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 halves 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.

On the occasion of Agatha Christie’s 125th birth anniversary, a global online vote polled And Then There Were None as the world’s favourite Christie. At 21% of the vote, it beat Murder on The Orient Express (16%) and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (8%) by some distance. This should not come as a surprise to Christie fans in the know: And Then There Were None is the largest selling Christie novel ever and the seventh largest selling title.

It was originally titled Ten Little Niggers (which was at that time deemed an acceptable term, believe it or not) then the alternate titles of Ten Little Indians and And Then There Were None took centre stage. The original title itself should have spelled the end of the book; instead, it endured, thrived and outsold every other Christie title. Three rather poor film adaptations followed; a play with an alternate, happier ending was staged and now, a much awaited TV adaptation is in the offing.

Playing with the rules of the game

Yet, the book baffles us with its non-conformity. The story has no detective and is unsolved for all but the reader. The plot is a favourite Christie trope, the nursery rhyme murder. But it’s neither a genteel country house murder, nor a Tommy-and-Tuppence adventure steeped in international intrigue. It has been criticised for having so many deaths that one expects them at routine intervals, but it is truly unsolvable for a vast majority of the readers. And there lies the magic of the book.

Brevity is the soul of a thriller

It is a grand multitiered wedding cake of a plot, but the execution of the story is sparse, filling in ten murders, each one fitting the description of the rhyme, in a mere 84,000 odd words. This discipline of page and word count keeps the story tightly on track with no room to tip over into writing excesses.

The book begins with brief descriptions of the characters interwoven with the fact that someone has invited them over to a country house on a secluded island with a generous offer. A murky past is hinted at in vintage Christie manner. Once in the island retreat, this motley crew finds itself unable to escape due to the squall outside. Spookily, a gramophone announces their crimes which went unpunished at the end of which, the first of the party quaffs his drink nervously and immediately dies of potassium cyanide poisoning – One choked his little self and then there were Nine.

Just to indicate the pace of the book, all this happens in the first fifth of the story.

Terror as the emotion du jour

From then on, the writer ups the ante and the victims are murdered one by one as they realise the murderer is on the island and is one of them. As tension builds up, the characters writhe in the trap, desperately hunting for the murderer before the murderer hunts them. Which (s)he does, methodically and implacably.

When Christie is critiqued in And then There Were None for cardboard characters who would be used as placeholders in her plot and a certain puppetry in her stories, I disagree. What Christie did through this story was make an elaborate plot puzzle through which only one distilled emotion would be allowed to emerge, that of an anxiety and paranoia gradually mounting to fear and spiralling into terror as it revealed the animal in the characters, indeed in all of us. The terror of the story carries both the characters and the reader in its wake so effectively that I remember dialling my parents with shaking fingers one night when they were out for dinner and I was devouring the book alone at home.

Was it also the war?

The book was published in 1939 in an anxious Britain about to tip into yet another war. This time there was no romanticism; the Great War had opened people’s eyes and the predominant emotion was one of worry. The pervasive mood in the book is that of a palpable anxiety and a heightened awareness of impending death. As it was in the world outside, so it was in here. This shared awareness of a threat between the reader and the story makes the book come alive in your hands and in your imagination. Its preposterous premise, instead of seeming ridiculous, has the feel of a renaissance murder cloaked in 1940s tweed.

Daring to be preposterous

“I had written the book ….. because it was so difficult to do that the idea had fascinated me. Ten people had to die without it becoming ridiculous or the murderer being obvious. I wrote the book after a tremendous amount of planning, and I was pleased with what I had made of it. It was clear, straightforward, baffling, and yet had a perfectly reasonable explanation; in fact, it had to have an epilogue in order to explain it. It was well received and reviewed, but the person who was really pleased with it was myself, for I knew better than any critic how difficult it had been... I don't say it is the play or book of mine that I like best, or even that I think it is my best, but I do think in some ways that it is a better piece of craftsmanship than anything else I have written."

Agatha Christie found it her most difficult story to write and understandably so. But perhaps this is why it is so successful and so memorable.