Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Ten Little Indians: Anthony Marston

Ten little Indians went out to dine;
One choked his little self and then there were nine.

Marston in a 1987 Russian adaptation
Patrick: When Anthony Marston first appears on the dock at Sticklehaven, Christie tells us he “looked, not a man, but a young god, a Hero God out of some Northern Saga … something more than mortal.” And ironically, Marston is the first character to kick the bucket.

But the brief glimpses we get of Marston’s character make me feel fortunate we didn’t get to see much more of him. I’ve always hated this character. I vividly recall a sharp feeling of distaste surrounding his character when I first read this book.

We first meet him when he recklessly drives his car past Dr. Armstrong, prompting the doctor to think to himself: “One of those young fools who tore around the country. He hated them! … Damned young fool!” Marston, meanwhile, barely notices the event, thinking to himself that “the amount of cars crawling about the roads is frightful. Always something blocking your way. And they will drive in the middle of the road!”

I feel it was an appropriate move to introduce Marston in his car, because that was his crime—he ran over two children while driving recklessly. The murderer leaves a confession that reveals the order of the deaths was dictated by how severe the level of guilt was. Thus, Marston was first to go because his was a crime of circumstance. However, I feel that Mr. Owen made a major miscalculation here. Anthony Marston was a soulless, arrogant fellow who never felt any guilt over his crimes. He had no conscience, no discernible morality, and for that matter, very little intelligence. (He’s the only one who doesn’t realize that Mr. Owen means business.)
The horrifically-animated Marston from a computer game adaptation

In that respect, he’s not nearly as complex a figure as some of the visitors who survive a little longer on the island. But his crime and his reactions to it are nonetheless quite interesting:

Anthony Marston said in a slow puzzled voice, “I’ve just been thinking— John and Lucy Combes. Must have been a couple of kids I ran over near Cambridge. Beastly bad luck.”
Mr. Justice Wargrave said acidly, “For them, or for you?”
Anthony said, “Well, I was thinking—for me—but of course, you’re right, sir, it was damned bad luck on them. Of course it was a pure accident. They rushed out of some cottage or other. I had my license endorsed for a year. Beastly nuisance.”
Dr. Armstrong said warmly, “This speeding’s all wrong—all wrong! Young men like you are a danger to the community.”
Anthony shrugged his shoulders. He said, “Speed’s come to stay. English roads are hopeless, of course. … Well, anyway, it wasn’t my fault. Just an accident!”


In some film adaptations, Marston (be he replaced by a prince or a pop singer) is asked by a character what happened after he reveals that his crime was a motor accident, to which he responds “They took away my license.” That, for me, is the essence of Anthony Marston: a man completely absorbed in himself who would be genuinely shocked to find out that he has a moral responsibility. The only reason he can walk through life the way he does is that he’s upper class. How do we know? He just radiates that presence that only money can give you— he has an absolutely gorgeous car, and was let off remarkably lightly for his crime. His life seems to revolve around how to get from one party to the next. He feels that coming to Indian Island was a mistake, until he sees how well-stocked Mr. Owen is in terms of alcohol. And again, it’s ironic that alcohol turns out to be the source of Marston’s fall. The murderer poisons his drink and when Marston picks up his glass and toasts crime, he chokes his little self. Exeunt Anthony Marston.

Meet Prince Nikita 'Nikki' Starloff from the 1945 film…
as though Marston wasn’t high class enough already!

But I am particularly fascinated by the things he says just before he drinks from the poisoned glass:

Mr. Justice Wargrave said, “Then in my opinion it would be well if we all left tomorrow morning as soon as Narracott’s boat arrives.”
There was a chorus of agreement with only one dissentient voice. It was Anthony Marston who disagreed with the majority. “A bit unsporting, what?” he said. “Ought to ferret out the mystery before we go. Whole thing’s like a detective story. Positively thrilling.”
The judge said acidly, “At my time of life, I have no desire for ‘thrills,’ as you call them.”
Anthony said with a grin, “The legal life’s narrowing. I’m all for crime! Here’s to it.” He picked up his drink and drank it off at a gulp.

Suddenly I realize where I’ve seen Anthony Marston before: Agatha Christie has taken the “bright young things” she was fond of and has made one of them extremely unpleasant. That dialogue sounds like something one of Bundle Brent’s friends would say. “I say, this is positively thrilling! Just like a detective story! Come, Bundle, let’s look at the secret passage!”

And just like the Bundle Brent crowd, Anthony Marston is young, vibrant and full of life. He enjoys life. He goes from party to party and is the life and soul of them. Young women like him— he’s the main rival to Phillip Lombard for the affections of Vera Claythorne, and it’s only his untimely death that ruins his chances. But what Christie does in a few chapters is take this type of character and give him an altogether nasty edge: no moral fibre accompanied the privileges that came with Marston’s money. Why should he care about the speed of his driving? What does it bother him if somebody dies as a direct result of his negligence?

But as we will see later, Christie managed to do a far better and more complex job of characterisation in a similar experiment with Phillip Lombard.

***

Curt: When I read And Then There Were None as a child, I remember reading the part about how Anthony Marston “looked, not a man, but a young God, a Hero God out of some northern Saga.”  I didn’t know what that meant exactly for a man to look like a God, but soon enough I started reading Greek and Norse mythology and got the idea.

When a disappointed Anthony Marston thinks after confronting his on the whole rather dull (to him) fellow guests, “What could old Badger [in reality U. N. Owen, of course] have been thinking about to let him in for this [get-together],” I was reminded of Bulldog Drummond’s dim friend, Algy (of Sapper fame).  Marston indeed comes from that sort of privileged, well-born set we see in 1920s Jazz Age mystery.  But here the character is not fun or lovable, but as Patrick says, a utterly conscienceless rotter. 

Anthony’s not with us much, but he makes an impression while he is: a distinctly unfavorable one!

11 comments:

  1. What an awesome close-reading of the first victim in this Christie classic. I've got my seat belt buckled and am ready for the rest of the ride!

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  2. Well, he is nasty but when he dies, well, you do feel the sheer waste of it all. [Nothing to do with his good looks, of course ;)]

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  3. That computer animated Anthony Marston is going to give me nightmares tonight!

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  4. Curt, just thank your lucky stars you didn't see the terrible lyp-synching job!

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  5. I think that Marston might be diagnosed as a malignant narcissist sociopath. U.N. Owen describes him as "amoral," so I think the rationale for killing him first is that he didn't have a conscience to ignore. Part if the book is watching the characters wrestle with their consciences, but it would have been boring- and a red herring- to see one character who wasn't feeling any guilt.

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  6. Christopher, I kept thinking "Casey Anthony" when I was reading about him this last time. His absolute lack of awareness he had done anything really wrong is striking. I think Owen let him off pretty easy, but your point on that score is well-taken.

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  7. What I like about this character expose, is that it clearly points out the fallacy that Christie was unable to create characters. She quite clearly did know how to do it, but simply didn't have to intersperse a 100-150 page biography of a character with the rest of the story.

    So great job guys! I'm looking forward to the rest of this rogue's gallery.

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  8. I agree that Marston is killed first because of his amorality rather than because of his crime being the result of circumstances. Mr Owen is something of a sadist and wants his victims to suffer. He says it is in proportion to the seriousness of their crime but really it is in proportion to their capacity to feel guilt. Marston has none, so he may as well be dispensed with early on.

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  10. Although Owen does not say this in his confession, the death of someone so young, beautiful, and apparently indestructable immediately rattles the eight remaining guests. (I say eight, because at this point Ethel Rogers is upstairs quietly dying in her sleep.) There would not have been that much of a shock if the first victim was elderly like Brent, Macarthur, or Wargrave

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