Modern thoughts on 20th century literature written by women: And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie
This is the fourth post of a series about books written by women to give me an excuse to read more female authors, which have been lacking from my bookshelf—until now. (Spoilers ahead!).
After seeing a trailer for Murder on the Orient Express, Agatha Christie's bestseller, I was inspired to read it before the eponymous film's release. It made me realize I'd never read anything by the famed British author before. She was inspired by her adventures and travels, having taken the Orient Express herself when it was in its heyday, a symbol of luxury. After I read this fan favourite, which had a unique structure and captivating ending, I wanted to try another Christie classic: And Then There Were None.
This tale begins when a seemingly random group of people are invited to a private island. They are promised a vacation and use of the idyllic but isolated estate. As each guest arrives, the meaning behind the gathering is unclear. What do they have in common? Slowly, the murderous plot is revealed: the guests are the targets of a self-professed maniac who wants to see his dark desires played out. (This reminds me of the 1997 film, The Pest).
Christie isn't known for character development, but I did feel each person was given enough of a history for me to understand them and their purpose in the story. Unlike Murder on the Orient Express, I thought And Then There Were None had poetic flare mixed with straightforward, descriptive writing. There was also a stream of consciousness style, which I thought was successful in giving more background for certain characters, especially Vera, who often thought of "the sea" in a foreboding and fearful tone.
The mastermind behind the orchestrated deaths takes cues from Frank Green's 1869 poem, "Ten Little Soldier Boys." An earlier version by Green is inexcusably racist by today's standards. It used slurs to describe black people, but the current version is updated and the term replaced with "soldier boys."
Ten little Soldier Boys went out to dine;
One choked his little self and then there were nine.
Nine little Soldier Boys sat up very late;
One overslept himself and then there were eight.
Eight little Soldier Boys travelling in Devon;
One said he'd stay there and then there were seven.
Seven little Soldier Boys chopping up sticks;
One chopped himself in halves and then there were six.
Six little Soldier Boys playing with a hive;
A bumblebee stung one and then there were five.
Five little Soldier Boys going in for law;
One got in Chancery and then there were four.
Four little Soldier Boys going out to sea;
A red herring swallowed one and then there were three.
Three little Soldier Boys walking in the zoo;
A big bear hugged one and then there were two.
Two little Soldier Boys sitting in the sun;
One got frizzled up and then there was one.
One little Soldier Boy left all alone;
He went out and hanged himself and then there were none.
—Adaptation of Frank Green's poem, as written at the beginning of And Then There Were None
The title of the book was also changed for a modern (and non-racist) audience. Christie's views on minorities leak out in this book (and in Murder on the Orient Express.) The way she describes Jews, blacks and other minorities, for example, is in an unfavourable way. There is a scholarly article about this by Jane Arnold called Detecting Social History: Jews in the Works of Agatha Christie, published by the Indiana University Press.
"Christie is sometimes criticized for the shallowness of the characters in her stories. They have been described, disparagingly, as stereotypes...It is important to understand that this is not necessarily a weakness in her writing. First, Christie wrote to entertain, not to expound psychological development. Second, and important for social history, stereotypes (like caricatures) are not necessarily inaccurate descriptions; they are simply unbalanced," wrote Arnold.
Even though this doesn't excuse Christie's views, it doesn't render the book completely valueless. Christie's perspective and thoughts on Jews indicate their position in English society at the time, Arnold explained, making her works valuable as a kind of historic record of society.
The murders unfold as the rhyme foreshadows the events and the remaining guests are left scrambling. It was interesting to see how a relatively polite group of strangers turns into an accusatory and vengeful crowd. Each person slowly reveals their true nature, often leading to their own demise.
Christie is masterful in tying up all the loose ends in the book's denouement. The murderer is revealed and writes an explanation of his plan, thought process and identity. I don't always love books where the ending is wrapped up with a pretty bow, but in this case it gave me a sense of closure and a more complete understanding of what occurred. The plot line was complex with names, dates, and facts to keep in order, so I thought Christie's longwinded explanation was necessary. However, that didn't make the story entirely believable to me. I get it. It's still a work of fiction. But the murderer's tasks were so elaborate, like removing the soldier boys from the room after each death, controlling the order of each kill... It just seems like a lot of work and highly unlikely someone would be able to pull it off. (Especially the fake dead body). I'd rather a scenario that is less extravagant and more realistic. That being said, I enjoyed the book and was intrigued by Vera's past, what her punishment would be and how she would die.
Overall, the plot was intriguing and kept me guessing until the end. As a Christie beginner, And Then There Were None solidified my interest in the mystery genre.