Thoughts & Musings

Ten, Little Nine, Little Eight, Little . . .
Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None (1943)

© 2014 by Eileen Warburton

“The interest in the detective story is the dialectic of innocence and guilt.”
W.H. Auden

I am always staggered by the claim by the Agatha Christie estate that Dame Agatha’s books are the best-selling novels of all time, with her books–translated into at least 103 languages–selling about 4 billion copies thus far. (As of this writing, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books have only sold over 450 million, but then, she only got started in the late 1990s.) The claim is that, of the world’s most published books, Christie’s works rank third, right after the Bible and William Shakespeare. Now, The Bible is an epic story, a series of interconnected narratives, poems, tales of war and betrayals, romances, comedies, founding documents, and revelations. It’s full of distinct, very memorable characters dealing with extraordinary physical and psychological challenges. The language is rich and complex, rolling and resonant. And it has God as it’s central character. Shakespeare’s canon is also epic, a series of interrelated narratives, poems, tales of war and betrayals, romances, comedies, founding documents, and revelations. It’s full of distinct, very memorable characters dealing with extraordinary physical and psychological challenges. The language is rich and complex, rolling and resonant. And, as far as I’m concerned, Shakespeare IS God.

So. Agatha Christie?

Agatha Christie’s novels, plays, and stories are a completely different experience. They are deft puzzles, extremely well-crafted. The language is straightforward and accessible. The characters are stereotypes, although most of them harbor some dark secret or guilt from their past. They are classic whodunit? Stories, made more intriguing by Christie’s originality in creating the how-did-they-do-it? part of the experience. Christie was the mistress of that type of detective story called the “cozy.” In the cozy formula, a group of people are brought together in a closed, inescapable setting in which a murder is committed. There’s no sex and really no graphic violence. Characters are broadly drawn and often a bit eccentric. On the surface, the characters seem to be innocent, but none of them are as they appear. The mystery is solved—usually by an amateur detective—by observation of clues and psychological revelations of the various pasts of the characters.

Christie was certainly aware that she was working within an established narrative formula and she delighted in building surprises into the well-known structure of the cozy mystery. She loved to violate the expectations of the reader or audience and her plot twists were legendary: a narrator who turns out to be the killer (The Murder of Roger Ackroyd), an entire trainload of passengers, seemingly strangers, who are all revealed guilty in a complicated conspiracy (Murder on the Orient Express), or the neat shift of characters (The Mousetrap) wherein the detective is not at all what he seems to be.

But this story, And Then There Were None, was Christie’s puzzle-making masterpiece and the one of which she was most proud. She set herself the challenge of fulfilling the old nursery tune (originally a 1868 minstrel show song by Septimus Winner) and writing an enclosed cozy mystery in which there is no detective, everybody is murdered, nobody survives, and someone in the group has to be the killer. The book on which the play is based was written in 1939. As she declared in her autobiography: “I wrote the book after a tremendous amount of planning, and I was pleased with what I made of it.” Ten characters are lured to a mysterious island and isolated by geography and weather conditions. They are all accused by a recorded voice of intentionally causing death. One by one they are picked off in a manner consistent with the old song, “Ten Little Injuns” (here, Ten Little Soldiers). Red herrings abound. All the characters are consumed with terror and suspicion of each other. Who pulled it off? How? And why? Who is next?!

The one overlap between Agatha Christie’s story and some of the Biblical tales and Shakespearean tales of her nearest rivals is an obsession with justice as the core virtue to be pursued. All the characters imprisoned on the island are people complicit in a death. But they either escaped justice or committed an act that could not be subjected to legal sanctions. They are guilty—not of anything illegal—but of sins of omission, of taking advantage of the vulnerable, of bending the rules, of being petty, mean, and selfish, of deliberately looking the other way. As often in Christie’s work, someone decides to play God and mete out justice. We, the audience/readers, can’t be too distressed by these murders in which the guilty get their due. Yet, Christie’s eye-for-an-eye justice sometimes feels harsh and arrogant.

Agatha Christie’s life (1890 – 1978) was filled with adventure and intrigue that mirrored her fictional world. Although her American father died when she was only 11, she had had a happy childhood in a wealthy, upper-middleclass family in Devon, England. All those fine country estates and snug English villages in her novels were her natural milieu. She was tutored at home, well travelled, and socially comfortable. During World War I, Agatha volunteered as a nurse, as she would volunteer in a hospital pharmacy during World War II, experiences that taught her the lethal possibilities of poisons.

After World War I, she set out to become a writer. After a few false starts, by 1920 she had published her first detective novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, introducing the inimitable Hercule Poirot. Aside from 6 romances published under a pen name, Christy is remembered and revered for her 66 detective novels, 15 short story collections, and, of course, the longest running stage play in all human history, The Mousetrap (62 years!). She is the only writer to have introduced not one but two immortal amateur detective characters, Poirot and Miss Marple.

She married twice, first to the glamorous airman Archie Christie, who left her for their secretary 12 years later. This trauma provoked the fascinating and never-solved riddle of Agatha’s sensational disappearance for 11 days. In the international hue and cry, no less than Dorothy Sayers and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (who used a spirit medium) were consulted. When, eventually, Agatha was located in a small hospital in Yorkshire there were (and remain) conflicting explanations. Did she have a nervous breakdown accompanied by amnesia? Was it a vengeful plot to publicly embarrass her husband and his mistress? Or was it a publicity stunt to raise book sales? It’s still an unsolved case.

Agatha’s enduring second marriage (1930) was to a highly distinguished archaeologist, Max Mallowan, who was 14 years her junior. The Mallowans in fact, became one of the few couples in British history where both spouses eventually were knighted independently for their contributions to the nation. During the long, happy relationship, Christie spent months with hands on, actively engaged in the dust and dirt of archaeological digs around the world—sites that later appeared in her novels.

Her work was recognized and rewarded from first to last. She won many awards, including the Mystery Writers of America Grand Master and the Edgar Allen Poe Award, and was made a Commander of the British Empire in 1956 and a Dame of the British Empire, by Queen Elizabeth II personally, in 1971. There is even a distinguished literary prize named for her, the Agatha, awarded to mystery and crime writers who work cozily in Christy’s detective vein.

The opinions expressed by the writer are not necessarily those of 2nd Story Theatre.

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