This novel, the world’s best-selling mystery with over 100 million copies, has recently been voted readers’ favourite Agatha Christie novel in a global poll. Though I’d probably struggle to name my own personal favourite Christie novel, I’m not inclined to argue with this honour. The book is a masterpiece of crime fiction whose power hasn’t diminished with years, and it’s said that Christie herself regarded it as her highest achievement.
It’s a testament to the Queen of Crime’s versatility that her best-loved novel doesn’t involve her best-loved fictional sleuths, Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot. Instead the story focuses solely on a group of ten strangers who all get separate invitations to Soldier Island, an isolated spot off the coast in Devon. Once there and secretly puzzled by each other’s presence, their cosy dinner on the first night is interrupted in a startling manner by a recorded message accusing each one of them of murder, and soon after one of the guests drops dead. Meanwhile their mysterious host, Mr U.N. Owen, is nowhere to be seen. The next morning they discover yet another dead body, and find themselves cut off from the mainland.
What follows is a masterclass of mystery and suspense, as the guests are killed off one by one, the remaining survivors’ panic and terror escalate, and the story ticks mercilessly towards its grim endgame. Christie often made use of children’s rhymes in her novels, but never more so chillingly than here, with each subsequent death a reference to the Ten Little Soldier Boys who die in each verse until there are none left. The rhyme and the name of the book got revised from the original version which is unprintable in today’s English-speaking world, though the direct translation in Russian I’ve read is not loaded in the same way.
If the novel was just about this fantastical series of murders in a claustrophobic setting it would be a neat exercise in plotting and planning, but there’s rather more to it. The other ten murders that the guests are accused of are equally as important, and unlike the flashy murders on the island these past crimes have a mundanity to them that makes them scarily realistic. Mostly they’re of the hidden kind that will never be proven in the court of law, and they’re motivated by different things – greed, love, puritanic values, jealousy, selfishness. The characters all display a different degree of guilt; some remain unbending and unrepentant till the end, others become consumed by it in an environment that offers little escape from their conscience. Christie’s novels are rarely this relentlessly dark.
And Then There Were None had made a huge impact on my impressionable teenage self, which was further enhanced by the Russian film version that, unlike other screen adaptations, stuck with the novel’s vision all the way to the finale. I really need to watch the recent star-studded TV adaptation with Charles Dance, I hope it doesn’t wimp out either.