Tuesday, July 31, 2018

And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie

Book 8 of 100 from the Great American Read list.

In my early teens I read as many novels by Agatha Christie as I could get my hands on. I had spent my childhood reading Enid Blyton books from the 1930s and 40s, so the old fashioned language and archaic social attitudes were comfortably familiar to me. The public library had a seemingly endless supply of Agatha Christie books and although I never managed to read all of them, I think I’ve certainly read more than 20. Every one of these polite murder mysteries surprised me with the big reveal. Each time I thought I knew whodunnit, but then my choice of villain would end up as the third corpse. Over the years I’ve always believed that thirteen-year-old me must have been the perfect Agatha Christie reader.

Fast forward to today and I just reread And Then There Were None. Once again I happily devoured the book and once again my best guess at the murderer was still the third victim. Yes, even though I'd read it before.

In the interest of not spoiling an exceptional story, I will tell you only this. Ten strangers arrive on a remote island and are picked off one by one in the manner described by a morbid nursery rhyme. There’s a Colonel, a governess, an undercover cop, a few servants, a retired judge, a surgeon, a colonial sort, a religiously fanatical older woman and a playboy. The murderer could be any one of them.

And Then There Were None is widely believed to be Agatha Christie’s best book and she was justifiably proud of it. This is from her autobiography which was reprinted in the edition I read:

“It was well received and reviewed, but the person who was really pleased with it was myself, for I knew better than any critic how difficult it had been.”

I think it’s a wonderful book, maybe not a work of genius, but certainly a pleasure to read. The plotting is done on a knife edge where every second counts and every flourish of the murderer is exactly meaningful. The language is straightforward, which adds to the readability but underneath that simplicity are characters who are much more complex than the cliches they first appear to be. Meanwhile, the structure makes my head spin. Ten characters, each under equal suspicion must be satisfactorily introduced, suspected and killed. It’s quite an achievement.

Why is it on the list? Well it turns up on lots of lists of the best mystery books of all time and it usually ranks quite high. There’s this NPR poll from 2010, or you could trust the Mystery Writers of America. But the popularity of And Then There Were None is far from just an American phenomenon, the UK Crime Writers Association also rate it highly. According to Wikipedia it has sold over 100 million copies worldwide. And it’s been made into countless tv shows, movies and plays. This is a very popular book all over the world.

Have we found the perfect book to bridge the Atlantic? Well, there is a notable difference between the early UK and US editions, which bears some examination. When I first read this book as a teenager, it was called Ten Little Indians, the island was called Indian Island and the nursery rhyme was Ten Little Indians. But the earliest edition was even worse, in 1939 in the UK, the book was called Ten Little Niggers and the name of the island and the rhyme matched the title. The following comes from Wikipedia.

“Both of the original US publications changed the title from that originally used in the UK, due to the offensiveness of the word in American culture, where it was more widely perceived as a racially loaded ethnic slur or insult compared to contemporary UK culture, and because of the pejorative connotations of the original blackface rhyme.”

I often say that American racism is different to British racism and this is a perfect example. The term is simply more pejorative in America where it was widely used as an aggressive slur for so long that it's now a forbidden word. In the UK, it wasn't widely used that way until we learned about the usage from Americans. I'm not saying there isn't racism in the UK. For example blackface performances were popular on television until 1978.

And one last thing. Christie uses Americans as a shorthand for eccentric decadence. The previous owner of Soldier Island is an American millionaire whose parties are so extraordinary that the locals think nothing of cutting off shipments to the island as “an experiment in survival”. Americans are apparently wealthy, carefree and unpredictable. A national characterization which is still easily found in British literature to this day, even though it’s decades out of date and was never entirely true to begin with.

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