“Ladies and gentlemen! Silence please! You are charged with the following indictments…”
Ten people trapped on an island, each accused with being responsible for the death of another. It could be someone’s idea of a sick joke and although after two deaths the remaining eight can just about argue for some sort of coincidence, it soon becomes very clear that they are all going to die unless they can identify their mysterious unseen host U. N. Owen and stop him in his tracks. Can anyone escape or will the final words of the rhyme found in each bedroom come true: And Then There Were None?
There’s so much to say about this one for various reasons so I’ll put in sub-headers to make things clear:
I’ll say no more here (see Spoilers section below) but if you haven’t read this before, get a copy and set aside a few hours to read it in one sitting. I defy anyone to go to bed before finishing this one!
2015 TV adaptation
Whilst we may want to give Sarah Phelps (and the Christie estate) a good metaphorical kicking for her subsequent work on Christie, this was almost perfect (until the last five minutes – see Spoilers section) because the source material was properly adhered to with only minor changes to some characters motivations which did not impact the basic plot.
Watching this was of great importance to me as I decided that a re-read would be in order. Into Waterstones I went and found a copy in the Crime section where there was some sort of deal on. To take advantage I picked up a couple of nice looking anthologies from the British Library and four years later I have many more books on my shelves, am writing this blog, and have met many wonderful people online and recently in person at Bodies from the Library.
The Title – and how much should re-publications amend historic texts
The original 1939 English publication was called “Ten Little N*****s” but even at that time it was recognised that in the US this would not be acceptable and it was re-titled “And Then There Were None” with all references to the n-word removed for the 1940 American edition.
Over time UK editions have moved to this title, stopping off via “Ten Little Indians” – my preference would be for it to be called “Ten Little Soldiers” but no matter.
The changes to the title, the rhyme and the island are perfectly sensible – there is no need to give offence to people without reason – but the question is then does anything else need to be changed? My partwork edition hardback (I’m not sure of the date) has one character say:
“Indian Island, eh? There’s a n***** in the woodpile.”
So not all references to the n-word have been removed but the link between the island’s name and the old phrase is lost. In a newer paperback version this has become:
“Soldier Island, eh? There’s a fly in the ointment.”
Which still doesn’t make sense as a logical thought. With removal of the n-word, Vera’s later hysteria when Miss Brent talks about missionary work and “our little black brothers” is again without context – once you start unravelling things where do you stop?
It is interesting that even in the most modern paperback version, the anti-Semitic description of Isaac Morris remains. Is that less offensive than the use of a word in the abstract which isn’t directed at a particular character?
On a related note I had the following email exchange with Ipso Books just over a year ago:
Me: I’ve bought all the paperback Michael Innes books that you have released. Will you be issuing “Appleby on Ararat” out of order or is there a reason why you can’t publish this particular title? Thanks. (When I asked the question I knew nothing about the title – before receiving their response I did a little online research which suggested it may be problematic due to the depiction of the inhabitants of a tropical island).
Ipso: Unfortunately, we won’t be republishing Appleby on Ararat. As you know, these novels were written some time ago, and therefore carry with them a few sentiments from that era that could be unpleasant and offensive to readers now. Sadly, this particular title contains more of these outdated views than the others. I’m so sorry to disappoint! I hope you’re enjoying the other titles in the series though!
Me: Thanks – having not read that title before, I did wonder if that might be the case. Out of interest, how is that type of decision made because “Hamlet, Revenge!” includes at least one instance of the N-word? How much potentially offensive material is too much?
Ipso: We’re actually revisiting all of our backlist titles to remove unnecessary elements of these types of outdated views. We really don’t want any truly offensive material in the books we publish – we don’t want to support those views or alienate any of our readers. Though that typical disclaimer of ‘this was written in a time when views were different’ could be used – we prefer to review the material and make a decision: we have our entire team read the potentially offensive section, we take it into consideration with the context of the plot, and also have an external editor and the agent review the text as well. If a consensus is reached that the offending line doesn’t add anything to the story and can easily be replaced or is gratuitous and can be edited out, we normally choose to substitute or remove it. I’m so sorry that you encountered these instances before we could work through them.
Choosing not to publish a work in its entirety is one thing but is it OK to edit a text without mentioning the fact? In “Hamlet, Revenge!” could it in fact be instructional that the n-word is left in because it used by a character to refer to an Indian gentleman – thus showing that his worldview is that there are white people and then everybody else in the world can be lumped together?
This subject has been looked at in more detail by JJ from The Invisible Event and his thoughts can be found here.
A very interesting talk at Bodies from the Library highlighted that Christie, although now viewed almost exclusively (“The Mousetrap” aside) as a novelist, was also the world’s most successful and popular female playwright. In adapting her own novels for the theatre she wasn’t afraid to cut out Hercule Poirot or in one case to change the identity of the murderer.
As the play was first staged during WWII, General Macarthur became General Mackenzie to avoid any confusion or problems with the real-life American General Douglas Macarthur. More importantly the ending was changed to one that is altogether inferior but more upbeat which it was thought would be better for public morale – see Spoilers section for details.
Choose Your Own Adventure
Not part of the official branded series but my primary school had three books of a similar type of series which I read at some point between the ages of 9 and 11. One was based on the Sherlock Holmes story “The Final Problem” (I think whatever you chose Holme still went over the edge), another featured a retired Holmes keeping bees on the Sussex Downs, and the third was based on “And Then There Were None”, although I only realised this many years later. It was set in the present day in a ski-resort and the reader was one of the ten guests. You could end up being murdered in a number of ways and it absolutely scared the living daylights out of me and caused at least one nightmare.
P C Wren, best known for the fabulous “Beau Geste”, also wrote many short stories about life in the French Foreign Legion. “Ten Little Legionaries” from the 1917 collection “Stepsons of France” tells of ten deserters. After each one dies, the leader of the group makes up a verse based on the “Ten Little Soldier Boys”. I have no idea whether Christie was aware of this and may have been inspired by it as well as the original poem.
Signs of the Times
Dr Armstrong drives a Morris. William Morris moved from manufacturing bicycles to cars in 1912 and formed WRM Motors Ltd in 1912. From these beginnings he overtook Ford as the UK’s leading seller of cars in 1924. The company went through various mergers eventually becoming part of British Leyland. The Morris brand is now owned by Chinese firm SAIC.
Tony Marston drives a Super-Sports Dalmain. I can find nothing about the history of this marque.
Before dinner on the first night Emily Brent reads from Psalm 9:15-16 in the Authorised (or King James) Version of the Bible.
She also wears a cairngorm brooch. Cairngorm, also known as smoky quartz, is a type of yellow/brown/grey/black gemstone found in the Scottish mountains of the same name.
Mrs Rogers has the following on her washstand: lavender water (a type of eau de toilette), cascara (a laxative), glycerine of cucumber for the hands (a skin cream – you can easily find a recipe online and make your own), and some Elliman’s. This final item is an embrocation first sold in 1847 as a muscle rub for humans and animals and can still be bought today.
Amidst the murder and mayhem one of the safe topics of conversation is the latest reappearance of the Loch Ness monster. The first modern sighting was in 1933 by George Spicer and his wife and other sightings were publicised during the 1930s.
Vintage Mystery Challenge
Fulfils “Where– On an island”.
The One Where An Already Dead Man Did It!
I’ve been re-reading Christie much slower than I would normally in order to take notes and think more about things to include in the blog, but I know that when I first read this I absolutely raced through it wanting to know if anyone would survive and who from the narrowing pool of suspects was responsible. And then the final chapter where Vera has killed Lombard – so did she kill everybody? Now she’s killed herself – what’s all that about?
Then the Epilogue where the police explain that someone moved the chair after her suicide – that no one else could have left the island – and that the only person who could have physically done everything is Blore and yet to the police that is a psychological impossibility – it would have been neater perhaps if his body had been tidied up to also make it physically impossible.
So an adrenaline filled ride which is puzzling enough in itself before the pace slows down and the reader is presented with a final insoluble problem and only then is the truth finally revealed. Whilst the reader is not really expected to solve the mystery as they don’t know there is such a mystery until almost the very end which leaves little thinking time, some clues are there:
(1) Wargrave is the first character mentioned – only a small thing, but how often is the first character a killer (has anyone done any research on this?).
(2) His is the only invitation not extended by Mr or Mrs Owen. His response to an invitation from an old and vague acquaintance seems (in hindsight) weaker than that of the other seven guests.
(3) Before anything that odd has happened, he is the one who remarks that “there is a fly in the ointment” (see above).
(4) Wargrave is the one who heightens the terror by declaring that one them must be Owen.
(5) Lombard says that Wargrave may have decided to move on from being judge to become jury and executioner, which Wargrave admits to in his confession.
(6) Before breakfast on the third day we witness first the conversation between Lombard and Blore followed by the conversation between Miss Brent and Vera. This implies that there has been the possibility for Armstrong and Wargrave to have talked. At breakfast we see their thoughts of which one is “the damned fool, he believed every word I said to him” which could relate to that possible conversation.
(7) Armstrong keeps the others back when he examines Wargrave’s body. We are told that he feels for a pulse but not what the result is.
(8) Vera recognises the red herring from the poem and applies it to Armstrong’s disappearance. When his body is found she does not revisit the idea and switch it around.
I have seen criticisms that the murderer here gets all the luck and there are a couple of key points of unlikelihood – why does Lombard leave his revolver in his room – surely he would have had it on him at all times? When moving Wargrave’s body wouldn’t the others have realised he was alive?Although they are in a state of mind where they are expecting to discover more corpses and the doctor has pronounced that he is dead. However I feel that Wargrave gets all the good luck in return for the bad luck visited on Christie’s other killers e.g. Hercule Poirot gets the last berth on the Orient Express because he knows the managing director and then a snow storm halts the train or the window blind goes up just as the 4.50 from Paddington is passing and the adjacent compartment is occupied by a friend of Miss Marple’s.
I was struck by the fact that we get to see the thoughts of the eight guests but not those of the two servants – was Christie deliberately partially observing the rules by not involving them as potential murderers?
Going back to the 2015 TV adaptation, I can understand to some extent why from a dramatic perspective we see Wargrave give his confession to Vera as she is about to kick away the chair, but his suicide should still have been staged as per the book to show that an impossible crime scene would have been left behind.
I recently came across Ho-Ling’s review of a Japanese adaptation which shows the events on the island followed by the police investigation. To save the time of decoding his interesting, but minor spoiler, paste it into here.
In the stage play neither Vera nor Lombard are guilty of the crimes they are accused of (it is Hugo who allows his nephew to swim to the rock and Lombard left the natives with the supplies and tried to get help for them). Vera, as a woman, can’t shoot straight (Lombard’s words), and so he is only wounded and shoots the judge as he is trying to kill Vera.
Before reading the play I had the idea that Lombard’s place had been taken by a friend, and so it was the friend who was not guilty instead. I think I must have got that from the Choose Your Own Adventure, but it would have been a very Christie type thing to happen, where identities are often deliberately confused.