And then there was one
Note: Spoilers follow for the book and miniseries And Then There Were None.
Over the weekend, my wife and I caught up with the recent BBC adaptation of And Then There Were None, which aired in two parts last week on Lifetime. It’s a nice, overwrought version of Agatha Christie’s story, faithful to the novel in its outlines but cheerfully willing to depart from it in the details, and I liked it a lot. (I particularly enjoyed Maeve Dermody’s swift descent from an Emily Blunt lookalike to something like a crazy cat lady, complete with dark circles under both eyes.) And it also gives me an excuse to revisit the weirdest novel ever to sell one hundred million copies. The book reads like Christie’s attempt to see how far she could push her classic formula—a series of baffling murders in a closed setting—without alienating her audience, and as clinical as the result often feels, readers have never ceased to respond to it: by any reckoning, it’s the bestselling mystery novel of all time. With every single character serving in turn as bystander, suspect, and victim, it takes this sort of novel to its limit, and it incidentally discovers how few of the standard elements are necessary. There isn’t a sympathetic protagonist in sight, or even a detective. As Sarah Phelps, who wrote the miniseries, observes in a perceptive interview:
Within the Marple and Poirot stories somebody is there to unravel the mystery, and that gives you a sense of safety and security, of predicting what is going to happen next…In this book that doesn’t happen—no one is going to come to save you, absolutely nobody is coming to help or rescue or interpret.
In other words, the puzzle itself is the star, just as the plot is the hero in most science fiction—a genre that often overlaps with this sort of mystery. (And Then There Were None was published just a year after “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell, which tells much the same story, except with a shapeshifting alien as the villain.) Watching Noah Taylor in the role of the sinister servant who places the ten figurines on the table, I joked that he was playing the Tim Curry part, but’s a hint of truth there: Christie emphasized the gamelike aspects of the genre long before there was anything like Clue, and she plants the seeds of her own future parodies so consciously that there’s hardly any point in mocking those conventions. And Then There Were None is structured like the five-minute mysteries that contemporary readers probably know best through the likes of Encyclopedia Brown: after the last victim dies, there’s a convenient summary of the relevant facts by two bewildered cops at Scotland Yard, followed by what amounts to a sealed bonus chapter with the killer’s confession, complete with a list of the clues that the reader might have missed. As the murderer writes: “It was my ambition to invent a murder mystery that no one could solve.” And if we had any doubt about the identification of the killer with Christie herself, this should put it to rest. Christie is the murderer, even if she appears in the story under a different face and name.
This, I think, is why the original novel has always been such a spectacular success: it gets closer than any other to the uneasy way in which the author and the killer, rather than the detective, turn out to be one and the same. Christie’s guilty party is one of the earliest exemplars of a character type that we recognize from John Doe in Seven, Jigsaw in the Saw movies, and even Christopher Nolan’s version of the Joker: the killer whose control of the story is so complete that he can’t be separated from the screenwriter. In my discussion of the television series Hannibal, I noted that it sometimes seemed as if Lecter himself was in the writers room, or dictating material to Thomas Harris: he was so adept at manipulating the men and women around him that he practically became the showrunner. If the detective in a mystery novel is a surrogate for the reader, who approaches the text as a series of clues, the killer can only be the writer, and by removing the detective from the story entirely, Christie makes this identity even more explicit. We’re cast in the part of an invisible sleuth, moving unseen on the island as the victims are eliminated one by one, with Christie as our ice-cold antagonist, seated at the other end of the board. (The writer selects her victims as carefully as the killer does: note that all the characters are childless and—except for the servant couple—unmarried, which allows them to be dispatched with a minimum of regret.)
And those ten figures on the dining table aren’t there by accident. They’re tokens in the game that Edward Fitzgerald describes in The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam:
But helpless pieces of the game he plays
Upon this chequerboard of nights and days;
Hither and thither moves, and checks, and slays,
And one by one back in the closet lays.
Christie certainly knew that verse: it appears only a few lines before the stanza that she used a few years later for the title of her novel The Moving Finger. And Then There Were None confirmed her as the genre’s ultimate chess master, and one of the pleasures in reading it again comes from our knowledge of how cunningly she uses the elements of the novel itself—like the third person omniscient point of view—to mislead and ensnare us. (That’s one way in which the miniseries, for all its cleverness, can’t match the novel: Christie moves in and out of the heads of her characters, including the killer, without cheating. A televised version of the same story only has to concern itself with the surfaces, which makes its job relatively easy.) Christie tricked us here in ways that can’t be reproduced, regardless of how many other works have copied its central twist. Mysteries come and go, but And Then There Were None is where the genre begins and ends. And there can only be one.