When I saw that And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie was “YA Reads for Teachers (And Any Other Adults!)”selection for the Goodreads Classic YA book group this month, I was a little surprised. My mother, a big fan of Mystery! on PBS got me interested in mysteries and after years of watching the show with her, I started to read that genre. As a teen, I pretty much went through Agatha Christie’s entire body of work. Still, I wondered about it being a YA book selection. At a teen, I thought I was reading adult books, which gave me a little thrill. And it seems that they were adult books (or simply books) when they were first published because there were fewer book (marketing?) categories then (the book was first published in 1939). However, I learned that this book is now assigned in high schools, thus making it a YA book. My copy is (probably) still at my parents’ house, so I downloaded a free e-book version.
To start the discussion, the book group’s moderator referred us to the Wikipedia page for And Then There Were None, where we were quite surprised to find that the books original title was Ten Little N***ers. The copy I read as a teen was titled And Then There Were None with something like “formerly titled Ten Little Indians” in small print. At the time, I felt uneasy about the former title. Reading it now I felt even more ill at ease since learning that the n-word title was published in England and that it was changed to Indians for the U.S. version. For the most part, the U.S. text, the n-word was replaced with Indian but it wasn’t completely erased from the book… When I read it as a teenager, I remember a character saying something about a “n***er in the woodpile” and if memory serves, my edition had a glossary to explain British sayings for American readers. At the time, I was upset and confused by the expression but I still finished the book.
So in the book, 10 people are summoned to a remote island under various pretenses by a mysterious host (U.N. Owen – unknown, get it?). They discover that each one may (or may not) have indirectly caused someone’s death. Each has ‘gotten away with murder’ in a sense because they cannot be linked directly to a death, although they may have contributed to someone’s dying. They start dying one by one, each in a manner reminiscent of an old English nursery rhyme. As time runs out, the survivors try to figure out just who the murderer is, but really, they are doomed.
Christie does a good job of distinguishing her characters. There are ten and each has a different name of course, but she gives them distinct voices and points of view—not a simple writing task at all. The chapters are short and brisk and she keeps the momentum going.
The theme of the “Other” is evident throughout and the original titles reflect this and to quote Wikipedia: “The concept that the self requires the Other to define itself is an old one…” My introduction to the Other came in college, when we examined literature where people of color existed so white characters could define (and often elevate) themselves but the concept of self vs. Other doesn’t have to be about ethnic background.
Britain is known for its class system and many of these British characters (who are accustomed to servants) still worry over who will make tea as they are being killed off one by one. And quite a few have connections to and have benefitted from colonialism. You don’t see everyone who is different from you as the Other. For example, only the self-righteous Miss Brent feels common humanity with the natives that Mr. Lombard abandoned to die in India…but Miss Brent didn’t feel any compassion for her servant girl who became pregnant out of wedlock. The servant had violated Miss. Brent’s religious principles and Miss Brent felt that she deserved to die.
Perhaps Christie is arguing that the threat of death us all less than humane. (I thought about Lord of the Flies as I re-read this book.) While the accused murderers doubt the humanity of “the Other,” Christie describes how they become more animal-like as their number shrinks.
“…no formal veneer of conversation. They were five enemies linked together by a mutual instinct of self-preservation.”
“Don’t you see? We’re the Zoo… Last night, we were hardly human any more. We’re the Zoo…”
As I was finishing the book and people discussed movie versions in the Goodreads thread, PBS aired a movie adaptation. With swinging sixties music, this version was set at a remote ski resort with 9 British characters and one American. They threw a pop singer into the mix—it was Fabian and he sang the nursery rhyme while they gathered for drinks, right before he was bumped off. The overly pious Miss Brent was replaced with a married socialite and if I remember correctly, the servants went from Scottish to German.
Both the book and movie have the typical crime story preoccupation with whether certain crimes can be committed by a woman…although the book makes a reference to Lizzie Borden, a real-life instance where a woman was likely the killer, to point to the possibility.
In the book, there is one evil architect of the entire scheme and he writes a letter describing how he did it that is later found by the authorities. (Ok, so I told you it was a he and not a she but I didn’t say who it was, so it isn’t exactly spoiled.)
The movie has a love affair between two characters and ‘love conquers all theme’ that lets the two lovers get the upper hand while the book settles for mere flirtation.
Christie’s vision was much more dire: there are murderers among us and they get away with it…and there is nothing of the avenging angel in someone who’d murder a murderer and call it justice.