Many nursery rhymes, much like fairy tales, even though they are now largely read by children, have rather dark and sinister meanings and undertones, whether it is ‘Three Blind Mice’ or ‘Ring a Ring o Roses’ or ‘Mary Mary Quite Contrary’ dealing with themes like the plague or religious persecution. Agatha Christie is quite the master of using these ominous poems to build her mysteries around and with great effect. And ‘Ten Little Soldier Boys’, another of these, which originally appeared in at least two earlier versions, both containing racial slurs or insensitive language, is similarly used by her in 1939 novel, And Then There Were None, a book which came out on top in the vote for the world’s favourite Agatha Christie, organized for her 125th birthday; like the poem, the book too had to be purged of its originally racist title. But leaving those discussions aside, it isn’t hard to see why this book won that vote, or indeed why Christie more than deserves that epithet—Queen of Crime—when one reads it.

Before I get to the book and my thoughts on it (though, I’ve actually already said what I thought, haven’t I?), I just wanted to briefly go back to the confusion I had as to my reading of this book (mentioned in a previous Shelf Control post here), and that was that I wasn’t sure when I bought a copy of this recently whether I had ever actually read it before. I knew the story having seen and read various versions and adaptations, but just couldn’t remember if the original was among these. And this is though I’ve been reading Christie since my early teens, am a great fan, and have read well over 50, perhaps even over 60 of her books so far. But now that I did read it, I realised that I hadn’t in fact done so because every scene, and every detail felt new, it didn’t all come flooding back as things do with a book read long ago and forgotten. And I am glad I did finally read it.

And Then There Were None opens with a varied set of people, a school teacher who takes up a secretarial post during the vacations, a former army man, a retired judge, a doctor, and a spinster, among them, responding to somewhat vague invitations from people claiming acquaintance or invoking common friends. All of them, eight to be precise, are travelling to Soldier’s Island, a place on which a modern house was built by an American millionaire who later sold it, and where elaborate parties are thrown and entertainments organized, and as to the ownership of which rumours abound, especially among residents of the nearby village. When the guests arrive, they find they are to be attended on by a couple, Mr and Mrs Rogers, and their hosts, the Owens, whom we soon find none of them have seen or even heard of before will join them the next day. The house is well provided for, and each room, besides other ornaments, has on its wall a copy of the sinister rhyme, Ten Little Soldier Boys which seems befitting given the island’s name

That evening at dinner, though, all present, including the Rogers are in for a shock for suddenly a voice begins to play, accusing each of them of murder, naming victims, years, and locations. A chill goes through the room and each accused reacts differently. Some like Philip Lombard accused of letting over 20 men of an East African tribe die, or Anthony Marson accused of running over two children in his car are brazen with no remorse or regret over their actions and no denial, some defend themselves dubbing what happened accidents or mere performance of duty, some outrightly deny any knowledge or role (while admitting it to themselves), while one, Miss Brent doesn’t believe there was anything wrong with her actions. Shaken thoroughly but not knowing what to make of the indictment, the guests proceed to dinner but then their mysterious accuser strikes and one guest falls down dead. And then by the next day, another. Before long they realise that each death corresponds to the lines of the ominous children’s song. But can they find the person responsible in time? Can they get away? And is there any truth to the accusations?

And Then There Were None may not be the first time that a plot with a closed circle of people, a remote and cut-off location, and each person present with the equal chance of being the victim or the perpetrator was done (I read a review very recently of a similar plot done earlier, but I can’t find my note for it), but even knowing the broad structure of the plot and possible outcome, Christie has done such an excellent job of it that one comes away enjoying every moment, for not only is the plot executed perfectly (and in a way that one really doesn’t know who, with one major clue coming only very close to the end), there are also developments that one doesn’t see coming, and more than even all this, that creepy and menacing atmosphere that comes across in the book that I’ve never felt work as well in any of the adaptations.

The atmosphere was probably the aspect I enjoyed most in the book for one knows that each of those present will be targeted but one is always on one’s toes waiting to see who and how. I found myself turning back to the rhyme over and over wondering how each line would be interpreted in the next murder and whether there was a particular victim the sentence might suit best. Meanwhile the guests are planning their escape, their hopes set on the boat that delivers essentials to the island, but no boat arrives the next day, and then the weather turns making it well-nigh impossible, no matter how many SOSs are sent. Adding to this already fraught atmosphere are ten statutes of soldiers in one of the rooms, a statue vanishing each time a new victim is added. Each person is clearly more or less suspicious of the other, but we see different groups band together at different points, testing out their suspicions—initially the possible presence of a ‘hidden’ outsider, and then later each other.

As to the characters themselves, one can’t really say what one feels about them—whether it is the cold and overrighteous Miss Brent who doesn’t believe herself guilty of any wrong, or the defiant Lombard and Marston, or even those who admit to themselves at least that they were responsible for what happened, there is none that one feels the slightest bit of sympathy for. But do they deserve what they are getting and how? Does the terror serve at fitting punishment?

The denouement is one we don’t see coming both in terms of who did do it (I didn’t remember from the various versions which one this would be so this was a surprise), but also in the form in which it is written. Saying what will be spoiler for those who haven’t read or seen it so I won’t but there is an element of the dramatic in the way it comes about, and the form if I were to compare matches with another later Christie where has used a similar if not the same way in which we learn the outcome.

If like me, by any chance, you haven’t read this yet, don’t wait any longer. Go get a copy and read it!

p.s. Being written when it was, there are of course some ideas (like the women automatically taking over the kitchen and only one of the men helping since he considers himself a ‘domestic sort’) which would perhaps not gel with current-day readers, but one has to consider the time it was written and not attach much to these.

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25 thoughts on “Book Review: And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie

  1. I love this book – I think it’s probably my favourite of all the Christie novels I’ve read! The solution is particularly clever and I certainly didn’t even come close to guessing who or how it was done!

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    1. Same here. Though I think much of the time with Christie she has me thinking on the wrong lines and realising the significance of the clues only in retrospect so it’s usually on rereads that I really pick them out.

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  2. As I read this relatively recently – well, three or four years ago, before lockdown – staying opposite the island where Christie wrote it, I’m not in a hurry to reread it with so many others of hers to read, but I do remember how convoluted it was, with bluff and counter-bluff, before the significance of the title hit home. For me it was less a whodunnit than a howdunit! But yes, a highly intriguing thriller, and with a chequered history all of its own. 🙂

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    1. That would have been such fun, reading it close to where it was written. For me I think both who and how were questions for much of the book, till the clue about who which was rather close to the actual reveal (I might well have missed some others. I only ever realise in retrospect in most of her books). I loved the atmosphere as well as the little twist she gives us in the end. Hope you enjoy the ones you have waiting to be read. She has some of the best puzzles in many of her books.

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  3. She really was brilliant at creating that kind of creepy atmosphere, almost taking her books into mild horror territory on occasion. This one is brilliant, as can perhaps be seen by the vast number of writers who have tried their hands at reinventing it – none of them with much success in my opinion. She stands in a class of her own!

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    1. So true. I felt that very strongly in Endless Night as well. The creepiness was excellent and one could actually feel the chills. I agree, I don’t think anyone’s done it as well as her. Even film versions didn’t get that creepiness as well as she manages in the book.

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  4. I do the same thing, I think I’ve read a book, but I’m not sure, sometimes I have read the book before and sometimes not. Terrific review of And Then There Were None.

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    1. Thanks so much Wendy🙂 this happens to me a lot too, but more often with books I’ve read but think I haven’t than the other way around. But with these, since the story is do familiar from different versions and adaptations, I honestly couldn’t remember till I picked it up

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  5. This is one of my favorite of hers. I read it many, many years ago, when it still had a not very PC title (Ten Little Indians, which had already been changed to Indians from the N word). But I remember it very well, even to this day! The most recent TV series they did on this book was very nicely done. I also noticed that there’s a Miss Fischer Mystery that uses the same basic idea.

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    1. I haven’t seen the recent adaptation since I am usually wary of these after the mess they made of Miss Marple in some of the newer ones but will look out for this. I haven’t read/ seen the Miss Fischer version either but have some others including a Hindi film dating to the 1960s where in line with prevalent standards, the ‘hero’ and his love interest were not actually guilty of anything.

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  6. I remember being swept up in the creepy atmosphere and all the various twists and turns in this book as a teenager. Like many others, I read a lot of Christie in my youth, and while much of the detail has slipped from my mind since then, I do recall being dazzled by this one. Thanks for such a lovely reminder – it’s great to revisit it through your very engaging review!

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    1. Thank you 🙂I read quite a few in my teens and have reread many over the years. AC is kind of my comfort reading, and I come back to her often, especially when I’m not in the mind for anything else. The atmosphere in this one is rather well done and something one enjoys even when one knows what’s coming.

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  7. This was one of the Christie’s I read when I started highschool & discovered my library had a huge array of her books (which I worked my way through very quickly). This was one of my favourites, even with the terrible title it had back then, which even as a 12 yr old in 1980 I though was offensive (it may have been the first time I had the conscious thought that what was considered okay a generation prior is no longer appropriate now, but we can still read it taking that into account.)

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    1. By the time I first encountered the book I think it had undergone the title change, but my mom read it with the original, she says. Its good that some things at least have changed, even if a lot remains the same in practical terms.

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  8. I’ve never read this but as it’s been voted the favourite I really must get to it! I enjoyed the BBC adaptation a few years back – totally agree with you about the recent Marples though! I do think the Joan Hickson ones are wonderful 🙂

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