224 pages, HarperCollins
Review by Pat Black
Welcome to the original slasher movie.
Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None is the most popular murder mystery of all time, having sold a reputed 100 million copies. To put that in perspective, The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper album has shifted about 32 million.
It’s not a Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot book, which is a foreboding prospect straight away. There’s no-one to root for, no quirky sleuth gathering clues - simply a cast list of suspects. And more chillingly still, they’re all guilty in their own right, people with murky pasts and weighty consciences.
Sometimes Christie’s novels can be jolly hockeysticks affairs, even when they’re concerned with bloody murder. But this one has an especially dark side.
Ten people are gathered at the remote Soldier Island at the invitation of “Mr and Mrs UN Owen” – and seriously, folks, if you ever fall for that one, you probably deserve all you get. After following some instructions they play a gramophone record in which a scary voice accuses them all of murder. They are then confronted by the sight of ten mocked-up toy figurines corresponding to the nursery rhyme in the title (revised, redacted or otherwise). Worse still, they’re all stuck where they are, after the ferry doesn’t show up.
Everyone does have a secret. In some cases the characters have been responsible for outright murder. In others, they’re guilty due to negligence, professional or otherwise. There seems to be no connection between them, and nothing connecting their guilt to the island.
Soon, they begin to die. There are poisonings, shootings, bludgeoning, drownings, and fire-axings, each death a gruesome re-enactment of the lines in the nursery rhyme. The idea of a creepy killer, UN Owen, roaming the island, unseen, bumping them off, is scary enough. But added to that is the even more frightening idea of the killer being one of the guests on the island.
With each death, the paranoia, suspicion and fear intensifies. What is the secret of Soldier Island? Who could be behind the murders? With little to go on and no-one to trust, the remaining islanders attempt to piece it together, before the killer wipes them all out.
Is it General Macarthur, the war hero, guilty of despatching his wife’s lover on a suicide mission? Or maybe it’s Vera the governess, tortured by guilt after a little boy in her care drowned? Or how about the mercenary Philip Lombard, whose actions led to an entire tribe dying in more tropical climes?
Retired copper William Blore had a man falsely sent to prison after being bribed – a man who later died. And then there’s hanging judge Mr Justice Wargrave, a man with a fondness for liberally applying the death penalty.
Mr and Mrs Rodgers, the housekeepers, have a deadly secret of their own, having helped a former employer into an early grave. The dashing Tony Marston has innocent blood on his hands, having run over two children while drunk. Alcohol also plays a part in the past of the Harley Street doctor Armstrong, who operated on a client while drunk, with fatal consequences. And then there’s ultra-moral, ultra-uptight Emily Brent, whose convictions led to a luckless young lass taking her own life.
All guilty after a fashion.
If the conventions of the story seem familiar, it’s because they have been replicated in every single slasher/giallo film you’ve ever seen. UN Owen spills blood, leaves bodies behind and spreads terror. You can see his or her influence in the Friday the 13th, Halloween and Scream films - especially in the latter, where there’s a strong whodunnit element. And the claustrophobia and sense of isolation in sci-fi thrillers Alien and The Thing have their dripping, tentacley roots in Agatha Christie’s masterpiece. Even if you’ve never read a single murder mystery before, you should seek this one out.