Literature: And Then There Were None

aka: Twelve Little Indians
A really bad weekend getaway.

One of the most famous and popular murder mysteries of all time.

Agatha Christie wrote the book in 1939 and later adapted the story into a play in 1943 (with a Revised Ending). The various film versions — including the four English-language films from 1945, 1965, 1975, and 1989 — mostly use the play's ending (or a variation thereof) rather than the book's (which makes sense once you know the book's ending). A Russian version, produced in 1987, became the only major film adaptation to use the novel's original ending.

The novel has a number of different titles as a direct result of Values Dissonance. Upon its release, the book bore the title Ten Little Niggers (which was not shocking in 1930s Britain). In the U.S., more sensitive publishers changed the title to And Then There Were None, although the Soviet and the French adaptations retained the original title. (The book was also published as Ten Little Indians on both sides of the Atlantic for a time, until people eventually came to see that title as racist as well; consequently, And Then There Were None has more or less become the official standardized title.)

Whatever you call it, every serious mystery fan knows the novel's plot by heart: Ten people, strangers to each other, receive invitations to an island hideaway — where a mysterious recording accuses each person of causing another person's death. One by one, murders start cropping up amongst the group — each one executed in a fashion similar to those in the "Ten Little Indians" rhyme — and those still alive come to the only possible conclusion: one of them has killed the others. Paranoia and suspicion run high as each person tries to outwit the killer. Who can the survivors trust — and how long will it be before the next Little Indian dies…?

The group of ten, in alphabetical order, consists of:

  • Dr. Edward Armstrong, a medical doctor, who finds himself accused of causing the death of a patient by operating on her while drunk.
  • William Henry Blore, a private investigator and former policeman, who finds himself accused of causing the death of an innocent man by giving false evidence in court and landing him in prison (where, due to his frail health, the victim died).
  • Emily Brent, a dour and staunchly religious woman, who finds herself accused of causing the death of her maid Beatrice by firing her and turning her out of the household when she became pregnant (and thus driving her to suicide).
  • Vera Claythorne, a young former governess turned gym teacher and secretary, who finds herself accused of causing the death of her lover Hugo's little nephew, Cyril, by encouraging him to swim out to sea alone and drown (so Hugo could inherit the estate of Cyril's father).
  • Colonel Philip Lombard, a cool-headed and intelligent man, who finds himself accused of causing the death of twenty-one natives by abandoning them in his brief career as a mercenary in Africa.
  • General John Macarthur, a retired World War I general, who finds himself accused of causing the death of his wife's lover by sending him on a war mission that guaranteed his death.
  • Anthony Marston, a handsome and vain youth with little concern for others, who finds himself accused of causing the deaths of two children by accidentally running over them with his car.
  • Thomas and Ethel Rogers, the butler and the cook charged with accommodating the other eight guests, who find themselves accused of causing the death of their former employer, an old and sick American lady, for monetary gain.
  • Judge Lawrence Wargrave, a retired Hanging Judge with a no-nonsense attitude, who finds himself accused of causing the death of an accused murderer by steering the jury into sentencing him to death (despite the evidence supporting his innocence).

Which one of these ten hated the others so much that they would choose to kill them?

This story serves as the Trope Namer for the tropes "Ten Little Murder Victims" and "Acquitted Too Late", as well as the partial inspiration for the board game and film Clue.

The novel is in the public domain and may be read in full here.

Given the age of the book, spoilers for it below are unmarked.

The original book contains examples of the following tropes:

  • Acquitted Too Late: The Trope Namer; Judge Wargrave remarks that only the dead are above suspicion. However, it's more of an Invoked Trope here than a straight example; once the "death proves innocence" idea is set in the party's minds, the killer fakes his own death to throw suspicion off himself.
  • Asshole Victim: None of the victims is exactly an innocent, though a few are sympathetic to varying degrees.
  • Anyone Can Die: And they all do.
  • Ax-Crazy: Vera, and to a lesser extent Wargrave.
  • Big Bad: U.N. Owen.
  • Brainless Beauty: Anthony Marston.
  • The Butler Did It: Averted; Mr. Rogers is one of the first characters to be killed off. Played straight in the backstory, where he and his wife aka the landlady did commit the crime they were accused of.
  • Censored Title: Originally titled Ten Little Niggers; later versions were changed to Ten Little Indians or And Then There Were None. Desyat Negrityat, the Soviet movie version, actually kept the original title and translated it into Russian despite being produced in 1987 (though the term is not really offensive in Russian).
    • Recent versions have changed the in-world 'ten little Indians' poem to 'ten little soldiers', or 'ten little sailor-boys' in the video game.
    • Despite the word "nègre" being as offensive as its English equivalent " nigger" the original title was retained in the French edition Dix petits nègres
  • Chekhov's Gun: The hook on the ceiling in Vera's room. To a lesser extent, the rhyme when it is first introduced may also count.
    • In addition, the marble bear clock in Vera's room (briefly mentioned near the beginning), which is later used to kill Blore.
  • The Chessmaster: The killer, with an elaborate Gambit Roulette.
  • Closed Circle: Trapped on an island.
  • Contrived Coincidence: The storm that just happened to show up and prevent any would-be escapee from swimming away from the island.
  • Downer Ending: There's a reason why only the Russian movie adaptation uses it.
  • The Dragon: Both Armstrong and Issac Moriss can be considered this to U.N. Owen, who made sure they both got their comeuppance.
  • Driven to Suicide: Beatrice Taylor (Emily Brent's 'victim') and also Vera Claythorne.
    • In the first movie, Emily's victim is changed to her wayward nephew.
  • Drowning My Sorrows: Hugo Hamilton became an alcoholic after he realized that Vera killed Cyril for him.
  • Dwindling Party: The guests on the island are killed off one-by-one.
  • Empathic Environment: The worsening weather coincides with the worsening situation on the island.
  • Extremely Short Timespan: The guests arrived on Indian Island on the 8th of August. According to the epilogue, a distress signal was spotted on the 11th, with the events shortly after resulting in the deaths of everyone left on the island, and a rescue party was sent on the 12th.
  • Fingertip Drug Analysis
  • Foregone Conclusion: At first glance, the American title seems like it's just trying to entice the reader by using the last line of the nursery rhyme it follows. In actuality, anyone who's read the book knows that it's actually telling you how many characters will be left at the end.
  • For the Evulz: An unusual example, the killer admits that his main motive was that he felt compelled to murder people, but his Knight Templar tendencies mean that he still feels that all of his victims have to be people who deserve it; that is, they had carried out murders that the law couldn't punish them for, but that a vigilante could.
  • Forged Letter: The culprit sent a letter to all his victims under different names, to trick them into coming to Indian Island. And going by the first scene of the book, the culprit also sent a fake letter to himself... for some reason...
  • Gambit Roulette
  • Hanging Judge: Wargrave.
  • Haunted Heroine: Vera Claythorne.
  • Holier Than Thou: Emily Brent.
  • Ironic Nursery Tune: One of Christie's favourite tropes, and in this book it's central to the plot.
  • It's All About Me: Anthony Marston completely fails to understand that the death of John and Lucy Combes was not just about the inconvenience of losing his license. The killer's opinion is that Marston's overdose of this trope makes him an extreme danger to himself and others, and removing him would be doing the entire community a favor.
  • Kill 'em All: When the authorities arrive they find ten bodies.
  • Knight Templar: Wargrave, who was a borderline psychopath, but still retained some morals and preferred to use the law and what he considered justice to get what he wanted, meaning that he targeted only those who were guilty.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: When Emily Brent and Vera Claythorne are discussing Philip Lombard's guilt, Miss Brent (who is otherwise self-righteous to the point of cruelty) is adamant that Lombard is guilty for abandoning twenty-one natives: "Black or white, they are our brothers." Vera starts laughing at this idea (then again, Vera's sanity has been fraying steadily throughout the novel).
  • Last Survivor Suicide: Managed twice in the same book. First we see Vera committing suicide in guilt and then in the epilogue we see Wargrave, who we now learn was alive at the time, commit suicide to leave a perfect puzzle and to complete his view of justice (He had been innocent in his view until the murders).
  • Locked Room Mystery: All that is left at the end is a bunch of dead bodies on an island. The times and manners of death are completely contradictory and baffle the police.
  • Meaningful Name: Judge Wargrave, the killer.
  • Message in a Bottle: Discovered at the end.
  • Mind Rape: The "mundane" version, that is. Every single victim goes through it, thanks to U.N. Owen, and the one who gets the worst of it is Vera Claythorne.
  • Murder By Inaction: An old couple who are accused of doing this to their previous mistress to inherit from her.
  • Murder-Suicide: Wargrave commits suicide after arranging the deaths of everyone else, as he feels himself to be no better than his victims. Besides, he's dying anyway (it's very vaguely implied that he has late-stage cancer) and prefers to go out on his own terms.
    • Vera commits suicide by hanging after shooting Lombard on the beach.
  • Old Dark House: Actually a normal, recently-built modern house in the novel. The narrator remarks that, to some of the guests, the horror of the situation is actually exacerbated by it taking place in a nice modern house with no grotesque Gothic architectural features, no hidden nooks or dark corners, and nice bright electric lighting (when the generator's running).
  • The Perfect Crime
  • Poetic Serial Killer: Going off the "Ten Little Indians" rhyme.
  • Pride: Miss Brent is consumed by it.
  • Psychological Thriller: The book has elements of this.
  • Redemption Equals Death: Okay, "redemption" might be a strong word, but most of the guests begin to feel varying degrees of guilt about their crimes. Even Emily Brent has nightmares about the girl she drove to suicide, and Vera suffers worst of all— in fact, she chooses to hang herself rather than remain alive with her guilt.
  • Red Herring: Referred to in the poem; one character points it out, but with the wrong interpretation.
  • Red Herring Mole: While every single character is a suspect (right up until they die), the one who gains the most suspicion in the latter half of the book is Doctor Armstrong, who of course turns out to only have been a pawn in the serial killer's game.
  • Serial Killer
  • Serial-Killer Killer: Sort of. The victims were not strictly Serial Killers, but guilty of a single murder or manslaughter.
  • Shout-Out: An obscure one. Vera Claythorne mentions a story in which two Supreme Court judges come to an American town and administer justice - but they aren't really from this world at all. The reference is to The New Administration by Melville Davisson Post.
  • Significant Monogram: U. N. Owen is discovered to be a Sue Donym, standing for "Unknown".
  • Sociopathic Hero: Philip Lombard, to some degree.
    • Also Wargrave, who basically describes himself as someone who likes killing and inflicting pain, but only does so to those he feels they deserve it by law.
  • Sorting Algorithm of Evil: How the killer sees the killings. From the guy who accidentally runs over two children to the woman who deliberately sends a child to drown so she can be with her boyfriend.
  • Ten Little Murder Victims: Trope Namer, obviously.
  • Thanatos Gambit
  • Theme Serial Killer: The deaths were patterned after the "Ten Little Indians" rhyme.
  • Too Dumb to Live: Seriously, Armstrong. He believed that Wargrave wants to fake his own death in order to safely stalk the real murderer, and allied with him without realizing something like: "hey, so if the killer sees a victim that is obviously not his, won't he get suspicious?" Of course, at that point of the story the characters could get desperate and not think very rationally, but that was taking it too far.
    • Semi-justified (but still really dumb) by the fact that Armstrong once testified at a trial where Wargrave was presiding. Thus Armstrong knows Wargrave is a real judge and Wargrave knows Armstrong is a real doctor (late in the book, the others suspect Armstrong isn't a doctor). In Armstrong's mind, anyone as respectable as himself and Wargrave couldn't possibly be the killer.
  • Upper-Class Twit: Anthony Marston
  • Uriah Gambit: Macarthur's method of killing his wife Leslie's lover. It's mentioned that afterwards, he always skipped church when Uriah's story was scheduled to be read.
  • UST: Lombard and Vera, although it's only hinted at in a couple of places and never really goes anywhere.
  • Vigilante Execution
  • Vigilante Man: U. N. Owen.
  • Why Did It Have to Be Snakes?: Or wasps and bees, in Miss Brent's case.
  • Would Hurt a Child: Vera Claythorne.
  • Wouldn't Hit a Girl: Played straight with Philip Lombard and Vera Claythorne with disastrous results, as she shoots him to death.

The various adaptations of this book contain examples of the following tropes:

  • Adaptational Heroism: Christie's stage adaptation, which most of the film versions follow, has two of the ten characters innocent of the crimes of which they were accused, survive, and fall in love. Ironically these were the two whom the murderer considered the most guilty, and therefore saved them till last.
    • Russian adaptation leaves out Wargrave's obsession with murder and paints him as more of a vigilante who'd got fed up with the flawed and corrupted judicial system and decided to stage a "perfect trial":"No two-faced sell-outs of lawers, no ridiculous capes or wigs - just the judge face to face with the accused, and the criminal with his executioner."
  • Ascended Extra: Fred Narracott, the boatman and sole surviving named character in the novel, is the protagonist of the video game adaptation.
  • Better to Die Than Be Killed: In most of of the film versions, the killer tries to persuade Vera to hang herself, as "the only survivor found on an island with nine corpses will certainly be hanged. Take a piece of friendly advice; do it now, privately." What he doesn't know is that Lombard aka Charles Morley is still alive.
  • Black Comedy: The 1945 film, in particular, is loaded with this. Rogers reacts to the accusation that he poisoned the cocktails by indignantly drinking all of them, and is thus drunk when serving dinner.
  • Breaking the Fourth Wall: Shortly after the guests arrive at the island, four of the characters introduce themselves to each other, and all look straight at the camera when they do it. Later, Blore looks straight at the camera and says "I get it!" right before his head is caved in by a falling turret.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Lombard carrying a bag with a different set of initials when he arrives.
  • Darker and Edgier: The 1987 Russian version. The first victim crashes through a plate and gets the glass stuck in the face, and the UST between Vera and Lombard culminates in him raping her.
  • Dead Person Impersonation: A plot twist not in the book but in several of the movie versions reveals "Philip Lombard" is really Charles Morley who came in Lombard's place after the real Lombard committed suicide upon receiving U.N. Owen's letter.
  • Disney Death: Lombard in the 1943 play and the 1989 film.
  • Dramatic Thunder: In the 1945 film there's a dramatic clap of thunder sounds after the doctor confirms that the third victim was in fact murdered. Later there's another instance of dramatic thunder right after the Judge says that the murderer must be one of them.
  • Exact Words: In the 1945 film Lombard, when asked about the accusation that he left 21 natives in his unit to die, says "Mr. Lombard is unable to deny a thing." That's because the real Mr. Lombard isn't there.
  • Failed a Spot Check: In the 1945 film, two characters argue about whether Rogers is the killer, while dead Rogers' shoes are plainly visible in the foreground of the shot, just a few yards away and in plain view.
  • Fanservice: In the 1965 adaptation, Shirley Eaton, in the role of Vera, gets quite a few scenes in her underwear and at least one modesty towel. In the Russian version, Vera also gets a scene in her black underwear, which is followed by a bare back shot minutes later with Lombard... as he begins to rape her. Er, yeah...
  • Getting Crap Past the Radar: In the play, Emily Brent makes various comments on Vera Claythorne not wanting to appear flashy to her hostess right before making a nasty comment on how tight her dress appears (with Vera, of course, being utterly naive as to what she really means). And then there are the various instances of Lombard flirting with Vera, which include Lombard's line about being regretful he and Vera did not wake up at the same time because they could've gone down to the ocean to "have a bathe" together.
  • Hotter and Sexier: The 1965 version changed the elderly spinster character to a glamorous young actress, solely to allow another beautiful woman to be cast (a change that would be retained in both the 1975 and 1989 versions). It was also the first adaptation of a Christie work to contain a sex scene (which had not been present in the original novel). Christie was not pleased.
  • Large Ham: Every actor who has portrayed the Anthony Marston equivalent in the Hollywood adaptations. Mischa Auer in particular could be said to the worst offender.
  • Lighter and Softer: The play and 1945 movie version fall under this, as do the Harry Alan Towers adaptations.
  • Limited Wardrobe: Justified with Patrick in the game as he did not expect to be stranded on the island, but played straight with the other guests.
    • A particularly jarring example occurs later in the game during a cut scene, and what follows afterwards. Apparently, the remaining few guests didn't even bother packing pajamas.
  • Miscarriage of Justice: In Christie's own theatrical adaptation and many of the following adaptations, the murderer's plan unintentionally involves this, as two of the nine characters he believes are guilty are actually innocent. Fortunately they both survive, averting the trope.
  • Obfuscating Disability: Some stage versions place Judge Lawrence Wargrave in a wheelchair, leading to a dramatic reveal of the murderer, possibly as an obscure reference to another famous Agatha Christie show.
  • Only the Leads Get a Happy Ending
  • Psycho Lesbian: The 1989 film adaptation had Emily Brent replaced by Marion (Brenda Vaccaro), an actress who killed her lesbian lover when she started blackmailing her.
  • Psychological Thriller: The Russian movie version expands on the elements already present in the book and it works very, very well.
  • Revised Ending: When Agatha Christie adapted her own novel for the stage, she felt that the ending wasn't dramatically satisfying for the stage, so she altered it so the novel's most sympathetic characters were innocent, survived, and fell in love. The 1945 film altered this ending yet again, introducing Charles Morley, who came to the island impersonating his friend Lombard, in order to find out why Lombard killed himself after receiving U.N. Owen's letter. These two variations on the happy ending were used for nearly all the adaptations. This was surprisingly averted in both the Russian move version and Kevin Elyot's 2005 stage adaptation, both of which kept the novel's original ending.
  • Right-Hand Cat: In the 1945 and 1965 films, the Judge holds and strokes the house cat while explaining his scheme to Vera.
  • Ship Tease: The film adaptations, especially the 1965 one, crank up the UST between Lombard and Vera into a full-fledged relationship.
  • Slap-Slap-Kiss: Vera and Lombard (or Morley, depending on the adaptation.)
  • Spared by the Adaptation: Vera in the play and the English language films; Lombard in the play and the 1965 and 1989 films (the adaptations featuring Charles Morley had Lombard commit suicide before the story began.)
  • The Voice: An uncredited Christopher Lee provides the tape-recorded voice of "U. N. Owen" in the 1965 film.

Alternative Title(s):

Ten Little Indians, Twelve Little Indians