Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Death Invites You

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!

12 comments:

  1. I've always avoided this one - I've a very dodgy copy with THAT title and a gollywog on the cover - on the grounds that someone spoiled the general twist, if not the specifics for me - a similar thing happened with Crooked House. It does occur to me though that I'm missing out a Christie classic here, so I'll bump it up my list of things to read. Forgive me if I don't post a scan of the cover though...

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  2. Patrick, I agree with your assessment: "And Then There Were None" is one of Christie's best works. It is a harrowing book to read. The characters are amazingly well-drawn. And, while the solution is provided in a confession, that confession makes it clear that there were exactly three clues to what was REALLY happening - if a reader was astute enough to catch them. I suspect - strongly - that none of the critics were that astute.

    And Then There Were None has long been one of my favorites, title and attempted bowdlerizations notwithstanding. Thanks for the review, and I'm looking forward to the series of articles you and Curt are planning to run about the characters.

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  3. Patrick--'And Then There Were None' is my favorite Christie (and she's my favorite mystery author, even more so than Carr--though I love him too). It's really not a mystery in the strictest sense--more of a thriller with fair-play clues as to 'whodunit'. Anyone who says Christie can't do characterization (which are a lot of people) should read this one or 'The Murder of Roger Ackroyd', the one that comes close to 'And Then...' as favorite--Dr. and Caroline Sheppard are superb characters, and so are the '10 little Indians' in this book. Congratulations on another excellent review!

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  4. I love this book. I have reread it more times than I can count (probably more than any Christie novel) and it doesn't matter that I know what happens. And what do the critics know? You are so right--the characters stick with you. And they say "forgettable"--I can still remember when I read the book for the first time. I could not believe that she could pull the twist that she did. Absolutely perfect.

    As far as the censoring goes--those people are just nuts. I have no patience with it. Just like the ones who wanted to remove the N-word from Huck Finn. For heaven's sake, do they not get the novel at all?? Sorry....getting on my soapbox. :-)

    Great review--and I look forward to your posts of the next few weeks!

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  5. Between the two of us, we shall dispel the false myths that idiotic critics propagate about Agatha Christie.

    If enough pacifists complain about the militaristic overtones of "soldier boys," they will change it again.

    I am REALLY looking forward to your essays about the characters!

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  6. It says a lot about the quality and freshness of And Then There Were None, that the criticism leveled against this book mostly consists of trumped up charges of racism. The title of the book, which only refers to a poem used in the book, is just a convenient excuse for people to show-off their modern sensitivity and completely, totally none-racist attitude. Me thinks they protest too much, eh!

    I also wonder if the fact that it's one of the most successful, best selling thrillers in the genre with Christie name's plastered across the front cover has anything to do with these attacks. Surely, that must have pissed a few people off! :D

    @YetAnotherMystery

    You can cite a lot of examples from Christie's work to dispel the falsehood that she didn't know how to characterize. My favorite set of her characters are Simon Doyle, Linnet Ridgeway and Jacqueline de Bellefort from Death on the Nile. Probably one of the best overall (characters, plot, setting and atmosphere) GAD stories.

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  7. Since the novel loses nothing from the exact ethnicity of boys hanged in the rhyme, I am fine with changing the N-word.

    It's not a really good detective novel, and it does contain a couple of plot holes. However, it's a great psychological thriller. And it's definitely not a "cozy"!

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  8. I just don't quite understand all this critic bashing. It seems like pure strawman stuff to me. Mainly because, apart from Wilson and Chandler, I've never seen any strong Christie criticism at all, especially nothing snobbish. Maybe I'm not looking hard enough? Most of the stuff I've read seems pretty even-handed. She was great at some stuff, weak at other stuff. If someone's priorities lie with the other stuff then they just need to find someone else to read.

    And Then There Were None is a great detective story, and probably the best written Christie. It's certainly the most tense. But at the moment I think I'm going to tentatively side with the snooty critic. The characters just aren't that complex. But why should they be? It's a short book, there are lots of them, and sometimes simplicity is best.

    And some aspects of her writing style really don't help the atmosphere in my opinion (she's addicted to introducing speech with "[Character] said [adverb]:", for one thing, and it really ramps up towards the end. Does she do that in any of her other books? I've never seen so many colons! Since noticing it on a reread I now find it really distracting).

    But I'm very interested to read your essay series. I'm always pleased to change my mind.

    (Separately, I wonder if part of the reason for my hesitance isn't Christie's fault at all. To me a lot of the dialogue is stilted and samey, which badly undercuts the tension. But now that I check it turns out I've got a Fontana version. Weren't Fontana responsible for a lot of dubious editing? Or am I getting mixed up?)

    @Les Blatt Whilst I agree that the solution is fair, I'd say the three "clues" in the confession aren't helpful to the reader at all, (astute or not)! The first one the reader doesn't know about for sure and the other two are merely suggestive and not definitive.

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  9. @Puzzle Doctor
    Trust me; you won't regret it! It's one of her finest efforts!

    @Les
    I like the clueing, but you do get one of the clues *very* late in the book-- when the police show up, as it happens. (That's why I think it's decent clueing-- Rich has pointed out that you don't know the first clue is true but the confession specifies that these are three clues the police have at their disposal and they gave it to the reader.)

    @yetanothermysteryblog
    In terms of characterization, I think this is far superior to "Ackroyd", but Dr. Sheppard and his sister are definitely some of Christie's more memorable protagonists.

    @Bev
    I see we are more or less in agreement on this point! Thanks for commenting!

    @Christopher
    Thanks for commenting and I hope the articles won't disappoint!

    @TomCat
    Don't forget THE HOLLOW. It's one of her most poignantly tragic works. And FIVE LITTLE PIGS. And TAKEN AT THE FLOOD. Oh, you get the idea!

    @Anonymous
    Oh, I find an unknown killer splitting people's heads open at will most comforting. It gives me a sense that the world is defined and rational. ;)

    @Rich
    There's a lot of stuff floating around about Agatha Christie. Two of the worst critics in this regard are the late Gilbert Adair and P. D. James, who despite being a supposed successor to AC has an extremely condescending attitude towards her stuff that I really don't like. Adair likened a Christie novel to a one-night stand, which quite apart from being an obvious attempt to sound clever really isn't fair. The melody these critics sing is all the same: she had no complexity, couldn't write, couldn't do character, la-la-la... But I already went into more detail in my article "A Rant Against the Word 'Cozy'":

    I certainly hope to change your mind about the character complexity! It really is surprising how Christie managed to make her characters seem like flesh and blood. Yes, the book *is* fairly short, but that really doesn't mean anything. I still say these are rather complex characters, and some of the most memorable I've ever come across. Plus the book subverts several conventions of the genre-- the character of Phillip Lombard is quite an achievement in this regard.

    As for the first clue, I think it's heavily implied and finally stated outright by the police. The killer (instead of X, let's just call the culprit Didit) emphasizes that these are clues the police should be able to see, and the major clue that has been hinted at all along is finally given with several pages to go till the confession.

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  10. Some interesting thoughts on the origins of Ten Little Niggers, apparently as a modified form of an earlier minstrel song. Or so says this Wikipedia article:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ten_Little_Indians

    For some reason I keep thinking back to the Fawlty Towers episode where the perpetually befuddled Major is trying to clarify that the West Indians are niggers, while the Indians (from India) are wogs.

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  11. Patrick, I agree with you in your asessment of Desyat Negrityat---it falls just short of perfection, but it is still a great film in its own right and is currently the closest film adaptation of Agatha Christie's masterpiece. My only problem with that film is aside from the fact that it isn't QUITE what we see in the novel is the horrible English subtitles in my version. I don't think you are fluent in Russian. Did the version that you see have better English or French subtitles? Thanks!

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  12. I realize that some people have accused others of being too sensitive in regard to the novel's original title. But it is an offensive title, despite the fact that the novel contained some strong anti-racist commentary. Ironically, the "AND THEN THERE WERE NONE" title originated when the novel first hit the United States. I find it odd that the Americans, who have often been accused of being more racist than any other nationality, would be the ones who insisted (back in 1939 or 1940) that the original title be changed.

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