"Ten . . ."
Ten strangers are lured to an isolated island mansion off the Devon coast by a mysterious "U. N. Owen."
"Nine . . ."
At dinner a recorded message accuses each of them in turn of having a guilty secret, and by the end of the night one of the guests is dead.
"Eight . . ."
Stranded by a violent storm, and haunted by a nursery rhyme counting down one by one . . . as one by one . . . they begin to die.
"Seven . . ."
Which among them is the killer and will any of them survive?
Genre: Adult Mystery
Publisher: Collins Crime Club; November 6, 1939 (Reprint: William Morrow; Reissue edition (March 29, 2011)
Page Count: 300 Pages
I've wanted to read an Agatha Christie novel since I saw that one Doctor Who episode about her then that desire grew even more after I watched the film Murder on the Orient Express. At last, I've gotten to read one of her novels and her bestselling novel in fact. I figure if this woman has written the third best selling books of all time then I should learn from her. Plus this was a perfect read for fall.
The Plot: There's a constant sense of tension as the poem "The Ten Little Soldiers" prophesizes the deaths of the characters. I was wondering the whole time who would be next and I'd try to predict which character would fall to which fate. It had kind of a morbid The Hunger Games effect that way. I definitely did not guess who the killer was in the end and I was left in shock when I found out who it was.
The Characters: There are ten key characters and that's a tough ensemble to develop though Christie managed to create unique and intricate backgrounds for all of them in such a short novel. She also went into each of their points of views and managed to create unique voices for all of them. Another daunting feat.
My only main complaint of the book is that I started getting names confused since I didn't have a good picture of most of the characters. I forgot who was who and then remembered after their occupation was mentioned. After seeing the BBC mini-series based on the novel and could put a face to the names they finally sank in.
The Setting: The vast majority of the book is set on Soldier Island, a fictional location off the coast of Devon, England. I love how Christie set the story in a mansion that's modern and crisp and clean instead of creepy and how one of the characters notes how that makes the book even more sinister and it really does. The nursery rhyme being in each of the rooms was an eerie touch too.
Also, I have to note the characters eat tinned tongue like that's normal. My British and Commonwealth readers please explain this one for me.
Epic Things: Basing the killings on a poem really morbidly fascinated me. I thought it was brilliant in the way of the plot and as a theme. I loved it.
The Theme: Guilt is the main theme of the story. The reader witnesses guilt eat many of the characters alive and the story focuses on how characters cope with their misdeeds and how they've let themselves live with it for years. Some didn't feel any guilt at all. Others tried to convince themselves that something different happened. Others tried to forget. Others justified themselves. And one decided to accept that he deserved whatever fate was coming to him and actually felt relieved that he didn't have to hide from his sin anymore. This last one interested me the most.
One of the big things is that the characters lied to other characters about their past sins. They wanted the others to believe they were innocent not just because of the killer but they didn't want the others to think they were bad people or to admit that they were. It's such a fascinating psychological study.
Content Cautions: This is a murder mystery, folks, so of course there are going to be murdered. Several characters are poisoned in various ways, one violently dies choking. One person is killed by an ax to the back of the head. Another person's head is crushed by marble and another person drowns. Several characters are shot and then one character commits suicide by hanging and one character is mentioned to have committed suicide in the past. A child died by drowning. Also, one character is very racist.
The characters seem to love the word damn, so they say it at least forty times then there are three uses of hell and one of a**.
What We Can Take Away For Our Writing:
1.) The Evolution of Language - It's pretty crazy how the definitions of words have changed since this novel was written roughly eighty years ago. We've changed the names of things and even turned more negative words into positive ones. Here's a few I noted that were used completely differently in this novel.
Bicarbonate of Soda - Baking Soda
Giddiness - Having a sensation to make one dizzy
Fantastic - Fantasy-like
Incredible - Un-credible
How this can be applied to writing: When writing period pieces it's important to keep in mind the etymology of words. Words we use now could have been used differently in the past.
2.) Vintage 1930s British Slang - Maybe some of this is still used. Again, my British and Commonwealth friends please chime in, but there were a bunch of words and idioms I had to either look up or ascertain in context. But it's pretty crazy how slang changes through the years and each era has its own sayings.
Sheer moonshine - Really crazy
Dash it - A nicer way of saying d*** it
That would a lark - A joke
Good egg - A nice person
Why the devil - A nicer way of saying why the h***
Chopper - Axe
Blockhead - Idiot
Bunkum - Nonsense
Plump for - To actively support someone or something
Tinned - Canned
How this can be applied to writing: When writing period pieces try looking up idioms and slang of the time. It really helps set the time period for your readers.
In Comparison to the Mini-Series: The mini-series stays very close to the book. There are hardly any differences. I highly recommend it after reading the book.
Conclusion: Overall, I loved it. I had to watch the show to really discern the characters so that's why an Inukshuk is left off, but I highly recommend this story.
About the Author: Agatha Christie was born in 1890 and created the detective Hercule Poirot in her debut novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920). She achieved wide popularity with The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926) and produced a total of eighty novels and short-story collections over six decades.