Spoiler Warning: This post contains more information about the book’s plot than I normally would include but I felt unable to discuss some important issues without incorporating this. Naturally though I do not give away the ending.
Most discussions of Agatha Christie’s AND THEN THERE WERE NONE include the words masterpiece and best known work. I’m prepared to go with the majority on the first point but personal belief and my in-no-way-scientific ‘research’ (I asked a bunch of friends and acquaintances) suggests the second point might be bunkum.
At least in the introduction to the edition I read this time around Agatha Christie is reported to have said AND THEN THERE WERE NONE was her most difficult book to write. I can believe it. At its broadest level the plot is absurd and could easily have crossed the line from genuinely puzzling to preposterously stupid but Christie knew when to use bravado and when to be restrained so the story holds together remarkably well considering its intricacies. And it holds up too, only showing a few minor signs of its 75+ years.
Its premise is that 10 people are enticed to an island off the Devon coast with the promise of a job or a getaway or a catch-up with old acquaintances. After dinner on their first night they learn, via a sound recording made especially for the occasion, the real reason they are all there. Each is accused of having escaped justice for at least one death they have been responsible for in their past and they are now being called to account for their actions. No one takes the opportunity provided to speak in their own defence and shortly thereafter the weirdness kicks up a notch. Anthony Marston is the first person to die, after freely admitting that he killed two children while driving and revealing that his only feeling about the matter was annoyance at his loss of driving privileges. This first death is not immediately connected to the strange recording but when the bodies start piling up those left realise they are being knocked off one-by-one, each in a manner reminiscent of a nursery rhyme that is hanging in all the bedrooms.
One of the reasons I don’t think AND THEN THERE WERE NONE is Christie’s best known work is that if it were there would be less people – many of them other crime writers – who sniffily pigeonhole her as nothing more than a creator of ‘cosy’ logic puzzles. The book is neither ‘just’ a logic puzzle and there’s nothing cosy about it.
This story is seriously dark. Not just because there are a lot of deaths both on and off stage, many of them brutal, but because of its central theme. Christie has explored in depth the notion that all sorts of people are capable of murder, not only gangsters and n’er do wells. What’s more, the book posits, they don’t always need a terribly compelling reason to murder and are not always consumed by subsequent guilt. Not a single one of her alleged murderers has acted out of the ‘do anything to protect a loved-one’ kind of necessity. It’s all self-interest, revenge and greed here. One of the murders is often said to have been committed for love but I don’t buy it. Vera Claythorne, who contrives things so that the young boy for whom she is governess drowns in order for her own beau to inherit a fortune and marry her, is as callously self-absorbed as the rest of them.
Vera is among those characters who stick around long enough to slowly reveal the truth of their past actions. Some are brazenly unapologetic, some unwilling to ever admit wrongdoing, others become haunted by their actions. Though there is precious little you’d recognise as remorse even if a couple of characters do accept the inevitability of paying for what they have done. In short, this is as grim a picture of humanity as you’ll find between the pages of a book.
Cosy author my arse.
The book is more than a logic puzzle too though of course that element exists. But what strikes me about the plot is how much it goes against the conventions of the genre that Christie herself helped establish. There’s no benign central character who readers can be sure is innocent: everyone we meet is equally plausible as a suspect and a victim. And each of them is equally unsympathetic so the reader is not enticed to become invested in the safety of one person over another. Also, at some point before the end it becomes clear that there is no help on the way from outside: if anyone is to survive the murderous rampage salvation will have to come from within the group. Honestly it’s more Lord of the Flies than the upper crust drawing rooms that Christie is more typically associated with.
In one key respect AND THEN THERE WERE NONE is similar to another of Christie’s novels, MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS. Both tackle the subject of justice interestingly, eschewing the accepted societal norms for its dispensation. Here the subject is perhaps explored more deeply as various characters are depicted as having taken actions that would be difficult to pin down as criminal, however immoral they may be, but justice – or someone’s version of it – is applied equally. It’s a pretty subversive theme for a book written in 1938, and first published only shortly before the outbreak of WWII in 1939.
I’m not the world’s most ardent fan of Agatha Christie but I do find it depressing when people dismiss her many contributions to the genre I love, though I like to think it’s because they just haven’t read the right one of her books. It is to those people I most heartily recommend AND THEN THERE WERE NONE because it isn’t what most of you think. It’s psychologically dark and rivals any hard-boiled story you can name for sheer brutality. It’s a bloody good read too.
Although adapted by Christie herself for the stage (annoyingly with a more positive tone) and several times for the big screen there has not been a television adaptation of AND THERE WERE NONE until the BBC decided to have a go in 2015. Given the enormous success of Christie’s work featuring series characters in TV adaptation form the only surprising thing about this is that they waited so long.
Airing as three one-hour episodes first in the UK during Christmas 2015 this joint British-American production falls into the faithful adaptation camp. It uses all the character names (unlike the best known of the films from 1945 which randomly changes about half of them) and much of the dialogue from the book. There are some plot alterations but these are generally insignificant and mainly speak to the differences between visual and written storytelling though there are a couple of anachronisms that stem from viewing this story in its historical context in a way that Christie could not have done at the time.
Despite its faithfulness the adaptation has a sensibility closer to Gothic horror than classic whodunit, chiefly brought about by the setting. The isolated island with its lonely and understated stately mansion and almost nothing growing on it is perfect, as is the fact the skies are always grey and even in wide shots there is a suffocating feeling to the place. Any sensible person would have taken one look and turned their boat around immediately.
The ensemble cast is collectively very good with no one attempting to garner more attention than their character demands which is not always easy when some exit the stage very early in proceedings. Noah Taylor as the house’s butler (also one of the 10 condemned who is said to have withheld vital medication from a previous employer which led to her death) and Charles Dance as a judge who allegedly committed an innocent man to hang are particularly creepy. In the best possible way of course. And Maeve Dermody as does a superb job as the hyper-emotional Vera Claythorne descending into a form of madness as the numbers of fellow ‘guests’ dwindles worryingly.
The only part of the whole thing I wasn’t really sold on was the ending which is quite different from the original even though the matters of who and how are not altered. I suppose it’s a bit difficult to make letter writing visually dramatic but I think there were probably ways to pull off something closer to the intent of the original than the mastermind revealing themselves to one of the victims as happens here.
I’d give the nod to the book but only by the slimmest of margins as the adaptation really is great, especially in the way it draws out the story’s horror elements. Why not read the book and watch the adaptation?
Have you read the book and/or seen this adaptation? Agree or disagree with me? Have I missed something vital? Have you seen any of the stage or film adaptations?