Agatha Christie’s novel And Then There Were None, originally published in England in 1939 under the unfortunate title Ten Little Niggers, is tied with J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings as the second best-selling novel of all time (only J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone has sold more copies). This makes it the most widely read mystery novel of all time, so hopefully nothing I say here will be giving much away. (But don’t worry … I’m not going to reveal “whodunnit.”)
In And Then There Were None, eight people are invited to an island off the coast of Devon by a Mr. and Mrs. “U.N. Owen.” (Get it?) When the guests arrive, they are informed that Mr. Owen is away, and that the guests will be attended to by servants Thomas and Ethel Rogers, bringing the cast of characters up to ten.
Even 70 years ago, the N-word was a more sensitive topic in America than it was in England. Presumably because of this, the novel was published in the U.S. as And Then There Were None in 1940, the name of the island was changed from “Nigger Island” to “Indian Island,” and the song that provides the structure of the story was changed from the original, which had been a standard of blackface minstrel shows since 1869, to “Ten Little Indians”:
Ten little Indian boys went out to dine; One choked his little self and then there were nine.
Nine little Indian boys sat up very late; One overslept himself and then there were eight.
Eight little Indian boys travelling in Devon; One said he’d stay there and then there were seven.
Seven little Indian boys chopping up sticks; One chopped himself in half and then there were six.
Six little Indian boys playing with a hive; A bumblebee stung one and then there were five.
Five little Indian boys going in for law; One got in Chancery and then there were four.
Four little Indian boys going out to sea; A red herring swallowed one and then there were three.
Three little Indian boys walking in the zoo; A big bear hugged one and then there were two.
Two Little Indian boys sitting in the sun; One got frizzled up and then there was one.
One little Indian boy left all alone; He went out and hanged himself and then there were none.
Each guest finds a framed copy of this gruesome little poem in his or her room, and is informed over dinner, via a phonograph record, that everyone on the island has gotten away with murder in one way or other, and that all are going to pay. Then the fun begins, as the characters are dispatched in the manner of the rhyme. The first guest drinks cyanide at dinner (choking), the second has an overdose of sleeping pills (oversleeping), the third declares that no one will leave the island and soon after is bludgeoned (one said he’d stay there), and so on.
The novel is a case of truth in advertising. At the end, all the characters are dead. The film is somewhat lighter, and allows a couple of them to escape unharmed. It follows Christie’s own 1943 stage adaptation of her novel, which softened the grim denouement. Given what’s come before, however, the happy ending feels like a bit of a cheat, and modern viewers might find themselves rolling their eyes at the finale.
And Then There Were None is still a great little mystery picture, though, and its cast of veteran character actors play their parts to the hilt. The film occasionally borders on farce, but never in a bad way. I especially enjoyed Walter Huston’s performance as the quietly maniacal Dr. Armstrong, but Louis Hayward as the cat-like Lombard and Barry Fitzgerald as the phlegmatic Judge Quinncannon are both memorable, as well.