Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Ten Little Indians: General Macarthur

Warning: The following article contains spoilers regarding Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None

Eight little Indian boys traveling in Devon;
One said he’d stay there and then there were seven.

General Macarthur in 1987's Desyat Negrityat
Patrick: General John Gordon Macarthur is a very respectable military man, the kind of person you’d be able to find in the Bellona Club. I remember liking this character most of all when I first read this book. Out of all the suspects, this is the man who seemed to suffer the most.

Macarthur’s crime was a simple one. The voice of U. N. Owen accuses him that “on the 4th of January, 1917, you deliberately sent your wife’s lover, Arthur Richmond, to his death.” Macarthur cries out that the accusation is preposterous, and later feebly (and unconvincingly) attempts exonerating himself:

“Best really to leave this sort of thing unanswered. However, I feel I ought to say—no truth—no truth whatever in what he said about—er—young Arthur Richmond. Richmond was one of my officers. I sent him on a reconnaissance. He was killed. Natural course of events in war time. Wish to say resent very much—slur on my wife. Best woman in the world. Absolutely—Caesar’s wife!”

When he sits down, Christie informs us that “the effort to speak had cost him a good deal.”

Macarthur spends a sleepless night, reminiscing about his wife Leslie and Arthur Richmond. He liked Arthur, and he’d been pleased that Leslie had taken such a “motherly interest” in him. Motherly indeed, it turned out, especially if you’re Sigmund Freud. Behind his back, Leslie and Arthur began having an affair, and Macarthur found out “in the way things happened in books”: Leslie was writing to them both and accidentally placed the wrong letter in the wrong envelope. “Even now, all these years after, he could feel the shock of it—the pain… God, it had hurt!”

General Mackenzie in the video game adaptation
After reading this letter, Macarthur found out that this affair was going on for a while: weekends, Arthur’s last leave… He genuinely loved Leslie, but she hurt Macarthur deeply. His former friend became a marked enemy, although he followed the “honest Iago” stratagem by pretending nothing had come between them. The murderous rage built up slowly over time, and he attempted to present an innocent façade. Finally, he decided to send Arthur to his death, deliberately: “… he wasn’t sorry. It had been easy enough. Mistakes were being made all the time…”

But what happened after Arthur Richmond died? Leslie shed tears, but Macarthur now knew what kind of tears these were: she was mourning her lover. But the question that haunts Macarthur most after all this time: did Leslie ever suspect the truth? “He’d never told her that he’d found her out. They’d gone on together—only, somehow, she hadn’t seemed very real anymore.”

Here, for me, is the greatest tragedy in And Then There Were None. There are other married couples and lovers that get separated, but here is a man who committed his crime out of love. He was convinced that everything would be OK after this obstacle to his happiness would be removed. Instead, his wife retreated into herself, became a mere ghost of a woman and died a few years later. Macarthur has spent the last few years terribly, terribly alone. He doesn’t so much regret the death of Arthur—he didn’t go to church on the day the lesson was read about David sending Uriah to his death in the battlefield. What he does regret bitterly is what he did by proxy to his beloved Leslie. She loved Arthur and he killed him, and the grief ended up killing her. Perhaps she did suspect, and she couldn’t bear living with a husband who was capable of something so horrifying. But whether she suspected or not, she certainly lost her will to live: “I don’t know if Leslie ever guessed . . . I don’t think so. But you see, I didn’t know about her any more. She’d gone far away where I couldn’t reach her. And then she died—and I was alone. . . .”

General Macarthur's final chat with Vera Claythorne
And that might be why Macarthur is the only character on Indian Island who decides to embrace death:

“Funny, just this minute he didn’t want much to get away from this island… To go back to the mainland, back to his little house, back to all the troubles and worries. … He thought: Best of an island is once you get there—you can’t go any further . . . you’ve come to the end of things. . . . He knew, suddenly, that he didn’t want to leave the island.”

It seems like such a horrible thing, to give up on life, surrender your will to live. But that’s what Macarthur does, and his final scene serves a dual purpose. It is his last farewell to the world, and he ominously declares that “None of us are going to leave the island.” He sits on the horizon and awaits death to come and claim him and bring him back to his beloved Leslie: “What, perhaps, you can’t understand is the relief! … Of course, you’re very young . . . you haven’t got to that yet. But it does come! The blessed relief when you know that you’ve done with it all—that you haven’t got to carry the burden any longer.” It is a beautiful and tragic portrait of a man who has suffered from guilt and now awaits redemption. It’s what always stuck with me most about the book.

But the scene serves a dual purpose, a far sneakier one: in his final scenes, Christie subtly suggests to her readers that Vera Claythorne is the killer. When she approached, the General turns and she thinks to herself: “How queer. It’s almost as though he knew…” Is she thinking about her crime, or the rock she may be holding in her hands? When Macarthur delivers his ominous prediction, he immediately follows it up with “That’s the plan. You know it of course, perfectly.”

General André Salvé in the 1974 film adaptation
And there we see Christie at her finest: she is developing one of her most memorable characters, and she is doing it while advancing the plot and sowing the seeds of suspicion. In a way, I’m not surprised that so many critics claim she was unable to create characters. Christie just did it in such an efficient way— she didn’t need to devote twenty pages to the General’s asthma or a scene where he struggles with his constipation. She managed to economically create the character that I’ve always liked and remembered the most in this book.


Curt: When I read And Then There Were None as a kid General Macarthur impressed me as a sad old man waiting to die.  Christie is well-known for her portrayal of stereotyped “pompous ass,” martinetish military men, but here this same character type--despite some moments of pomposity, to be sure--takes on a real element of pathos.  His embrace of death is moving, but frightening too, to those who still want to embrace life.  In this case, Mr. Owen’s murder seems something like euthanasia.

One said he'd stay there...
Though General Macarthur “met his death quite painlessly,” according to Mr. Owen, I have to wonder whether Macarthur’s murder was justice in the sense Mr. Owen seems to think it is?  After all, Macarthur’s “murder” was of a man having an affair with his wife.  In the time in which Macarthur lived had he just shot the man after catching him with his wife many probably would have felt him justified in the killing (this being the so-called “unwritten law”).  I think what makes Macarthur’s actual act contemptible is the shabby and dishonest way he went about it.  Macarthur wanted to kill his wife’s lover but he didn’t have the courage to do it directly (in even older days he might have challenged him to a duel), so he took a coward’s way of killing.  And he paid for it for the rest of his life. 

Another point I would like to add is how with General Macarthur Christie once again undermines a pillar of the British establishment.  Anthony Marston, representative of the British moneyed leisure class, is a sociopath who probably would have run down someone else with his motor car had he not been murdered.  Now General Macarthur, we learn, abused his authority as a military officer to carry out a private vengeance.  In the original 1945 American film version of And Then there Were None, General MacArthur’s name was changed to Mandrake, there having arisen a world famous “General Macarthur” by that time.  Christie’s General MacArthur is no shining war hero.


  1. Nicely put, Patrick and Curt. General MacArthur does make for a sympathetic character - perhaps the only one, really, in the book, which I have always regarded as one of Christie's best.

  2. Agreed. However, I cannot understand why you think Anthony Marston is a pillar of the British establishment. He is rich but that is not a definition of establishment. He is, as you say, a sociopath and a parasite. General MacArthur is something else. Not sure, though, that he could have killed his wife's lover in a more straightforward way. Duels are illegal and simply shooting the man would not have been acceptable by this time. For all of that, he knows he behaved badly.

  3. Helen, I agree Marston certainly is completely useless and a parasite, but he is part, on presumes, of the English leisured old money class. He has a strong feeling of entitlement, and presumably was entitled to much (though he feels no reciprocal sense of noblesse oblige obligation). Though we don't get detailed info on his background, I'm betting his father was a big pot of some sort!

    I suppose with Macarthur I was harking back to the old idea of the unwritten law, that the "honorable" thing to do, in the old sense of the term, would have been to confront the lover directly. Presumably Macarthur wanted to avoid public scandal and punishment for himself, so he took a particularly shabby way out, taking advantage, and abusing, his position of power.

    Of course, he could also have even let his wife live life with the man who made her happy!

    But you feel sorry for him anyway, because he has had to live with the loss of his wife's love anyway, as Patrick points out, and the fear that his reputation has been destroyed with his colleagues. He sought to benefit by engineering a man's death and received only ashes.

  4. Great analysis, I've always had one concern, though... if Leslie mixed up the letters, wouldn't Arthur have gotten the letter meant for the General? Then he would have known that the General knew...

    1. I did a lot of thinking about this subject, and here is the result:

  5. Hmmm, maybe she forgot to put a stamp on that one!

  6. Though I rarely write comments, I very much enjoyed reading this in-depth analysis. Great job Patrick and Curt. Keep them coming! I read Christie 10-12 years ago,then I read many GAD authors after I read Christie(Carr,Queen,Sayers,Allingham,Tey,Brand,Wade,Connington,Crofts,Bailey,McCloy,Armstrong,Berkeley and the more obscure authors-you just name the author,I probably read him/her!),impossible crimes,country-house murder,small number of suspects etc.

    And I read modern thrillers, cozy mysteries and modern detective stories.Of course there are some good(read:like) and some bad(read:unlike) in each GAD,modern thriller and cozy mysteries

    When Curt came out with 40 titles of the 1920s that we should read, I have 32 titles either books or ebooks.

    I read many mystery blog(especially the GAD-it is obvious I am a GAD lover), GAD yahoo forum,jdcarr forum silently and diligently. I rarely write comments!I bought recommended titles and read them and formed my own opinions about them.

    But recently I reread some of Christie titles AFTER I read tonnes of mysteries novels or short stories, I APPRECIATE Christie's skill to deceive(but very fair play)VERY MUCH.

    When critics like P.D James and others(mystery readers) who say that Christie is not a great mystery writer(with their arguments that Christie lacked the skill of providing fair clues,lack in characterization or the sentences in her books are not literate enough)- I know they are wrong in some of their arguments. No matter what, when you are writing a mystery book, THE MOST IMPORTANT ELEMENT IS THE MYSTERY ITSELF I.E PLOT. Please read Xavier's excellent post(P word is not a sin-something like that) on this topic.

    Within the past 2 weeks,I read Sayers's Whose Body(reread), Christie's 4:50 From Paddington(reread), Liz Lipperman-Let Liver Die(cozy mysteries) and Lisa Gardner-The Killing Hour- it struck me, how much Christie was/is the mistress of the game! I very much enjoyed all of the books I read.

    There are good modern books out there. And I enjoy reading them as much as I enjoy reading Christies' books but Christies' are always special. I don't know why.

    When reread,I tried to pay extra attention and focus on how she put/incorporated the clues in her stories. I try to understand her skills on how to deceive the reader but still play fair with the readers.

    And I read your interview with Paul Halter(yes,I read his Night of The Wolf short stories collection and plan to buy 3 new translated titles) and it is interesting to know that he too appreciates Christie's skill.

    Skill to plant clues and deceive readers but still fair-played- 9/10.

    Writing(prose)-Easy to understand,difficult to make us bored i.e no long-winded sentences(read: Bailey), unpretentious(read Allingham/James), not too technical(read:Crofts) and not too complex(read: Wade), don't pretend to be great literature(read :Allingha,James) AND VERY ENTERTAINING AND WITTY.

    Characterization- good and adequate, not put too much focus on the characterization to the detriment of the plot(read: Tey,Allingham).

    Although Carr was the master of the atmosphere, he wrote badly.Always using hanging sentences to provide suspense.(I love Carr too but compared to Christie, Christie was more balanced).

    And when you read mystery, you read because you want to be entertained and you don't want to waste your time to wade through 400 pages to finish it! This is the reason why I prefer reading GAD books!

    No wonder, her books sell until today!

    Long live to Christies' mysteries!


  7. I think you have to read tonnes of mysteries before you really appreciate Christie.

    By the way, I am planning to read GAD elderly ladies sleuths and write an analysis on this topic. I have in mind, Miss Marple(I have all her mysteries novels and short stories, Miss Silver(Patricia Wentworth)-I have 31 out of 32 books and Dame Bradley(Gladys Mitchell)- I have 41 out of 66 books(I don't have mostly her 60s books).

    Do you have any suggestion,please? Preferably GAD sleuths!


  8. Oppss....

    44 out of 66 plus Crippen & Landru Sleuth's Academy. In total 45 books.


  9. Lin.,

    I think Patrick is busy with exams currently but I will comment. Christie is something special, I agree, as will many others, no matter what her press critics say! There's a book called The Lady Investigates that has a great chapter on the spinster detective, you should get that.

  10. Thank you Curt. And do your best in your exam, Patrick.

    I'll add,

    Lady Molly-Orczy
    Miss Pinkerton-Eberhart
    Letitia Carberry-Green
    Loveday Brooke-Pirkis
    Dorcas Dene-Sims
    Dora Myrl-Bodkin
    Mrs. Paschal-Hayward
    Miss Gladden-Forrester
    Ruth Dowling-Ellis
    And of course Mrs. Jeffries-Brightwell

    Most of them are short stories written in the late 1800s or early 1900s.

    And I am planning to buy your Master of the Humdrum in June. Hope the other part i.e Wade and Cole is going to be published soon. The 2 Kennedys' books I read(Corpse in Cold Storage and Half Mast Murder)definitely made him qualified as a humdrum!Same goes with Dalton(I read 2 books-Body in the road,Murder in eve)/Woodthorpe(I read 2 books(Death in little town,Rope of conviction/Everton(4 books). Maybe you can include them for the second part? I think Coles' books are uneven. Some of them very good(Man from River,Blatchington Tangle,Crome,Last Will & Testament) and some of them full of social comments i.e bad(Scandal at School,Disgrace To the College,Knife in the dark,Off with her head).

    Lorac/Carnac definitely qualified as a mistress of the humdrum!

    Wades' books are more like crime stories for me esp the later books.Even though I enjoyed reading No Friendly Drop,Missing Partners,Duke of York step,Hanging Captain, I could not stand Gold Was Our Grave,Mist Of the saltings!

    I enjoy reading 2 out of 3 Easts' books I have but not sure whether he qualifies as a humdrum.

    For those who like their mystery with a touch of supernatural element, I recommend Mignon Warner,David Skibbins and G.M. Wilson. They are in the classic mould but with a touch of supernatural.


  11. Lin,

    Not all the lady sleuths on your list are elderly. What is your criterion? Elderly, spinsters or just female?

  12. Helen,

    My criteria is elderly female(married or spinster) sleuths preferably GAD or set in Victorian time. Since I haven't read/sample the stories listed yet, I don't know whether they are young female or older. I am in the middle of reading Miss Silver series and Mrs. Bradley series. I will sample the stories listed first to know their status.Unless someone will let me know their age/status first.


  13. Well, quite a few on your list above are young and several are married or become married. Lady Molly, for instance, is married as we find out. Dora Myrl marries Paul Beck, the other detective by the author. But I do think you should have a look at Hildegarde Withers by Stuart Palmer. I think she will fit all your categories. She went on for about as long as Miss Silver.

  14. Thank you so much for the info, Helen. I have forgotten all about Hildegarde Withers! I have all but Murder On Wheels. I need to reread some of them.


  15. Forgotten about Hildegarde Withers? My word!!!! ;)