Summary + Review
And Then There Were None is my first Agatha Christie mystery, and it lived up to my high expectations!
The mystery opens with ten strangers traveling to privately-owned Indian Island, a tiny piece of land situated near Devon, England. A vague acquaintance of the ten has purchased it, so each guest eagerly accepts his/her invitation without much question.
Upon arriving, a few things are amiss. For one, no one associated with Indian Island, including the boat guide who takes the guests to the island and the butler and his wife, have met Mr. U.N. Owen. Secondly, Mr. Owen is not present at his house when his guests arrive. Nor does he arrive in time for dinner. The visit takes a dark turn when a record played by the unsuspecting butler announces the true nature of the trip: all ten have been charged with murder by the mysterious Owen! (See passage below.)
As unsettling as the eerie accusations are, the situation quickly becomes more sinister. One of the guests drops dead, and poison is thought to be the cause of death! When another of the ten is found dead the next morning, the remaining eight discover that they are being killed off, one by one, in a gruesome twist on the words of the “Ten Little Indians” rhyme:
Ten little Indian boys went out to dine;
One choked his little self and then there were nine.
Nine little Indian boys sat up very late;
One overslept and then there were eight.
Eight little Indian boys travelling in Devon;
One said he’d stay there and then there were seven.
Seven little Indian boys chopping up sticks;
One chopped himself in halves and then there were six.
Six little Indian boys playing with a hive;
A bumblebee stung one and then there were five.
Five little Indian boys going in for law;
One got in Chancery and then there were four.
Four little Indian boys going out to sea;
A red herring swallowed one and then there were three.
Three little Indian boys walking in the Zoo;
A big bear hugged one and then there were two.
Two little Indian boys sitting in the sun;
One got frizzled up and then there was one.
One little Indian boy left all alone;
He went and hanged himself and then there were none.
It becomes clear that the ten are intended victims of Mr. Owen’s twisted sense of justice. Christie does an excellent job of making readers wonder: Who is U.N. Owen? And who will be this murderer’s next victim?
I loved that the mystery doesn’t end in an expected way. Most readers will probably anticipate the true culprit finally being revealed with the last of the ten standing. However, Christie turns the mystery formula on its head and does not give away the guilty party until the epilogue. I thought the conclusion was a little “out there” and way improbable. But, again, the whole setup of the mystery itself is highly improbable, and half the fun of reading And Then There Were None is setting the disbelief aside and digging into “whodunnit.”
Elements of this mystery are very far-fetched, but I think the unbelievable components actually make the read more entertaining and allow the reader to focus on trying to solve the mystery himself/herself. I don’t usually feel this way about books, but I actually wish that Christie had made And Then There Were None a little longer. Once the murders start occurring, the pace is fast and the action is unrelenting until the end. I would have loved to see the suspense played up more: more emphasis on the characters’ psychology, more description of the creepy setting, maybe even some false alarms…and false leads.
Otherwise, And Then There Were None is a solid mystery that has stood the test of time for a reason.
The older writing style and language (And Then There Were None was first published in 1939) may throw off unprepared readers. In terms of most vocabulary and sentence structure, though, this is still a not-too-demanding read, so sharing an excerpt or two with students ahead of time may help your student readers. The cast of important characters is bigger than most books, and keeping the characters straight is really important to the plot. When this is the case, I sometimes recommend that my students make a character web or annotated list (the latter can be done really easily on a blank bookmark!) to aid their comprehension.
There is a somewhat ugly history behind some of the content and the title of this book, and it definitely serves as a glaring reminder that interpretations of what is PC have changed a lot over time! I won’t spend time on that in this blog review because the issues with the original title(s) were resolved with early American publications. But feel free to take a browse here. (Sometimes I find it best to address potentially problematic content with students ahead of time, but the history of And Then There Were None may not show up on your students’ radar at all.) On that note, there are a handful of jokes and comments made by characters that are anti-Semitic in nature. 😦 If the book is going to be used in a classroom setting, I’d suggest forewarning students and taking advantage of a “teachable moment” about the grossly inappropriate and hurtful nature of such comments.
-Independent reading or student-choice book clubs.
-Discussion. Like any good classic, this one has all kinds of potential for rich discussion. What do you think about the murderer’s ideas on justice? What did you think of the ending? What common elements or archetypes, particularly in the mystery genre, are present in this book?
-Mood/Tone. From the start, Christie evokes a sense of foreboding. Students can examine how this mood is executed (pardon the slight pun).
-Foreshadowing. Christie leaves lots of hints about upcoming plot developments throughout this story. Prediction-making is a fun, valuable strategy when reading any mystery, but it is especially worthwhile with this story.
Recommended passage(s) for book talks:
“The whole party had dined well. They were satisfied with themselves and with life. The hands of the clock pointed to twenty minutes past nine. There was a silence–a comfortable, replete silence. Into that silence came The Voice. Without warning, inhuman, penetrating… ‘Ladies and gentleman! Silence please!’ Every one was startled. They looked round–at each other, at the walls. Who was speaking? The Voice went on–a high clear voice. ‘You are charged with the following indictments: Edward George Armstrong, that you did upon the 14th day of March, 1925, cause the death of Louisa Mary Clees. Emily Caroline Brent, that upon the 5th November 1931, you were responsible for the death of Beatrice Taylor. William Henry Blore, that you brought upon the death of James Stephen Landor on October 10th, 1928. Vera Elizabeth Claythorne, that on the 11th day of August, 1935, you killed Cyril Ogilvie Hamilton. Philip Lombard, that upon a date in February, 1932, you were guilty of the death of twenty-one men. members of an East African tribe. John Gordon Macarthur, that on the 4th of January, 1917, you deliberately sent your wife’s lover, Arthur Richmond, to his death. Anthony James Marsden, that upon the 14th day of November last, you were guilty of the murder of John and Lucy Combes. Thomas Rogers and Ethel Rogers, that on the 6th of May, 1929, you brought about the death of Jennifer Brady. Lawrence John Wargrave, that upon the 10th day of June, 1930, you were guilty of the murder of Edward Seton. Prisoners at the bar, have you anything to say in your defence?’ The Voice had stopped. There was a moment’s petrified silence and then a resounding crash! Rogers had dropped the coffee tray! At the same moment, from somewhere outside the room there came a scream and the sound of a thud. Lombard was the first to move. He leapt to the door and flung it open. Outside, lying in a huddled mass, was Mrs. Rogers.” (St. Martin’s Paperbacks 2001 papercover, pages 42-43)
Trailer: This is actually a film trailer for the 1945 adaptation. Man do I love a good classic movie trailer! I also think students would love the melodrama in this one.
And Then There Were None is a dark, quick, and tension-filled mystery. Reading it may result in readers asking for more mysteries…and classics. Heavier doses of more drawn-out suspense would add to the potency of this Agatha Christie mystery, but teen and older readers will undoubtedly get their thriller fix. Rating: 4/5