18 November 2022 ☼ Essay ☼ Author: Agatha Christie ☼ Book Review
And Then There Were None, the twenty-fifth of Agatha Christie’s 66 mystery novels, is a great book. I don’t mean simply that it’s fun to read, although I’ve reread it more times than I can remember. Or that it’s a cracking good mystery; it is, but the actual mystery will turn out to not be the book’s strongest feature. No, I mean that it is great beyond merely being enjoyable; it is great in a way worth contemplating.
Because: decades after the rise of postmodernism and its influence on literary criticism, and the rise of cultural studies, and the denouncing of elitism, and many many attempts to bury the idea of an agreed-upon canon, a good number of us readers still classify books as “enjoyable” or “important” — good to read versus good-for-you, the beach read versus the commitment, the kind of book you buy for yourself versus the kind of book you were required to read. When an important book turns out to also be enjoyable, it’s a pleasant surprise. And Then There Were None is an enjoyable book that turns out to be important.
Christie has been getting her due of late as an enjoyable writer. Her best-known detective, Hercule Poirot, is still so popular that the Christie estate authorized contemporary writer Sophie Hannah to revive him in a new series of novels. There’s a new biography, and new filmed takes on Murder on the Orient Express in 2017 and Death on the Nile earlier this year. And the BBC spent 2015 to 2020 broadcasting a series of Christie adaptations by screenwriter Sarah Phelps. The first, of And Then There Were None, featured a no-holds-barred cast including Miranda Richardson, Sam Neill, Aidan Turner (with Irish accent in place, no less), and Charles “Tywin Lannister” Dance.
But generally Christie’s books are not regarded as important. (John Lancaster’s 2018 London Review of Books essay is the exception to the rule, and he focuses more on her body of work as a whole than on any individual book, as he would later do with Georges Simenon.) This has held true even after it became passé to automatically classify a writer as unimportant for being female and writing in an identifiable genre. She did write an awful lot of those books, after all, and we tend to regard a few long books as more worthy of respect than many short ones. She was also human, and so some of those 66 mysteries are better than others; I’ve read almost all of them, and I can tell you that some are boring, some are forgettable as soon as you learn whodunit, and some are outright terrible. (In 1969’s Hallowe’en Party, for example, one of Christie’s last books, she spends so much time sourly complaining about the younger generation she forgets to make sure her mystery makes any sense.) Read too many in a row and the bewildered parlourmaids, village gossips, and gruff gentlemen who can’t confess their love tend to run together.
The cast of And Then There Were None does indeed include a very correct housekeeper and butler, a gruff veteran who loved not wisely but too well, a judgmental spinster, and a prim secretary. The greatness of And Then There Were None is not despite its being a murder mystery with stock characters; its being a murder mystery with stock characters is crucial to its greatness. Christie used her genre tools to make an exploration of the frailty of human goodness. It turns out that And Then There Were None is a deeply moral book, with something to say about human nature, and the reader is implicated in its judgments. Moreover Phelps’s 2015 televised adaptation undermines Christie’s moral argument enough that it looks bad for all of us, readers turned viewers.
One of the great pleasures of And Then There Were None is the reveal: to linger on the page in which the baffled Scotland Yard detective cries, “In that case, who killed them?” and savor the last moment before learning the answer. So consider this paragraph your spoiler warning, as the rest of this essay will discuss the entire book, including the killer’s identity. If you haven’t already read the book, I strongly encourage you to move on and read something else. (Ken Leung’s essay on the death of his brother, for example, humane and heartbreaking as it is.)
For those who have read the book, allow me to recap: ten strangers living in various parts of mid-1930s England are summoned by letter, on various vague premises, to an island off the coast of Devon, on which has been built a large, modern manor house. Hardly have they made each other’s acquaintances than a record plays and an unidentified voice accuses each of them of past murder. Thomas and Ethel Rogers, the butler and housemaid, are accused of having withheld life-saving medicine from a previous employer. Dr. George Armstrong is accused of having killed one of his patients. Anthony Marston, an aristocratic playboy, is said to have run people over with his SuperSport Dalmain. William Blore, a former policeman, is held responsible for the death of a man he investigated; Emily Blunt, the spinster, for that of her former maid; Philip Lombard, a gun-for-hire with a mysterious colonial past, for that of “twenty-one men, members of an East African tribe”; Thomas Macarthur, who was a general during World War I, for that of a solider under his command; and Lawrence Wargrave, a retired judge, for that of a defendant who came before him. Finally, Vera Claythorne, the secretary who previously worked as a governess, is accused of having murdered a 12-year-old boy in her care.
The assembled accused mostly indignantly swear their innocence. Anthony Marston is an exception: he admits to having run over two people without much remorse, or even much memory of the incident. (“Beastly bad luck,” he shrugs. “For them, or for you?” asks Wargrave.) A few minutes later he drinks a toast—and promptly dies, a lethal dose of cyanide having been put into his glass. That happens on the evening of August 8th. By the time anyone else gets to the island on the 12th, every single person in the previous paragraph is dead.
The group realizes fairly early on that there is no murderer hiding in the shadows; the murderer must therefore be one of the group of ten. The narrative stays with the group as it decreases, jumping from one point of view to another (including the murderer’s), until the last person dies; then the book cuts to a pair of Scotland Yard detectives recapping the events and bewailing the central puzzle. Finally, a letter fished from a bottle in the sea (yes, really) gives the murderer a chance to confess and explain everything.
Wargrave, the retired judge, turns out to be the killer. He is a sadist, he admits, who enjoys watching people suffer—but not innocent people. (The Scotland Yard detectives also reveal that the prisoner before Wargrave was guilty as charged.) Moreover, he’d just been diagnosed with terminal cancer. So, with nothing to lose, he went around collecting stories of murderers who had never been charged, or even necessarily accused; acquired the manor house; invited his chosen perpetrator/victims to the island; and proceeded to knock them off one by one. He complicated things (for the people on the island, the Scotland Yard detectives, and the reader) by faking his own death midway through, assisted by the trusting Dr. Armstrong, whom Wargave rewarded for his pains by pushing him off a cliff into the sea.
Here’s where the central mystery of And Then There Were None starts falling apart more quickly than you would expect of a Christie puzzle. Wargrave, described as scrupulously fair during his professional career, convicts his chosen victims largely on hearsay; he’s mainly lucky that the other nine all show up at the right time and all turn out to be guilty. (In one of the subsequent adaptations, Philip Lombard kills himself before the action starts, and his place is taken by a disguised innocent friend.) He’s also lucky that a storm starts right after the group arrives, cutting them off from communication with the coast, and that no one catches him on one of his many dashes around the island killing people—for an older man whose murder spree is in part inspired by a diagnosis of incurable cancer that happens to be causing him some pain, Wargrave moves astonishingly quickly and stealthily. He’s also lucky that, although the victims know they’ve been accused—the record even addresses them with, “Prisoners at the bar, have you anything to say in your defense?”—almost no one jumps to the reasonable conclusion that the murderer might be a judge. (Lombard does; more on that later.) Even Wargrave’s death-faking plan, smart as it looks, requires Blore and Lombard, both of whom presumably have a fair bit of experience with dead bodies, to move Wargrave’s “corpse” up a flight of stairs without noticing that he’s actually still alive. Raymond Chandler was reportedly not at all impressed by Christie in general and And Then There Were None in particular, and after the reveal, it’s easy to understand why.
So And Then There Were None, for all its skill, isn’t Christie’s best mystery. (The site PoirotScore gives it a mere 88 points, mostly because it’s “not well clued”; Murder on the Orient Express has the highest grade, at 95 points.) But what it lacks in plausibility it more than makes up for in psychological scrutiny. And Then There Were None is merely an enjoyable Christie when the question on the table is who poisoned Tony Marston, but once the murders start accelerating, and the remaining characters are left to stew in their own fear and guilt, it comes into its own. Which means we should now turn to the victim who survives the longest and suffers the most, and gets the most of Christie’s attention: Vera Claythorne.
Wargrave, protagonist of the book’s most obvious dramatic arc, is the first character we meet. Vera is the second:
Vera Claythorne, in a third-class carriage with five other travelers in it, leaned her head back and shut her eyes. How hot it was traveling by train today! It would be nice to get to the sea! Really a great piece of luck getting this job. When you wanted a holiday post it nearly always meant looking after a swarm of children—secretarial holiday posts were much more difficult to get. Even the agency hadn’t held out much hope.
A type, fine; but a recognizable type, easy to sympathize with. A woman who just wants a decent job and some air conditioning.
But this is a 170-page novel with ten murders in it, so Christie’s got to hurry us along, and by the next page Vera’s thinking about the worst thing she’s ever done (as obsessively as she thinks about it, it might as well be the only thing she’s ever done). Like the rest of Wargrave’s victims, she’s guilty of the crime the record player accused her of:
A picture rose clearly before her mind. Cyril’s head, bobbing up and down, swimming to the rock… Up and down—up and down… And herself, swimming in easy, practiced strokes after him—cleaving her way through the water but knowing, only too surely, that she wouldn’t be in time…
Cyril is Cyril Hamilton, the boy whose charge was left to governess Vera. Meanwhile Vera and Hugo Hamilton, Cyril’s uncle, were in love, but Hugo didn’t feel he could marry Vera, since he had no money of his own: Cyril, not he, had inherited his brother’s fortune. When Cyril asked to swim a dangerous distance out, Vera apparently saw her opportunity to clear the way for her lover. Admittedly, that first interior monologue leaves some room for doubt; Vera could simply be suffering from survivor’s guilt. But by the end of the story there’s no ambiguity whatsoever: Vera deliberately allowed Cyril to start swimming out, knowing he would likely drown, and even distracted his mother so she wouldn’t notice.
So the reader knows the truth. But does Vera? The most obvious question of And Then There Were None is whodunit. But the book’s second, deeper question is whether Vera will be able to recognize the wrong she’s done.
Vera’s interior monologues sound well enough like a guilty conscience in a genre novel, as she obsessively remembers the crime and wonders about Hugo, who cut off contact with her after the inquest into Cyril’s death. But while she thinks constantly about the crime, she almost never thinks about the wrong. She never thinks about what Cyril would be doing or contemplates his being dead. She wonders over and over about where Hugo is (and who he’s with, and what is he thinking, and if he’s thinking of her, and whether he’ll ever return one day—it’s that obsessive) but her thoughts seem to have been bled dry of empathy. She doesn’t even think that she loves him, even though she woundedly remembers him saying that he loved her. It seems not to have occurred to her at any point that Hugo might feel pain upon the death of his beloved nephew, regardless of whether the death came at his girlfriend’s hand.
In short, Vera acts like a romantic heroine: brave, determined, haunted by lost love, tragic. It’s only when the reader remembers that she murdered a boy for whom she had responsibility that she proves a grotesque parody of a romantic heroine.
But that leads to a new question: why doesn’t the reader remember it more often? How does Vera not promptly lose our sympathy? She outlives almost everyone else, remember. If the reader decided early on that she deserves whatever violent death is coming to her, And Then There Were None would be a much more tiresome book. It’s Christie’s authorial skill that keeps the reader with Vera, and the moral questions Vera poses up in the air.
Christie stacks the deck in Vera’s favor in several ways. One is simply by returning to her point of view so often; it’s hard not to emphasize with Vera as she copes with an increasingly horrifying situation. Another is by making Cyril one-dimensional, and the one dimension very annoying. “Horrid whiny little boy,” Vera remembers, given to lying, also apparently given to pestering Vera about swimming to the rock despite her and presumably his mother and his Uncle Hugo and anyone with a lick of sense replying that it was too dangerous. Christie was never particularly moony about children, in writing or in real life, but in this particular case she gives the impression of being willing to drown Cyril Hamilton herself, and strangle him a couple times for good measure.
Still a third method of winning our sympathy for Vera is to contrast her with less sympathetic characters. Take her conversation with the righteous Emily Brent, who reveals that she dismissed her maid after finding out the girl was pregnant:
Vera said in a lower voice, “What happened—to her?”
Miss Brent said, “The abandoned creature, not content with having one sin on her conscience, committed a still graver sin. She took her own life.”
Vera whispered, horror struck, “She killed herself?”
“Yes, she threw herself into the river.”
Vera shivered. She stared at the calm, delicate profile of Emily Brent. She said, “What did you feel like when you knew she’d done that? Weren’t you sorry? Didn’t you blame yourself?”
Emily Brent drew herself up. “I? I had nothing with which to reproach myself.”
“But if your—hardness—drove her to it.”
Emily Brent said sharply, “Her own action—her own sin—that was what drove her to it. If she had behaved like a decent modest young woman none of this would have happened.”
She turned her face to Vera. There was no self-reproach, no uneasiness in those eyes. They were hard and self-righteous…. The little elderly spinster was no longer slightly ridiculous to Vera. Suddenly—she was terrible.
Emily Brent’s conscience turns out to be, as events play out, as marked as Vera’s: by the time she dies she’s regularly hallucinating the maid has come from the river to see her. The obscures the fact that of all Wargrave’s chosen guest-victims, Emily Brent is the farthest from being a true killer. There is no evidence that she abetted or even anticipated the maid’s suicide. Moreover, if we’re going to hold Emily Brent responsible, we should also perhaps hold the father of the unborn child, and the maid’s family, and all those overbearing but well-meaning post-Victorian charity volunteers—all of British society. (And that’s all setting aside the question of the responsibility of the maid herself, but it’s worth noting that unwed mothers pop up more than once in Christie’s works—in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and Cat Among the Pigeons, for example—and as a whole they seem, while unfortunate, more resilient than self-pitying or self-destructive.) So we should have more sympathy for the woman whose crime was being unfeeling and a bad boss than for the woman whose crime was tricking a child into drowning himself.
It doesn’t work that way. Like Vera, Emily Brent is a type: a Bible-thumping, small-eyed, judgmental, humorless, deeply unlikable type. Christie works hard to make the reader despise her, and the reader responds accordingly. When Nicole Cliffe wrote about the 2015 BBC miniseries for the late The Toast, a publication not averse to identifying instances of misogyny in past societies, she called Emily Brent “a hypocritical monster who radiates badness” and added, “I loathe her with every bone in my body.”
Repellent as Emily Brent’s rigid application of absolute principles is, it still should stand in contrast to Vera’s seeming utter lack of such principles. If Vera had had more of a moral backbone, she might have been less eager to murder a child for money. But the reader has to step back from the fast-moving action, and from identifying with Vera, to remember this.
Now, you could argue that this has been not analysis but special pleading on my part. Perhaps I’m the only one who reads Vera with such sympathy, and everyone else is repulsed by her crime and her self-deception immediately. But if that were the case, why did Christie treat Vera so well after And Then There Were None was published? She insisted on writing the stage adaptation herself (it took two years, and therefore didn’t premiere until 1943). It was her idea to give the play a happy ending, in which both Vera and Philip Lombard turn out to be innocent, unmask Wargrave, and seal it all with a kiss. The play was a success—Christie later credited it with having boosted her playwriting career, leading to The Mousetrap and Witness for the Prosecution—and most English-language film and theatrical versions of And Then There Were None, including 1945 and 1974 Hollywood films, keep Vera innocent. Not until the 2015 adaptation did the BBC show Vera as a doomed murderer.
Even Maeve Dermody, who played Vera in that BBC adaptation and who therefore knows Vera’s faults as well as any reader (and had those faults fresh in her mind , as by her own account she didn’t read And Then There Were None until she’d been cast), was hard pressed, in pre-show press, to condemn Vera. “She’s clever,” Dermody said in one interview. “She doesn’t miss a beat.” I suspect that Christie, had she been alive, would have endorsed the sentiment. Vera works so well as a character, despite being a horrible person, because Christie sympathizes with her. There are lots of plucky not-upper-class young women (and they are inevitably described as “plucky”) in Christie’s books; think of blunt Megan Barnard in The ABC Murders or strong-willed, good-hearted Cornelia Robson in Death on the Nile, both of whom end their respective books not only alive and innocent, but paired up with adoring men to boot. But for a horrible decision, Vera could be our heroine. Christie’s decision to make Vera innocent in the And Then There Were None play sold well, but it could also have been an expression of fondness for a character who otherwise shouldn’t have deserved it.
And this matters, because if Christie (or Dermody, or the reader) can sympathize with Vera, then it means that the line between Christie and Vera is not that thick. Christie is too wise to protest, as Vera does upon being accused, that she is too good a person to ever contemplate drowning a child for money. The capacity for evil exists in all of us: Christie, Dermody, me, you. And Vera used hers. So now what?
Wargrave claims that he eliminates his victims roughly in the order of the heinousness of their crimes, so that the guiltier live longer and suffer more. This is a little bit of justification after the fact; in several cases he’s clearly just seizing the opportunity. But Christie the author has also structured it that the most interesting characters survive the longest—there’s Vera, whose grappling with her own guilt is the central moral question of the story, and then alone with her at the end (besides Wargrave, still faking his own death) there’s Philip Lombard, who presents her with a possible answer.
As I noted earlier, Anthony Marston admits his guilt almost immediately, and then dies soon after. Wargrave justifies this by saying that Marston had no conscience and therefore it was fruitless to try and punish him for his crimes; a better explanation is that Christie just didn’t find all that much to work with in the character. Because Lombard also admits his guilt almost immediately:
Lombard spoke. His eyes were amused. He said, “About those natives… Story’s quite true! I left ’em! Matter of self-preservation. We were lost in the bush. I and a couple of other fellows took what food there was and cleared out.”
General Macarthur said sternly, “You abandoned your men—left them to starve?”
Lombard said, “Not quite the act of a pukka sahib, I’m afraid. But self-preservation’s a man’s first duty. And natives don’t mind dying, you know. They don’t feel about it as Europeans do.”
Vera lifted her face from her hands. She said, staring at him, “You left them—to die?”
Lombard answered, “I left them to die.” His amused eyes looked into her horrified ones.
(Note that the two people who act most obviously horrified by Lombard’s lack of guilt are the two whose crimes come closest to his: Macarthur, who didn’t abandon one of his soldiers but deliberately sent him to death, and Vera, who left Cyril to drown.)
Having stated his guilt, Lombard seems relatively at peace with it. As we hop from head to head, Lombard is the only major character who doesn’t flash back to his crimes at any point, or have nightmares about the people he killed. Moreover, from a more practical perspective, it would make sense for Wargrave to kill Lombard first, as the sharp-witted, athletic, armed Lombard poses more of a threat than most of the group to the completion of Wargrave’s plans. But Lombard gets to live to the end, in part as a way for Christie to register the seriousness of having killed twenty-one people (even if they were just “natives,” a view some of her readers might have shared at the time) but also because Lombard’s lack of guilt allows him to act as a counterpoint to guilt-haunted Vera.
If Vera is clever, Lombard is more so. He’s the first person to state that Marston has been murdered, when the others are still doubtfully contemplating suicide, and the first to venture the possibility that they have all been brought to the island to be killed. He’s the only person (in conversation with Vera, no less) to consider the possibility that Wargrave is the murderer. And it’s to him that Blore, who has been sulkily insisting he was only doing his duty, and then Vera confess their crimes:
Lombard looked at her. He said, “That’s conscience….” After a moment’s silence he said very quietly, “So you did drown that kid after all?”
“I didn’t! I didn’t! You have no right to say that!”
He laughed easily. “Oh yes you did, my good girl! I don’t know why. Can’t imagine. There was a man in it probably. Was that it?”
A sudden feeling of lassitude, of intense weariness, spread over Vera’s limbs. She said in a dull voice, “Yes—there was a man in it….”
Lombard said softly, “Thanks. That’s what I wanted to know….”
Note the timing of Lombard calling Vera “my good girl.” He’s been acting increasingly affectionate with her throughout the book: he cheers when she refuses to drink whiskey she thinks might be poisoned after nearly fainting, he insists she stay in her room when he and Blore think the murderer is on the prowl, he worries she’ll be cold when they’re outside. But now he’s saying “my good girl” immediately after stating he believes that she murdered a child, since to him, murdering a child is no threat to her goodness. “Self-preservation’s a man’s first duty,” he said, and meant it. Unlike Marston, who never could make a moral decision in the first place, Lombard has considered the possible implications of having murdered, and decided (with the help of a hearty dose of colonial racism) that refusing to live would be the greater sin. He admires Vera when she acts to preserve her own life, dead child be damned. He is a life force: corrupted and corrupting, but a life force nevertheless.
Soon after this dialogue Vera and Lombard find first Blore’s and then Armstrong’s bodies, and with Wargrave presumably having been shot earlier, they both believe they are the only two people left on the island, and each naturally suspects the other of being the murderer. There follows a dramatic scene in which Vera is able to steal Lombard’s revolver away from him. As with Wargrave’s murdering scheme, from a purely plot point of view this doesn’t hold up. We’ve been told the whole book about Lombard’s quick reflexes; the idea that Vera would be able to get the revolver so cleanly away from him when he’s hyperparanoid and convinced she’s about to kill him strains credulity. Moreover, Vera has been on the scent of a “red herring” related to Armstrong for a while by this point—she’s wrong about Armstrong being the perpetrator, not the victim, but she’s right that a trick has been played and Armstrong was involved—while Lombard has just pointed out to her that he couldn’t have had anything to do with Armstrong’s disappearance, and he should know that she couldn’t have had anything to do with it either, since he spoke to her in her bedroom. Of course, Vera and Lombard are half out of their minds with fear and tension, and each of them know the other is capable of killing someone. But it’s also just as plausible that they might figure out that they’re each other’s best allies even in that tense moment.
Plot-wise, it doesn’t work, but in terms of the book’s moral universe, there’s no other way it can end other than Vera shooting Philip Lombard. Allying with him would mean accepting his conviction that survival trumps everything, and that she is right to live even with her crime on her conscience. Once Lombard dies (at Vera’s own hand), that option is no longer available to her. She has confessed; she can no longer put up a facade of innocence to herself. She must admit the totality of what she has done, even at the cost of her own life. “That was what murder was—as easy as that!” she says to herself before climbing to the noose Wargrave has strung up for her. “But afterwards you went on remembering….” She has spent the entire book wondering if Hugo knew she had deliberately sent Cyril to his death, but as the scene climaxes, she thinks: “Hugo was there to see she did what she had to do.” Hugo, with his disinterested love for his nephew, represents goodness. But goodness is lost to Vera. It’s not that her death redeems her—she may not be redeemable—but committing suicide is the least evil choice she has left.
So let’s turn now to the 2015 BBC adaptation, since I started by claiming that it fails to keep Christie’s moral argument. One might think a 2015 production of And Then There Were None which sticks to the truth of Vera’s guilt, right up to Vera shooting Lombard and then hanging herself, would be ethically clearer-eyed than Christie was able to be herself, up to rejecting the novel’s original racist language. (The initial title was Ten Little N—-ers; it was later released as Ten Little Indians, and is now almost exclusively titled And Then There Were None. The title comes from a “childhood rhyme” that foreshadows the manner of each victim’s death. In the paperback copy I have, printed in 1977, the title says And Then There Were None but the rhyme still refers to “ten little Indian boys”; current printings change that to “ten little soldier boys.”)
Since I haven’t really addressed the novel’s colonialism (as opposed to Lombard’s specific ugly practice of it), let me now throw you over to this excellent video:
One of the points Margarita G, the video author and narrator, makes is that the assembly of characters is the cream of respectable English society: a doctor, a judge, a retired general, a governess, a police officer, and so on. And yet the narrative not only exposes them as murderers but as the doomed “Indian boys” of the nursery rhyme. “Death was for—the other people,” Vera thinks after Marston is killed, not yet realizing that she is one of the “other people.” In removing the colonialist language, the BBC adaptation conceals what the original novel exposed, that the murderer/victims are in part relying on their own trumped-up conception of themselves as British and white and therefore superior, to help them deny their own guilt. (Part of what horrifies them, perhaps, is that they don’t disagree so much with Lombard’s contemptuous dismissal of the “natives,” they’re just not so gauche as to state the dismissal out loud.)
But the BBC adaptation changes more than that. Some of the changes can be attributed to how our expectations of media and women have changed in the last century: Vera and Lombard actually get to go to bed together before meeting their doom. Some of them seem like Sarah Phelps’s impatience at Christie’s plot handwaving. (An example: the rhyme calls for one victim to be “stung by a bee.” In the book, Wargrave somehow manages to transport a live bee to the island without being noticed and place it by Emily Brent’s body. Phelps’s approach is much more practical: Wargrave stabs her with a size B knitting needle.) But many of the changes are to the murders that took place before the gathering on Indian (now Soldier) Island. As murders by omission are harder to visualize, they become murders by commission: Rogers doesn’t merely forget his employer’s medicine, but actively suffocates her; Macarthur shoots his wife’s lover in the head; Lombard kills Africans for diamonds rather than for self-preservation.
Then there are four major changes to Vera’s story. The first is the depiction of Cyril Hamilton as a considerably more winning kid—who even hopes that she’ll marry his uncle!—to make her betrayal of him all the less sympathetic. The second is to the murder itself: Vera is shown lounging on the beach, idly playing in the sand, knowing full well that that every second she lingers is another nail in Cyril’s coffin. (In the book, Vera definitely engineers things so that Cyril can start swimming without her, and by her own admission “pretends” to swim after him, but she’s with his mother on the beach when he starts out, and apparently gives a convincing enough impression of trying to rescue him that everyone present believes she was making a sincere effort.) The third change is a scene after the inquest, in which Hugo confronts Vera with her guilt and abandons her in discuss. Book Vera’s own denial of her crime hinges in part on this confrontation never happening; had she ever been faced with Hugo’s explicit accusation, she might well have killed herself even without Wargrave and his machinations. But the BBC’s Vera shrugs it off. She’s much closer to Lombard’s position, recognizing her crime and living with it, than the book version is: less morally conflicted, more straight-up evil.
The final and biggest change to Vera’s character arc comes at the end, after she’s shot Lombard (multiple times, not once, and not in self-defense). As in the book, Vera returns to the house, hallucinating (Cyril, now, rather than Hugo), finds the noose set up in her room, climbs up on the chair, and puts it around her neck. But then Wargrave (who in the book has been hiding in the closet, and Vera never even realizes he’s there) enters the room, startling her; she stumbles and half kicks over the chair, leaving her half in the noose, half balancing for her life. Seeing Wargrave apparently gives Vera a new lease on life, as she pleads for him to help her out of the noose. She promises to lie and claim that Lombard killed everyone. “They believed me last time,” she says, referring to her ability to fool the inquiring jury as to her culpability in Cyril Hamilton’s death. Wargrave, being terminally ill and pleased with the success of his elaborate plan, is in no mood to humor the person he considers among the guiltiest of his murderer-victims, and kicks the chair out, leaving her to be strangled by her own weight against the rope.
Thus the BBC’s Vera doesn’t choose to kill herself. The BBC’s Vera does not choose, seemingly never accepting the gravity of what she’s done. She goes down fighting for her life without having come to the realization that her life may not be worth it. She dies, slowly and painfully, without any kind of moral redemption whatsoever.
So if the BBC’s Vera gets no redemption arc, what about us?
“I have a definite sadistic delight in seeing or causing death,” writes Wargrave in his confession. “To see a wretched criminal squirming in the dock, suffering the tortures of the damned, as his doom came slowly and slowly nearer, was to me an exquisite pleasure. Mind you, I took no pleasure in seeing an innocent man there.”
If Hugo Hamilton represents goodness, and Philip Lombard the corrupting life force, then Wargrave represents the reader. Like Wargrave, we are watching these wretched killers suffer the tortures of the damned as their doom comes slowly nearer. We take no pleasure in seeing the innocent there; hence the falsely-accused play versions of Vera and Lombard get to live. But here, everyone is guilty. Because of Christie’s third-person omniscient style, we not only observe these characters, we read their suffering. And the more we identify with Vera, the more we suffer with her.
Here the reader and Wargrave part company. Wargrave has no interest in a redemption arc for Vera; he’s too busy looking forward to her execution. (Quite possibly the most human moment in the book is Vera’s surprise at realizing the judge doesn’t like her very much, though she doesn’t know why not.) But the reader, with Vera as well as observing her, gets to take part in Vera’s moral journey. We’re with her in all of this. We need her to reject Lombard’s amorality, rather than be further implicated in it ourselves. That’s why it matters that Vera, alone of Wargrave’s nine chosen victims on the island, chooses to kill herself, rather than be killed without having recognized her guilt.
The problem of the BBC miniseries isn’t just that it denies Vera that moral agency; it also denies the viewer the opportunity to be with Vera. In part this is a problem of medium: we can’t read the characters’ thoughts via television. But upping the violence distances us from Vera and the other characters. It’s a lot easier to imagine yourself sweating through telling a couple white lies while on the witness stand, as Blore does in the book, than physically beating a man to death, as Blore does in the miniseries. (Phelps further ups the stakes by making the victim gay—in the book Blore specifically remembers him as having a wife and child—and thus suggesting Blore’s reaction smacks of homophobia to boot.) It’s a lot easier to nod at book Vera’s unrepentant memories of Cyril, who’s basically a walking Darwin Award with a runny nose, than to sympathize with her when he’s an onscreen sweetheart and she kills him anyway. By making the murders more visceral and horrifying, Phelps makes them less relatable.
“Crime and its punishment have always fascinated me,” the book’s Wargrave goes on. “I enjoy reading every kind of detective story and thriller. I have devised for my own private amusement the most ingenious ways of carrying out a murder.” If Wargrave is the reader, he is also the writer, he is Christie; or, if you prefer, Christie is a fellow reader. You don’t write more than sixty murder mysteries without being a bit invested in the formula, and and Christie reportedly was very proud of having constructed And Then There Were None. She was the one who got into her characters’ heads. She was Wargrave, coming up with the puzzles and enjoying watching the guilty squirm, but she was also Vera, as well as all the others. No wonder Phelps said to the Guardian, “It’s a portrait of a psychopath, even you might say a portrait of the writer as psychopath but that’s another meta-question.”
But Sarah Phelps is not Wargrave and Vera and Philip Lombard. In the interviews she gave about adapting And Then There Were None she assumes a certain distance from the characters: “When I was writing I kept thinking of the Greeks, thinking of the remorselessness and the poem as actually a Greek chorus: ‘You’re not going anywhere, you’re pinned, you’re fixed, here is the eye of God, it doesn’t blink, look at you squirm.’ It’s terrifying.” She told British Heritage Travel: “It was important when I was writing it that the murders really matter and they really happen. So when it says that somebody has died in a particular way, it doesn’t look pretty, let us put it like that.” The result onscreen is that, as Margarita G puts it, “Pretty much everyone behaves like a complete and utter sociopath.”
And so the BBC series, ever so subtly, flatters its audience. Phelps noted several times how And Then There Were None is a product of 1939, of the rising tension between the two world wars, as if questions of guilt and innocence and justice were not present-day issues. The BBC series says: you, audience, would never stab an unconscious woman with a knitting needle. You would never let a cute kid drown, or beat someone out of homophobia, or casually slaughter a bunch of Africans for diamonds. They did, those benighted past people of the 1930s, and now you can watch them get what they deserve, and root for Charles Dance to give it to them, good and elegantly.
Paradoxically, by rejecting Christie’s unsparing moral message, the BBC makes the original And Then There Were None all the more valuable. If we can find a warning about the potential for evil in everyone, character and reader alike, in a pulp murder mystery, maybe we need to rethink the way we treat book genres and their readers. And if we cannot adapt that book for television without eliminating that warning, then maybe there is something about moving from print to visual entertainment that leads us to moral failure in ways we haven’t yet fully recognized.