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And Then There Were None | Context

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Evolution of the Mystery Genre

The Golden Age of Detective Fiction, at its peak during the 1920s and 1930s, included, in addition to Agatha Christie, several other female mystery writers such as English writer Dorothy L. Sayers, Scottish writer Josephine Tey, New Zealand writer Ngaio Marsh, and English writer Margery Allingham. However, the mystery genre in fiction began much earlier, starting with English novelist Wilkie Collins, a contemporary and friend of English novelist Charles Dickens, in the mid-19th century.

Wilkie Collins's novel The Woman in White (1860) is considered one of the first mystery novels in English literature. It was referred to at the time of its publication as "sensation fiction." The novel was an instant success, illustrating a narrative formula in which the main character, sometimes with a sidekick, spends the entire novel sleuthing, usually trying to solve a murder. Collins was a master of the "cliffhanger," a story in which readers, kept on the edge of their seats wondering what horrible event will happen next, don't know the solution to the mystery until the very end. Collins's novel The Moonstone (1868) is referred to by literary scholars as the first detective novel, in which the main character actually solves mysteries for a living. The English crime novelist Dorothy L. Sayers said of The Moonstone that it was "probably the finest detective story ever written." Collins created intricate plots in his detective novels, solving the mystery in question only at the end of each novel, a formula that marked the beginning of a technique still popular today.

English novelist Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's famous Sherlock Holmes stories follow Collins's lead, with Holmes's sidekick, Dr. Watson, helping him solve each mystery, but Doyle provides clues and facts that allow the reader to try to solve each mystery along with Holmes and Watson. Doyle began publishing these novels and short story collections featuring Holmes at the turn of the 20th century, releasing a complete collection of Sherlock Holmes stories in 1928. The wrap-up at the end of each mystery story, tying together all the clues, is a classic feature of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction.

Golden Age detective fiction follows a general formula, which is different from many modern detective novels and mysteries. These classic murder mysteries often include the following:

  • a plot that does not depend on any supernatural forces
  • a crime that is plausible and realistic, but appears to be perfect and unsolvable
  • clues that allow readers to try to solve the novel's mystery
  • misdirection that makes prediction of the solution difficult for readers
  • one-dimensional characters who serve as stereotypes and foils for clues
  • glossed-over descriptions of violence and murder that avoid gore and provide only the most basic details of the crime
  • murder victims who are often criminals or flawed individuals, making them unsympathetic or unlikeable in some way to the reader
  • a brilliant detective (or in the case of And Then There Were None, a brilliant murderer) who gives the solution to readers in the end
  • a believable solution to the crime that relies on information already given to the reader and ties up all the loose ends

Just as in her other mysteries of the era, the first murder happens right away in And Then There Were None, and the rest of the novel is a race against time for the remaining victims to solve the mystery before they, too, lose their lives. The reader has to use reasoning skills to figure out who the murderer is, and in this novel, the crime is hard to solve because the murderer is also supposedly dead early on and kills himself at the end. The detective who gets the case finds 10 dead bodies on the island, and unless he comes across the explanatory note from the murderer, he will never solve the crime because the murderer—and everyone associated with him—is dead. The reader can then go back and look at the ways in which the murderer revealed his identity as the most likely suspect, but the presence of his dead body makes it nearly impossible for the reader to solve the mystery before the end of the novel. The murderer's explanation of how he prepares to kill himself and mask the suicide makes the resulting crime scene believable.

World War II England

In the fall of 1939, the year of publication of And Then There Were None, England and France declared war on Germany because the Nazis refused to pull out of Poland. This declaration of war marked the start of World War II (1939–45), a global war that started with Adolf Hitler's (1889–1945) attempt to take over parts of Europe and continued with his ambition to control all of Europe and Russia. Hitler was also determined to eradicate the world of Jewish people and other marginalized groups. He ordered gruesome acts of mass murder during the period of genocide known as the Holocaust, which resulted in more than six million deaths. The anti-Semitism encouraged by Hitler and his Nazi party was not limited to Germany; some of Christie's descriptions of Isaac Morris in And Then There Were None reflect a negative perception of Jewish people present in pre-war and wartime Britain.

Before World War II began, England had enjoyed several years of increasing employment as well as a cultural boom. For many people in England, the Great Depression (1929–39), a worldwide economic downturn sparked by the stock market crash of 1929, still had a grip on their lives, but life was steadily improving for middle-class and wealthier people, and the horrors of World War I (1914–18) had begun to fade somewhat. An upper class, the "high-society" crowd, emerged as well, and Christie's series of wealthy, flamboyant owners of Indian Island, the setting of And Then There Were None, as well as the rumored owners, reflect the excesses of that population.

Movie stars were part of the local gossip in England, and the cinema was a popular form of entertainment during the war. In And Then There Were None, Christie makes the people of Devonshire wonder if Indian Island has been bought by a famous female movie star, and rumors abound regarding ownership of the island and its future as a respite for popular actors and wealthy socialites. The popularity of mystery novels also reflects Britain's need for entertainment, which, unlike literary fiction, was the purpose of Golden Age detective novels. The desire for an escape from day-to-day problems, especially the looming war and financial difficulties, is not just reflected in the popularity of Christie's novels, but it also plays a role in determining why each of Christie's victims in the novel decides that a bit of time on Indian Island would be a welcome change.

At the Apothecary

And Then There Were None contains a great deal of information on poisons and medications, especially how those substances can kill a person without the person's awareness of consumption. Christie's time as a volunteer during World War I in a hospital dispensary, a hospital office that gave out medications prescribed by doctors, served her well in her novels. She trained as an apothecary's assistant (assistant to a pharmacist who compounds medications on site), passing her apothecary exams with the help of a local pharmacist for whom she worked. Christie didn't know much about the use of weapons, so she didn't describe gunshot wound entry in as detailed a manner as did other writers with more experience in that field. However, she knew her poisons and their effects, and she was even reviewed in an issue of the Pharmaceutical Journal for her detailed descriptions of strychnine poisoning.

In one of her novels she even uses the somewhat terrifying character of the pharmacist from whom she learned the trade, a man who carried poison in his pocket and once made a near-deadly mistake she corrected. Murder by poison is done quietly and requires calculation that, for Christie, serves as a perfect device for keeping readers in the dark about who commits each crime until the very end of her novels.

From Story to Stage and Beyond

And Then There Were None, published as a novel in 1939, was also released as a play for the first time in 1943, with a script written by Christie herself and released by the American theatrical publishing company Samuel French. Christie changed the ending to be more "positive," keeping some characters alive because she felt the British public could not bear such a deadly ending during wartime. However, it took her quite a while to find a willing producer for the play because of its complexity. Later adaptations of the script included another one published by Samuel French with an alternative ending, using Christie's words from the novel so that she would remain the author of the entire script.

In addition to stage productions, And Then There Were None came to the cinema, first released as a film in the United States in 1945. It was then adapted as a film in several countries and languages, often with the location changed to settings that included a chalet, a desert in Iran, and a safari in Africa (e.g., the 1989 film Ten Little Indians). The story was also adapted for television several times under a variety of titles. The latest British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) television adaptation of And Then There Were None first aired in the United Kingdom in December 2015 and then on American television in March 2016 on the Lifetime channel.

Christie's story has also been satirized, notably on the television show Family Guy, in an episode entitled "And Then There Were Fewer," and has even appeared as the basis for a video game for PC and Wii, where players become the boat driver and have to find out who is killing off the guests on the island.

Critical Reception

The original British title of this novel was Ten Little Niggers, after a blackface minstrel song performed on the British stage. The song reflects the rhyme posted in victims' rooms in the original release. Reviewers in England didn't flinch at the title at all. However, in 1939 in the United States, the racial epithet nigger was too offensive to let stand, so all American releases of the novel, including its first release in late 1939, are titled And Then There Were None, after the terrifying last line in the nursery rhyme that is posted in each of the victim's rooms. The novel was released in serial form as well as in book form in both countries.

Christie describes the book as one of the hardest to write, but a challenge she had to complete because she was so fascinated by the concept. Maurice Richardson (1907–1978), a reviewer for the Observer in London, wrote that the book "is one of the very best, most genuinely bewildering Christies yet written" and the reviewer in the New York Times called it "utterly impossible and utterly fascinating. It is the most baffling mystery Agatha Christie has ever written." Some writers, like the American writer Raymond Chandler, were unimpressed with the book, saying the murders were not actually realistic. Readers, however, disagreed, making And Then There Were None not only the best-selling Agatha Christie novel, but one of the best-selling crime novels ever published. The novel continued to be reprinted and released by various paperback publishers throughout the 20th century, and the film, television, stage, graphic novel, and video game adaptations that continued to be produced into the 21st century have been a testament to the continuing popularity of Christie's most famous novel.

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