The 41st book on my Classics Club list is the incredibly clever And Then There Were None, from veritable queen of crime, Agatha Christie. I am on quite a big Christie kick at present, and so I decided to read And Then There Were None just days after finishing Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?, another novel which is well worth checking out.
The blurb of my 1930s Omnibus states that in this novel, which was first published in 1939, ‘Ten strangers are lured to an island mansion and realise in horror that a killer is loose among them’. Christie begins the book by introducing us to Mr Justice Walgrave, ‘lately retired from the bench’ who receives a letter from Lady Constance Culmington, a woman whom he has not seen for some years. Lady Constance asks him to visit her mysterious and much-talked-about new home on Soldier Island in Devon. Each of the remaining characters are then introduced in turn, and the reasons have been succinctly stated for their being lured to the island.
We meet Vera Claythorne, who has been engaged as a secretary; Captain Lombard, who is offered one hundred guineas to go there and see to a mysterious ‘client’; sixty five-year-old Emily Brent, who is invited by an old holiday acquaintance to stay for free in the new guesthouse which they have just opened; General Macarthur, invited under the guise of having ‘a talk over old times’ with a couple of his ‘cronies’; Dr Armstrong, called there under the pretence of ‘a husband who was worried about his wife’s health and wanted a report on it without her being alarmed’; moneyed Tony Marston, who has been invited to a party, in which he hopes ‘they’d do one well in drinks – never knew with these fellows who made their money and weren’t born to it’; Mr and Mrs Rogers, a manservant and his wife; and Mr Blore, who is travelling down to the island on a train and interestingly has the names of everyone else who will be there.
I really like the way in which Christie introduces each of the characters here. In the primary views which she allows us of each protagonist, she gives us details about their backstories; in this manner, she begins to build a rather realistic picture of them immediately, and they come to the fore as a believable cast of characters. Everyone assembled on Soldier Island is thought to be responsible for a death which has not been justly punished by the law; this is a simple yet clever idea which serves to draw everyone together.
The old nursery rhyme, which contains the order as to which the murders play out, is as follows:
“Ten little soldier boys went out to dine; One choked his little self and then there were Nine.
Nine little soldier boys sat up very late; One overslept himself and then there were Eight.
Eight little soldier boys travelling in Devon; One said he’d stay there and then there were Seven.
Seven little soldier boys chopping up sticks; One chopped himself in halves and then there were Six.
Six little soldier boys playing with a hive; A bumble bee stung one and then there were Five.
Five little soldier boys going in for law; One got in Chancery and then there were Four.
Four little soldier boys going out to sea; A red herring swallowed one and then there were Three.
Three little soldier boys walking in the Zoo; A big bear hugged one and then there were Two.
Two little soldier boys sitting in the sun; One got frizzled up and then there was One.
One little soldier boy left all alone; He went and hanged himself and then there were None.”
Each chapter in And Then There Were None has been split into shorter sections; this is a great technique which propels the story onwards. It also allows Christie to follow different characters and to describe things which are happening simultaneously. And Then There Were None is a taut and well controlled crime novel, and one which I will be heartily recommending.