THE victims are finished off one by one until no one is left at all. That may sound like the newspaper where I used to work, but actually it’s the plot of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None.
This was Christie’s most famous novel, a closed-room whodunit in which ten strangers cloistered together on Soldier Island are murdered one by one. No one else is on the island so the killer can only be one of those present.
Unlike on my old newspaper, we have no idea whodunit.
The plot is a perfect exercise in impossibility. The ten strangers are invited by an unknown, never seen host. Each of them has a dark secret to hide and a crime for which they must pay.
For some reason I’d never got round to Agatha Christie, who is often read by children taking their first steps towards adult books. I have just put their right by reading And Then There Were None.
The great Raymond Chandler was not much taken with Christie’s novel, concluding that the book was a failure as the murders could not happen in real life. Much as I like Chandler, having read all the Marlowe novels when young, he was missing the point. Christie’s book is a perfect puzzle, and the exquisite challenges of its plot is the whole point. The writer herself was gripped by the impossibility of her chosen scenario. “It was so difficult to do that the idea had fascinated me.”
As the power of the story rests on the solution to its incredible puzzle, I’ll leave a cloak over that part of the plot, just in case, even though everybody else in the world has probably read this novel by now.
The revelation was no revelation to me, as I watched the BBC1 adaptation at Christmas. What a treat that was – stylish and sinister, and quietly, devastatingly menacing too. If anything that new TV adaptation was more satisfying than the book.
Christie’s murder mystery is swift but functional, with the dramatic flow interrupted by clunky outbreaks of “he said” and “she said”, often with a modifier: “he said desperately” – that sort of thing. Perhaps that is just how books were written then, and while it’s distracting, if you have up to ten characters speaking, you do have to identify who is saying what.
The TV adaptation changed the ending, and made the killing of Vera Claythorne more sadistic, showing a young woman desperate to live. Christie summons up this spirit of survival, then lets her penultimate victim – or last victim, depending on how you look at it – surrender to the suicide arranged for her.
Another difference lay in dispensing with the final section, where two police officers, Sir Thomas Legge and Inspector Maine, sit in Scotland Yard trying to puzzle everything out, only for the real solution to be found in a confessional letter put in bottle by the killer and cast into the sea.
The TV version also sexed matters up rather, introducing a locked-room fling between Vera (Maeve Dermody) and the wolfish Lombard (Aidan Turner, minus his shirt again, Poldark-style, only without the scythe).
Christie herself did introduce a romantic element in the stage adaptation, altering the ending to one where characters survive and fall in love. Although that now sounds like a dud Hollywood touch, she made the change because the show was being staged during the Second World War and she thought the original ending too bleak for the times.