I read Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express more than ten years ago when I was still in high school. It was the first murder mystery I had read, and it was a completely new reading experience for me. Even though it was fiction, I had to stay alert to every detail the entire time in order to piece together the evidence and solve the mystery before Hercule Poirot did (an impossible feat, I soon realized).
And Then There Were None was no less gripping but definitely more terrifying. There's something about beginning a novel with ten characters and knowing that by the end, all ten of them will be dead that just fills you with an intense feeling of dread. (And lest you think, like Mike did, that I'm spoiling the ending by mentioning the fate of the characters, I'll just refer you back to the title: And Then There Were None. Pretty obvious from the get go.)
The story begins by introducing the cast of characters: Mr. Justice Wargrave, Vera Claythorne, Philip Lombard, Miss Emily Brent, General Macarthur, Dr. Armstrong, Tony Marston, Mr. Blore, and Mr. and Mrs. Rogers. They are all on their way to Soldier Island, a modern estate wrapped in mystery.
(I almost listened to this book, and in the end, I'm so, so glad I didn't. It took me awhile to become firmly acquainted with everyone, and I spent the first thirty pages or so flipping frequently back to the beginning to remind myself of one thing or another.)
Their host (a Mr. U.N. Owen) is strangely absent at their arrival. Soon after dinner on their first night, a detached voice comes blaring into the drawing room. It accuses each of them of murder. By the end of the night, one of them is dead. Suspicion and fear quickly mount as they realize they are trapped on the island, and it appears that someone (maybe one of their own?) is determined not to let them leave it alive.
This was the kind of book where, when I was in the middle of it, I couldn't put it down because I was so desperate to find out who did it and why. But then, after I finished it, I looked back at the scope of the story and thought, Wow. If that had been a news story, I would be officially freaked out right now. When you look at the bare bones of the story, it is horrifying, to be sure. That it's fiction certainly makes it a little less horrific, but still, it isn't the kind of story I could read a lot of without needing a break.
That said, even though it deals with the murder of ten individuals, it is still rather mild: most of the killing happens off stage, and none of it is described in any detail whatsoever. It is a novel that is more suspenseful than gruesome. That's why I said that in retrospect, it's horrible, but in the moment, it was absolutely gripping.
Agatha Christie is frequently referred to as The Queen of Mystery. Some might think this has to do with the sheer volume of mystery novels she wrote during her lifetime (and I'm sure, to some extent, it does). But I also believe she earned that title because she knew how to craft a truly excellent mystery.
About this particular novel she said, "I wrote the book after a tremendous amount of planning." This is obvious from the beginning. The story is layered with intent and guilt and motive. There is not a single detail mentioned that is not important. Although there are a few perspectives she surreptitiously leaves out and perhaps a few misleading comments, the evidence is there. And that is why I loved it so much: it was a mystery that I should have been able to figure out. And yet, for the life of me, I couldn't. My thoughts ran wild: I suspected everyone and no one. I thought about it when I wasn't reading, but puzzling it out never resulted in any conclusions, which made me desperate to get back to it so more of the story could unfold.
At the end, the two inspectors are discussing the case, and in looking over the evidence, they are just as baffled as I felt. The final sentence from them is, "But in that case, who killed them?" For a moment, I thought that was the end of the book. I could see there were more pages, but I honestly thought they were just an author bio or some essay. I actually shut the book, so disgusted and disappointed. C'mon, Agatha! You mean you didn't know who did it either? What a cop out.
But then I decided just to make sure. I opened the book back up, and much to my relief, it was the rest of the story, with all of the answers neatly laid out. I only feel the need to discuss an ending in detail when I am frustrated or angry about it. In this case, I am happy to keep my lips sealed because the ending was just right. (I thought of using the words "satisfying" or "perfect," but somehow those just seemed wrong in connection with murder.) Everything made sense to me; there were no surprises that weren't accounted for (which drives me absolutely batty with some mysteries). And really, once I knew everything, I was convinced it would have been impossible to imagine and construct and write such a story without an insane amount of planning.
Besides trying to figure out who the murderer was, it was also engrossing to determine who might be the next character to meet his (or her) tragic end. This was an element that is not a part of most murder mysteries, and it was just one more way the story kept up its captivating pace.
The mystery also had a creative framework, which I really liked. The entire plot is based on the nursery rhyme "Ten Little Soldiers," where one by one, the little soldier boys are eliminated. Personally, I think it's pretty gruesome for a nursery rhyme, but judging from Grimm's fairy tales, things have not always been so carefully packaged for children as they are now. Even though I don't approve of it as a nursery rhyme, I thought it provided an intriguing structure for the story.
If the ending hadn't wrapped things up so well, I know I wouldn't be praising this book nearly so much. But because she delivered the whole package, I have no reservations saying this is one of the best mysteries I've ever read. It was one I not only loved while I was reading it, but now, after the fact, I just keep thinking, That was incredible.
It was a perfect Halloween read. Even though the holiday is almost over and you're all probably in candy-induced comas by now, you might want to put it on your list for next year. Hope you all had a great Halloween!