Originally published in 1939 under a frighteningly casual racist title, And Then There Were None is considered the greatest mystery novel of all time written by the Queen of Crime herself, Agatha Christie.
The premise is that ten people who don’t know each other are invited to an island for various, though ultimately false, reasons, as they have all been entrapped for a singular reason: to pay for a crime they had committed in the past. To that end, each of the ten persons begin to die one by one, their murders set to the theme of an old nursery song. There is no one on the island but them, and yet by the end of the book each one of them end up dead, so who dunnit? Quite the premise, eh?
This book was recommended to me by a fan of the mystery genre, and I generally don’t read mystery much, not because I find it boring or uninteresting, but merely that I’m usually interested in other titles. The day I got my hands on this book I saved it as part of my bedtime reading routine, and ended up staying up til 4am finishing it in one go. It’s a great story, and this review will consider the methods, via plot, characters, and narrative, that Christie used to hook readers and keep them going. There will be some spoilers, but I will not spoil the ending. The book is worth reading, not only because of its critical acclaim and place in literary history, but it is a genuinely well-written story.
The plot is fantastic. The premise is described up above, and it doesn’t get any better than that. How do ten people die one by one when they are secluded on an island? It’s a complicated twist on the traditional locked-room mystery. An immediate reaction would be to guess that there is someone hiding on the island, but that would be insultingly stupid to the reader, and this book didn’t sell over one hundred million copies based on a lame reveal. The second obvious answer, then, is that one of them is the murderer. This isn’t a spoiler because the characters themselves deduce this early on, but then the question becomes: how is that all of them end up being murdered? No two people die simultaneously, and the murders always occur off-page, the bodies being discovered after the fact.
By that alone the plot is pretty genius, but Christie takes it a step further. Not only does this book have a great main plot, but just abut every character has their own subplot going on. There’s a reason the victims are chosen as they are, and though some characters get more page-time than others, they mostly have interesting back histories that make us want to find out more about them, in addition to who the main culprit is. Vera, for example, was once a governess, but a child in her employ drowned on her watch. She had tried to swim out to the lake to save him but it was too late. Nonetheless, her story has something darker lurking beneath the surface, and it isn’t until two thirds of the novel have passed that we get the whole story. By giving us different subplots, Christie keeps us engaged with the narrative while also distracting us. In this way we get several storylines that intrigue us, and there is no better way to tell a story than to have something that holds the reader’s interest on every single page. This novel is most definitely a good study in the art of efficient and entertaining writing.
The characters have varying personalities that make them stand out, and the deterioration of both their mental states and relationships with one another as more guests get killed off is convincing and keeps the narrative fresh.
The most interesting character for me was Emily Brent, which may seem odd to most. She is the conservative elderly lady who is tight-lipped and takes her religious identity quite seriously. I’m not sure how to explain it, but the fact that she remains aloof and unwilling to fraternize with the others (in the beginning) made her all the more mysterious. When we do finally get her back story, the moral aspect of this story unfolds another dimension. Does Emily Brent really deserve to be placed on the same level as, say, Anthony Marston and William Blore?
In fact, about half the characters have a morally complicated back story, a case of good people doing bad things, and when you can genuinely create characters of such questionable moral fibre, then you’ll get the readers invested too. You’ll probably have a different favourite character from your own reading as a result.
The weakest element of the novel, in my opinion, but still above average. At first I was put off by the amount of one-line paragraphs in the beginning, but as the story continued and tension ramped up, either it wasn’t as noticeable or it was more effective because now we actually care about the characters. Other than this quirk, which may or may not be prevalent in the literary mystery genre, the narrative as aged well and reads like a modern novel despite being published in the far-off time of 1939.
As mentioned above, one of the effective methods the narrative uses is to combine the main mystery (of people dying) with the unraveling of each character’s backstory. This alternation is sometimes known as the “meanwhile, back at the farm…” technique, whereby the author always has something happening on the page to hold our interest. Christie was evidently a master of this technique, as she uses this technique in a subtle and contained way; though the two aspects are separate narratives, they are both relevant to the main plot (who they are and what they did are the reasons why they’re there). This is efficient and effective storytelling. Combined with solid prose and careful diction, And Then There Were None is simultaneously a pleasant and riveting reading experience.
Read it if you haven’t! It’s quite short, closer to being a novella then a novel. Even if you’re not a regular reader of mysteries this book should hold your attention, because who wouldn’t get hooked by a good puzzle? Christie delivers on her promise by giving us a clever and satisfying ending, so it’s well worth the time. Can’t say for sure if this has converted me into a mystery-lover, but I’m certainly glad to have sampled one of the best.
This has been a gamobo review. Thanks for reading.