By Evangeline Jennings
According to the people who keep score, Agatha Christie is the best-selling novelist of all time. Her books have sold four billion copies and rank third – after Shakespeare and the Bible – as the most widely published books. Her books have been translated into more than one hundred languages.
Although her groundbreaking The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd is a far better book, And Then There Were None has been Christie’s most successful and best-selling work. One of my favourite sick-bed reads, it’s an interesting case study for more than one reason.
If you’re not aware of the plot, ten people are invited to stay on an island by the mysterious Mister U.N. Owen. Each of the ten has been involved in the deaths of others but somehow escaped punishment. Over the course of the novel, these ten meet their doom in a manner loosely related to a grisly children’s rhyme.
When the book was first published in the UK, the book was called Ten Little Niggers – as was the rhyme – and the island was named Nigger Island. This was 1939 and the children’s rhyme was authentic, I believe.
The US publishers changed Nigger to Indian in 1940 and newspaper serializations in both nations used the title And Then There Were None as did the 1943 play and the 1945 Hollywood adaptation but – as far as I can tell – the UK stuck firmly to the original title until 1985 and it’s still in use in many foreign language versions today.
I don’t think this means the UK is more inherently racist than the US. It might only mean that the UK publishers were sticklers for authenticity. Having lived in both countries for quite long enough to have an opinion I’d say that while the US makes more noise about fighting racism, the two nations are about on a par – although the US does seem to have an effective financial near-apartheid that I’ve never seen in the UK.
I’m not even going to try to debate the merits of the US preference for “Indian” over “Nigger” and what that might imply.
All this said, the book is a marvelous read. Completely ridiculous, of course – see U.N. Owen, for example – but marvelous. It’s an exercise in structure more than a genuine whodunit and despite its implausible devices and impossible twists, it keeps us reading because it’s rich with ingenuity and intrigue and shows Christie once again to be a true innovator in the genre.
Despite the occasional outrages over its various titles – not to mention Christie’s never more than competent writing, And Then There Were None has shipped over one hundred million copies – I think I have three. It’s the best-selling mystery book ever published. And one of the top ten best sellers of all time in any genre. It’s been adapted for plays, TV shows, movies, games, and Family Guy. And why? I think there are two reasons.
First because the writer created her own world and made it somewhere readers want to visit. Only PG Wodehouse, to my mind, has ever surpassed Christie at this.
And second, of course, because she told an enthralling story that swept us along with her despite its many obvious flaws. As readers, we conspire with Agatha Christie against our incredulity because she makes it worth our while.
There’s a lesson there, I think, for all those expert wannabe writers who spend their time complaining about technique and POV and fucking adverbs. Story is and always has been king.
PS – If you’ve only seen a movie of And Then There Were None, you don’t know the full story. Read the book.
PPS – I can’t help wondering what Ten Little title people might find acceptable today. My most recent copy of the book refers to Ten Little Soldiers in the rhyme and it’s set on Soldier Island. Clearly that won’t do. Support our troops, don’t kill them. So what do you think?
Ten Little Interns?
Ten Little Jihadists?
Planned Parenthood Executives?
Ten Little Welfare Mothers?