Welcome to Part 1 of July Classic Crime Read-Along, where we introduce this month’s selection. Today we’re opening conversation for our June reading Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. Please feel very invited to join in the conversation at any point along the way! You can check out the calendar for the full read-along schedule.
You don’t have to like Agatha Christie–although a lot of people do!—but you do have to acknowledge her contribution to 20th century crime literature. Your hand will get sore if you try to scroll through her entire Wikipedia bibliography—we’re looking at something in the realm of 72 novels (66 under her own name, another 6 romance novels as Mary Westmacott), 150 short stories, and some other stuff (I recently saw the play The Unexpected Guest, which Ms. Christie wrote, not realizing it was a completely original piece and not based on a book–and only one of many original plays she wrote. There are also radio plays, volumes of poetry, nonfiction books and essays, etc etc etc).
Her most widely read book, however, and (I would argue) most famous, is And Then There Were None, which we will discuss here in two weeks as a crime novel (plot, characters, themes, etc). Today, I want to be a little self-indulgent (I find book publishing fascinating; good thing, since it’s what I do for a living) and talk about its publication history.
Before 1939, Christie had been publishing detective fiction, where the hero solves the crime. Many of her detective novels have sold tens of millions of copies and are widely read 80+ years after their publication, but none has topped And Then There Were None—which was a very different kind of book. Although there are some members of law enforcement featured in the book, I would not call And Then There Were None a detective novel at all. The narrative rotates among ten victim/suspects trapped on an island where they thought they’d be vacationing as they are murdered, one by one, in creepy ways reminiscent of the (extremely upsetting) nursery rhyme “Ten Little Indians” (the full Wikipedia article on the history of this particular nursery rhyme is pretty… enlightening). There is no detective to solve the case, which unfolds before the reader’s eyes as you wait breathlessly to see who is next and have your suspicions of who is guilty turned on their ear as your favorite suspect drops dead (at least, that’s what happened to me). And there is no good guy to root for, because you just actually can’t be sure who of the good guys isn’t a very, very bad guy. Especially as each character’s previous sins are brought to light.
And Then There Were None is a “locked-room” mystery, or an “impossible murder”: in the book, a murder is committed that seems impossible to commit (check out this site for a list of permutations of the locked-room mystery, although be warned in advance there are some spoilers!). In this case, ten “guests” are trapped on an island where they thought they’d be vacationing, and they begin to die one at a time. All of them are victims, all of them are suspects, and none is safe. (Edgar Allan Poe‘s “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” which we read in March, can also be identified as a locked-room case: the room in the mystery is, quite literally, locked, with no way for a villain to get in or out, making the crime appear impossible.)
And Then There Were None is a publishing phenomenon. Compare it to the Harry Potter series, Twilight, and the Bible in terms of numbers of copies distributed since it’s been available in bound book form (note: I am not comparing any of those books to one another or anything else in any way! lest this be construed as a different kind of blog post). It’s the #6 bestselling book of all time, according to at least one source—HowStuffWorks estimates it has sold at least 100 million copies since it was first published in 1939.
So what’s controversial, you cry! You promised us controversy, Juliet! Well, what I meant was the book has been published under three different titles. The original 1939 British edition published by Collins Crime Club was called Ten Little N*****s (yes, please infer the N-word there; I refused to type it in an article written under my byline, not because I’m being coy or because I think it will somehow make the title’s history better, but for selfish reasons, because I never want that word to appear in anything that appears under my byline). It was republished in different cycles under the titles And Then There Were None and Ten Little Indians (which was also eventually deemed un-PC). The original jacket artwork is displayed with this post for curiosity’s sake.
I guess the controversy is mostly in my head, but I do think it’s interesting that we are almost completely forgiving of racist media choices that happened in the past. Sure, that title would never fly now (thank goodness), but who’s to say it was that offensive in 1939? No one? No one? No, how can we be authorities on 1939? So let’s write the title off to a misunderstanding and a difference in societal norms!
Sorry, that just doesn’t sit well with me. I know, for example, that at the time at least some readers found the original British title objectionable. When the American edition debuted only 2 months after the British edition it was called And Then There Were None. Obviously something didn’t sit well with everyone even back then.
The Wikipedia article on the book offers an explanation of the title discrepancy in its first paragraph, which at the time of this post’s writing reads that the title “originally derived from antiquated English terminology, is considered racist by modern standards”—which, excuse my language, smells like a load of horsepoopy. This claim will be especially funny to you if you read the link I posted above about “Ten Little Indians” and the nursery rhyme’s origin.
So how does this affect our reading of the mystery? Can the long-dead Ms. Christie be held accountable for racism in choosing that title originally, or do we forgive her because of the times? Can her publisher be held responsible? Or, in your opinion, is the book only problematic in its own context and divorced from its (now-ex) title?
The mystery story itself does not age and continues to attract readers every day, obviously, given the ongoing sales. PC-ification has taken different turns in different editions of the book to allow its continued appeal to readers. For example, the version of the book I read had replaced the word “Indian” (which, as we’ve learned, had already been replaced) in both the rhyme and in the island’s name with the word “soldier” (so we had ten little soldiers on Soldier Island).
On July 24, we’ll reconvene here to discuss the book itself. Can’t wait to hear your thoughts!