First, there were ten—a curious assortment of strangers summoned as weekend guests to a private island off the coast of Devon. Their host, an eccentric millionaire unknown to all of them, is nowhere to be found. All that the guests have in common is a wicked past they’re unwilling to reveal—and a secret that will seal their fate. For each has been marked for murder. One by one they fall prey. Before the weekend is out, there will be none. And only the dead are above suspicion.
There is scarcely any comfort to be found in this book, only an ancient, arcane horror. Even my most harrowing nightmares would have never conjured such a soul-fearing tale. And Then There Were None was uncomfortable as it lodged itself in the darkest corner of my mind, and the questions it asks and the implications it conceals are still twining up my legs like a barbed vine.
I liked this book—but it honestly isn’t an experience I’m keen on revisiting.
So, what’s this book about?
In And Then There Were None’s nightmarish tableau, ten people are summoned as house guests to a remote island by a Mr and Mrs U.N. Owen. The guests assembled trade stiff dialogue over dinner and cocktails while musing about the celebrity of the island and puzzling about their hosts’ tardiness.
The whimsy of the moment, however, ebbs away when a disembodied message blaring from a gramophone tallies, in vivid and mordant detail, their unpunished crimes. The house occupants’ astonishment quickly turns to horror—their faces wheeling from the shallows to the depths of terror when shortly after, they all embark on the ghastly business of being murdered, one by one per the instructions of a horrid nursery rhyme.
Memories of their misdeeds, which used to be a distant and blurry thing, suddenly come into a sharp, lurid focus. Death runs rampant with his bloody scythe on Soldier Island. Each creak and groan is a hunter stalking them, each flutter of wind its breath, close against their necks. This is their sentence coming to retrieve them.
“Be sure thy sin will find thee out.”
Agatha Christie, an extraordinarily good writer, digs with bright, horrible relish into an exhilarating, unsettling and ingeniously constructed story that relentlessly yanks the brain as it pitilessly disorients the heart. She plays the reader with the delicacy and finesse of an expert angler, and doesn’t allow you a moment to dig in your heels and stop where you were, just for a while, just long enough to get a better idea of what’s ahead. The experience of reading this book is akin to walking through a nightmare; I could not orient myself, did not know north from south.
And Then There Were None is not a light read—it is, in fact, unrelentingly harrowing. The hermetic, creepy atmosphere of Soldier Island makes a thriving black petri dish of foreboding and distortion. And as each of the characters’ haunting pasts come to light and as their secrets swell to bursting, the book becomes more and more page-turning. But what appears to be a thriller is something far more perilous. Christie imbues the story with a well-observed psychological depth that holds its own fascination. The surface, of course, is arresting, but the harder you think the further you go, and it keeps on getting more productive.
The mind is an imperfect engine that does what it will with the information it receives. But what happens when fear, true fear, takes hold of it and scours out all else? When it becomes fractured and wild, crowded with the images of your most torturous evils? What happens when your flimsy attempts at exonerating yourself and asserting some kind of spurious decency no longer stand up under the glaring attacks of guilt? Each of the ten guests is a mirror, from which there’s no escape, reflecting their monstrosity back at each other. And this book is, in many senses, an invitation to take a long, hard look at one’s own self in the mirror. It is also a forensic examination of remorse—the kind that is sharp enough to slice a man off his shadows. The truth of it eventually draws blood, and when it does, it isn’t a clean cut.
“Crime is terribly revealing. Try and vary your methods as you will, your tastes, your habits, your attitude of mind, and your soul is revealed by your actions.”
This is, furthermore, a portrait of a psychopath whose beguiling trappings conceal a being watchful, capricious, and heartless. They are the author of this horrendous drama—a mad person of the most blatant kind who suffers an unconquerable confederation of self-righteousness and depravity. But what is most frightening is not the depth of their evil, but how cold it runs. Are humans really capable of being this infatuated with the blood and groaning of the theatrics of murder? None of these characters are, of course, the kind of people you want to roll the red carpet for, but does anyone really deserve this? The questions this book asks are grim and land too hard to catch but it doesn’t make this book’s dizzying journey less than worthwhile.
If there’s a flaw running through And Then There Were None, it’s that Christie maintains a respectful distance from her characters, and at times, that distance runs toward dryness. I think a bit more poison in the pen would have helped in drawing out the characters, some of whom don’t entirely step into the page before, y’know, they start dropping like flies.
Overall, however, And Then There Were None is a highly readable murder mystery and a provocative, pitch-black psychological thriller that will be hard to forget!