Because I am secretly a 60 year old grandmother, I run a book club. We read mostly fantasy and sci-fi books, but in the spirit of variety we try to throw in books from other genres occasionally. When we were picking our line-up for this year, we decided to look into best selling books that we have never read. To my surprise, there was a book I had never heard of listed in the top selling books of all time – And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie. I had heard of Agatha Christie before, but I know her for her murder mysteries like Murder on the Nile and the Orient Express. After reading the blurb – a book about 10 murderers trapped on an island, where one of the murderers is murdering off the other murderers (basically just a TON of murder) – the book was easily selected into our curriculum and was read this month.
If you do not know Agatha Christie, you should pick up one of her books and give her a try. She writes murder mysteries and is considered both one of the best selling and most talented writers in history. This was my first introduction to her, and I have to say that the praise does not under sell her. I have a firm belief that if a book is overwhelmingly popular with all demographics that there is a pretty strong possibility that it is a great book (with a few exceptions, I am looking at you Twilight). With everyone differing so much in taste it is very impressive that an author could write something that is so universally appealing. To this point, there are a variety of things that everyone can learn from Agatha Christie that made this book so good.
Characterization – Unlike fantasy or sci-fi, Agatha wrote about just regular humans. As such there is a lot less variety to the differences she can ascribe the characters. On top of this, she tends to have a large cast of characters and a fairly short books. Due to this, I expected to get lost in who was who as I shot through the tale. Yet, I had very little trouble in both keeping every character straight and imagining them in all their glory. Agatha was very good at giving characters very identifiable traits and mannerisms that easily distinguished them. I never had any trouble telling my bright-eyed, optimistic, frat boy apart from my weathered, jaded, alcoholic doctor.
Pacing – As the group of murderers on the island shrinks, you would expect it to become harder and harder to maintain a “who did it” environment as the pool of potential suspects would get smaller and smaller. However, Agatha did an incredible job of only revealing facts about the characters at a measured pace so that you can never quite put your thumb on the best suspect. I expected to sit through sections of boring monologuing but it is essentially just a 24 hour murder-fest from start until end.
Hiding in plain sight – I did not guess the murderer correctly. Out of the 10 people on the island I was not even close. However, something interesting is that of the 10+ people reading the book in the club, no one guessed the correct person. In fact we collectively guessed almost everyone BUT the murderer. Yet, when we got to the end of the book we realized that there was ample evidence that showed who the murderer was the entire time. Agatha had a way of hiding the truth in plain sight, and letting you overlook the answers on your own. We spent tons of time with the villain, yet she wrote them in such a way that their inner thoughts seem innocent the entire time.
Terror – Finally, the book is actually scary. That might not seem like a lot, but I find it particularly difficult to build ambiance and terror in a book. For many of us, horror and atmosphere is mostly limited to a visual medium. But Agatha found a way to use little commonplace things to let your imagination scare yourself. And some parts of the book are just unnerving, for example the poem that the book is based on:
Ten little Soldier boys went out to dine;
One choked his little self and then there were nine.
Nine little Soldier boys sat up very late;
One overslept himself and then there were eight.
Eight little Soldier boys traveling in Devon;
One said he’d stay there and then there were seven.
Seven little Soldier boys chopping up sticks;
One chopped himself in halves and then there were six.
Six little Soldier boys playing with a hive;
A bumblebee stung one and then there were five.
Five little Soldier boys going in for law;
One got into Chancery and then there were four.
Four little Soldier boys going out to sea;
A red herring swallowed one and then there were three.
Three little Soldier boys walking in the zoo;
A big bear hugged one and then there were two.
Two little Soldier boys playing with a gun;
One shot the other and then there was One.
One little Soldier boy left all alone;
He went out and hanged himself and then there were none.
If I walked into a hotel room and saw this on the wall (each character in the story finds this in their room) I would peace the hell out of that island if I had to swim the English Channel to safety. Agatha’s poetic terror stuck with many in our group well after the story finished.
Agatha Christie feels like an author who transcends genre. Her writing has something that anyone can enjoy and she has created quality work that still easily holds up to this day. Personally, I will be grabbing some of her other well known work to read soon. To any aspiring author, I recommend you give this book a glance to see all of her brilliant technique in action. And to any reader who feels they need a break from their normal book pool, I recommend this book as almost anyone will enjoy it.
Bookclub rating: 7.5
My personal rating: 7.5