Over the past year I’ve watched two adaptations of this book. The first was the 1965 movie, under the name Ten Little Indians. It was entertaining enough, but had a very dated feel and changed the ending to one that was more romantic and feel-good. The second was an excellent BBC TV mini-series from 2015. This BBC production was the first adaptation I’ve seen which largely followed the book and which included Christie’s ending. Although the plot was mostly as written by Christie, this production created a much darker atmosphere than most of the cosy adaptions of Christie’s books, and created something that had a distinctly stark and modern feel to it. I loved the production, and decided at some point in the near future, I would reread this book. I originally read Christie’s books many years ago and have always considered it to be one of Christie’s best mysteries, on par with the very clever Murder of Roger Ackroyd.
This is a standalone book. It has no Hercule Poirot, no Miss Marple, nor any of the other detectives Christie routinely used in her books. Ten people travel to Soldier Island, some as invited guests, others hired for particular jobs. None of them has previously met their hosts/employers, Mr and Mrs Owen. They are told on arrival that Mr and Mrs Owen have been delayed and will arrive the next day. They settle into their rooms, some laughing over the poem ‘Ten Little Soldiers’ which is framed in each room. They enjoy a good dinner. And then a voice suddenly booms out, listing a series of indictments for each person present. Each person is accused of murder. At first everyone assumes it is some form of practical joke. Then the first person dies …
The ten gradually realise they are trapped on the island and are being methodically murdered in a manner matching the ‘Ten Little Soldiers’ poem. A search reveals no one else is with them on the island, and they realise the murderer is one of them. With no one sure who they can trust, this adds to the terror everyone feels.
This is an intricately plotted mystery. As it was a reread for me, I knew who the murderer was, and could pick up on the hints in the plot and could see that Christie did indeed play fair and follow the rules of a Golden Age detective novel. But I remember that the first time I read this, I had absolutely no idea what the solution was going to be. Just when you think you have a vital clue and have it figured out, there’s another plot twist.
Oddly for a Christie novel, none of the characters are particularly appealing or sympathetic. Usually there is at least one character or a pair of young lovers who are appealing and who we want to come out of the story happy and relatively unscathed, which was the motivation for the change made to the 1965 film adaptation. But that’s part of the point of the story – all of these people are murderers and none of them are meant to be sympathetic. We feel a little sorry for them at times, but essentially we know that they are all on the island because of something they did in their past. The one character who initially seems the most attractive and sympathetic turns out to be one of the most ruthless and cold blooded of them all.
But as unsympathetic as all the characters are, the question remains, do they deserve the fate that awaits them on this island? It is a basic tenet of our system of justice that there should be no ‘cruel and unusual punishment’. Does the fact that each of these people have gotten away with murdering someone in their past mean that the murderer has the right to pass sentence on each of them, psychologically terrorise each of them as they wait to see who will die next, and become their executioner? The murderer has done his research well, and it turns out that everyone is guilty of the crime of which they are accused, but he then takes it upon himself to execute each of them in turn without any trial or defence. In fact, one of the accused had actually faced the law and received a punishment. A rather light sentence admittedly, but still a sentence under English law. Others have imposed sentences upon themselves and are constantly haunted by what they have done. The murderer may think he is justified in his actions, but in reality he is a cold blooded murderer who uses a stated belief in justice to conceal that he is a raving loony.
Although this is dark book in its plot and atmosphere, it is a quick and easy read. Although I started this before Christmas, I basically read it in three sittings. If it hadn’t been for the interruptions of Christmas and being drained from the high temperatures and smoke levels from fires we’ve suffered through lately, this would have been finished quickly. There’s not a lot of padding, the story is fairly sparse and gets going quickly. Highly recommended for anyone after a well-plotted and intricate mystery.
Christie originally published this book in the UK in November 1939 under the title Ten Little Niggers. This title was already considered offensive in the US where it was published as And Then There Were None in January 1940. The UK publications retained the original name until 1985, but the US version was published as Ten Little Indians in 1964. Since 1985, all English versions of the book have been published as And Then There Were None, with the poem being firmly about soldiers. Some non-English translations still use a translation of the original UK title.
A trailor for the 2015 BBC production of And Then There Were None