Just a dream...

A Partial Re-Solution of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None:

A Case of Almost, But Not Quite, Getting the Job Done

                                      retour au sommaire de l'enquête

I am conscious as I embark on this attempt to shed new light on Agatha Christie’s classic variant on the locked-room mystery of letting the side down, of failing in the mission entrusted to me by my colleagues at InterCriPol by not quite getting the job done. The challenge set is to restore the balance of justice by finding the truth, by which is meant in this case the “real identity” of the killer. From the outset therefore, the mission is predicated on the innocence of Mr Justice Wargrave, or at least his failure to be guilty, to accomplish the crime of which he is accused, and indeed of which he appears to accuse himself, in And Then There Were None. In my pursuit of justice I find myself doubly straight-jacketed: first, by Christie’s own pride in her accomplishment (“I wrote the book after a tremendous amount of planning, and I was pleased with what I had made of it. It was clear, straightforward, baffling, and yet had a perfectly reasonable explanation; in fact it had to have an epilogue in order to explain it”[1]); and second, by Pierre Bayard’s revelation of a fundamental flaw in Christie’s logic, which is to say, the fact that what makes a locked room of Soldier Island is the sudden – and, crucially, unpredictable – arrival of a storm that prevents those gathered there from leaving.[2] I have found it impossible to reread the book impartially in light of these two ostensibly opposed notions, the one a celebration of perfection and the other of imperfection. And yet, clearly, the perfect crime novel must by necessity be flawed – there must be a loose thread in the carpet, a breach in the locked room. Bayard’s revelation is, of course, rather more than a thread in the carpet, since such threads are built into the weave by the artisans themselves; in this case, the flaw undoes the entire carpet, loose thread and all. Here too, however, we must not be too hasty. After all, it is not impossible that Christie’s solution is itself a bluff. As Mr Justice Wargrave thinks (aloud, as it were), “Solder Island, eh? There’s a fly in the ointment”.[3]

By her own admission, Christie cannot bring her mystery to a satisfying solution inside the traditional economy of the locked-room mystery format; instead, an epilogue is required. Objectivity and critical distance must be sought, even in the text itself, which suggests that the reader of the novel cannot be expected to solve the mystery of Soldier Island without its being provided. And yet, this too is typical of Christie: whether we chance on the authorially sanctioned solution by our own devices or not, our reading must always be ratified by the final reveal of Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple. The difference here, simply, is the scale and reflexivity of the diegetic layering. When Mr Justice Wargrave announces the presence of a fly in the ointment, it is possible that he is simply announcing his own status as the killer, and thus as the fly; it is equally possible, however, that he is a fly within the solution to the novel, a thread within the thread. Rather than simply being wrong, or incapable of pulling off the perfect crime novel, it is possible that Christie herself is suggesting that her solution is always already flawed. My mission therefore is to remove the fly and to find a satisfactory solution, one that circumvents the flaw. And in this, I have failed, for the simple reason that I cannot make sense of it at face value. In lieu of a convincing re-solution I shall instead attempt to showcase the multiplicity of the loose threads, the size of the fly in the ointment, and as such to present a partially satisfying reading, one that presents the novel as itself partial, which is to say, at once subjectively slanted and made up of multiple parts.

            Perhaps the most obvious elephant in the room, or fly in the ointment, is that Christie’s original version of the text does not include this particular thought; instead, Mr Justice Wargrave thinks to himself, but also to us: “Nigger Island, eh? There’s a nigger in the woodpile”.[4] It is not easy to ascertain when exactly the name of the novel changed from Ten Little Niggers to And Then There Were None (although a quick search of the Internet tells me that the second title was available as early as 1940 and that it was used exclusively in place of the racially offensive original title in the United States[5]); neither, without access to the necessary archival information, can it easily be assessed whether Christie herself was charged with the rewriting of this particular line. It would have been simple enough for the publishers systematically to change (from Nigger to Soldier) the references to the island, to the nursery rhyme and to the china figures that disappear one by one as the members of the house party die off. This particular line, on the other hand, requires a little thought and a greater degree of “authorial” intervention. Be this as it may, there is a fly in the ointment at the level of the paratext (both the title itself and its embedding in the novel in the form of references to the nursery rhyme) from the outset, as this double text lives on for some time. (The version of Ten Little Niggers that I am looking at as I write was printed in 1978, which is of course after Christie’s death and almost forty years both after the novel was first published with its contentious original title and after the introduction of the alternative title.)

In terms of the layering of Christie’s diegesis, perhaps the most interesting shift at play is that from the beginning of the nursery rhyme, with its insistence on the number ten (be it niggers, soldiers or Indians), to the end (“And then there were none” is the final line, which stands as a one-line conclusion at the end of the ten two-line stanzas). Etymologically, the word stanza comes from the Italian for “room”, and the shift to the alternative, and now standard, title represents a shift beyond the closed circuits of the rhyming poem to an objective, liminal position, which is echoed in (but also just outside, or liminally placed in respect to) the text in the form of Mr Justice Wargrave’s posthumous, and epilogous, confession/explanation. If the titular shift towards the ending of the nursery rhyme bolsters the final position, and poetic force (as conclusion), of Wargrave’s solution (which we also assume to be Christie’s), the stubborn refusal to disappear of the rhyme’s beginning as the novel’s “original” title must undermine the end-orientation that is synonymous with popular, genre fiction in general and with crime fiction in particular and, consequently, force us at the very least to consider an alternative reading predicated on the novel’s beginning.[6]

            The text has two principal spaces: on the island and off it. On the island, the ten assembled people all have a copy of the nursery rhyme in their rooms and, they soon realize, a china figure that stands in place for them. While the discovery of each successive body leads to the discovery of a missing figure, or piece of the puzzle, it is not absolutely clear that it is the change in territory that forces the map to change; it is at least possible that the moves of the pieces on the board that is the island have an effect on the people who are gathered there. Certainly, as the game reaches its conclusion Vera Claythorne returns to the house having killed Philip Lombard and found William Blore’s body only to find three figures remaining. She takes the decision to adjust the board to this new reality and throws two pieces away (“You’re behind the times, my dears”, she announces[7]). It is worth considering whether the three remaining figures do not in fact represent a rupture in narrative time and the logic of the locked-room format. In such a scenario, the three figures might represent three remaining players, including Vera, but excluding Lombard and Blore. If we are to run with the official solution, at least partially, then we can suggest that Mr Justice Wargrave is represented by one of the figures. If this is so, then the presence of the third figure means that he has an accomplice. That person could be one of the other supposed dead bodies. According to the epilogue, Dr Armstrong was for a time in league with Wargrave; indeed, it was he that studied the latter’s corpse and declared him dead. It is he, too, who bends over the body of Emily Brent, who sniffs her lips and looks into her eyes.[8] Her death, bees notwithstanding, appears to have been caused by lethal injection from a hypodermic syringe. This makes Armstrong the most obvious killer (because obviously well equipped for the task – he carries but temporarily misplaces a syringe, while Lombard carries and temporarily misplaces a gun); it also means that he can easily administer a sedative and stage her death. The two figures, other than Vera’s, could well be, if we imagine a Shakespearean denouement consistent with the veronal that Christie dispenses in other cases, including The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, a double death by suicide on the part of two former lovers: Lawrence Wargrave, now a retired judge, and Constance Culmington, who, in such a scenario, first invited young Lawrence to the island to bask in the sun many years ago and who now returns to depart this mortal coil alongside her first love from the place of their original tryst (she is now old and apparently obsessed with Biblical vengeance to very much the same degree as the judge[9]). This solution, while fanciful, explains why the handwriting on the letter that Wargrave is holding as the novel opens is “practically illegible”: it is a very old letter.[10] (It also explains why he is holding a letter at all; otherwise, as the sole killer and sender of the other letters, he would not himself have received one.) Lastly, this solution, which requires that Armstrong be in cahoots with Wargrave quite early in the piece, is also strengthened by the content of the dream that the doctor is having as Rogers wakes him to announce that Mrs Rogers is dead: in his dream he sees the scene of his own prediegetic crime (he killed a patient while operating under the influence of alcohol), except that it is Emily Brent on the operating table and whom he has to kill.[11] In this alternative scenario, this dream betrays the pressure that Wargrave is exerting on Armstrong to assist him in his project.

            If this scenario, which supports the officially sanctioned solution to the extent that it accepts Wargrave’s role in the killing and his short-lived arrangement with Dr Armstrong, is fanciful, it is because it does not get around the flaw exposed by Bayard, which is to say that it still depends on the arrival on the island of a storm, which while quite possible given the dominant weather patterns is not something on which the killer could rely. Before proposing a partial (and partially statisfying) solution, I should like to suggest some other textual issues that seem to me problematic as far as the officially sanctioned solution is concerned. These include not only a further, damning inconsistency, but also an example of what we might consider a problematic case of textual, or perhaps more properly an intratextual, consistency. The inconsistency first: the penultimate showdown between Vera, Lombard and Blore breaks with the pattern of murders whose order can be controlled by Wargrave as killer; while he can kill his way to this final trio, it seems impossible for him to predict, first, that Blore will elect to separate himself from the other two, and, second, that Vera will defeat Lombard in hand-to-hand, or even in sleight-of-hand, combat. Indeed, it is not simply a case of betting on David once more bucking the odds to defeat Goliath; in this case, the duel appeals rather more to the fairytale of “Little Red Riding Hood”. The text is at pains to reveal (and not hide) Lombard’s canines and his vicious, lupine snarl; in fact, to say that there is a little something of the wolf about Philip Lombard is quite the understatement. Textually and intertextually, Lombard is a wolf. He appears nonetheless to be another character driven by a quest for justice, forcing confessions from his fellow house guests, including, at the end, Vera herself.[12] He also appears to make a confession himself at the point in the narrative when they seem to be the last two people standing. When asked how the marble bear was brought down on Blore’s head, Lombard says: “A conjuring trick, my dear – a very good one”.[13] Even within the textual economy of a solution that concludes with Wargrave’s guilt, Lombard’s innocence does not appear clearly proven. Even when Vera has surreptitiously (and unconvincingly, given Lombard’s reputation as someone who has been in tight spots before) taken the revolver from his pocket, she must shoot him as he pounces on her, which he does with the speed of a “panther” or “any other feline creature”.[14] In an otherwise consistent performance (as wolf-man), this sudden character flaw (he springs like a feline when his nature is canine) seals his fate: while a third party, in the form of a hunter, is required to save Little Red Riding Hood, a mere feline can be brought down by Vera herself. But how could Wargrave predict this outcome? Surely, “wolf eats girl” is the more likely result, irrespective of who’s carrying the revolver. And it is crucial that Vera emerge from this duel, since the noose that awaits her would not ensnare Lombard, and an armed wolf would likely be a match for an insane judge risen from the grave, even if the latter is abetted by his decrepit former lover. At the very least, this is another inconsistency to add to the arrival of the storm.

            The curious and nagging consistency in Lombard’s case involves the murder of Rogers. We may recall how Dr Sheppard kills Roger Ackroyd in Christie’s officially sanctioned solution to the case: he leaves Ackroyd’s office and reflects whether he has forgotten anything. He also wonders later whether the reader of his diary would have spotted the trick had three dots been inserted. The solution to Ackroyd’s murder also hinges on the time taken between passing the gates and arriving at the house. In And Then There Were None the morning of Rogers’s death presents both these tricks:


Philip Lombard had the habit of waking at daybreak. He did so on this particular morning. He raised himself on an elbow and listened. The wind had somewhat abated but was still blowing. He could hear no sound of rain…

At eight o’clock the wind was blowing more strongly, but Lombard did not hear it. He was asleep again.[15]


Lombard is awake at daybreak but asleep again at eight o’clock. It is summertime in England in the novel, which means that sunrise is as early as five o’clock. This gives a conservative time gap of three hours that are unaccounted for between Lombard’s waking and his being asleep again. Furthermore, this gap is signalled with those three very dots that Dr Sheppard deliberately omits from his account. There are two possibilities here: first, this is a heavily signposted red herring; second, Lombard murders Rogers. At the very least, Christie’s recourse to an epilogue, in the form of the spectacular account given posthumously by Mr Justice Wargrave, calls attention to this crucial textual key to the official truth in the most famous of her posthumously revealed confessions. Once more, Wargrave’s guilt does not convincingly undo the case against Lombard.

            Let us now return to the partial solution, which falls short of the rules of InterCriPol, circumventing the problem of the textual flaw by by-passing the text itself. This is of course, a shameful act of sleight of hand, as it calls into play a standard critical move that can easily be accused of not taking into account the specificities of the case in hand and thus of silencing the voices of the text that, for Stephen Knight, are so often ignored.[16] It is therefore important that any solution that calls into account the “reality” of the narrative be itself supported by sufficient textual evidence.

            If the events on the island can be considered to be a dream, for example, then it must be decided where that dream begins and where reality stops. The hot weather and the sticky conditions on board the train seem conducive to falling asleep; indeed, this is precisely what Mr Justice Wargrave does at the end of the first part of the opening chapter. Furthermore, the judge is introduced “in the corner of a first-class smoking carriage” in which he “puffed at a cigar”.[17] The judge and the train blur into each other: not only does he “puff” just like an old steam engine, but the carriage in which he is about to fall asleep is itself “a smoking carriage”. At the beginning then, judge and locomotive steam forth in unison. Additionally, the judge is reading The Times (including the “political news”); but he is also abreast of all the media coverage pertaining to Soldier Island. The island, it is noted, “was news!”.[18] In other words, the judge’s mind is full of topical news items and the latest gossip to do with an island that he associates with Lady Constance Culmington. The letter that he has before him, we know, is “practically illegible” but those parts of its contents that are revealed to us suggest an invitation made by Constance to the judge to travel with her to Soldier Island. Wargrave remembers seeing Constance for the last time seven or eight years ago. She was wont then to bask in the sun in exotic company. Two elements seem important here: the degree of partial legibility of the letter suggests that it is old (eight years of being transported and intermittently read by a sentimental judge might well have such an effect on the paper); the other thing is the reference to basking in hot sun. Throughout the account of events on the island, the pertinence of the line of the nursery rhyme is made clear – all except one. The penultimate death (in the sequence of the nursery rhyme) is that of Philip Lombard, who is shot through the heart and not “frizzled up”, which is the fate of the ninth boy in the rhyme. It is, on the other hand, the habit, and likely fate, of Constance Culmington.

            Given Agatha Christie’s avowed practice of looking at people on public transport and crafting the characters of her plots out of her fellow travellers, it seems logical that Mr Justice Wargrave might populate the account of the events that follow with other people that he has seen on the train. It must be noted, however, that not all the characters in the book travel to Oakbridge by train: Dr Armstrong and Anthony Marston travel by car; Vera Claythorne and Philip Lombard are in the same train but in a third-class carriage; Emily Brent is in a non-smoking carriage; and General Macarthur is on another train, the slow train from Exeter. The only character travelling to Soldier Island who may be in the same carriage as the judge is William Blore, but the latter case, as we shall see, requires some additional speculation. The  most likely place for the dream to begin and (fictional) reality to cease is therefore at the end of the first part of chapter one: “Mr Justice Wargrave allowed his head to nod… He slept…”.[19] Indeed, while we know that the train is moving through Somerset, it is not specified in which direction it is heading. A glance at his watch informs Mr Justice Wargrave that he has “another two hours to go”, but only an association with the old letter and the story that follows suggest that his current destination is Soldier Island. He may well be heading to London: the average duration of train journeys between London Paddington and Taunton stands today at two hours and eleven minutes. What seems plausible is that his dream replays the various cases that he has tried or discussed over his long career. One crime lends itself to this in particular: Philip Lombard is accused by the spectral voice of abandoning to their deaths “twenty-one men, members of an East African tribe”.[20] The ethnicity and profession of these twenty-one men suggest both variations of the novel as marketed in Britain, in which the figures are, in the first edition, “niggers” and, in the second, “soldiers”. Thus, there is some evidence that the events on the island constitute a dream, but the case is not yet made.

            Other points that stand out as reflexively fictional in the various characters’ entry into the text include a reference to a drowning death associated with the name Hugo, the mention of a Mrs Oliver and a prediction of bad weather made by an elderly, and apprarently drunk, seafaring gentleman. The first point comes from Vera Claythorne’s journey and presents itself as a literary reference, with which the French-speaking Christie would have been familiar. The association of Hugo with a child’s death by drowning (albeit the drowing of a young boy) recalls the death of French literary giant Victor Hugo’s daughter Léopoldine, who drowned in the Seine while aged only nineteen. Hugo’s short poem “Demain dès l’aube” begins with the narrator setting off on a journey to an unstated destination where someone awaits him. The journey through mountains and forests has but one goal – to be with an absent loved one. Only at the end of the poem does the reader learn that the loved one is dead and that the journey is a pilgrimage to a graveside. The parallel between this poem and Christie’s novel is at best vague, even, if we accept the beginning-oriented reading according to which Wargrave is thinking of a long-lost lover; and yet, there is here a suggestion of self-conscious literariness that takes the edge off the (albeit fictional) veracity of the narrative. The second point, which is to say, the reference to Mrs Oliver (“Mrs – or was it Miss – Oliver?”[21]) cannot but recall Christie’s famous author-en-abyme, Mrs Ariadne Oliver, who appears in a number of novels alongside Hercule Poirot. Mrs Oliver’s speciality is the invention of murder games. While these invariably result in an actual murder (hence Poirot’s arrival in the text), her cases abound with reflexivity and test the credulity of the reader.[22] The mere mention of Mrs Oliver therefore suggests mise en abyme, fiction within fiction. Lastly, the “elderly seafaring gentleman” is travelling in the same carriage as Mr Blore.[23] If Wargrave is the dreamer of the text, then Blore is his avatar in the dream: he draws up the list of suspects, ticking them off in his notebook even as the novel is presenting them in turn to the reader. Initially, only one thing suggests that the elderly seafaring gentleman may not be all he seems – the fact that “he had dropped off to sleep”. While the reference to the fact that Blore is travelling in “the slow train from Plymouth” appears to differentiate it from the train that Wargrave and the others are on, this is an instance of sleight of hand. It is not clear that the others are not in the slow train from Plymouth (they arrive together, with the exception of the General), and neither is any mention made that Blore is not in a first-class smoking carriage. The implications of this are not entirely clear: if the elderly seafaring gentleman is in fact Mr Justice Wargrave, then the latter is in a disguise worthy of Sherlock Holmes. If this is the case, one must wonder why he next takes his performance to the lengths of falling out of the carriage and landing awkwardly (and presumably dangerously) on the platform. One wonders, too, why he gets out “at a station” (which we assume is not that corresponding to Blore’s destination, but this is not made explicit) and how he might then arrive with the others at Oakbridge. It seems more credible that the elderly seafaring gentleman is a seer-become-seen, a dreamer seen dreaming from inside his own dream. One thing is certain: his pronouncement made from his recumbent position on the platform at an unspecified station rises to the challenge made by Pierre Bayard – he predicts the coming storm. Indeed, in addition to announcing that he can smell “a squall ahead”, he also announces, with drunken Biblical bombast, that “[t]he day of judgment is very close at hand”.[24] If this enigmatical figure is Mr Justice Wargrave in disguise, then Christie’s officially sanctioned solution stands: the killer can, and does, predict the coming storm. For the purposes of the present, partial reading, however, his presence serves the purposes of partiality, which is to say, of metonymy (and plots being played out in miniature, in a textual space preceding the diegesis proper) and of dreams dreamt inside one character’s head, and thus in a space beyond the logics of a thorough, objective investigation (be it by Sir Thomas Legge, Hercule Poirot or the agents of InterCriPol themselves).

            The combination of the arrival of the majority of the house guests by train and their number recalls one of Christie’s earlier novels, Murder on the Orient Express (1934), which becomes a locked-room space when it is snowbound. As the party prepares to make the trip by boat to the island, mention is made of Mr and Mrs Owen: “It was as though the mere mention of their host and hostess had a curiously paralysing effect upon their guests”.[25] My contention is that this collective paralysis, as in the previous case on board the Orient Express, results from the addition of the two hosts to the ten guests. In Murder on the Orient Express the number twelve is suggestive (of a jury), and it results in the famous “everyone did it” solution; in this case, the shadow of twelve is equally suggestive, this time of everyone committing suicide. Of course, the numbers are unclear: the Owens turn out not to exist, and an eleventh victim, Mr Morris, is accounted for in the final confession; and, of course, the manner of the deaths is not consistent with mass suicide, as Rogers and Blore would certainly have found it difficult to self-inflict their head wounds.

            While it seems best to rule out mass suicide as a solution, there are other striking features of the boat trip, one of which is the vision of Anthony Marston: “In the blaze of the evening light he looked, not a man, but a young God, a Hero God out of some Northern Saga. […] It was a fantastic moment. In it, Anthony Marston seemed to be more than mortal”.[26] In particular, the word “fantastic” stands out here. At this liminal point, as the party convenes on the threshold of adventure, at a point when night succeeds day and land meets sea, this god-like figure straddles two worlds and, I should argue, two genres. If this is a fantastic tale sensu stricto, then the detective novel here not only flirts with or appeals to the paranormal tale, but it actually becomes one, at least partially. We are reminded here of Shoshana Felman’s seminal critical study of Henry James’s novella The Turn of the Screw (1898), in which she argues that the text’s salvation (as text) hinges on its fundamental hesitation between ghost story and tale of madness.[27] In this way, James’s story resists, even as it provokes, resolution along generic lines. In the framework of InterCriPol and the quest for justice, it seems unlikely that a Felman-inspired reading of the liminality of And Then There Were None will save my (chances of finding a coherent) solution. It is nevertheless equally important to note this other-worldly quality, which, if nothing else, hangs over and resists the officially sanctioned solution.

            It is difficult to know what a paranormal interpretation of the novel might look like, but a reading of the journey over the water as a passing to the other side (with Fred Narracott as a Devonshire Charon) and thus of all the guests as already dead is not without its appeal. It would give credence to the guests’ feelings of being visited by those for whose deaths they are responsible or who held them responsible, including Hugo, in Vera’s case, and Beatrice Taylor, in Emily Brent’s. Intratextually, such a reading would also tally with Christie’s other, more clearly paranormal tales, including “The Gipsy” and “The Hound of Death”, both of which were first published, alongside “The Witness for the Prosecution”, in the collection The Hound of Death (1933). In “The Gipsy” both protagonist Macfarlane and his friend Dickie Carpenter receive strange warnings from a gipsy figure who seems to appear in various forms, including as different people. Her common feature, however, is her red clothing (variously a handkerchief, a scarf, a jumper), which is echoed in the robes with which Mr Justice Wargrave’s seemingly dead body is adorned when it is discovered by his fellow guests; indeed, the gipsy’s handkerchief, despite being red rather than black, also recalls the one that was often worn by the “hanging” judge, although he is wearing his judge’s woollen wig in this scene.[28] In “The Gipsy”, Dickie is a sailor, described as of Viking appearance, while Macfarlane learns that he has the gift, or curse, of seeing things before, or after, as the gipsy explains, they happen. In an intratextual gesture worthy perhaps of the chronological inversion of Bayardian anticipatory plagiarism, the short story seems to push forwards to the later novel: Macfarlane’s first vision is of blood on a rock, which the gipsy tells him is “the place where the old sun-worshippers sacrificed victims”.[29] As we have seen, in And Then There Were None Lady Constance Culmington, with her penchant for basking in exotic locales, was nothing if not a sun-worshipper. In “The Hound of Death”, for its part, we find evidence in support of beginning-orientation, and especially of the relative importance of absent narratives, or stories and solutions that are masked by the present diegesis and officially sanctioned solution. Sister Marie Angelique, like Hercule Poirot a Belgian refugee located to England after the First World War, is either mad or possessed by great power. Importantly, her vision of the world includes and inversion of the poles of the dream and reality: “Nothing seems real to me. […] Only my dreams seem real to me”.[30] On Christie’s part, all that is required is her trademark sleight of hand for what passes as generically conventional in her paranormal tales to make its way into her detective fiction, opening the door to genuinely innovative and genre-challenging interpretation.[31]

            The last part of my discussion of And Then There Were None will focus, not on the conclusion with its posthumous confession, but on the penultimate diegetic layer, which is to say, the first part of the epilogue, in which Assistant Commissioner Sir Thomas Legge and Inspector Maine discuss the case. The former’s name will be familiar to Christie readers, for it was to reappear in The Body in the Library (1942), in which Rosy Legge is the real name of Ruby Keene who is famously not the body in the library, and again in Dead Man’s Folly (1956), in which Alec and Sally Legge have a troubled marriage. To this extent, Sir Thomas Legge is rather the opposite of that famous subject of InterCriPol investigations – the missing character. In Legge’s case, we have something of an excess, a ubiquitousness of character. His tendency to be reincarnated across Christie’s oeuvre, which recalls the notions of reincarnation discussed in “The Gipsy”, may also explain his summation of the case: “The whole thing’s fantastic – impossible”.[32] Again we have this appeal to the fantastic, which will persist even as Mr Justice Wargrave’s confession washes up (again, somewhat fantastically) in a bottle.

            Perhaps the most important reference in this first part of the epilogue, however, is one made to another character, who is at once a recurrent presence and a sign, proof even, of absence. I refer here to the police officer charged by Sir Thomas with finding evidence that Blore committed perjury (which resulted in the death of the defendant, James Stephen Landor, and is the reason given for his presence on the island): “I put Harris on to it and he couldn’t find anything”.[33] The reason that he could not find anything, and this may explain Christie’s use of italics here, is that Harris does not exist.[34] Poirot had previously demonstrated this, via his knowledge of Dickens (although the obvious Dickensian reference is to Mrs Harris, Mrs Gamp’s imaginary friend in Martin Chuzzlewit), in Murder on the Orient Express when expressing that the compartment reserved by a certain Mr Harris would not, and could not by virtue of this man’s non-existence, be taken up. Although this may test the limits of the credibility of the present reading, it is possible to infer from the presence (and thus the necessary absence) of a Harris in the investigation that not only can there be no evidence, but also, and more importantly, that there is no investigation.

            In conclusion, what solution can I pull from this review of the case? My temptation is to return to the figure of Mr Justice Wargrave himself. And by himself, I perhaps mean himselves, for Mr Justice Wargrave is referred to on three occasions by his first name, Lawrence: first, in the letter from Lady Constance Culmington; second, by the voice from the other side, when his full name, Lawrence John Wargrave, is given; and lastly, in the signature that closes both confession and novel.[35] On each occasion, Lawrence is written in italics, and for good reason, as his first name is only used in parts of the text that are liminal, almost paratextual (letters read in, but also from outside, the text, and a disembodied voice). In other words, he is real (Lawrence the human being) when (partially) absent to the text, and he is virtual (the judge and embodiment of abstract Justice) when present to it. In this way, for his truth to be salvaged from the wreckage of this text, it is important to follow Felman’s lead and to hesitate between the detective mystery and the ghost story. But rather than keep them both in play, I am nonetheless inclined to shun them both in equal measure. In so doing, I am following the trail of italics left in Wargrave’s confession, in which he points to the fact that this whole thing is one giant fabrication: “It was my ambition to invent a murder mystery that no one could solve”.[36]

My preference in offering up my own solution is to follow what is perhaps the most tenuous lead of all, which is that pointing to Hugo.[37] To read And Then There Were None through the lens of “Demain dès l’aube” is to see Lawrence Wargrave’s journey as a visit to a lost love. His destination is perhaps the grave of Constance Culmington; it is also, I suggest, the place of the most important death of all, his own suicide. This, however, will not happen in incredible and spectacular circumstances involving a gun looped around a doorhandle and a bottle thrown out to sea, but instead quietly, by a graveside, and perhaps with a bouquet of holly and heather in hand. For, when we read the following line, the reference is, I contend, to Lawrence Wargrave’s own imminent death: “He glanced at his watch – another two hours to go”.[38]



Alistair Rolls,

University of Newcastle, Australia



[1] Agatha Christie, And Then There Were None (London: HarperCollins, 2007), “Author’s Note”, p. 7.

[2] This flaw was presented at a public lecture entitled “How To Investigate Books Like You’ve Never Read Them Before”, given by Pierre Bayard and Caroline Julliot at the New South Wales State Library in Sydney on 23 June 2018.

[3] Christie, And Then There Were None, p. 49.

[4] Agatha Christie, Ten Little Niggers (London: Fontana / Collins, 1978), p. 27.

[5] The novel has also been published as Ten Little Indians.

[6] As I have written elsewhere, beginning-orientation is an alternative way of critiquing crime fiction’s end-orientation. The most usual way of resisting the metaphysical force of the detective’s (which we also usually take as the author’s) solution is a “whole-text” reading, as favoured by scholars including Jesper Gulddal, Gale MacLachlan, Merja Makinen and Gill Plain; this model also, it should be noted, encompasses Bayardian detective criticism. Beginning-orientation, for its part, proposes that the narrative of the investigation be considered secondary to the preamble; in this way, the “real events” of the text are considered to be those otherwise eminently forgettable moments that set the scene, whereas the discovery of the body (in The Body in the Library, for example) or the beginning of the train journey (as in Murder on the Orient Express) mark the beginning of a dream or the erection of screen memory.

[7] Christie, And Then There Were None, p. 283.

[8] Ibid., p. 214.

[9] This is made clear by the passage from the Bible that she reads before the first communal dinner on the island, which speaks of judgement being brought down on the wicked. It is also worth noting the black dress and the cairngorm brooch that she wears to dinner, and which is given some prominence in Christie’s text (And Then There Were None, p. 52). It is possible that the brooch was a gift given to her by the young Lawrence on their first trip to the island.

[10] Christie, And Then There Were None, p. 12.

[11] Ibid., p. 102.

[12] Ibid., p. 271.

[13] Ibid., p. 278.

[14] Ibid., p. 281.

[15] Ibid., p. 193.

[16] Stephen Knight, Secrets of Crime Fiction Classics: Detecting the Delights of 21 Enduring Stories (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2015), p. 4.

[17] Christie, And Then There Were None, p. 11.

[18] Ibid., p. 12.

[19] Ibid., p. 13.

[20] Ibid., p. 57.

[21] Ibid., p. 19.

[22] See, for example, Françoise Grauby, “‘This Isn’t a Detective Story, Mrs. Oliver’: The Case of the Fictitious Author”, Clues: A journal of detection, 34.1 (2016): 116-125.

[23] Christie, And Then There Were None, p. 25.

[24] Ibid., p. 27.

[25] Ibid., p. 35.

[26] Ibid., p. 37.

[27] Shoshana Felman, “Turning the Screw of Interpretation”, Yale French Studies, 55-56 (1977): 94-207.

[28] Christie, And Then There Were None, p. 237.

[29] Agatha Christie, The Hound of Death (London: Fontana / Collins, 1976), p. 64.

[30] Ibid., p. 11.

[31] It is worth noting that Philip Lombard’s wolf-like characteristics also stem from this collection of eerie tales. At the end of “The Red Signal”, protagonist Dermot finds himself confronted by his friend Trent, but the latter no longer resembles himself; instead he is described as “horrible” and “with a curious light in his eyes” (Ibid., p. 40). Trent, it turns out, is the one who is mad and not his wife, as Dermot and the reader are led to suspect. In a final show-down, Trent makes a sudden movement; instead of killing Dermot, however, he shoots himself. There is even a reference to shooting Dermot through the heart. The parallel with Vera and Lombard’s duel is compelling.

[32] Christie, And Then There Were None, p. 295.

[33] Ibid., p. 294 (emphasis original).

[34] The only Harris in Randall Toye’s The Agatha Christie’s Who’s Who (Aylesbury: Heron Books, 1980, p. 115) is Myrna Harris who is interviewed in A Murder is Announced (1950). Toye notes that “[b]y its very nature, a Who’s Who must be selective” and that it is therefore “necessary to dispense with a gallery of minor characters who, though occasionally interesting for their description, had no more than a very peripheral connection with the story being told” (p. 7). The “story being told” is, for Toye, the text that coincides with the officially sanctioned solution. By taking these characters from the periphery and thus reframing the text, their importance changes along with our understanding of the story itself.

[35] Christie, And Then There Were None, p. 12, 57 & 317.

[36] Ibid., p. 315 (emphasis original).

[37] I was tempted to consider Hugo in the role of Wargrave’s accessory (the third china figure left standing). The latter’s acknowledgement that he had met the former in – where else? – the “smoking-room” of a transatlantic ocean liner (ibid., p. 306) seemed to lend weight to such an hypothesis. Unfortunately, this fails to get around the fact that Hugo could not, in spite of his experience crossing oceans, gain access to the island before the arrival of the rescue party.

[38] Ibid., p. 11.

Par Alistair Rolls

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