I don’t remember much about Square One‘s Dragnet parody, Mathnet, apart from the fact that I loved it, that the Christmas episode of Shining Time Station prevented them from ever airing the solution to their wrestling mystery serial, and that one plotline sticks out in my memory.
The two Mathnet agents were on their way to a murder mystery weekend, dressed as Holmes and Watson. Instead, they got stranded at an out-of-the-way manor house with six mysterious guests. On the pool table in the games room, there were six brass statuettes of Blind Justice. It was dark and stormy. And, in the middle of the first evening, when one of the guests disappeared, the frantic investigators searching the games room found… that one of the statuettes went missing as well.
DUN DUN DUNNNNNN! I was hooked.
At the time, I didn’t know that “The Case of the Mystery Weekend“, in which guests who’d been cleared of crimes by numerical proof were being spirited away by a kidnapper who didn’t believe in math, was a parody of Agatha Christie’s best and most original novel: And Then There Were None.*
In And Then There Were None, eight guests and two staff find themselves stuck on the desolate Soldier Island. All of them, it transpires, were lured there by a letter purporting to be from someone they knew. None of them, they begin to piece together, has the slightest idea who actually arranged this whole thing.
But as the first evening progresses, they learn the truth of their circumstances. Each of them has gotten away with murder — and someone has invited them all to this desolate place, intent on seeing vigilante justice done.
The quaint nursery rhyme framed in the dining room becomes more sinister: just as terrible fates befall the ten little soldier boys, one by one, someone murders the guests in ways matching the story in the rhyme. The novel starts with ten soldier-boy statuettes as a dining-room centrepiece; when a new character is killed, the remainder find a soldier statue has been smashed or, in some cases, has disappeared.
I loved this story so much that my copy is stained pink with red food colouring from the margarine tub of fake blood I made in ninth grade, when my friends and I decided to make a film adaptation.**
But what makes And Then There Were None so compelling? On the surface, it shares its spookier qualities with any slasher movie: trapped in a remote location, killer knocking off characters one by one, creepy gimmick with each death. But there’s something more to it than that.
First, there’s the deduction, which the surviving characters make fairly quickly, that the murderer must be one of the guests. Each guest is plausible — after all, they’ve all killed once before. But no character seems probable. Christie lets us see in each of their heads through internal narration, and we still have no idea whodunnit, though the reveal at the end still makes perfect sense.
As the guests’ numbers dwindle, so does their (and our) pool of suspects, but the mystery remains baffling as before. The danger comes not from the unknown stalker in the shadows but from the seeming ally in the light. The call is coming from inside the house! The murderer is… one of us!
The erasure of the dividing line between familiar/safe and strange/danger is one of Christie’s hallmarks, and she applies it to great effect. As the characters constantly doubt, double-doubt, and check over their shoulders, so do we. We assess the potential for every protagonist’s mask to hide the potential homicidal mastermind, and although we may form temporary alliances, like the characters, we can trust only ourselves.
Second, Christie evokes a fatalistic inevitability about the series of murders. We know what should happen next — the clue’s right there in the rhyme. We know what the characters have to do to stay safe — keep an eye on each other and catch the killer in the act. We even know what the murderer does immediately after each kill — grabs one of the statuettes that are always in the same place and can therefore be watched.
But does knowing any of this give us or the protagonists the power to stop the murders? No!
Despite the guests’ best efforts, they never catch sight of the killer. Every time, some other situation organically unfolds to prevent them (and us) from being able to eliminate even a single suspect, let alone finger the true culprit. Heck, sometimes, they can’t even figure out how the killer pulled off a seemingly impossible strike; they just have to roll with the assumption that somebody did it and go from there.
The killer begins to seem omnipotent, even though, grounded in Christie’s regular British society, we trust this story contains no elements of the supernatural.
Finally, Christie forces us to care about at least some of the characters, even though they’re murderers. A few are unsympathetic, but we somehow want the core pair we stay with through most of the story to survive. When they’re scared and confused, so are we. The murders are a nice intellectual puzzle, but these characters give the story emotional drive.
The theatrical adaptations make them both innocent — one has come in the place of his murderous brother, the other is falsely accused — in part because of spoiler reasons but also to make this job of getting us to care easier. But Christie doesn’t go that route: from the beginning, we’re pretty sure both of them dunnit. And we still don’t want to see them die.
One we like because in the midst of all the false protestations of innocence, he casually admits to his crime. It’s refreshing for at least one character to have self knowledge, and it’s clear he thinks his reasons were justified.
The other is the only character to express remorse for what she’s done. Although she lies to everyone else, we see that not only has she lost the things she hoped to gain by her crime, but she also torments herself with her past actions.
Together, this combo of sympathetic characters (who, we nevertheless agree, somewhat deserve their punishment) struggling against danger from within, shifting alliances, and constant suspicion, all leading to their inevitable fate draws the reader in. And Then There Were None is unputdownable: I envy those reading it for the first time, because you can experience that mixture of fearful suspense and intense curiosity only once.
Oh well. We’ll always have the Mathnet version.
* Agatha Christie being white, middle-class, and English during the 1930s, there are ways in which this novel is actually the worst: its references to racist rhymes about first n-words and then “Indians” luckily were easily excised without the slightest change to the plot or mystery. Current versions thankfully make the previously titular rhyme about “soldier boys,” and the genius of the mystery can be enjoyed without the overt racism of the past. Racist and xenophobic colonialist sentiments and quaintly offensive fallacies about sex and gender remain. It’s not my place to tell you this book is otherwise good enough to ignore them; all I can tell you is how I feel about it.
** That turned out to mean “I adapted the book, poorly, and two of the other girls and I filmed one scene consisting mostly of giggles.” It was good fun.