09/02/2012 § Leave a comment
And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie
Agatha Christie is certainly a literary giant, and And Then There Were None is arguably her tour de force. ATTWN is undeniably an intriguing read, well-paced and easy in its assumed familiarity.
Those who have taken a literature class at some point in their academic career are probably familiar with the story, which is set on Indian Island, an island retreat for the wealthy somewhere of the England coast. Eight strangers are invited to the island for the summer, in order to relax and socialize in relative peace. Joining them are a staff of two—a husband and wife in charge of keeping the house and providing the meals.
When everyone arrives, they find the house to be cozy, albeit slightly alarming in light of their relatively high degree of isolation. Still, they settle in and get to know one another, having an enjoyable, if somewhat puzzling time together. After dinner on the first night, though, this forced ease gives way to leeriness as each of those assembled are accused of committing a murder and getting away with it. Each has an excuse for what they did, although others deny their behavior was even wrong. Then, one by one, they are all killed off.
Christie’s hallmark cleverness is brought to bear in this story, featuring psychological insight (particularly for the character of Vera Claythorne), suspense, and enough plot twists and turns to keep the reader guessing. In the interest of fair play, I will refrain from revealing the murderer and the motive, but I will simply say that mystery is well-written, such that most readers are unlikely to determine the murderer from the first reading.
What’s most interesting about this book is how it dwells on the theme of justice. While Christie likely intended the book to simply be an intellectually entertaining read, her moralistic sensibilities required her to justify her decision to kill off all the characters, and this tendency leads to a revealing insight to the nature of justice.
As humans, we have a tendency to desire that wrongs be righted. Our sense of right and wrong is keen, and is generally upsetting to us when someone is not punished for their crimes. As such, Christie justifies the murders of each of the characters by portraying their deaths as recompense for a past crime. Obviously, none of the characters has seen justice for their crimes, as they all are on the island together. And so, it is necessary that each of them die for their past injustices.
What’s especially interesting is the range of the crimes committed. The Rogers—the aforementioned hired servants—are called murderers because they decided to forego aiding and elderly employer when she had a heart attack of sorts. Instead of giving her medicine, they did nothing, and for this they are considered murderers. Not only that, the husband is considered to have more culpability in this affair than the wife, as evidenced by how the wife is poisoned peacefully in her sleep early on while the husband is bludgeoned with an axe later on. In this sense, Mrs. Roger’s death was the more merciful of the two, perhaps because she was less culpable.
In contrast, Marston is accused of murdering two children. He admits to having run them over in his car, and is clearly guilty of murder. Unlike the Rogers’ who may not have necessarily prevented their former employer’s death by their intervention, Marston is undeniably responsible for the death of those whom he is accused of murdering.
The accusations thus vary in their veracity. Dr. Armstrong is accused of negligence, as is—in a sense—Emily Brent. Others are accused of being more directly involved in murder: Lombard and Wargrave are accused of directly killing someone. Others occupy more of a middle ground, like Macarthur, who is accused of sending his wife’s illicit lover to his death, much like David did to Uriah. How one feels about the murder of these murderers is largely contingent upon how one feels about the nature of the murders committed by the murderers.
Where guilt is easily established, a la Marston and Lombard, their murder feels more like justice than psychopathy. Where the guilt of murder is not as easy to establish, as would be the case with Armstrong or Brent, it is harder for the reader to sympathize with the justice that is exacted upon them.
In fact, this dynamic is present throughout the book. On the one hand, it is comforting to believe that murder is murder, and all murderers deserve to die for their crime. But it is simultaneously unsettling to feel that all murders are alike since our nuanced human brains believe that there is a difference between active murders, passive murders, accidental murders, and negligent murders. It doesn’t seem fair to punish someone for murder if there is no way of knowing for sure that their negligence was responsible for a death.
Another thing that Christie does well, in addition to posing the unsettling question of the exact nature of justice, is to make most of the characters relatable. In addition to making for a more engrossing read (really, who wants to read about people that have nothing in common with the reader?), it also makes for a deeply unsettling read. Reading a character’s rationalization for his or her behavior is intriguing because the reader can often sympathize or at least appreciate a character’s point of view.
For example, one can sympathize with Macarthur for sending his wife’s illicit lover to his death. Macarthur was in a war zone at the time, and sent the man out on a recon mission, knowing that there was an all-but-certain chance that he would be killed in carrying out his duties. Yet, one can readily sympathize with this behavior because the man that man Macarthur sent to die was a man that stole Macarthur’s wife from him. This, incidentally, is what makes the book so unsettling: you can sympathize with the murderers’ justification for their actions, yet you are always confronted by the singular fact that you are justifying murder. It is thus horrifying to see how easily and quickly the reader can justify something that is blatantly wrong.
In all, Christie’s magnum opus is a wonderfully terrifying read, revealing to the reader one’s darkest tendencies, and the ever-present darkness in the human heart. It is a horrifying, gripping read, and profoundly unsettling in its implications. More importantly, it is extremely entertaining.