And Then There Were None is my first Agatha Christie novel, since I somehow managed to skip that time in fifth grade when everyone else was reading Murder on the Orient Express. I watched the movie Ten Little Indians (the 1965 film) when I was just a kid, and I grew up knowing that the movie was different, that in the book, everyone dies. Finally, this Christmas, armed with a B&N gift card, I bought myself a copy of this book and devoured it in one evening. Loved it.
The premise of the story is pretty well-known: an unknown person invites ten strangers to an island off the coast of Devon, where they are completely isolated from the mainland. Each person invited has one thing in common: they have all committed murder for which they went unpunished. One by one, the strangers are killed, and the only suspect for the murderer is one of them. The murders are carried out to fit within the poem “Ten Little Soldier Boys” by Frank Green.
“Ten little Indian boys went out to dine; One choked his little self and then there were nine.
Nine little Indian boys sat up very late; One overslept himself and then there were eight.
Eight little Indian boys travelling in Devon; One said he’d stay there and then there were seven.
Seven little Indian boys chopping up sticks; One chopped himself in halves and then there were six.
Six little Indian boys playing with a hive; A bumblebee stung one and then there were five.
Five little Indian boys going in for law; One got in Chancery and then there were four.
Four little Indian boys going out to sea; A red herring swallowed one and then there were three.
Three little Indian boys walking in the Zoo; A big bear hugged one and then there were two.
Two little Indian boys sitting in the sun; One got frizzled up and then there was one.
One little Indian boy left all alone; He went and hanged himself and then there were none.”
Slowly, as the group of people dwindles and the tension and terror runs at an all-time high, one character, Vera Claythorne, agonizes over the eighth clue, “Three little Indian boys walking the Zoo.” One character expresses his idea that the next murder can’t be true to form; after all, there’s no Zoo on the island. Vera responds with a shiver-inducing statement: “Don’t you see? We’re the Zoo…Last night, we were hardly human anymore. We’re the Zoo….”
Truly, the people on the island have been slowly stripped of their humanity due to overwhelming fear. They’re hardly human anymore and are capable of anything. It reminds me of The Lord of the Flies except much more…realistic. Vera Claythorpe, for example, committed the despicable act of allowing a child to drown so that her fiancé could inherit the boy’s estate. Vera was governess to the boy and gave him permission to swim too far, and pretended to swim in pursuit of him, all the while planning for his death.
Vera’s canny analysis of the dwindling humanity of herself and her peers is one of the most chilling aspects of this story. Humanity, the book asserts, is capable of murdering in cold blood, with careful planning, no regret, and often no retribution. But the book also asserts that committing murder and living in intense, harrowing fear of retribution strips you of your humanity, and it does. Vera and her peers are reduced to something much less noble than even the lowest animal. This is the capacity of humanity: unspeakable acts of cruelty and violence. But there is also justice, however skewed it may be.