and fear the ever diminishing cast of characters feels. The premise has since become a bit of a cliché extensively used in horror flicks, but Christie came up with it, and I dare say that it retains a sort of timeless fascination. As soon as I thought I had the murderer pinned, my suspect was taken off the gaming board… although I did eventually figure it out—not the who, but part of the how.
Of course, the moral questions And Then There Were None poses between the lines were really what kept me up at night, rather than the murder mystery itself. Does anyone have the moral authority to deal out justice when the law can’t? Is an action that results in someone’s death always a crime, regardless of intent or remorse? What is guilt?
“Providence leaves the work of conviction and chastisement to us mortals—and the process is often fraught with difficulties. There are no short cuts.”
A clever construct of a novel that will keep you guessing until the very end (my heart lurched when I reached the end of the epilogue still none the wiser, but fear not, you’ll get your resolution), with a nail-biting pace dictated by snappy chapters that seduce you to keep on reading until the mystery is resolved, and leaves you with questions to ponder long after you’ve finished.