Friday, October 2, 2009

Alphabet in Crime Fiction: And Then There Were None

When Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise invited all to participate in the Alphabet in Crime Fiction meme, I couldn't resist! I decided to take a break from my usual posts and highlight one of my absolute favorites of Agatha Christie's novels: And Then There Were None.

And Then There Were None, also known as Ten Little Indians, was first published in 1940. It’s one of Christie’s few mystery novels in which there isn’t really one sleuth as such, even an amateur one. As the novel begins, ten individuals travel to Indian Island, off the Devon coast, for what they think is a holiday. Each of them is from a different background and class; the only thing it seems that they have in common is that they’ve gotten invitations to the island from someone named Owen. When they arrive on the island, the guests are surprised to find that their host hasn’t arrived yet, but they take it in stride – until after dinner. At that point, each of them is accused of having been responsible for at least one death. At first, the guests’ reactions range from amusement to indignation. However, this quickly changes to fear when one of them is poisoned.

That night, a storm begins to brew, and by the next morning, the entire group of guests is in the grip of a nightmare. One by one, they are murdered, and as the novel progresses, the survivors realize that they’ve been lured to the island by a murderer. One of them is a killer and the rest are trapped on the island at the killer’s mercy.

Christie uses several elements to make this novel an unforgettable, chilling experience. One is the growing distrust the guests have of each other. As it slowly dawns on the stranded islanders that one of them is murdering the others, the guests no longer feel safe around the others. They lock themselves in their rooms, don’t allow themselves to be alone with any of the others, and stop believing what anyone says. This atmosphere of suspicion adds much to the tension and suspense.

The weather and location also add to the suspense, too. A terrible storm makes leaving the island impossible, and at one point, the electricity fails. These background events make the story even eerier. So does the location: a bleak island with very little natural cover. Christie makes a point of this, as if to tell the reader, “See? There is no escape!”

Another interesting element in this novel is the way Christie shares the characters’ thoughts with the reader. As the guests are murdered one by one, we see the desperation rising in the minds of the survivors. We also learn about each survivor’s past, and the untimely death that brought each one to the island. This is an especially effective use of point of view, as the reader gets to see the events on the island from different perspectives.

Interestingly enough, the characters in the novel aren’t what one might call very likeable. They’ve all been responsible for at least one death, and in several cases, there is no real remorse for those deaths. They are all willing to sacrifice each other to save themselves. Yet, as the terror and suspicion build, we can feel sympathy for them. They are trapped, with no way off the island, and we can identify with that feeling of helplessness.

Although the guests are being murdered, and Christie certainly describes how this happens, the action in this novel is much more psychological than physical. The tension and suspense are developed as the characters grow more and more fearful of each other. Christie does a brilliant job of this slow buildup of tension; it’s very hard to stop reading this novel. The conclusion includes a twist that’s sheer genius, and the way the solution is revealed is fascinating.

And Then There Were None works on a number of levels. It’s a gripping story, a fascinating psychological study of fear and guilt, and the dialogue is natural and authentic. I recommend it, whether or not you’re a fan of Christie’s other work. As a matter of fact, Christie said that this was one of her favorites of her work. I know I learned a lot from it about using dialogue and characters' thoughts to build tension and reveal information to the reader. For that lesson, I am grateful.

10 comments:

  1. This is one of my favourites as well! I cheerfully admit the first time I read it I had no idea who was the guilty party! I've also been involved with the stage version; which is fun on a completely different level. I admired the slow realization that no one was to be completely trusted and nothing was what it seemed. Brilliant.

    Elspeth

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  2. Oh, well-said, Elspeth! You're right that nothing is what it seems... How fun that you were also involved in the stage version! I admit I've never seen it staged, but I can imagine it'd be great - there's some wonderful dialogue in it. I think that, besides the exquisite manipulation of tension, the dialogue is one of the better elements of this novel - as much what is not said as what is said.

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  3. Excellent Margot. Am I right in also thinking it was also titled TEN LITTLE NIGGERS (very politically incorrect, but I seem to rememebr a cover with a golliwog on the front)? - can I get you to submit this to the ACRC Blog Carnival too please. http://blogcarnival.com/bc/submit_6057.html

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  4. Kerrie - Thanks for the invite to the blog carnival. I'd be honored to sent it in. You're right, too about the title. It was actually published in 1939 in the U.K. as Ten Little Niggers but, for obvious reasons, that title didn't last.

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  5. I have only read this one once, Margot. I love rereading Christie, so I'm not sure why I haven't reread this one. I was a teenager when I read it - it will be interesting reading it again so many years later.

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  6. Ms. Bookish - I think it's always really interesting to read a book after a long time and from a different perspective. I've done that with more than one book. Hope you'll enjoy your re-introduction : )

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  7. I do love to read mysteries where all the main characters are stranded and someone is a killer. It adds so much extra drama to the story. This sounds excellent.

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  8. Marg - Thanks for your comment. I like well-written drama, too, and that's one thing that works well in this book. The interactions among the characters are pure drama.

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  9. That's my favorite Christie novel. It's incredibly clever. I remember the first time I read it and how shocked I was. I immediately started rereading the book from the beginning...

    Elizabeth

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  10. Elizabeth - it's funny you would mention the word, "shocked." That's exactly how I felt about the ending. Christie had completely taken me in. Truly one of her best, in my view.

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