If you want a detective novel that breaks all the rules, this is the novel you should read (and if you want an adaptation that breaks the internet, cast Aidan Turner in a leading role and clad him only in a towel). To all intents and purposes a locked room mystery, Christie sets up a gathering of thoroughly unlikeable characters and kills them off one by one leaving the reader to wonder who by – and how? In so doing, she holds up the conventions of detective fiction for analysis and then stands the whole edifice on its head.
This is, far and away, one of Christie’s best novels; clever, intricate and well written, the reader is hard pushed to work out the solution to the mystery before it is presented in the epilogue. And it is all so entirely plausible and realistic – although reflective of the social standards of its time – that such gaffes as exist are easily forgiven. And forgotten, because now I’m thinking about it, I can’t actually remember one, although I’m sure there is. Perhaps I’ll just suggest that Christie’s main gaffe was the novel’s original title and leave it there.
It was also ahead of its time; in gathering a group of characters and then killing them off she presages the slasher movie genre of the 1980s and 1990s – not bad going for 1939! Even here she puts her own stamp on things, as every potential victim is also a potential suspect, each one capable of murder (and each one having committed at least one murder one way or another). Although we lack a “great detective” in the form of Poirot or Marple, Mr Blore is a detective of sorts, although not a very good one, having a tendency to jump to conclusions which are frequently wrong.
Possibly the most traditionally villainous of all the characters is Philip Lombard (played by Aidan Turner – see, I was paying attention), an Irish mercenary who arrives at Soldier Island with a loaded gun. In 1939, the only thing possibly more worrying (and dangerous) than that would have been a German soldier. I shan’t spoil it for you by telling you whether or not he’s the murderer – if you want to find out, get yourself either to iPlayer or read the book. It’s worth the effort.
Every character brings with them their own dark secret, but one of which the murderer is already well aware – so much so, that it is the instrument with which they are ultimately killed. The central motif of the ten figurines which decrease in number each time the murderer strikes is cleverly done, as is the link with the traditional nursery rhyme (the one with the unmentionable title) as a means of illustrating each character’s demise. Really clever stuff.
Christie always said that this was one of the hardest books she wrote, but also that it was one of her favourites. I think she has excellent taste, because this is also one of mine. And I came to that conclusion before Aidan Turner broke the internet with his towel.