Agatha Christie is synonymous with detective fiction in virtually every country on Earth. Her mystery novels, which have sold billions of copies, have introduced some of the most memorable literary characters in the genre, including Auguste Poirot and Miss Marple. It is possible that unhappiness in her personal life (she divorced Christie after discovering that he had been unfaithful) contributed to the development of her style and her prolific output. The discipline of writing offered an escape that accorded with her predilection for privacy. She and her first husband, Archibald Christie, moved to London shortly before World War I where, facing financial difficulties, Agatha wrote her first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, the first of many Poirot stories. Christie pioneered many of the techniques that have made the mystery novel so popular. Her innovative story lines and imaginative plot twists haven’t lost their ability to affect readers.
Agatha Miller was born in 1890 in the seaside village of Torquay, in Devonshire. A precocious child, she taught herself to read by the age of four and enjoyed making up her own stories. She married Christie in 1914, divorcing him in 1928 upon learning that he had been unfaithful. After the couple separated, Agatha disappeared for 11 days, causing a nationwide search. She was found in a hospital in Yorkshire, where it is thought she had been treated for
having suffered a nervous breakdown. The event became something of a mystery that invited speculation for years. In 1930, Christie married archaeologist Max Mallowan, to whom she remained married for the rest of her life. For many years the two traveled together to his archaeological dig sites, trips that would become rich source material for many of Christie’s later novels. Unlike many authors of detective fictions, Christie remained faithful to her fans. She continued to write about the adventures of Poirot and Marple, although she confessed in later years that she had grown weary of Poirot and favored Marple. In what may be the highest praise of Christie’s work, in 1975 Poirot became the only fictional character ever given an obituary in the New York Times.
As is often the case with highly productive authors, criticism has focused on what some have called a lack of development or growth in her writing, on “her undistinguished style and on the lack of depth in her rather stereotyped characters, on the absence of any sociological analysis of the crimes, and on her repeated use of the “least-likely-person” device” (Contemporary Literary Criticism, 2011). Yet these very traits are likely what led to her immense popularity and the remarkable longevity of her stories and characters. Perhaps the most familiar feature of Christie’s novels is the sequence of events that determine the action. “(Because) most of Christie’s murders – at the first murders – occur early, the bulk of her novels is concerned with the detective’s progress to the final peripety, the revelation of the murderer and the explanation of what really happened” (Bargainnier, 1980). The discovery of the murderer is front and center, while details of plot and structure work methodically toward the story’s resolution.
The literary critic Edmund Wilson once said that detective fiction was “simply a kind of vice that, for silliness and minor harmfulness, ranks somewhere between smoking and crossword puzzles” (Stowe, 1986). In And Then There Were None, Christie helped distinguish the genre. This story, which is set on an isolated island off the Devonshire coast, is one of the most successful murder mysteries of all time. It set down a tradition and an expectation that such stories take place in civilized post-Victorian circumstances, in an English mansion with servants and where guests are invariably dressed for dinner. In the book, the 10 guests are killed one by one in a baffling mystery. The readers are left to imagine for themselves how each murder unfolded. The reader is also invited to take part in solving the murders, which is one of the most important aspects of detective fiction and the very thing that sets it apart from other branches of literary expression.
Christie also solidifies the notion that some type of justice prevails even in the most extraordinary situations. Justice Wargrave has spent an entire career frustrated by the relative lack of true justice he is able to administer in his courtroom. Having gathered individuals he knows to be guilty of various offenses, he has an opportunity to rid the world of those he couldn’t punish when he was a member of the bar. “Being a retired judge and thus familiar with many famous cases of murder he feels compelled to continue judging and unofficially sentencing nine suspects who, for one reason or another, are in Wargrave’s dotty mind guilty in spite of the fact that none was found so” (Pendergast, 2004). The judge vents his zeal for justice in one last masterstroke of vengeance. The reader can revel in the satisfaction that the guilty have been
punished, albeit in an illicit manner. Christie wrote to satisfy her audience but her stories do more than just pander to popular tastes. When murder unfolds, it is not for mere salacious gratification, or to shock. Each case reaffirms the proposition that murder is a crime that will be punished, though often in very unexpected ways. This is certainly the case in And Then There Were None, which is as twisted a tale of justice as has ever been conceived.
It is also a story that blurs the lines between justice and injustice, between murder and righteous revenge. Judge Wargrave, who is very possibly deranged, arranges a scenario in which he can mete out justice to those who have escaped their crimes and carries out his “executions.” The guilty, in a sense, are punished but punishment clearly takes place beyond the pale of civilized law and order. Wargrave rids society of nine very bad people, but does it make him virtuous? It would hardly seem so, since he has acted to satisfy his own bloodlust. In his written confession, he explains that he has long wanted “I have a definite sadistic delight in seeing or causing death…From an early age I knew very strongly the lust to kill. But side by side with this went a contradictory trait – a strong sense of justice” (Christie, 250). Strictly speaking, justice is not served but Wargrave’s actions may well have prevented future murders.
One of the most fascinating aspects of fiction is the window it offers the reader on the character’s mind, and the intimate understanding of the motivations that lead to action. Equally meaningful is the opportunity the reader has to watch as subjects respond to pressure, to the fear that comes with the uncertainty and anxiety of their situation. There is a trace of sensationalism to it, as though we are observing something that really should be kept private. And Then
There Were None allows the reader to contemplate the different ways in which the victims react to the frightening circumstances in which they find themselves. Some are haughty, defiant. Others are so riddled with guilt they practically resign themselves to their fate. Vera, for example, is so overcome by guilt that she simply complies with the end ordained for her in the riddle. The best authors understand human nature and know how to manipulate it to maximize reader interest. Christie gives us a story in which the victims respond to the realization of their worst fears according to their personalities and the knowledge of their guilt.
Of course, manipulation cuts both ways. The author, particularly a writer of detective fiction, has the leeway to mislead the reader on the way to unveiling the murder. In And Then There Were None, Christie “leads the reader to restrict their suspicions to a steadily dwindling number of suspects as, one by one the ten characters all meet their deaths” (Nachbar and Lause, 419-20). By so doing, Christie has put the reader off the scent and shown that “our initial assumptions have led us far away from the solution. Christie’s red herrings serve as diversions to lead the readers away from discovering the truth” (Ibid, 420). This is part of the detective fiction writer’s compact with the reader. As a participant in “solving” the mystery, the reader faces the same challenges as the detective or police. We are given no information that the individual tasked with unraveling the mystery doesn’t also possess. As well, the author does not “cheat” by introducing a fact late in the story that alters the investigation.
The investigations in Christie’s novels reveal not only that things aren’t always what they seem, but that evil of the most depraved kind transcends class, even in socially ordered Britain. Most of the characters in And Then There Were None are products of a class system that
still maintains a strong sense of privilege. Anthony Marston is a wealthy and irresponsible playboy type who is accused of running down two children; General MacArthur is a war hero; Dr. Armstrong is a surgeon. But there are less well-appointed victims. Vera, for instance, is a secretary; Lombard is a renegade who’s down on luck. They are from various rungs on the social ladder, but all fall victim to the killer’s vengeance.
And Then There Were None remains a highly influential and popular detective story and one of the best-selling books of all time. It stands apart as a work that introduced and helped to popularize many of the characteristics that have made the genre so successful. At the same time, the originality of Christie’s story continues to make it a popular choice among literary and dramatic circles.
Bargainnier, E.F. 1980. The Gentle Art of Murder: The Detective Fiction of Agatha Christie.
Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Press.
Christie, A. 2004. And Then There Were None. New York, NY: G.P. Putnam’s Sons.
Contemporary Literary Criticism. 2011. Vol. 12. Web.
Nachbar, J. and Lause, J. 1992. Popular Culture: An Introductory Text. Bowling Green, OH:
Bowling Green State University Press.
Pendergast, B. 2004. Everyman’s Guide to the Mysteries of Agatha Christie. Trafford
Stowe, W. 1986. “Popular Fiction as Liberal Art.” College English. Vol. 48, No. 7.