The first edition of the book
I ever read, back in Grade 9
First there were ten. Ten people, strangers to one another, summoned to Indian Island by the elusive figure of Mr. U. N. Owen. That night, all are accused of murder, and one by one, they fall prey to a murderer’s ruthless hand, as “Mr. Owen” seems bent on killing everyone present. The motive? A mad sense of justice: Mr. Owen has decided that these people have all gotten away with a murder that the legal system cannot touch, and therefore it is up to him (or her) to play judge, jury, and executioner. And remember the madman’s alias: U. N. Owen… or, by a slight stretch of the imagination: unknown…
Agatha Christie’s 1939 masterpiece And Then There Were None was originally entitled Ten Little Niggers. The infamous N-word is an inherently offensive one, and it wasn’t long before the term was replaced by “Indian”. Thus, all the references to “Indian” were originally the N-word. But in my mind, And Then There Were None is ever so much more evocative: it sets the book’s claustrophobic, dark tone right from the title page. I picture a solitary figure standing in a spotlight, with corpses all around, and giant hand reaching from the shadows to strike for one last time…
Now hold on a second! This book was originally called what? Isn’t that racist? A-ha! Julian Symons was right about the detective story’s inherently conservative values! To all that (particularly that last bit), I say: “Don’t be so ridiculous!!!” The novel is quite clearly not racist, as exemplified through one of the characters, Phillip Lombard, whose crime (the murder of several black men) is possibly the most atrocious. The question of race is brought up, and Lombard shows a dismissive, racist attitude towards his victims—sentiments that the author (and several characters) clearly do not agree with. The term is an offensive one today, but it was far more acceptable in 1939 England, and the author’s attitude was clearly not racist. I’m afraid Julian Symons wouldn’t find proof for his thesis amongst these pages.
A brilliant Russian film adaptation,
Desyat Negrityat, falls just short of perfection.
However, it brings up an interesting point about the most recent editions of And Then There Were None, which replace the term “Indian” with “soldier boy”, rechristening the island Soldier Island. (The video game adaptation uses “sailor boys” and the name “Shipwreck Island”.) Now, I understand that some consider “Indian” offensive, but unlike the N-word, it isn’t in itself an inherently derogative term. I find this recent censorship decision frankly laughable. Not only does “soldier boy” completely ruin the flow of a poem that is used throughout the book, I don’t see how it is any less offensive than “Indian”. One of my uncles is in the army, so I should write a letter to the Christie estate complaining about the portrayal of soldiers as a careless bunch that will sooner or later get themselves all killed. What will they change it to after that, I wonder? Ten little badgers? But then the animal rights activists will complain… What I’m trying to say is that the decision to censor the term “Indian” is rather ludicrous, especially since the book is most certainly against racism. All that removing the term accomplishes is removing one of the book’s fascinating central paradoxes and diminishing the impact of one of its messages. But I digress.
I had already read this book, but none of my enjoyment was lost on a reread. It’s all just as brilliant: the tension is every bit as real as it was the first time around, even though you know the ending already. (One of the lies I get tired of hearing from critics is that Agatha Christie’s books are easily forgotten and not enjoyed on a re-read.) The plot is every bit as interesting. You see small touches of irony, sneakily-written scenes that instill suspicion in the wrong quarters… It’s brilliant, brilliant, brilliant!
As you can tell, I believe that there is a lot to admire about And Then There Were None. It’s got to be one of Dame Agatha’s finest efforts, if not one of the finest efforts of any novelist ever. Christie rarely gets her due from critics, who insist that her characters were cardboard, her writing flat, and her books forgettable... And Then There Were None not only challenges these ideas, it blows them to pieces. The dark atmosphere is truly evocative, as one by one the guests fall… Christie’s writing is simply brilliant: she captures the paranoia, the slowly mounting tensions, the sense that something is lurking in the shadows… One of these people is pretending to be innocent, and behind a mask of fear is the sadistic mind of U. N. Owen. The plot is scintillating, with one unexpected development after another— and even when you know what’s coming next, you can’t help but be captivated.
And the characters— my goodness, I will remember them all! I always have remembered them: some characters tend to fade from memory, but I remembered all these well. I didn’t necessarily remember their full names (was it George Edward Armstrong or Edward George Armstrong?) but I remembered part of their name at least, as well as their personalities, the way they react as tensions slowly mount, the reason they were invited to Indian Island, their personal tragedies and the ghosts of the past that haunted them… or in some cases, failed to haunt them, which was the more disturbing.
“Oh, but my good boy,” I can already hear one snooty, “literary”, Christie-hating critic say, “What are you basing all this on? We have only your word that these characters are as memorable as you say they are. How complex can an Agatha Christie character really be? Does the vicar cherish a secret passion for marmalade that he doesn’t want anybody to find out about? Is that your idea of complexity? No, true complexity can be found only in the work of an author with no financial success!”
In answer to that, I’d like to announce one of my reasons for revisiting this piece of brilliance: over the next few weeks, I will be teaming up with Curtis Evans, mystery scholar extraordinaire and blogger at The Passing Tramp. Together, we will write a series of ten articles that will ignore spoilers. These articles will examine the victims of Indian Island one by one, and I personally intend to once and for all destroy the myth that Christie’s characters are “all the same” or lack complexity. The poor woman is rarely given the respect she deserves among critics, and I hope that the series, tentatively given the title of “Ten Little Indians”, will apply a much-needed corrective.
If you haven’t read And Then There Were None yet, I highly recommend that you do. It truly is a remarkable work: one of Agatha Christie’s very best. The plot is truly brilliant, coming with a few great clues that in my mind make it qualify as a detective story, even if the solution is revealed through a confession. The characters and atmosphere are among Christie’s most memorable. It’s a book you won’t want to put down!