“There was something magical about an island—the mere word suggested fantasy. You lost touch with the world—an island was a world of its own. A world, perhaps, from which you might never return.”
Agatha Christie‘s bestselling crime novel of all time, And Then There Were None was first published in 1939 under a different name and is based on the minstrel song which serves as a major plot point, which has since been changed to Ten Little Soldier Boys. The story follows ten strangers who apparently with little in common, who are lured to an island mansion off the coast of Devon by the mysterious U. N. Owen. Over dinner, a record begins to play, and the voice of an unseen host accuses each person of hiding a guilty secret. That evening, one of the guests is found murdered by a deadly dose of cyanide. The tension escalates as the survivors realise that the killer is not only among them, but they are preparing to strike again. And again…
When you read an Agatha Christie book, you know exactly what you’re going to get. Usually, this would be seen as a negative, but that’s exactly why you read her books. They may follow a similar formula, but that’s why Christie is deemed a classic mystery writer. She does the basics incredibly well and doesn’t have to distract the reader to send them down the wrong path. Her clever mysteries speak for themselves, filling readers with suspense – and often fear – and always keeping you guessing until the very last page.
And whilst her stories may be simple in structure, you know you’re not going to guess who did it until the very end. Christie makes sure of that, filling her thrillers with so many twists and red herrings that you’ll be convinced it’s every single character at some point or another.
She doesn’t keep you reading just to find out who did it, either. She also makes you care about who did it, filling her pages with so much back story, keeping you gripped to the characters’ stories, wanting to find out more about them to see if their motives slip.
With a title like “And Then There Were None”, as well, it’s easy to predict that the guests of Soldier Island are about to picked off one by one until no one is left, but we’re left just as confused as the guests by that. Whether the murderer is amongst them or it’s somebody else hiding on the island, how can nobody be left behind? It’s a brilliant narrative technique, getting the reader to question everything straight away, even before we are given any hints as to what may be occurring.
The only thing that annoyed me about the story is that we weren’t reminded of the poem throughout, or that the guests didn’t think to re-read it to predict who will die next. But as much as I wanted somebody to go, “Oh, the next line says the soldier is ‘chopping up sticks’ so maybe we shouldn’t go and chop the wood alone”, I avoided going back in the book myself so that I wouldn’t find out, so maybe it was done for that reason. Not everything would have been that obvious, though, as a lot of the poem was very vague, but I do think that the avoidance of it by the guests is a bit of a plot hole.
Aside from that, the relatively short story poses some big questions, asking who has the right to decide what justice is? And who, therefore, has the right to decide what punishment serves the crime? It really gets you thinking. Do these people really deserve to be punished? And what kind of person thinks they are above everybody else? It is this aspect that keeps you so on edge, as you begin to feel that manic presence lurking in every corner of the book.
This may only be my second Agatha Christie novel that I’ve read, but I’m eager to read more. It’s easy to see why she is classed as such a prominent author in the mystery genre and why her books are still so readable today, and I can’t wait to pick up my next one.