Friday, February 19, 2010

And Then There Were None

'Death of a Mystery Writer.' 'And Then There Were None.' Pardon Miss Lemon if she's beginning to sound a bit morbid. But when it comes to British mysteries, the titles are half the fun.

That's especially true in the case of this Agatha Christie classic, first published under a different title in 1939. However, And Then There Were None, the name given to the first American edition published by Dodd, Mead & Co. in 1940, better foreshadows the tension that lurks between the covers of this mystery masterwork.

Ten ordinary and unsuspecting British folk are invited to Indian Island, off the coast of Devon. Ferried to this barren and isolated rock by Sticklehaven's very own Charon, the guests of Indian Island soon realize their peril.

First, there's the odd set of glass figurines on the dining room table. Ten little Indian boys. Then there's a disembodied voice, outing for all and sundry the skeletons that lurk in each guest's closet. All, it seems, have been guilty of a crime The Law can't touch.

And as a final, damning flourish, all the guests find the following nursery rhyme, posted in their bedrooms:
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 himself and then there were eight.

Eight little Indian boys traveling 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.
What fascinates the reader -- and the murderer, as it happens -- is that inevitable diminishment. That creeping terror that comes with the first death, then the second, and so on, each in accordance with the circumstances the nursery rhyme presaged.

The book rather reminds Miss Lemon of A Pocket Full of Rye. But it's much more sinister.

Just when you think, dear readers, that you know who's behind this inexorable string of murders, you'll be asked to think again.

This is, after all, Agatha Christie at the top of her game.


  1. I saw a lovely version of this in the West End a few years ago. Such a creepy concept and you are correct, the culprit at the end is not who you would think. Christie was a master.