Thursday, April 12, 2012

Eleven little Indians wished to see Big Ben / One was all wrung out and then there were ten.

In July of last year, fellow blogger John Norris over at Pretty Sinister Books wrote an intriguing review of  a book by the French writing duo of Jacquemard-Sénécal. Originally entitled Le Onzième Petit Nègre (The Eleventh Little [Person of African Origin]), it was translated as The Eleventh Little Indian in the US, and I will refer to it under that title. John reviewed an English translation of the book, but as I am bilingual (thanks again for that, Mom and Dad!) I managed to get a hold of the original French edition of the book.

The Eleventh Little Indian has a fascinating premise. A visionary young director, Alexandre Stefanopoulos, has written his own adaptation of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, but he takes it in an entirely different direction from those adaptations that already exist. For instance, he refuses to entertain the idea of a traditional English-country-house décor—he insists (quite correctly) that Agatha Christie emphasizes the modern-ness of the house on Indian Island. He equally insists on a particular sort of expressionistic makeup (ah, theatre fads of the 70s, where are you now?) and finally, the tone of the play is faithful to that of the original novel, retaining the original ending instead of the happier one most film and stage adaptations go with.

Unfortunately, behind the scenes, passions are a-flaring. Alexandre has cast the perfect people for each roles—the type of person who has to do almost no acting whatsoever because they fit into the character so well. And thus, for instance, we get Emily Brent as played by Mado Clarisse, a self-righteous woman whose dialogue at times is taken nearly verbatim from Miss Brent. Anyhow, the cast gets on each other’s nerves, especially because many of them have a connection to the tragic death of a famous actress years ago.

In typical Agatha Christie fashion, this all builds up to murder. Someone poisons the makeup that the actors were using, and it kills the entire cast, with the exception of the actor portraying the play’s murderer (an ironic twist, indeed!). But there are ten dead people, and one of them is completely unknown! The police, led by Hector Parescot (do I detect word-play?) are on the case as they try to find out whodunit. Has the surviving actor taken his role too literally? Or was the guilty party among those who were killed?

The book is lovingly dedicated to Agatha Christie, and you can tell that the authors have nothing but respect for her work. Christie is treated with reverence as a master craftswoman who constructed intricate puzzles that continue to fascinate readers. Jacquemard-Sénécal understand this and write the book as an homage. References to Christie are at every turn— we get references not only to And Then There Were None, but also many others, such as Dumb Witness or Peril at End House or The Mirror Crack'd From Side to Side (Although the authors make a big blunder there, claiming first off that the story is modelled on the life of Marilyn Monroe (which it isn't) and then talking of a film adaptation that will star a young actress playing a young actress in her glory day, when part of the point of the novel is that the actress in question is no longer young and her glory days are gone! This leaves me wondering if it's the French translation of Christie that's at fault...). It’s all cleverly tied together and the plot still manages to stand on its own merit extremely well. Knowing that the book is an homage to Christie, it’s still quite possible to be fooled. In fact, that’s precisely what happened to me. Being the thick-headed ‘expert’ on Christie that I am, I immediately decided that I’d solved the case and was smiling in self-congratulation at avoiding all those all-too-obvious pitfalls. “Nice try, Messrs. Jacquemard and Sénécal,” I shouted in triumph—but to do so, I turned my head sideways and didn’t see the truth parading right in front of me.

A Japanese translation
Meanwhile, I was enchanted by the book’s theatrical atmosphere, which is very genuine indeed. I have been an actor myself—although of late, a lack of time has robbed me of any chance to participate in theatre. I recognized all those small touches—the way the actors ask each other if the audience is any good, the chaos that reigns backstage, the clash of personalties… There’s only one thing I regret about it, and that is the fact that my French vocabulary isn’t so strong when it comes to the theatrical world. But that’s no fault of the authors.

Overall, I loved The Eleventh Little Indian and I would recommend it unreservedly to admirers of Agatha Christie. It’s a loving homage, a cracking good mystery, and a wonderful dip into the world of theatre. It’s a small gem that is definitely worth seeking out!

Note: You might also want to check out this post, which sums up the article series Ten Little Indians, being a profile of each character in Christie's original novel. (Also, apologies for exposing you to such a terrible post title!)

11 comments:

  1. Sounds fascinating, Patrick. Is there an English translation available in the US - preferably with the modified title...? If so, it sounds like one I should read.

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  2. Les, you can definitely find copies online. I use bookfinder.com to search multiple book sites at once, but there's one copy on Abebooks.com that is going for $1. A measly little dollar! What a bargain! :)

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  3. Glad you enjoyed this. I, too, was fooled. And the true solution seemed so obvious that I dismissed it early in the story. And then... BAM! They got me.

    I might also add that anyone thinking of reading this ought to FIRST read the original Christie novel or else that book will be ruined.

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  4. Oh, this one sounds good. Going to have to add it to the list of must haves......

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  5. this has been on my wishlist since i read john's post. all the more determined to get a copy of it now.

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  6. @John
    Some other Christies get major hints as well, such as THE MIRROR CRACK'D FROM SIDE TO SIDE.

    @Bev, neer
    I don't think it's a purchase you'd regret.

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  7. *sigh* And another title added to my wish list...

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  8. I finished The Eleventh Little Indian at about two in the morning. Like Patrick, I thought I had a good idea of who the killer was, even if I wasn't completely sure about "how" and "why." Like Patrick, I was congratulating myself near the end of the book---then Jacquemard and Sénécal pulled the rug out from underneath me with one of the most surprising endings to a mystery I have ever read. I don't think many mystery buffs will guess the ending, but the authors play fair and the clues are there all along. And this isn't just a book that has elements of Agatha Christie plots---it actually has the feel of Agatha Christie's writing. (And in defense of Jacquemard-Sénécal, I can easily see Hollywood casting a 30-year old actress in the starring role for The Mirror Crack'd---just Google "Jennifer Ganer" and "Miss Marple" if you don't believe me.)

    If there is one thing that is flawed in this book, it is Gordon Latta's English translation, which to me tries too hard to be accurate to the original French at the expense of readability in English. "House-full boards" instead of "sold out"? "Interval" instead of "intermission"? "To spend a penny" rather than "I had to use the restroom"? Little changes here and there will allow the English speaking reader to focus more on the story rather than on little tics.

    That being said, although Agatha Christie was a British writer and is revered in her homeland, I can't think of an English writer who would create a better homage to Agatha Christie than what these two French writers in The Eleventh Little Indian.

    P.S. There is one more surprise at the very, very end of the book. It does not end the way that most American mysteries end, and certainly not Agatha Christie books. If this book were to be adapted into an English-language movie, I would imagine that as in the case of And Then There Were None, the ending would be changed to make it easier for American audiences to swallow. But I find this ending to be actually quite beautiful and it emphasizes a point that Jacquemard and Sénécal make throughout the book. Wish I could say more, but Patrick can probably guess at what I am talking about.

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  9. Patrick, since you can read French and I can't, you might want to go to Amazon.fr and order Qui a tué Scarlett O'Hara? (Who Killed Scarlett O'Hara?). It's a sequel to The Eleventh Little Indian and the same person who solves the mystery in that book is in this book as well.

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  10. Why do European publishers insist upon utilizing the word "nigger" for the title of this novel . . . to this day?

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  11. There is one more surprise at the very, very end of the book. It does not end the way that most American mysteries end, and certainly not Agatha Christie books. If this book were to be adapted into an English-language movie, I would imagine that as in the case of And Then There Were None, the ending would be changed to make it easier for American audiences to swallow.

    The novel's ending was originally changed by Christie for her 1943 stage adaptation. And she did for British playgoers.

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