Aeons passed… worlds span and whirled… Time was motionless… It stood still – it passed through a thousand ages…
No, it was only a minute or so…
Two people were standing looking down on a dead man…
This may be either a wonderful or an awful book to read during this phase of lockdown and social distancing and restrictions to our liberties – depending on your point of view and experience.
Imagine being locked down with a collection of strangers, all of whom have terrible secrets and shady pasts, and one of whom is a murderer seeking to eliminate you. And you are on an island. With no way off.
If you want a novel that creates a palpable sense of claustrophobia, that evokes a tangible paranoia, then this is the novel for you!
So let’s turn to the novel. Ten characters are summoned to the isolated Indian Island, off the Devon coast, by a Mr. Ulick Norman Owen and / or his wife Una Nancy Owen to visit acquaintances and “so much to talk over… old days… communion with Nature… bask in sunshine…”, or to work. We have the housekeepers, a governess-cum-secretary, a retired judge, an ex-policeman, a soldier, a rather feckless and reckless young man… One of the difficulties I had with the novel was the characters: we bounce around from the point of view of one to another at a lightning fast pace and I found it tricky to recall who was who. It was a little bit like one of those talent shows – The Great British Bake Off, perhaps, or The Apprentice – where, until you have had a few people eliminated, they get a bit lost.
And these characters get eliminated rather brutally.
The opening chapter as these characters are all en route to Devon by various means – some close enough on a train to appraise each other in a slightly creepy way, others alone and charging cross country by car – was wonderful and felt… classical in some way.
The trigger point is the wonderful set piece of theatre as these guests sit down following a hearty meal together
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 gentlemen! Silence, please!”
The Voice goes on to accuse each of the ten of causing various deaths, setting their “indictments” out before demanding that “have you anything to say in your defence?” Medical negligence, sexual jealousies, neglect… the details come out over the course of the novel through dialogue and the characters’ thoughts – which raises interesting questions: there is no objective evidence of their alleged crimes and their own narratives are self serving; we are all unreliable narrators of our own histories, aren’t we? Even – especially – to ourselves! A cacophony of guilt, self recrimination, defensiveness and bluster ensues… until they begin to die.
It would be easy for the novel to fall into absurdity or melodrama with the mounting death count but it manages not to. We have brutal attacks with an axe, a falling clock (the most preposterous and reminds me a little of something out of Midsomer Murders), poisonings, drownings and shootings… All tied into the nursery rhyme of the Ten Little Soldiers or Injuns or Niggers as time amended the title (of the novel and the central nursery rhyme) in response to changing sensibilities. The version in the novel reads
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 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.
As I said, to tie the structure of the murders to that nursery rhyme did risk becoming ridiculous and a pastiche of itself – I was expecting a big bear to wander onto the island at some point or for a character to “exit pursued by a bear” as Shakespeare would have it – and it is a testimony to Christie that it doesn’t.
It is also a rare book where I did not anticipate the reveal before it was done! I was teetering on the verge of agreeing with some of the characters that there may have been something more Gothic and more otherworldly going on than a simple murder. And looking back on the novel in hindsight I am kicking myself because the clues are there! Damn you, Christie!
There was a very good adaptation by the BBC a couple of years ago and it is easy to see the cinematic appeal of the novel: it is highly reliant on dialogue to propel the characterisation and plot onwards and reading it felt a little like reading a screenplay – at times I felt like I was craving a good narration and description!
All in all, though a wonderfully chilling and paranoid – and psychological – thriller which rightly deserves its place as a Christie highlight.
If you liked this consider reading
Blood Wedding, Pierre Lemaitre
See What I Have Done, Sarah Schmidt
Melmoth, Sarah Perry
The Hound of the Baskervilles, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Plot / Pace:
Publisher: Originally, Collins Crime Club; Kindle Edition, Harper Collins
Date: Originally, 6th November 1939 (as Ten little Niggers); Kindle Edition, 14th October 2010