And Then There Were None

Author: Agatha Christie

Type: Fiction, novel

Published: 1939

I read it: July 2015

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And Then There Were None is a tough one to recommend but also a tough one to criticize. It seems often mentioned as one of Christie’s best works, probably due to its (ahem) killer premise. Ten people are summoned to a mysterious island and each have a dark secret. One by one they get picked off by a murderer who has a game to play. It’s creepy in a sterile way:

If this had been an old house, with creaking wood, and dark shadows, and heavily panelled walls, there might have been an eerie feeling. But this house was the essence of modernity. There were no dark corners—no possible sliding panels—it was flooded with electric light—everything was new and bright and shining. There was nothing hidden in this house, nothing concealed. It had no atmosphere about it.

Somehow, that was the most frightening thing of all.

The whole story has this feeling of unease, of offness. I think a lot of it has to do with there being no central detective or inspector. The characters are at a complete loss to figure out why this is happening to them, and the paranoia grows and grows. The murders are framed around a children’s rhyme about ten Indian boys who die or disappear, each couplet a clue to how the next person is to be murdered. It’s a great touch and adds a lot of flavor to the book (thankfully the title of Ten Little Indians was replaced over time—it’s one that’s better left in the hands of Sherman Alexie).

The book moves at a breakneck speed, as if written in a white-hot burst of creativity after an amazing dream in which the concept became clear to the author. It’s sharp and intriguing and could easily be read in one sitting. But its format is its weakness: this is not a well-written novel. There is an overabundance of ellipses to push the reader to the next paragraph, and strange formatting choices like dialogue that breaks a line too early:

Philip Lombard said affably:

“Sleeping the clock round? Wells, shows you’ve got an easy conscience.”

Blore said shortly:

“What’s the matter?”

And on like that. While Christie injects enough personal detail to make the characters real, the book is propelled by pure plot. And that’s fine, because the mystery is so delicious. It’s the perfect book to get you through a long plane ride or a day sick in bed. But I also think that it could be a couple hundred pages longer, with more deliberate pacing and a less omniscient narrator, and still deliver all the thrills of the reveal.

More than anything, I’d like to see a movie version. It’s so perfectly set up for a visual take. It’s clear now that many of the ideas were used in the comedy Clue, to great success. What a cool story. Just be sure it’s not the only Agatha Christie you make time for, as her overall writing skills are showcased much better elsewhere.

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4 thoughts on “And Then There Were None

  1. I think rating or critiquing a book like this one is immensely difficult. (You did so splendidly though I rather like how the book is written). It would be like reading Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations” and berating its paragraphs that seem to do little to advance the story. When it comes to older stories like this, I think it is fun to reflect on how they became the classics that they are. Somehow, in their day, readers loved them and talked about just as many readers gush about “The Hunger Games”
    Or the “Harry Potter Series”.

    • Hi, thanks so much for reading and commenting. You got me thinking about what it’s like to weigh in on the classics (or just older books in general). I don’t necessarily think it’s unfair to criticize them, but perhaps they just have more baggage. Not only are they judged against all the standard stuff we’d judge a modern book with, they are also judged against modernity itself as well as the book’s history since publication. Reviewing books is a many-pronged thing and I often wonder if I can even describe all the angles I take while doing it. I find it useful to hold older books up to a modern eye but at the same time try to understand their context when they were published. I can’t say I’m all that good at the latter goal, but I’ve got to try.

      Come again soon!

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