Friday, March 02, 2012

Ten Little Indians: Justice Lawrence Wargrave

Five little Indian boys going in for law;
One got in Chancery and then there were four.

Wargrave in 1987's Desyat Negrityat
Patrick: Mr. Justice Wargrave is very much a respected pillar of society. As a retired judge, during his career he has condemned many men to death. From such a position, murder would be quite easy and 100% legal. And that is what Mr. Owen accuses Wargrave of having done, allegedly abusing his power as a judge and sending a man by the name of Edward Seton to his death.

Thus far in the article series “Ten Little Indians”, we have covered a remarkable amount of the victims of And Then There Were None. To paraphrase Curt, now I know how Mr. Owen felt! But at about this time, starting with this character, analyzing characters without spoilers becomes insanely tricky. So tricky, in fact, that I haven’t the slightest intention of trying to do so. This article contains shameless amounts of spoilers— please read Agatha Christie’s novel if you haven’t already done so. The reader is warned.

Throughout the book we find out more about the Seton case:

The 1974 film turned Wargrave into Judge Arthur Cannon
He [Wargrave] remembered Seton very well. His fair hair, his blue eyes, his habit of looking you straight in the face with a pleasant air of straightforwardness. That was what had made so good an impression on the jury. (…) And Seton had come through the ordeal of cross-examination well. He had not got excited or overvehement. The jury had been impressed. (…)

He [Wargrave] remembered exactly how he had felt sitting there—listening, making notes, appreciating everything, tabulating every scrap of evidence that told against the prisoner. He’d enjoyed that case! Matthews’ final speech had been first class. Llewellyn, coming after it, had failed to remove the good impression that the defending counsel had made. And then had come his own summing up…

Carefully, Mr. Justice Wargrave removed his false teeth and dropped them into a glass of water. The shrunken lips fell in. It was a cruel mouth now, cruel and predatory. Hooding his eyes, the judge smiled to himself. He’d cooked Seton’s goose all right!

Wargrave in the computer game adaptation
It’s remarkable how many clues are stuffed into this early passage, at a point in time where readers are probably not looking for clues. Many are probably caught off guard (Come on, just how many folks did solve the mystery on the first read? I sure didn’t!). Edward Seton, as we find out at the end of the book, was unquestionably guilty… and the judge’s “murder” uncannily resembles the grand murders he ultimately commits on Indian Island!

Do you see the resemblance? Seton was making a great impression on the jury and was ably defended—an acquittal seemed practically guaranteed. What does Judge Wargrave do? He relishes this as a challenge—before him is a man who, according to Wargrave, is guilty. The challenge is not to let him get away—cook his goose, in other words. Wargrave is out to destroy Seton from day one, meticulously taking notes and painting as black a picture as possible. His summing-up is damning and changes the jury’s minds about the whole case. Mission accomplished, right?

But when the book’s events begin, Wargrave has just found out from his doctors he hasn’t got much time left to live. He’s always had a twisted love for justice and finally he decides to stage one final performance—uphold justice in grand style and deliver a lesson to ten people that they will never forget: Be sure thy sin will find thee out. These people have escaped the grasp of the law—again, according to Wargrave (I’ll get to that soon)—and so, he hunts them down and murders them one by one. He claims in his confession that the order of the deaths was dictated by the severity of the crimes.

In the 1989 film, Wargrave is one of five characters
with an unchanged name. He also has a hilariously
cheesy fake death, dropping from a height for no
purpose other than to jump-scare Vera Claythorne.
But was that true? I already mentioned my thoughts on the soulless Anthony Martson, and as I will analyze in detail when we get to him, I always felt Wargrave was a liar when it came to Dr. Armstrong. Armstrong was a doctor who operated on a patient while drunk, killing her. It is a terrible abuse of power and responsibility, and I thoroughly condemn that action. But Armstrong instantly repented, even more so than General Macarthur. His life was going in a downward spiral, fuelled by alcohol—the event shocked him out of the vicious cycle almost instantaneously. He stopped drinking and became a highly respected member of the medical profession. Although his action was unquestionably wrong, I feel that he atoned for his sin throughout the years. It seems to me Wargrave only kept him around as long as he did because Armstrong was the most easily duped to be an accomplice. He never wondered whether someone as respectable as Justice Lawrence Wargrave might be a murderer—and he was the only one on the island with medical training. This made him the perfect accomplice, because the others were quite willing to accept his word that the judge was dead—and it was because of this that Judge Wargrave managed to murder all ten people on Indian Island.

But—and here we get to the tricky part—how could Wargrave be sure of his guests’ guilt? In some cases it’s obvious that the culprit was guilty: Anthony Marston, for instance, who escaped harsh punishment due to social standing alone. Emily Brent would have told her story to such a respectable person as Judge Wargrave with pride. But how could he be certain that General Macarthur didn’t just lose his nerve in sending Arthur Richmond to his death? How could he be certain that Mr. and Mrs. Rogers really killed their employer? How could he be sure that Vera Claythorne really did drown Cyril Hamilton?

Wargrave is found dead in the 1987 film.
The answer: he couldn’t, any more than he could be certain of Edward Seton’s guilt. To be sure, in Seton’s case, evidence turned up after the trial that proved his guilt beyond doubt. But without that proof, there was still some doubt in the air. What if the proof had pointed the other way? Similarly, throughout the book, we find out without question that folks like Vera Claythorne, Emily Brent, or Phillip Lombard were guilty of their crimes. But in some cases, Mr. Owen just might have been wrong. For instance, there’s no conclusive proof that the Rogers couple killed their employer. Some symptoms of the old lady’s death are indicative of a potentially unnatural death, but that’s hardly conclusive.

This is the great paradox of Wargrave’s scheme: he aims to deliver justice, but without conclusive proof, he isn’t delivering any sort of justice. If that’s the case, his plan is just insane. (It’s insane either way you look at it, but without any proof, it’s even more insane that it would otherwise be.) What if one of the ten little Indians was innocent? That throws everything out of whack—the judge hasn’t delivered justice, he’s committed murder. The nursery rhyme, that blasted little thing that keeps taunting the reader throughout the book, no longer works.

And yet the possibility doesn’t seem to bother the judge too much. He’s grown tired of the legal system’s ways: admissible and inadmissible evidence, conclusive and inconclusive proof. Murderers like Seton slip through the cracks because of good impressions or pots of money thrown on good lawyers (does the moniker of O. J. Simpson ring a bell?). He doesn’t want to deal with that. He wants an ideal justice system: quick, effective, final. No appeal is possible after sitting through Judge Wargrave’s last session in court.

Wargrave (aka Judge Quinncannon) in the 1945 film.
But even if everyone on the island is guilty (and the book seems to indicate that is the case), is Wargrave doling out justice? Wargrave by his own admission is a sadist who has always been fascinated with pain and fear. And while he does target only those who have murdered before, I am of the firm conviction that murder is wrong no matter who does it, whether it is an individual or a government. As Wargrave’s final confession indicates, he wishes to be recognized for his own cleverness and for the iron fist of his perverted brand of justice. He wishes to attain infamy, to be remembered as that “cruel and predatory” judge who hunted criminals down to the bitter end.


Curt: In dismissing And Then There Were None as a worthwhile book, Raymond Chandler (who had had the book recommended to him by a slicker contemporary American mystery writer, George Harmon Coxe) argued that the novel was false in its representation of character, because the judge uses weak evidence—hearsay—as the basis for his murders.  Justice Wargrave, Chandler argued, would  never have done such a thing.

Is this true? 

I’m dubious.  As Patrick says, it’s true that the judge could not be certain everyone on the island besides himself was truly morally guilty of murder.  Even the reader, who is privy to most of the characters’ inner thoughts in the way the judge cannot be, is not sure.  To cite a case where Patrick has anticipated my imminent discussion, there is, for example, Dr. Armstrong.  Even if he did operate under the influence of drink and cause a woman’s death (and it appears to readers, who can read his thoughts, that Armstrong did just so), would most people see this as an action morally deserving execution?  I don’t think so.

You'd totally trust a guy holding a match, right?
Does this make Chandler right then?  Is Justice Wargrave, then, a failed character?  I don’t think so.  He seems to me, contrarily, a triumph, of characterization.

As Patrick points out and as Wargrave himself essentially admits, he is a confirmed sadist.  “From an early age I knew very strongly the lust to kill,” Christie devastatingly has him admit.  “....The legal profession satisfied nearly all my instincts.”

I think the “guilt” of his victims is just the barest ethical fig leaf that the judge uses to cloak his own insane bloodlust, his own savage desire to kill.

Christie repeatedly draws our attention to Wargrave’s cold-blooded, reptilian characteristics:

“that frog-like face, that tortoise-like neck, that hunched up attitude—yes and those pale shrewd eyes”

“Carefully, Mr. Justice Wargrave removed his false teeth and dropped them into a glass of water.  The shrunken lips fell in.  It was a cruel mouth now, cruel and predatory.”

He seems almost inhuman.  Alone among the Indian Island guests, he never figuratively loses his cool or breaks into a sweat.  Of course this in part is because he is Mr. Owen!  But also it’s compelling depiction of a highly intelligent yet smug, arrogant, remorseless and merciless British judge.

Wargrave near the end of the 1987 film
Another bit I’d like to mention is when the very intelligent Vera Claythorne has one of her recurrent moments of illumination in the novel:

Vera cried angrily [to Wargrave]:
“I think you’re mad!”
His eyes turned slowly till they rested on her.  It was the  dispassionate stare of a man well used to weighing humanity in the balance.  She thought:
“He’s just seeing me as a—as a specimen.  And—“ the thought came to her with real surprise, “he doesn’t like me much.”

So true, Vera.  But then Justice Wargrave doesn’t like anyone much, does he?  He is rather like an omnipotent God, stripped of all mercy.


  1. You know, I actually like the Wargrave computer game version. He's got that "frog-like" look!

  2. Another brilliant look at Christie's characters!

    You ask the question, did anyone guess the murderer on their first read? I sincerely doubt it. I know I didn't and I have had a standing challenge (for over 20 years now) to anyone I know who is reading it for the first time. If they can honestly tell me they figured it out before the end, then I will take them to dinner--anywhere they want to go. I haven't had to make good on that challenge yet.

    1. Actually, i'm a grade 10 student and i was doing a project where we had to predict the murderer in And Then There Were None, and I guessed correctly. I still have only read till chapter 5, but I noticed quickly that Justice's nickname is the "hanging judge" and i took that into account quickly. i related it to the nursery rhyme where the last "little indian" ends up hanging himself, and took this to mean that Justice was the last to die. This started giving me clues and motivated me to look further into other clues i overlooked, like the fact that Justice is a JUDGE and the others are CRIMINALS which could mean that justice invited everyone to condemn them to death (like he condemned many other people he was sure were guilty of something for example Seton) and then when he realized that he himself was guilty as well, he hung himself because he considered himself a criminal as well. I'm still not sure exactly how it ends and I have no further knowledge between my suspicion and the death of Tony Marston (i'm still on chapter 5) but i guessed correctly and i'm pretty sure my teacher is going to think i cheated now because my suspicions were correct. But yeah so for further reference, I LIKE PIZZA HUT FOR DINNER.

    2. how can you be sure it was him if you only read till chapter 5. The only other way you could have found out is through searching this up, you would have no other solid evidence it was him.

  3. I'm with Bev on this - a brilliantly one-of-a-kind trick that I never penetrated. Your analysis was fascinating and made me realise for the first tome that the judge is a character that would be very comfortable in many of the postwar Ellery Queen stories.



  4. To me, who committed the murders was rather obvious from the get go.
    For, instance, the fact that the judge immediately positioning himself as the group leader and making a (in my mind) somewhat week connection between U. N. Owen and Unknown (Different sound for first syllable and different syllable count) calls for further examination of the character.

    However, how he committed the murders is what kept me engrossed till the very last line.

  5. If I read his confession correctly, Wargrave didn't commit the Indian Island murders out of a crusade for justice. He wanted to kill for the sake of killing and make an unsolvable murder mystery that would make John Dickson Carr give up. That's the one problem I have with the otherwise impeccable Russian film---it will be obvious to the policemen who eventually come to the island that Wargrave is the murderer---he shot himself in the forehead and the gun is in his hand. He uses no mechanism (the elastic eyeglasses cord in the novel) to get the gun away from his body so that someone else apparently killed him.

    Come to think of it, there's one thing about Wargrave's death in the book that should have raised a red flag with Scotland Yard. I don't think the judge had a metal plate in the back of his skull that would have stopped a bullet fired at point blank range, so they had to know Wargrave was killed in his bedroom rather than the living room downstairs. Wouldn't that seem suspicious if the survivors wrote about finding Wargrave's "body" and then bringing it upstairs to his bedroom?

  6. Also, even if the survivors didn't write about where Wargrave's body was found, something should have told Scotland Yard that something wasn't right if his "body was neatly laid out" because the only way for that to happen is if Wargrave was wearing his robe and wig BEFORE he was shot. If U.N. Owen surprised Wargrave in his bedroom when they* shot him in his bed (and why did his door show no signs of forced entry?), moving the body to put the robe and wig on would have necessitated making blood stains that indicated the body had been moved. Instead, they will have known that nobody touched Wargrave's body since he was shot in his bed already wearing the robe and wig. I think that might make the police check out the elastic band on the judge's eyeglasses.

    Which brings me to the last point. Stanislav Govorukhin hit upon a good idea in the closing scene of "Desyat Negrityat." It would be far less suspicious to the police if Wargrave's body were found downstairs and in the Russian film Wargrave shoots himself at the dinner table in the same place where Armstrong discovers his "body." If he only used a gimmick to get the gun away from his corpse after he pulls the trigger, he really would have a perfect murder...

  7. The most glaring clue as to the the identity of "U.N. Owen" is given when The Voice begins to speak. The gramophone recording begins: "You are charged with the following indictments" and ends with "Prisoners at the bar, have you anything to say in your defence?" Once it is established that Mr. Owen is one of the people on the island, who else but a judge would accuse the victims of their crime in such a way?

  8. What I find interesting is that "AND THEN THERE WERE NONE" seems like a different take on "MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS". Both novels featured a murder in which the victim had committed a crime (or crimes) in the past and got away with it. But whereas Christie allowed the vigilante murderer(s) in the 1934 novel to get away with the crime alive, she did not give Mr. Owen the same fate. Wargrave had to die, even if he had killed others who had gotten away with previous crimes.

  9. I figured it was either him or Emily Brent, cause what was happening on the island. was a judgment and an execution, so it was probably being carried out either by the judge or the very religious woman. Characters kept suspecting Lombard, but I discarded him right away as a suspect, cause why would an imoral man care about making other people pay for their sins?!

  10. In the bbc adaptation the scene at the end with Vera is an answer to the lack of surety. He goads Vera into admitting her guilt before he carries out the sentence