Image Credit: St. Martin’s Press, 2004
It felt only fitting that October’s book of the month be a scary one: a thriller, a ghost story, a horror, a murder mystery - something along those lines. The only problem with that, is that I am a complete wuss. A good old-fashioned scardy-cat who would ordinarily avoid the aforementioned genres like the plague.
But I decided early last month that in the name of research I would pull myself together (and brace myself for a few nights of sleeping with the lights on) and spend the month of September attempting as many creepy books as my nerves could handle.
I am both pleased and surprised to report that for the most part I enjoyed my little venture. And that after weighing up several options I settled on the murder-mystery classic from the ‘Queen of Crime’ herself Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None to be October’s book of the month.
This selection, I did not realise at the time, is in fact a fairly predictable one as despite having been published eighty years ago And Then There Were None is not only Christie’s most popular work but is also the world’s best-selling mystery novel of all time.
Set on ‘Soldier Island’ just off the coast of Devon in the 1930s, the novel begins with ten strangers from across the country being invited, each under different circumstances, to come and stay a few nights on the one property on this small island.
It isn’t really until after dinner on their first night on the island however, that the guests begin to wonder whether the real reason for their invitation may be different from what they had been led to believe. With their host still yet to materialise, when one of the ten drops dead just after dinner and with no way of the islanders contacting the main land it begins to seem there may be something more untoward at hand.
‘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.’ These are the first two lines of a nursery rhyme framed in each of the guests’ rooms on the island. When they wake the following morning to find another of the ten has died overnight it is not long before one suggests that the deaths may be following this nursery rhymes’ pattern.
Which then raises the crucial question of: if these deaths can no longer be viewed as coincidental than who on the island is orchestrating these murders and why? Or perhaps more importantly still, what will happen when they reach the last line of this framed rhyme ‘and then there were none’.
Yet what interested me most about this novel was not the creepy nursery rhymes or trying to guess who the murderer was (something I must admit I was nowhere near guessing) but the broader themes this novel covers of guilt, punishment, justice and class. What Christie explores in And Then There Were None is more than how to write a novel with a death in almost every chapter without it becoming ridiculous or the murderer obvious, but the subjective nature of what a crime and indeed a criminal is. Who is it in society who decides what actions deserve to be punished and what an appropriate level of punishment should be? And with these lines being so arbitrarily drawn how does guilt manifest itself not just in the eyes of the law but on a personal level too.
Reading this novel eighty years after its publication these issues of subjectivity in the justice system are still extremely relevant. A theme of this book that’s relevance does not have the same longevity however, is that of the classism and manners of the 1930s. The way the guests on the island insist on formally dining, being waited on and maintaining social graces even after they have just carried a dead body up the stairs is almost comical from a 21st century perspective. It seems that social graces will stop for no man, or corpse for that matter, and so it serves as a sign that things are really getting bad when by chapter thirteen the manners are beginning to slip and ‘all of them, suddenly, looked less like human beings. They were reverting to more bestial types.’
I could write about this book for days. About these themes that are eerier than any description of a murder could ever be. About how I could not for the life of me guess who the murderer was going to be and how this thwarted any potential plans I had of joining Scotland Yard post-graduation. But what is probably the greatest endorsement I could give this, or in fact any book, is that I read it in a day. A rare event for me and a sure sign of how much I enjoyed it. At only 264 pages, I won’t flatter myself by pretending this was any great feat, so if you’ve got a spare Sunday coming up this month or perhaps a long train journey I would recommend indulging in some seasonal-scaring-yourself and giving And Then There Were None a go.