Monday, 11 May 2015

And Then There Were None, by Agatha Christie

And Then There Were None is an absolute genre staple, and is, as far as I'm aware, the template for the 'picked off one by one' formula that has become the backbone of the murder spree genre. It's murder mystery at its finest, but without that singular detective character. The reader ties knots around themselves trying to work out who the killer is, betting on one, then another, then another, only to have them picked off one by one and prove themselves innocent by being dispatched. Even as the list of suspects gets shorter the reader gets no closer to certainty. It's so tightly plotted it's really quite staggering. For such a short novel, it twists and turns and wastes no time in getting down to the business of imaginative, grisly murders.

Eight strangers arrive at an impressive, grand house on an isolated island off the coast of England. Each of the eight has an invitation from an employer, an acquaintance, or the friend of a friend inviting them down to Devonshire for a job or a gathering, or a holiday. As they meet, swap small talk and introduce themselves, the eight strangers are perplexed to discover that none amongst them have been here before, nor can clearly recall the hosts- more baffling still, each invitation has been signed differently. But they're here now, and returning to the mainland seems off the cards.

The cast is comprised of an elderly, prim spinster, a retired judge, a merchant sailor, a PE teacher engaged as a summer secretary, a rich playboy, an out-of-work detective, a respected doctor and a decorated War veteran. They are greeted on the island by the house's butler and cook, recently employed and who have also never met their employers in person. This makes ten on the island. 

Instructed to await their hosts, the guests drift off to their rooms and find framed copies of the nursery rhyme "Ten Little Soldiers" hanging on the wall. Discovering that their mysterious summoners will not arrive tonight, the guests make a start on their dinner. As they eat and drink, they relax and begin to discuss the oddities of the house and the strange circumstances of their visit. They notice ten little soldier figurines on the dining room table, probably to complement the framed nursery rhymes. After the guests have eaten (expertly served by the butler, competently prepared by the cook) the butler plays a gramophone recording, as instructed by his employer, while the guests are relaxing in the drawing room. Unexpectedly the recording contains a terrifyingly magnified voice that addresses each of the quaking visitors in turn and accuses each individual of having committed murder and evading justice. All are shocked by these revelations, and 9 of the 10 immediately offer a defence, an explanation as to why it wasn't murder. Having heard each other out, one of the guests (Anthony Marston, rich and beautiful, but kind of an ass) has a cheeky drink to help with the shock. Within seconds he chokes and dies, just like in the rhyme. One of the figurines from the table is gone. Then there were nine. 

The book continues in this way until there are, obviously, none- there are only so many accidents and apparent suicides that can occur in a 24 hour period before somebody smells a rat. Naturally, as the plot progresses, the reader finds out more about the remaining characters and the circumstances of the deaths that they are accused of causing. I loved how the increasingly small circle of guests get more and more suspicious of each other as they dwindle, full of doubt and hostility. The more assertive characters, the judge, for example, and the detective begin to analyse and deconstruct the deaths in search of a suspect, sifting through evidence, eliminating people from suspicion, or failing to eliminate them as the case may be. The power struggles and tensions that arise in a life or death pressure cooker environment are thrilling and really reveal a lot about human nature and people's behaviour under scrutiny. I was so certain I'd guessed whodunit, smugly proceeding to the final sections only to be confused, shocked, then realise I was oh so wrong.

Agatha Christie is not the best selling author of all time by accident. Her plots are so incredibly tight and polished beyond belief, her characters full of secrets and deceits.  She sets up her scenarios carefully and meticulously, then the reader is let loose to unravel the strands and try to make sense of what's happening. She's a masterful author that never reveals her hand until the end- when she does so spectacularly with a flourish. For a book that's 79 years old to still have plenty of twist left in its tale is something quite extraordinary. Yes the characters and locations are old fashioned, obviously, but these plots don't depend on technology or communications to work, so they never really feel old- jealousy, justice and judgement, three very important themes in this book have unravelled people for generations, so it still rings true. Very highly recommended

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