The BBC Christmas-2015 dramatisation of Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None (1939) proved both a popular and a critical hit. It's still on iPlayer, though I don't know for how long. I enjoyed it, too; although by substituting high production values, fine locations and quality acting for the grey soup of Christie's prose it makes 'sophisticated entertainment' out of some really not very sophisticated source-material in a way that's a little distorting. But anyway, it has prompted me to titivate and repost something I originally wrote for another now-defunct and deleted blog, on Christie's novel.
To do so, however, I think we must go back to Christie's original title: Ten Little Niggers (1939). And that means I have to start with an apology for the use of the n-word, here elsewhere throughout this post. I appreciate it is an offensive term, nowadays. More, and just to be clear, it was offensive back then too: Dodd, Mead and Company published the book in November 1939 as Ten Little Niggers, but reissued it only two months later as And Then There Were None because of the original's racist tone. It has been published and adapted as Ten Little Indians and Ten Little Soldier Boys (though also, I have to say, sometimes republished under its original offensive title, right up to the 1970s), and naturally the option is available to me to discuss the text under one or other of these euphemistic names. But the offensiveness of using the original title needs to be balanced against the greater need not to airbrush away the immanent low-level racism of the culture out of which these novels were created. To render the racism of the past invisible is to empower the racism of today by inoculating it against history.
Black characters crop up rarely in Christie (there are none in Ten Little Niggers, for instance, despite its title). But 'foreigners' are one of the key types of otherness by which her cosy-catastrophic narrative twostep of death (Order Lost) and detection (New Order Regained) is orchestrated. The other type, perhaps surprisingly, is 'middle aged men of the professional classes'. I can't remember where I first read about Christie's dislike of doctors, the textual consequence of which is that if you are reading a Christie whodunnit and one of the characters is a doctor (especially a surgeon or consultant) nine times out of ten he (of course the doctor will be a he) is the murderer. Other 'professionals', especially lawyers and judges, are also broadly distrusted by Christie. Nor do these two stereotypes fit together into an uncommon combination of dislike: the trope of mistrusting, disliking and, indeed, actively blaming the monied racial 'other' because he is unlike oneself and has lots of money gears only too easily up to some of the worst inhumanity of the twentieth century. The ten characters in Ten Little Niggers are all invited or induced to Nigger Island by the murderer, who cloaks him/herself under the ignotus-y pseudonym 'U.N.Owen' ('or by a slight stretch of fancy -- UNKNOWN! '). The flash young Captain Lombard, for instance, is offered quite a lot of money, but although he goes he has his suspicions:
What exactly was up, he wondered? That little Jew had been damned mysterious ... A hundred guineas when he was literally down to his last square meal! He had fancied, though, that the little Jew had not been deceived—that was the damnable part about Jews, you couldn't deceive them about money—they knew! 1939, ladies and gentlemen.
This is glancing enough, but not untypical. Elsewhere in pre-War Christie, Jews are vermin (‘he was king of the rats … his face gleamed white and sharp in the moonlight. There was the least hint of a curve to the thin nose. His father had been a Polish Jew’ The Mystery of the Blue Train, 1928) or repulsive toad-like moneylenders—as in The Secret of Chimneys (1925) whose villain Isaacstein has ‘a fat yellow face and black eyes as impenetrable as those of a cobra’ as well as a ‘generous curve to [his] big nose’. He represents ‘Hebraic people. Yellow-faced financiers’ and is dismissively referred to as ‘Ikey Hermanstein’, ‘Nosystein’ and ‘Fat Ikey’ by the novel’s gentile dramatis personae. T S Eliot and Wagner make references of this stripe in their art, and critics fulminate or wring their hands. Christie does it and people nod indulgently, mumble that she is 'of her time' and pass over it in silence. Or they actively scrub it out of the books, via surreptitious Bowdlerisation and re-naming. This might be because people think they take Christie's art 'less seriously' than Eliot or Wagner; but I don't think her work is less serious. It's less complex, and less resonant, but its main theme—death—is exactly as serious, and she has enjoyed far greater cultural penetration and reach than either of the other two. Ten Little Niggers is, according to some list, the sixth-best-selling books of all time, after all.
Indeed this, I think, is part of what is interesting about 'the whodunnit' as a form, a distinctively twentieth-century mode of art and indeed one of only a handful of modes invented by that troubled century (along with cinema, TV and pop music; strictly we could add 'video games' to that list, but I think it's clear that the 21st-century is the time of that mode's true florescence). Puzzle-mystery stories had been popular in the nineteenth-century, of course, but the emphasis there had been on the puzzle; it is a striking thing to read the complete run of Sherlock Holmes stories and appreciate how rarely Conan Doyle presented his detective with a dead body—much more often the mystery will something stolen, somebody blackmailed or kidnapped, or a painted canine. But the default premise of the classic 20th-century crime novel is death, one or many; and that shift of emphasis is interesting.
One of the things that is new about the C20th-century whodunnit is precisely the way it handles death. Previously (excuse me if I talk a little over-generally) art encountered death as tragedy, either for the individual or (in Wagner) for the world, something to be apprehended with sorrow or defiance; or else art represented death as a portal, a transcendental supercession of mortality into (usually) a glorious spiritual state. These are both meaningful ways of relating to mortality, of course; but the Golden Age whodunit proposes a different one: it says not just that death is a puzzle—which is fair enough, I suppose—but that death is a soluble puzzle. That's the radical bit, I think.
Martin Heidegger talks about humans embodying a 'being-towards-death', a dimension of our Dasein that, uniquely for us, can project itself forward against its own finitude. Now, Heidegger was for a time a member of the Nazi party, so we can intuit his attitude towards racial otherness. But putting that on one side for a moment. He elaborates 'being-towards-death' in his big book, Sein und Zeit, ('Being and Time' 1927) a text I'm tempted to characterise as 'boring-towards-death'. To cut a long boring short, here's Simon Critchley’s deft summary:
There are four rather formal criteria in Heidegger's conception of being-towards-death: it is non-relational, certain, indefinite and not to be outstripped. Firstly, death is non-relational in the sense in standing before death one has cut off all relations to others. Death cannot be experienced through the deaths of others, but only through my relation to my death ... Secondly, it is certain that we are going to die. Although one might evade or run away from the fact, no one doubts that life comes to an end in death. Thirdly, death is indefinite in the sense that although death is certain, we do not know when it going to happen ... Fourthly, to say that death is not to be outstripped (unüberholbar) simply means that death is pretty damned important. There's no way of trumping it and it outstrips all the possibilities that my power of free projection possesses.The puzzle-whodunit dramatizes the first three of these modes of being-towards-death, fairly straightforwardly, but where it gets interesting is the fourth. I suppose that on one level, even (perhaps) a banal level, it is central to the form that the veil of mystery is always stripped away by these books' conclusions. You may object that this only happens in a trivial sense, but I'd suggest both that the structure of these sorts of novels constellates a plotted trivium against a metaphorical profundity. More, I'd go further and suggest that, regardless of what a large number of 'serious' novelists suggest, this is the right way round, actually.
I'll dilate upon this point for a moment, before coming back to Christie's novel. Crime stories still have huge reader appeal, but the puzzle-whodunit has (broadly) gone out of fashion. Instead we have a great many novels that attempt to put the profundity up front. There is now a different sort of generalised anxiety about the ‘death’ around which the genre is structured, a desire to ‘take it seriously’, in contemporary crime fiction. Now personally speaking I’m drawn to the Golden Age whodunits because they often are superbly ingenious, and I prize ingenuity; but I suppose it's true to say that contemporary crime stories have lost interest in ingenuity for its own sake. In such titles as I have read from the franchises of Dibdin’s Aurelio Zen books, or the Rebus novels of Ian Rankin, or from watching The Killing or The Bridge, the mystery itself is rather watery, and the emphasis is shifted over to the creation of atmosphere, location, a particular city (Rome, Edinburgh) and a distinctive central character—or in the many historical whodunits, from Lindsay Duncan to Ellis Peters, a kind of historical infodumping. Or to direct our attention in another direction and our eye falls on the vasty stretches of ‘gritty’ crime novels, police procedurals, serial killer yarns, ‘psychological’ tales and so on. Here ingenuity seems simply to be out of place, perhaps because these novels pretend to verisimilitude, and ‘we’ don’t really believe the world to be a place of ingenious schemes and plots. Murder, says the consensus today, is brutal and, in an existential sense, simple. But it seems to me that, in fact, that death is not existentially simple. On the contrary, it is prodigiously puzzling, a mystery hidden in plain view—we all know we will die, after all, although that knowledge is not a simple thing. And furthermore it strikes me that there are things a notionally trivial mode of art, like the whodunit, can say about this puzzle—about its opacity, or more particularly about the disconnect between surface glamour and the resistance-to-interpretation of the depths—that more notionally ‘complex’ forms cannot.
One way of responding to Ten Little Niggers is to test it for plausibility and coherence. But this is not the best way, because of course the plot is implausible and incoherent; it makes no more pretense as far as this is concerned than do Samuel Beckett's plays.
The scene is laid on an island off the coast of Devon, to which eight people arrive, each having received a personal invitation framed in so tempting a way that none demurred. The house in which they are all staying has a butler and cook—so that’s ten people on the island in total; and on their first evening they assemble to hear a gramophone recording of their invisible host. The recording accuses each of them of some horrible sin or crime or another; and thereafter, one by one, the dramatis personae are murdered. With each death, another one of a set of ten china figurines is smashed; and the nursery rhyme from which the books takes its name is acted out in grisly manner. The clever thing here is the way it invites the reader to guess the murderer, only to remove the reader's suspect from consideration by having him or her killed off; and to do so over and over again. It is, really, a very gripping way of doing things.
Plausibility, did you say? Well, surely the murderer could not be certain that all ten victims would accept the invitation to the island, or that they would play along; it's not likely that the whole filigree elaborate scheme of 'the murderer' would run along its grooves as smoothly as the book has it doing. That the victims wouldn't simply swim away (the weather isn't always bad, and the mainland is clearly visible from the island), or build a boat. That they wouldn't all just lock themselves in their rooms until rescue came. But to think like this is to miss the point. The artifice of the scheme, worked through in the narrative, is a feature, not a bug. Arguably it is a key feature. From a metaphorical point of view, whodunits like these are in effect saying: death is complex, ingenious, unexpected and above all artificial. And although perhaps it sounds counterintuitive, I wonder if this doesn’t actually encode a greater existential veracity than the ‘realist’ mode. Think of your own mortality. Of course in one sense it is the very opposite of ‘an unexpected thing’; we all know we must die. But in another sense it is necessarily radically unexpected: we can never anticipate it, because we shall not live through it. It is something incommensurate with our living being-in-the-world. Its complexity derives, I think, from this.
But there is also this question of the solubility of mortality. It is something, in a deep sense, insoluble; and perhaps the logic of the ingeniously difficult mystery is a better way of apprehending that than notions that death is, in any sense, straightforward. Or to be a little more specific: obviously these sorts of books do offer a ‘solution’; but unlike the death of Othello, or of Prince André in War and Peace these ‘solutions’ are radically unsatisfying. They address the epiphenomena of the victim’s death without touching in any sense upon the deeper questions—and this, I’m arguing, is more existentially honest than the conventional tragic mode. The artificiality of the Golden Age whodunit set-up refracts Heidegger's perspective: any notional ‘realism’ about death must be existentially mendacious, because death is not ‘real’ in the sense that the events of my life are real (having breakfast, dropping the kids at school, going to work and so on). Death is not a part of life, not lived-through, only ever lived-towards. It is an artifice, not in the sense that it has an artificer; or more precisely only in the sense that its artificer is us ourselves, the stories we tell ourselves. And Ten Little Niggers makes great play with its egregious artificiality. A character notes that ‘it’s only in books people carry revolvers around as a matter of course’  precisely to set-up the discovery that one character is carrying around a revolver around as a matter of course. To quote General Macarthur: “the whole thing is preposterous—preposterous!”’ . Of course it is, and designedly so.
This is not to absolve Ten Little Niggers of its horrible title, or Christie's work generally of its ubiquitous though low-level racism. On the contrary; it is to highlight the way that this novel—not to labour the point, but a book published in 1939—is precisely about an ingenious though sadistic plot to isolate a number of clever, mostly affluent but fundamentally wicked people on an island, and dispose of them. The late 30s and early 40s had no shortage of crazy schemes to solve the (let me just crack open the scare quotes) 'Jewish problem' by bunging them all on an island somewhere. Paul De Man wrote an essay on "The Jews in Contemporary Literature" (published, notoriously, in Le Soir early in 1941) in which Jews are described as possessing precisely the calculating, remorseless qualities of the murderer in Christie's novel ('Their cerebralness, their capacity to assimilate doctrines while maintaining a cold detachment from them ...'). De Man actively advocates isolating them all on an island: 'one can thus see that solution to the Jewish problem that would lead to the creation of a Jewish colony isolated from Europe would not have, for the literary life of the West, regrettable consequences. It would lose, in all, some personalities of mediocre worth.'
The 'solution' to Ten Little Niggers is a final one. In that respect the euphemistic re-titling is correct, 'and then there were none'. Some film versions of the book fudge this issue, leaving a couple of survivors. Christie is more ruthless, and the BBC is to be commended for sticking to this in their 2015 adaptation—all die. All must die. We could put it, appropriating a contemporary's words, that her position is that reasons of race and religion combine to make any large number of free-thinking 'bad people' undesirable. And a spirit of excessive tolerance is to be deprecated.
More particularly, in Ten Little Niggers, as in some other of her titles, Christie knowingly pushes the 'puzzle whodunit' form to an extreme. Usually, of course, a whodunit will entail one murder, a gaggle of suspects—a dozen, say—one of whom is shown to be guilty. But in Christie's most remarkable books everyone is guilty (Orient Express, Ten Little Niggers), or the Law itself is guilty, both in the sense that the representative of the law is the murderer (Ten Little Niggers, Hercule Poirot's Christmas, Mousetrap, Curtain) and in the broader sense that justice is the same indiscriminate, mortal process as murder. Her more conventional whodunits pale into feebleness beside this splendidly, Lutheran conceit—that we are all guilty, that the law exists to punish us all.
Regular whodunits are stagey, right down to the assemble-in-the-library-please denouement. But Ten Little Niggers takes this aspect to stagier-than-thou lengths. The murderer addresses the assembled group via a pre-recorded gramophone record; but this is described in the novel in terms of a capitalised Voice (‘into that silence came The Voice. Without warning, inhuman, penetrating ...’ 56). The starkly typified characters—retired Judge, religious spinster, flash young man and so on—in this bright-lit artificial environment, as the storm rages outside, Lear-like (or Peter-Brook-Staging-King-Lear-like): there is a sense of unaccommodated man facing down his mortality, although when Christie reaches (uncharacteristically) for the Vatic it doesn’t really convince (all the following ellipses are hers: ‘Aeons passed ... worlds spun and whirled ... Time was motionless ... It stood still: it passed through a thousand ages ...’ )
The last two left alive are Vera and Philip Lombard. Vera has the gun, and Philip jumps her for it. ‘He sprang. Quick as a panther—as any other feline creature ... Automatically Vera pressed the trigger ... Lombard’s body stayed poised in mid-spring, then crashed heavily to the ground’ . In another setting, the Wile E. Coyote touch of ‘Lombard’s body stayed poised in mid-spring’ would be simply risible. Here, in this pared-down Beckettian landscape, it feels oddly right.
What does all this have to do with the question of racism, with which this post opened? The obvious answer to this is that Christie's novels, as unusually pure examples of the puzzle-whodunit form, necessarily trade in stereotypical characters; and that therefore the Weltanschauung they construct must be stereotypical too. This is because a puzzle whodunit needs to put its pieces in play, for the reader to solve the puzzle; and that a too rich or detailed individuation of those pieces would interfere with the crispness of the larger pattern. Reading Christie's whodunits puts me in mind of what Nabokov said in Speak Memory about his favourite hobby, constructing chess problems:
It is a beautiful, complex and sterile art related to the ordinary form of the game only insofar as, say, the properties of a sphere are made use of both by a juggler in weaving a new act and by a tennis player in winning a tournament. Most chess players, in fact, amateurs and masters alike, are only mildly interested in these highly specialized, fanciful, stylish riddles, and though appreciative of a catchy problem would be utterly baffled if asked to compose one.Mutatis mutandi, as the mutant Latin goes, this applies wonderfully to the relationship between Christie's puzzles and actual crime; the relationship between Christie's 'death' and actual death. There is a sterility to what she does, it is true; but an invigorating rather than enervating one.
I'm tempting to suggest that the real theme of Ten Little Niggers is not death, so much as the way we are trapped by death, the way it permits us no get-out. Like the monolithic, mind-straitjacket called racism, death closes down our possibilities, and fills us with fear and irrational suspicion. Plus, it has to be said, a weird, gallows hilarity. In the novel, all the occupants of the island have a mortal sin on their conscience. In the case of Philip Lombard, this is that when an army once officer he abandoned a company of native soldiers, making off with their supplies and so ensuring their death. Vera Claythorne and Emily Brent discuss his case. ‘He admits to having abandoned twenty men to their deaths,’ notes the latter. ‘They were only natives!’ retorts Vera. Emily’s response to this (that ‘black or white, they were our brothers’) provokes laughter in Vera: ‘our black brothers—our black brothers! Oh, I’m going to laugh. I’m hysterical. I’m not myself ...’  What is it that Christie finds funny here, I wonder: that 'we' might consider black people 'brothers'? The grounds of the comparison are the gravest, and the most profound: that black people, Jews and white people all share the predicament that they are thinking, feeling beings who will die. This grim brother- and sisterhood unites us all, after all; and it is this, most fundamentally, that makes a mockery of racism.