Ten Little Niggers by Agatha Christie

I wondered when I began to write this post whether to use the current title, And Then There Were None, for this book, but chose to use its original title, Ten Little Niggers as that is the title of my copy, a 1968 reprint of its first publication in the UK in 1939. Because of its offensive title it was first published in the US a few months later in 1940 as And Then There Were None.

Ten Little Niggers

Description from the back cover:

10 people are invited to a fabulous mansion on Nigger Island off the coast of Devon. Though they all have something to hide, they arrive hopefully on a glorious summer evening… But soon a series of extraordinary events take place: the island is suddenly bathed in a most sinister light .. panic grips the visitors one, by one … by one… by one…

Eight people are invited to the island (based on a real island – Burgh Island off the south west coast of Devon). They are met by the butler and housekeeper/cook who explain that the owner, Mr Owen (U.N.Owen) has been delayed but has left instructions for their reception. In each of their rooms is a framed copy of the rhyme about the ten little nigger boys who all met their death. On their first evening they sit down to dinner in good spirits until, without any warning they hear a Voice accusing each of them (including the butler and housekeeper) of having caused the deaths or murdered a number of people. From that point onwards, one by one they are found dead, corresponding to the deaths in the rhyme and one by one a china figurine on the dining room table mysteriously disappears.

As the weather worsens they are stranded on the island and unable to leave or to get help from the mainland. Agatha Christie has created not only a ‘locked room’ type of mystery but also a mystery full of suspense, as the guests try to identify Mr U N Owen and become increasingly suspicious of each other. Their fear is further amplified by the house itself, which surprisingly is not an old Gothic house full of creaking wood and dark shadows –

But this house was the essence of modernity. There were no dark corners – no possible sliding panels – it was flooded with electric light – everything was new and bright and shining. There was nothing hidden in this house, nothing concealed. It had no atmosphere about it.

Somehow, that was the most frightening thing of all …

They exchanged good-nights on the upper landing. Each of them went into his or her own room, and each of them automatically, almost without conscious thought, locked the door … (page 52)

Despite their precautions the deaths continue, and each time no one sees or hears anything. I’d marked the page with the rhyme and kept flipping back to it to check how the next victim was going to meet with death, as I tried to work out who the murderer was and how he/she was able to carry out the murders unobserved. What makes it more tense for the reader (or at least for me) is the technique Agatha Christie makes of revealing the thoughts of the remaining characters, but without letting on who the thinker is.

In 1943 Agatha Christie adapted the book into a play, changing the ending, and there have been several film versions, none of which I’ve seen, so I didn’t know who the murderer was, although I knew the outline of the plot. Part way through the book I thought – ah, there is only one person who could be the murderer and I was right. I must re-read the book sometime to see if there were any clues, because if there were I missed them. My idea was based on the probability of that character being the murderer rather than any specific clues.

It is an ingenious mystery, revolving around the concepts of guilt and justice. There was no doubt that each of the victims had committed murder or caused/influenced the death of another person. But did the punishment fit the crime and could it ever be justified? As the murderer explains in an epilogue there were varying degrees of guilt among the victims and those whose guilt was lightest were killed off first!

This is possibly the most famous of Agatha Christie’s books. In her Autobiography Agatha Christie wrote that she had written the book because it was so difficult to do and the idea fascinated her. I found it fascinating too, but as an exercise and a puzzle rather than as a novel. Writing about the play and the book she stated:

I don’t say it is the play or the book of mine I like best, or even that I think it is my best, but I do think in some ways that it is a better piece of craftsmanship than anything else I have written. (page 489 of An Autobiography)

I agree.

New-To-Me Books

I went to Barter Books in Alnwick last week and was really delighted to find these books:

Heatwave etcFrom the bottom up they are:

  • Instructions For A Heatwave by Maggie O’Farrell – this was right at the top of a bookcase, far too high up for me to reach, but a helpful member of staff got it down for me. It’s one I’ve had on my wishlist since I read The Hand that First Held Mine, which I thought was excellent. This is her sixth book and is a portrait of a family in crisis during the heatwave in 1976.
  • The Shooting Party by Isabel Colegate – this is the book to read in October for Cornflower’s Reading Group. I read about on the morning I was going to Barter Books  was amazed to find a good hardback copy just as though I’d reserved it. The shooting party takes place in autumn 1913 – ‘Here is a whole society under the microscope, a society soon to be destroyed.’ I began reading it in the shop whilst having a cup of coffee and it promises to be really good.
  • Ordeal by Innocence by Agatha Christie – I always check which Agatha Christie books are in at Barter Books. Sometimes there aren’t any I haven’t read, but this time there were two. This one does not feature Poirot or Miss Marple, not like the TV adaptation that had Miss Marple (in the form of Geraldine McEwan), solving the mystery. In her Autobiography Agatha Christie wrote that ‘of her detective books the two that satisfy me best are Crooked House and Ordeal by Innocence.’ (An Autobiography page 538)
  • Ten Little Niggers by Agatha Christie – I was so pleased to find this book as it’s one of the best-selling books of all time and one I’ve never read, although I remember the basics of the plot from TV/film versions. I’ve beenlooking out for it for ages. The book was originally published in 1939, when the title would have given little offence in the UK, but it was different in the USA and it was first published there in 1940, a few months later, as And Then There Were None. This copy was published in 1968 in the UK and still has its original title, as the book continued to be published under this title until 1985 . I was quite startled, though, to see the cover picture showing a golliwog:

Ten Little Niggers

I’m looking forward to reading all of them – and the pleasurable problem now is deciding which one to read first – it maybe Ten Little Niggers! Again quoting from her Autobiography, Agatha Christie wrote that:

It was well received and reviewed, but the person who was really pleased with it was myself, for I knew better than any critic how difficult it had been. (page 488)