And Then There Were None (Agatha Christie)

  • First published: UK, November 1939, as Ten Little Niggers; USA, Dodd Mead, December 1939. Also published as Ten Little Indians.

My review

Undoubtedly one of the classic Christies. The author herself explained in her Autobiography that she

“had written the book Ten Little Niggers because it was so difficult to do that the idea had fascinated me. Ten people had to die without it becoming ridiculous or the murderer being obvious. I wrote the book after a tremendous amount of planning, and I was pleased with what I had made of it. It was clear, straightforward, baffling, and yet had a perfectly reasonable explanation; in fact, it had to have an epilogue in order to explain it. It was well received and reviewed, but the person who was really pleased with it was myself, for I knew better than any critic how difficult it had been… I don’t say it is the play or book of mine that I like best, or even that I think it is my best, but I do think in some ways that it is a better piece of craftsmanship than anything else I have written.”

Although there is no detection proper (naturally enough, since all the characters die), there are many clues to the identity of the lunatic who kills ten unsuspected murderers marooned on an island, among them a reptilian judge, a Harley Street doctor, a demure young governess, and a spinster with a bad case of religious mania, according to the old nursery rhyme. It will be a highly alert reader who manages to solve the puzzle; the rest of us must be content to admire the brilliance of the least likely person gambit, and the skill with which she avoids monotony from setting in, always a danger with this sort of story, as Van Dine demonstrated. In addition, there is a devastating study of human beings under tension, of regression into savagery, that ranks alongside Anthony Berkeley‘s Panic Party (1934) and William Golding’s Lord of the Flies.

Blurb (UK)

Ten Little Niggers is certainly the greatest story that the Crime Club has ever published.  We believe it may come to be considered the greatest crime problem ever devised in fiction.

Agatha Christie has always shown her preference for the “closed” murder problem, in which the possible suspects are limited to a small and definite group of persons.  In the present case ten people are invited to a lonely mansion on Nigger Island, off the coast of Devon, by a host who fails to appear.  They are completely cut off from civilization – cut off from everything but each other and the inescapable shadows of their own past lives…

If any better proof is needed of Agatha Christie’s genius, here it is.  Ten Little Niggers is outstandingly clever.

Blurb (US)

Ten little Indians went out to dine

One choked his little self and then there were nine

Nine little Indians…

 – so went the nursery rhyme which each guest read with such casual amusement –

…One little Indian left all alone,

He went and hanged himself and then there were none!

Agatha Christie has always shown a genius for the “closed” murder problem, in which the possible suspects are limited to a small and definite group.  In this story ten people are invited to a lonely mansion on Indian Island by a host who, surprisingly, fails to appear – ten people each of whom has something to hide, something to fear.  On the Island they are cut off by a storm from everything but each other and the inescapable shadows of their own past lives.

Even on the first glorious summer evening there seemed to be something sinister about that Island, but not a one of them suspected then the diabolical series of events that would be set in motion by the Voice after dinner…

And Then There Were None is unique in a number of ways – it contains no detective, not even an amateur investigator; it is so constructed that it cannot be unfair.  Agatha Christie’s brilliance has long been established, she has a score of the finest detective stories to her credit, but this one tops everything she has done – here is the perfect murder story, a classic of crime.

Contemporary reviews

Times Literary Supplement (Maurice Percy Ashley, 11th November 1939): If Mr. Punshon clings tenaciously to his favourite detective [in Murder Abroad], Mrs. Christie deserts her M. Poirot completely in her present novel, Ten Little Niggers, and replaces him by no one at all.  If her latest story has scarcely any detection in it there is no scarcity of murders.  Ten persons, ranging from a judge to a doctor, are induced by various pretexts to come for a visit to Nigger Island, off the Devon coast, and are there cut off from the mainland.  At a dinner on their first evening no host or hostess makes an appearance and instead a gramophone record accuses each and all of them of murders committed “outside the law”.  Then one by one they are struck down by the invisible avenger.  On the dinner table are figures of ten little niggers and as each of the doomed party dies one of the figures vanishes.  There is a certain feeling of monotony inescapable in the regularity of the deaths which is better suited to a serialised newspaper story than a full-length novel.  Yet there is an ingenious problem to solve in naming the murderer.  Who is the tenth little nigger?  It will be an extremely astute reader who guesses correctly.

Spectator (Rupert Hart-Davis, 15th December 1939, 250w): Agatha Christie’s masterpiece.

Library J (M.L. Prevost, 1st February 1940, 160w): We seek unsuccessfully among the guests for the invisible ‘host’, of this house-to-morgue party.  Scotland Yard is unsuccessful in a brief epilogue; a manuscript found in a bottle gives posthumous declaration from one of the ten.  It is Agatha Christie run wild.

Boston Transcript (Marian Wiggin, 24th February 1940, 60w): For absolute horror and complete bafflement Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None takes all prizes.

Sat R of Lit (24th February 1940, 40w): Hair-raising and completely inexplicable build-up not matched by rather fantastic explanation—but most readers won’t mind that.  Spectacular.

Books (Will Cuppy, 25th February 1940, 200w): There is no doubt, probably, that this is a highly ingenious jigsaw by a master of puzzling, but don’t try to believe it, or you’ll be sunk at the half-way mark.  Hercule Poirot does not appear.  Nor any other detective, for that matter.

NY Times (Isaac Anderson, 25th February 1940, 210w): The whole thing is utterly impossible and utterly fascinating.  It is the most baffling mystery that Agatha Christie has ever written, and if any other writer has ever surpassed it for sheer puzzlement the name escapes our memory.  We are referring, of course, to mysteries that have logical explanations, as this one has.  It is a tall story, to be sure, but it could have happened.

New Yorker (2nd March 1940, 30w): Slick, tricky idea which somehow doesn’t quite come off, probably because of a forced emphasis on a group of manufactured people.  Smart as anything, though, and you’ll have to hand it to Miss Christie.

Time (4th March 1940, 40w): One of the most ingenious thrillers in many a day.

Punch: As neat a piece of guesswork as can ever have been devised.

Observer: One of the very best, most genuinely bewildering Christies yet written.

Dr. C.A. Alington: First rate.  Even more than her usual masterly handling.

Scotsman: It is brilliantly, almost fantastically ingenious.

New Statesman: Mrs. Christie’s name again heads the list, but it is no use trying to compare her with other writers of detection.  She stands hors concours in a class of her own.