And Then There Were None
by Agatha Christie (1939)
William Morrow (2011)
247 pp

I first read And Then There Were None (not its original or even second title) in the fall of 2016. It was thrilling — how do these poor people go to their rooms alone at night to try to get some sleep? — and I found the themes particularly intriguing. I read it again a couple of years later, read it to my two oldest kids in 2022, and I just read it again for a book group. I haven’t tired of it and could read it again now.

Why is that? It isn’t the characters, who are for the most part unlovable and, to be honest, function to keep the puzzle going, though I do think Christie manages to capture them clearly and with such distinction it’s always clear who’s speaking and where they are coming from. It isn’t, at least these last few times, the mystery itself, since I know well how everything goes. I think it’s the setting, the sense of dread the builds so beautifully, the Dantesque game at the heart of the murders, and the masterful way Christie pieces it all together into a tiny little puzzle box.

Ten people who don’t know each other (other than a husband and wife who are hired to serve the others) are invited to a barren island off the coast of Devon. On that island is a single, beautifully modern home. Each guest has been invited for different purposes, but their hosts are absent. Their escort to the island turned around right after dropping them off and took the boats back to the mainland, so there is no way to simply turn around and leave. Each might be a bit frustrated to have come all this way, without entirely knowing why, only to have to wait longer with a bunch of strangers to find out. However, clearly stuck, at least until someone comes to fetch them, they each, with varying degrees of acceptance and good will, settle in and enjoy the hospitality as evening falls. The isolated setting, with the promise of cozy comfort, appeals to me. Throw in the dread and I’m all for it.

That dread slowly builds along with a realization that they are getting picked off one at a time. After a threatening record is played, accusing each of them of a crime they swear they didn’t commit, one drops dead. It’s disturbing, but no one quite believes things are truly bad. Maybe the person choked, or, when it’s clear it was poison, committed suicide. But then, as a storm comes in and makes the sea too dangerous for any help to cross, more of them start dying in ways that dispel any illusions of a medical malady or suicide.

To make matters worse — if possible — it also becomes clear they are in the hands of someone having a delightful time of it. Each of them has, in their room, a children’s nursery rhyme that goes like this:

Ten little soldier boys went out to dine;
One choked his little self and then there were Nine.

Nine little soldier boys sat up very late;
One overslept himself and then there were Eight.

Eight little soldier boys travelling in Devon;
One said he’d stay there and then there were Seven.

Seven little soldier Bbys chopping up sticks;
Oe chopped himself in halves and then there were Six.

Six little soldier boys playing with a hive;
A bumblebee stung one and then there were Five.

Five little soldier boys going in for law;
One got in Chancery and then there were Four.

Four little soldier boys going out to sea;
A red herring swallowed one and then there were Three.

Three little soldier boys walking in the Zoo;
A big bear hugged one and then there were Two.

Two little soldier boys sitting in the sun;
One got frizzled up and there there was One.

One little soldier boys left all alone;
He went and hanged himself

And then there were none.

How would realizing that each death is foretold in a common nurse rhyme affect one. That must be part of the intrigue for the person who concocted this diabolical scheme. But is there another purpose to the madness? I am continually in awe at how Christie put it together in a way that keeps me hooked even when I know what’s coming.

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