And Then There Were None, Agatha Christie. New York: Harper Collins, 2011 (first published 1939).
Summary: Ten strangers are invited to an island by a mysterious U.N. Owen, accused by murder, and one by one are murdered following a rhyme found in each of their rooms, Ten Little Soldier Boys.
This is an unusual work by Christie. No Poirot or Miss Marple. One of the most difficult mysteries for Christie to write. A book that went under several other titles before its current one — Ten Little Indians, Ten Little N****** (the “N” word, it always was published under the current title in the U.S. because of the racial offensiveness of the other titles).
Ten people unknown to each other are invited to an island getaway on Soldier Island by a mysterious U. N. Owen, who is absent from the proceedings but has provided comfortable accommodations and good food.
In each room, there was a children’s poem, “Ten Little 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.
A dinner is laid out for them on a table with ten little crystal soldiers down the middle. After dinner, they suddenly hear a voice which proceeds to charge each of the guests with murders of the sort that would never come to trial–a death after a medical operation, a child drowning, and so forth. The voice was from a recording that Rogers, the butler had been instructed to play after dinner. All present deny the charges. Then Marston, the reckless young man who had killed two children driving, chokes on his drink and falls dead. It was later determined he died of cyanide poisoning.
He is followed the next morning by cook/housekeeper Mrs. Rogers, who does not waken from her sleep, dying of a chloral hydrate overdose. Later that day, General John Gordon Macarthur, who had sent an underling, who had had an affair with his wife, to his death in battle, is bludgeoned to death sitting on the shore.
The deaths are following the nursery rhyme. A search of the island is made and it is determined no one is there but the guests themselves–and they are stranded because the boat from the mainland failed to show up. The awful reality sets in — the murderer is in their midst!
The murders continue, and when someone finally comes from the mainland, all ten guests are found dead, with the mysterious circumstance that one, who they determine was the last to die (as in the rhyme), was found hung, but the chair that the person had stood upon and kicked away had mysteriously been put in its place!
Because the murders take so long to narrate, for the Scotland Yard inspectors to unravel it would have made for a lengthy novel. Christie resolves that by resorting to an unusual plot device, a confession in a bottle, thrown out to sea, that just happens to be recovered by a fishing trawler.
An ingenious plot indeed and I can see how it would have been difficult to figure out how they would all end up dead without an outside “murderer.” More chilling yet when the lives of all depend on figuring out who the murderer is among them–a most cunning murderer indeed, who has tracked down their stories and arranges their murders to fit the rhyme.
Many consider this Christie’s best work. It was adapted for both stage and screen. I did wonder why she narrates the murders serially only to resolve this for the authorities with a message in a bottle. Why not let the authorities unravel it and figure out who was the killer. In the end I concluded that this would be a much duller way to tell the story, and that the message from the killer was the best way to help us understand the mind and motive of the murderer. I think Christie got this one very right!