Discuss the narrative techniques that Christie uses to create and maintain suspense throughout the novel.
And Then There Were None uses a variety of techniques to create a foreboding, suspenseful mood. Foreshadowing adds tension, as when the old man on the train warns Blore of the approach of “judgment.” The landscape of the island sometimes seems eerie and threatening, as does the weather: during much of the novel, Indian Island is cut off from the mainland by a severe storm whose violence and fury parallels the bloody events unfolding on the island. Psychological suspense also builds: even before the murders begin, the characters feel guilt and foreboding, and, as the novel progresses, they begin to suffer from nightmares, hysterical fits, and hallucinations that amplify the air of impending doom.
Christie also employs a constantly shifting point of view to build suspense. She gives us a glimpse of the action from one character’s perspective and then races on to another point of view and then another. Each snippet is calculated to make the character in question seem suspicious. In Chapter II, for example, when the guests have just arrived on the island, Christie cuts abruptly from one character to the next as they prepare for dinner. Dr. Armstrong feels inspired by the beauty of the island to “make plans, fantastic plans”; Anthony Marston lies in his bath thinking to himself that he “must go through with it”; Blore ties his tie and hopes he will not “bungle” his “job”; Macarthur wishes he could “make an excuse and get away . . . Throw up the whole business.” Emily Brent reads Bible verses about the just punishment of sinners, and Lombard looks like a beast of prey. With this sequence of snippets, Christie gives us just enough access to each character’s thoughts to make him or her seem like a potential murderer, and then shifts to the next character. She continues this technique throughout the novel, even as the number of suspects dwindles, so that we are never sure whom we should suspect most.
Discuss the weaknesses of Dr. Armstrong, William Blore, Philip Lombard, and Vera Claythorne, and explain how Wargrave exploits these weaknesses as he carries out his plot.
Aside from Wargrave, the last four characters left alive on the island are Armstrong, Blore, Lombard, and Vera. They are all on their guard, yet Wargrave is able to do away with all four of them by exploiting their weaknesses. Armstrong’s weakness is his firm belief that class defines character. He cannot believe that a man of Wargrave’s stature could be a murderer. Thus, he agrees to help Wargrave fake his own death, and willingly meets Wargrave out by the cliffs late at night, where it is a simple matter for Wargrave to push him over. Blore’s weakness is his foolhardiness—he goes alone to the house to fetch food and so makes an easy target for Wargrave. Lombard, with his gun and his experience in dangerous situations, is a formidable foe, but his weakness is his refusal to believe that women are capable of violence. Vera is thus able to steal his gun and kill him with it. Vera’s weakness is hysteria. She is susceptible to the power of suggestion and tormented by her guilt. Wargrave plays upon these weaknesses as he sets up a noose in Vera’s room and thus compels the half-hypnotized Vera to hang herself.
3. What do you make of Christie’s decision to violate the standard rules of mystery writing by making it nearly impossible for us to solve the mystery of And Then There Were None by ourselves? How does the unusual plot affect the experience of reading the novel?
And Then There Were None can be criticized as an unfair mystery novel. In a standard mystery story, a crime is committed, a detective comes in to solve the crime, and the reader follows along with the detective, learning everything the detective learns, and collecting clues that would theoretically enable the reader to guess the identity of the killer. At the close of such a mystery, the detective usually gathers the remaining characters together, reveals the identity of the murderer, and explains how the crime was committed.
And Then There Were None breaks all of these rules. First, there is no tidy arrest: the murderer gets away with his crime, and we discover his identity only because he leaves a confession behind. The only outside detective is a policeman who arrives too late to accomplish anything and who is utterly baffled by what has happened. Most unconventionally, the novel deceives us: we believe that Judge Wargrave is dead, and so we no longer suspect him. In fact, he is still alive, and he is the killer.
In some ways, however, And Then There Were None is a very conventional murder mystery. Ten people are isolated and cannot escape; suspicion falls on all of the characters; red herrings abound; a satisfyingly neat ending is produced in which the murderer’s actions and motivations are explained, and the pieces of the puzzle fit together tightly. Although Judge Wargrave is the killer, he also plays the role of the detective, unmasking the criminal—himself—at the end of the novel and explaining how everything transpired. Though Christie breaks some rules, she does so to make the story all the more suspenseful.