As I’ve said before, it seems I’m on a And Then There Were None trip of late, what with seeing the 2015 mini-series based on the novel (my review is here), then seeing the comedic take on the book via the 1985 film Clue (you can read my review of it here), and finally seeing the 1968 western film 5 Card Stud, which was clearly influenced by the book (you can read my review of that here).
So I figured why not conclude this trip by re-reading and reviewing Agatha Christie’s original 1939 novel?
I mentioned it before and I’ll repeat myself: In Agatha Christie’s very long -and incredibly successful- career as a mystery writer, there are two novels that many consider her best: The Hercule Poirot mystery Murder on the Orient Express and the novel we’re focused on, And Then There Were None.
Re-reading the novel (I’ve read it at least twice before), I again marvel at the concise nature of it.
Author Elmore Leonard famously wrote a fascinating list of 10 things an author should/shouldn’t do (you can read the full list here) that concluded with this piece of advice:
Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip
Looking at this piece of advice, it sounds obvious, doesn’t it? Yet it may be one of the hardest things an author can do.
It involves looking at your baby, your lovely work, and realizing you need to cut it down, that the brilliant description you made of a home and its sparkling marble floor simply doesn’t need to be in your novel and does nothing more than slow a reader down. There could be any number of wonderful (to you) bits and pieces of prose and passages you’ve spent way too much time writing about which you have to come back to and realize they need to be cut and never to see the light of day.
There are plenty of authors I’ve read who simply couldn’t do this.
They may have pages upon pages of at times flowery -even beautiful!- descriptive passages that simply do not move the novel forward.
I’m certain I’ve done this as well in some of my books, but in the process of doing revisions I genuinely try to cut things to the bone and leave behind -as Mr. Leonard put it- the parts readers will read versus those they will want to skip and which -despite my best efforts- drag the book down.
And Then There Were None is a beautiful example of a stripped down novel that moves along quickly and never lags. It is a relatively brief work yet within its pages one gets a wonderful taste of 10 disparate characters who are invited -under false pretenses- to a distant island where they stand accused of various murders and are then themselves killed one after the other.
The great suspense is not only in the fact that these people realize they’re being hunted, but in the further realization that one of their own is the killer.
So the characters suspect each other of being a mad killer while, paradoxically, they’re forced to keep each other as close to them as possible… for each time someone is alone, the odds are good they will be dead.
It’s a brilliant scenario that has clearly influenced a lot of other works, including various adaptations for the screen. I also understand it was the most difficult novel for Mrs. Christie to write and I can certainly see why: Having that many characters running around and figuring out ways to off them which are logical to the novel’s end is not an easy thing to do, especially when the book is written in such a beautifully stripped down way.
Having said that, let’s be honest with each other: The novel’s plot is preposterous.
While Mrs. Christie does her best to give explanations to all the various details presented, including the murderer’s motivation and the way in which s/he picked out the various “victims”, the reality is that for something like this to have happened, and further actually worked as presented in the novel, would take far too many things going “right.” If it wasn’t for Mrs. Christie’s lively -and highly entertaining- writing, a reader might be tempted to call bullshit on quite a few of the things which occur in the book.
Still, the so-called “suspension of disbelief” is a prime factor in enjoying any work of fiction and pointing a finger at this particular one, whether merited or not, is somewhat unfair on my part.
So I’ll end this review agreeing with the many who feel this may well be Agatha Christie’s best novel (or, at the very least, one of the two best novels she wrote).
And Then There Were None, despite its at time preposterous nature, is nonetheless a terrific work, a masterpiece (or master class) in concise writing, suspense, and well earned surprises.
Highly, highly recommended.