I’m too new to Agatha Christie to have an opinion on her “best” story, but I prefer And Then There Were None to Murder on the Orient Express. The former is a standalone mystery that doesn’t require previous knowledge of Poirot or Miss Marple which makes it immediately accessible to a new reader. I wasn’t left to wonder if I was missing something by starting in the middle with an established character. [Note: This book was previously titled Ten Little Indians and set on Indian Island. Later editions, like mine, are titled And Then There Were None and set on Soldier Island.]
Despite the name change, the story is the same: Ten strangers are lured to an island and picked off one at a time. If you want more info, then read the book. I’m providing no more plot information than is already suggested by the title.
The tone is more ominous than Murder on the Orient Express without Poirot’s calm and thoughtful demeanor to frame the investigation. And Then There Were None features a group of increasingly paranoid people trying to work out why they were sent invitations to the island. They’re all shady, which means they all believe they’re in particular danger; further, no one wants to divulge their past because they don’t know whom to trust. It’s a great setup that doesn’t go in for cheap mood setters. For example, you might imagine that these people have been lured to a big, creaky house in the middle of nowhere, but that’s not the case:
If this had been an old house, with creaking wood, and dark shadows, and panelled walls, there might have been an eerie feeling. But this house was the essence of modernity. There were no dark corners—no possible sliding panels—it was flooded with electric light—everything was new and bright and shining. There was nothing hidden in this house, nothing concealed. It had no atmosphere about it. (68)
My favorite complaint among the low-star reviews is that the cast is too large. The entire premise is that a large group of people is rapidly becoming a small group. It may be overwhelming when you encounter the initial wall of characters and backstories, but the confusion is temporary. With so many details flying around, an impatient reader might be tempted to work out commonalities or potential motives for the impending murders. Don’t be impatient. As the cast shrinks, character details are recapped or recast in light of the changing situation. As I read, I was surprised by my ability to remember who was who and who had which backstory. Christie’s control over the story is masterful. She’s able to refresh the reader’s memory, tease, and drop red herrings in a single pass.
Only one aspect of this book gives me pause: The mystery is explained in the epilogue. I detest epilogues. They typically contain unnecessary information/closure, or details that belonged in the story itself but couldn’t be included for whatever reason. The epilogue here verges on the latter flaw. A few scenes are obfuscated so the reader won’t catch on, thus necessitating the epilogue. It’s one thing for characters to fib and deceive, but when an author does it… There’s a line here that Christie flirts with, but ultimately the book gets a pass because it’s so well constructed in every other respect. It’s like having a puzzle box in which each part slides and fits appropriately, except that one piece has a bit of hardened glue that makes the fit suboptimal, and you can’t remove it.
By the time I reached the end, I was so curious to know every detail of the mystery that reading an epilogue was an acceptable cost.
Translation: Read it.