Country United Kingdom
Publisher Collins Crime Club
|Original title Ten Little Niggers|
|Genre mystery, crime, psychological thriller|
And Then There Were None is a mystery novel by English writer Agatha Christie, widely considered her masterpiece and described by her as the most difficult of her books to write. It was first published in the United Kingdom by the Collins Crime Club on 6 November 1939, as Ten Little Niggers, after the British blackface song, which serves as a major plot point. The US edition was not released until December 1939; its American reprints and adaptations were all retitled And Then There Were None, the last five words in the nursery rhyme ("Ten Little Indians").
- Plot summary
- Publication and title English language
- Publication and title non English languages
- Literary significance and reception
- Other media
In the novel, a group of people are lured into coming to an island under different pretexts, e.g., offers of employment, to enjoy a late summer holiday, or to meet old friends. All have been complicit in the deaths of other human beings, but either escaped justice or committed an act that was not subject to legal sanction. The guests and two servants who are present are "charged" with their respective "crimes" by a gramophone recording after dinner the first night, and informed that they have been brought to the island to pay for their actions. They are the only people on the island, and cannot escape due to the distance from the mainland and the inclement weather, and gradually all ten are killed in turn, each in a manner that seems to parallel the deaths in the nursery rhyme. Nobody else seems to be left alive on the island by the time of the apparent last death. A confession, in the form of a postscript to the novel, unveils how the killings took place and who was responsible.
It is Christie's best-selling novel; with more than 100 million copies sold, it is also the world's best-selling mystery and one of the best-selling books of all time. Publications International lists the novel as the seventh best-selling title.
On a hot, late August day sometime in the late 1930s, eight people arrive on a small, isolated island off the Devon coast of England. Each appears to have an invitation tailored to his or her personal circumstances, such as an offer of employment or an unexpected late summer holiday. They are met by Thomas and Ethel Rogers, the butler and cook/housekeeper, who state that their hosts, Mr Ulick Norman Owen and his wife Mrs Una Nancy Owen, have, oddly, not yet arrived.
A framed copy of a nursery rhyme, "Ten Little Niggers" (called "Ten Little Indians" or "Ten Little Soldiers" in later editions), hangs in every guest's room, and ten figurines sit on the dining room table. After supper, a gramophone (or "phonograph") record is played; it contains a recording that describes each visitor in turn, accuses each of having committed murder but escaping justice, and then asks if any of "the accused" wishes to offer a defence. All but Anthony Marston and Philip Lombard deny the charges, and Miss Brent refuses to discuss the matter with men present.
They discover that none of them actually knows the Owens and conclude that the name "U.N. Owen" is shorthand for "Unknown". In the aftermath of the recording, Marston finishes his drink and immediately dies from cyanide poisoning. The remaining guests notice that one of the ten figurines is now broken, and the nursery rhyme appears to reflect the manner of death ("One choked his little self and then there were nine").
The next morning, Mrs Rogers' corpse is found in her bed; she had died in her sleep from an overdose of chloral hydrate. By lunchtime, General MacArthur is found dead, from a heavy blow to his head. Two more figurines are found to be broken, and again the deaths parallel the rhyme. Miss Brent relates the account of her presumed charge to Vera Claythorne, the only other remaining woman.
A search for "Mr Owen" shows that nobody else is on the island except the remaining seven. The island is a "bare rock" with no hiding places, and no one could have arrived or left; thus, they uncomfortably conclude that any one of the seven remaining persons is the killer. Justice Wargrave leads the group in determining that as of yet, none of them can definitively be ruled out as the murderer. The next morning, Rogers is found dead while chopping wood, and after breakfast, Miss Brent is found dead in the kitchen, where she had been left alone after complaining of feeling unwell; she had been injected with potassium cyanide via a hypodermic needle.
Wargrave then suggests searching all the rooms, and any potentially dangerous items they can think of are locked up. However, Philip Lombard's gun is missing from his room. When Vera goes upstairs to take a bath, she is shocked by the touch of seaweed left hanging from the ceiling of her room and screams; the remaining guests rush upstairs to her room. Wargrave, however, is still downstairs. The others find him seated, immobile and crudely dressed up in the attire of a judge. Wargrave is examined briefly by Dr Armstrong and pronounced dead from a gunshot to the forehead.
That night, Lombard appears surprised when he finds his gun returned to his room. Blore catches a glimpse of someone leaving the house but loses the trail. He then discovers Armstrong is absent from his room, and the remaining three guests conclude that Armstrong must be the killer. Vera, Blore, and Lombard decide to stay together at all times. In the morning, they unsuccessfully attempt to signal SOS to the mainland from outside by using a mirror and sunlight. Blore then decides to return to the house for food by himself — the others are not hungry — and is killed by a heavy bear-shaped clock statue that is pushed from Vera's window sill, crushing his skull.
Vera and Lombard are now confident that Armstrong is the killer. However, shortly afterwards, the duo come upon Armstrong's body washed up on the beach, which they do not immediately recognize due to decomposition. They both realise he could not have killed Blore. Panicked, each concludes the other must be the killer.
Quickly regaining her composure, Vera suggests moving the doctor's body past the shore, but this is a pretext. She manages to lift Lombard's gun. When Lombard lunges at her to get it back, she shoots and kills him. She returns to the house in a shaken dreamlike state, relieved to be alive. She finds a noose and chair arranged in her room, and a strong smell of the sea. With visions of her former lover, Hugo, urging her on, in a post-traumatic state, she adjusts the noose and kicks the chair out from under her.
Two Scotland Yard officials are puzzled by the identity of U.N. Owen. Although they can reconstruct the deaths from Marston to Wargrave with the help of the victims' diaries and a coroner's careful report, they are forced to conclude that "U.N. Owen" was one of the victims, but are unable to determine which one. They note that the chair on which Vera stood to hang herself had been set back upright, indicating that someone — presumably the killer — was still alive on the island after her suicide.
In a postscript, a fishing ship picks up a bottle inside its trawling nets; the bottle contains a written confession of the killings, which is then sent to Scotland Yard. It is not mentioned how long after the killings the bottle was discovered.
In the confession, Justice Wargrave states that he has long wished to set an unsolvable puzzle of murder, but is morally limited to victims who are themselves guilty and deserving of such an end. He explains how he tricked the gullible Armstrong into helping him fake his own death under the pretext that it would supposedly to give him freedom to help the group identify the killer, and also explains that after Vera died, he replaced the chair in her room neatly against the wall, and used the gun and some elastic to ensure his own death matched the account in the guests' diaries. Although he wished to create an unsolvable mystery, he acknowledges in the missive a "pitiful human" need for recognition, hence the confession.
He also describes how his first chronological victim was actually Isaac Morris, the sleazy lawyer and drugs trafficker who anonymously purchased the island and arranged the invitations on his behalf. Morris was poisoned before Wargrave departed for the island. Wargrave's intention is that when the police arrive they will find ten bodies, with evidence that someone had been alive after each death, but nobody else on the island, and no way to trace the killer through his invitations or preparations. He states that, although there are three clues that could guide the police to the correct killer, he is confident they will be unable to do so and that the mystery will remain unsolved until the confession is retrieved.
The following details of the characters are based on the original novel. Backstories, backgrounds, and names vary with differing international adaptations, based on censorship, cultural norms, etc.
Wargrave was able to trace Vera with this information, and lure her to the island. In the penultimate scene of the novel, she manages to take Lombard's gun, and shoot him dead in what she believed was self-defence. She returns to the house, relieved she has survived. When she goes to her room, she finds a readied noose, complete with chair beneath it, suspended from a hook hanging from the ceiling. She, in what Wargrave, hidden from her sight, describes first hand as a post-traumatic state, sees and hears Hugo, her former lover, encouraging her. She adjusts the noose round her neck and kicks the chair away, fulfilling the rhyme's final verse ("One little Soldier Boy left all alone; He went out and hanged himself and then there were none.")
Publication and title: English language
The novel was originally published in 1939 and early 1940 almost simultaneously, in the United Kingdom and the United States. In the UK it appeared under the title Ten Little Niggers, in book and newspaper serialised formats. The serialisation was in 23 parts in the Daily Express from Tuesday 6 June to Saturday 1 July 1939. All of the instalments carried an illustration by "Prescott" with the first having an illustration of Burgh Island in Devon which inspired the setting of the story. The serialised version did not contain any chapter divisions. The book retailed for seven shillings and six pence.
In the United States it was published under the title And Then There Were None, again in both book and serial formats. 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. The serialised version appeared in the Saturday Evening Post in seven parts from 20 May (Volume 211, Number 47) to 1 July 1939 (Volume 212, Number 1) with illustrations by Henry Raleigh, and the book was published in January 1940 by Dodd, Mead and Company for $2.
In the original UK novel all references to "Indians" or "Soldiers" were originally "Nigger", including the island's name, the pivotal rhyme found by the visitors, and the ten figurines. (In Chapter 7, Vera Claythorne becomes semi-hysterical at the mention by Miss Brent of "our black brothers", which is understandable only in the context of the original name.) The word "Nigger" was already racially offensive in the United States by the start of the 20th century, and therefore the book's first US edition and first serialization changed the title to And Then There Were None and removed all references to the word from the book, as did the 1945 motion picture.
The book and its adaptations have since been released under various new names since the original publication, including Ten Little Indians (1946 play, Broadway performance and 1964 paperback book), Ten Little Soldiers and – the most widely used today – And Then There Were None. UK editions continued to use the work's original title until the 1980s; the first UK edition to use the alternative title And Then There Were None appeared in 1985 with a reprint of the 1963 Fontana Paperback.
Publication and title: non-English languages
The original title (Ten Little Niggers) still survives in a few foreign-language versions of the novel, such as the Bulgarian title Десет малки негърчета, and was used in other languages for a time, for example in the Dutch publication until the 18th edition of 1994. The title Ten Little Negroes continues to be commonly used in foreign-language versions, for example in Spanish, Greek, Serbian, Romanian, French and Hungarian, as well as a 1987 Russian film adaptation Десять негритят (Desyat Negrityat). In 1999, the Slovak National Theatre staged the play under its original title but changed to A napokon nezostal už nik (And Then There Were None) mid-run.
Literary significance and reception
And Then There Were None is one of Agatha Christie's best-known mysteries, widely considered her masterpiece and described by her as the most difficult of her books to have written. Writing for The Times Literary Supplement of 11 November 1939, Maurice Percy Ashley stated, "If her latest story has scarcely any detection in it there is no scarcity of murders... There is a certain feeling of monotony inescapable in the regularity of the deaths which is better suited to a serialized newspaper story than a full-length novel. Yet there is an ingenious problem to solve in naming the murderer", he continued. "It will be an extremely astute reader who guesses correctly."
Many other reviews were also complimentary; in The New York Times Book Review (25 February 1940), Isaac Anderson detailed the set-up of the plot up to the point where "the voice" accuses the ten "guests" of their past crimes or sins, which have all resulted in the deaths of other human beings, and then said, "When you read what happens after that you will not believe it, but you will keep on reading, and as one incredible event is followed by another even more incredible you will still keep on reading. The whole thing is utterly impossible and utterly fascinating. It is the most baffling mystery that Agatha Christie has ever written, and if any other writer has ever surpassed it for sheer puzzlement the name escapes our memory. We are referring, of course, to mysteries that have logical explanations, as this one has. It is a tall story, to be sure, but it could have happened."
Such was the quality of Christie's work on this book that many compared it to her novel The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926). For instance, an unnamed reviewer in the Toronto Daily Star of 16 March 1940 said, "Others have written better mysteries than Agatha Christie, but no one can touch her for ingenious plot and surprise ending. With And Then There Were None... she is at her most ingenious and most surprising... is, indeed, considerably above the standard of her last few works and close to the Roger Ackroyd level."
Other critics laud the use of plot twists and surprise endings. Maurice Richardson wrote a rhapsodic review in The Observer's issue of 5 November 1939 which began, "No wonder Agatha Christie's latest has sent her publishers into a vatic trance. We will refrain, however, from any invidious comparisons with Roger Ackroyd and be content with saying that Ten Little Niggers is one of the very best, most genuinely bewildering Christies yet written. We will also have to refrain from reviewing it thoroughly, as it is so full of shocks that even the mildest revelation would spoil some surprise from somebody, and I am sure that you would rather have your entertainment kept fresh than criticism pure." After stating the set-up of the plot, Richardson concluded, "Story telling and characterisation are right at the top of Mrs Christie's baleful form. Her plot may be highly artificial, but it is neat, brilliantly cunning, soundly constructed, and free from any of those red-herring false trails which sometimes disfigure her work."
Robert Barnard, a recent critic, concurred with the reviews, describing the book as "Suspenseful and menacing detective-story-cum-thriller. The closed setting with the succession of deaths is here taken to its logical conclusion, and the dangers of ludicrousness and sheer reader-disbelief are skillfully avoided. Probably the best-known Christie, and justifiably among the most popular."
The original title of the mystery (Ten Little Niggers) has long been abandoned as offensive in English-speaking countries and a number of others. Some critics have opined that Christie's original title and the setting on "Nigger Island" (later changed to "Indian Island" and "Soldier Island", variously) may be integral to the work. These aspects of the novel, argues Alison Light, "could be relied upon automatically to conjure up a thrilling 'otherness', a place where revelations about the 'dark side' of the English would be appropriate." Unlike novels such as Heart of Darkness, "Christie's location is both more domesticated and privatised, taking for granted the construction of racial fears woven into psychic life as early as the nursery. If her story suggests how easy it is to play upon such fears, it is also a reminder of how intimately tied they are to sources of pleasure and enjoyment."
In the "Binge!" article of Entertainment Weekly Issue #1343-44 (26 December 2014–3 January 2015), the writers picked And Then There Were None as an "EW favorite" on the list of the "Nine Great Christie Novels".
And Then There Were None has had more adaptations than any other single work by Agatha Christie. They often used Christie's alternative ending from her 1943 stage play, and frequently changed the setting to locations other than an island.
There have been numerous film adaptations of the novel, some comedic. Examples include:
Several variations of the original novel were adapted for television. There have been three different British adaptations: two by the BBC (in 1949 and 2015), and an ITV adaptation in 1959.
And Then There Were None (miniseries) (airdates 26–28 December 2015), is a BBC One adaptation based on the original novel. This was the first English language film adaptation to feature an ending similar to that of the original novel.
The Adventure Company released the video game Agatha Christie: And Then There Were None in 2005, the first in a series of PC games based on Christie novels. In February 2008, it was ported to the Wii console. The identity of the murderer is not that of the killer in the original book. The game player assumes the role of Patrick Naracott (brother of Fred Naracott, who is involved in a newly created subplot), who is stranded with the others when his boat is scuttled. This allows for alternate, more successful endings in which Naracott survives and is able to prevent the murders of the innocent Lombard and Claythorne. All endings depart markedly from the novel and previous adaptations in that the killer and motives are different.
And Then There Were None was released by HarperCollins as a graphic novel adaptation on 30 April 2009, adapted by François Rivière and illustrated by Frank Leclercq.
Peká Editorial released a board game based on the book, created by Judit Hurtado and Fernando Chavarría, and illustrated by Esperanza Peinado.
In Anthony Horowitz's detective series, The Diamond Brothers, the case I Know What You Did Last Wednesday pays homage to And Then There Were None; protagonist Nick Diamond accompanies his brother Tim to a school reunion on a lonely island where the various guests start dying in a manner that reflects back to a subject that they came first in at school (the person who came first in chemistry is poisoned, the one who came first in geography is crushed by a globe, etc.), with the killer revealed at the conclusion to be a former schoolfriend who came second in everything.
Sierra's Laura Bow adventure game has a similar plot, inspired by the novel, where some (although innocent) people are murdered by some serial killer which is also found dead before their true identity is revealed.