Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Top Ten All-Time Best-Selling Books, 6: Agatha Christie, Ten Little Niggers (1939)

To save myself a lot of tedious precis work, here's a quick wikisummary: 'Eight people, Lawrence Wargrave, Vera Claythorne, Philip Lombard, General Macarthur, Emily Brent, Anthony "Tony" Marston, Doctor Armstrong, and William Blore have been invited to a mansion on the fictional Soldier Island ("Nigger Island" in the original 1939 UK publication, "Indian Island" in the 1964 US publication), which is based upon Burgh Island off the coast of Devon. Upon arriving, they are told that their hosts, a Mr. and Mrs. U.N. Owen (Ulick Norman Owen and Una Nancy Owen), are currently away, but the guests will be attended to by Thomas and Ethel Rogers. Each guest finds in his or her room an odd bit of bric-a-brac and a framed copy of the nursery rhyme "Ten Little Soldiers" ("Niggers" or "Indians" in respective earlier editions) hanging on the wall ... During their meal, a gramophone record plays, accusing each of the ten of murder. Each guest acknowledges awareness of (and in some cases involvement with) the deaths of the persons named (except Emily Brent, who tells only Vera, who later tells the other guests), but denies any malice and/or legal culpability. (except for Lombard and Blore, the latter telling only the former.) The guests now realize they have been tricked into coming to the island, but find that they cannot leave: the boat which regularly delivers supplies has stopped arriving. They are murdered one by one, each death paralleling a verse of the nursery rhyme, with one of the figurines being removed after each murder. First to die is the spoiled Anthony Marston, who chokes to death when his drink is poisoned with cyanide ("one choked his little self"). That night, Thomas Rogers notices that a figurine is missing from the dining table. Mrs. Rogers dies in her sleep that night, which Dr. Armstrong attributes to a fatal overdose of sleeping draught ("one overslept himself"). General Macarthur fatalistically predicts that no one will leave the island alive, and at lunch, is indeed found dead from a blow to the back of his skull ("one said he'd stay there"). Meanwhile, two more figurines have disappeared from the dining room. In growing panic, the survivors search the island in vain for the murderer. Justice Wargrave establishes himself as the decisive leader of the group and asserts one of them must be the murderer playing a sadistic game with the rest. The killer's twisted humour is evidenced by the names of their "hosts": "U.N. Owen" is a pun and a homophone for "unknown". The next morning, Rogers is missing, as is another figurine. He is found dead in the woodshed, struck in the back of the head with an axe ("one chopped himself in halves"). Later that day, Emily Brent is killed in the dining room by an injection of potassium cyanide that leaves a mark on her neck ("A bumblebee stung one"), which at first appears to be a sting from a bumble bee placed in the room. The hypodermic needle is found outside her window next to a smashed china figurine. The five survivors — Dr. Armstrong, Justice Wargrave, Philip Lombard, Vera Claythorne, and William Blore — become increasingly frightened and almost frantic.'
First of all, I must apologise for the use of the n-word, in this post title and elsewhere within the actual post. I appreciate it is an offensive term, nowadays.  More, and just to be clear, it was offensive then: Dodd, Mead and Company published the book in November 1939 as Ten Little Niggers, but reissued it only two months later as And Then There Were None because of the original's racist tone. It has been published and adapted as Ten Little Indians and Ten Little Soldier Boys, and naturally the option is available to me to discuss the text under one or other of these euphemistic names. But the offensiveness of using the original title needs to be balanced against the greater need not to airbrush away the immanent low-level racism of the culture out of which these novels were created. To render the racism of the past invisible is to empower the racism of today by innoculating it against history.

Black characters crop up rarely in Christie (there are none in Ten Little Niggers, for instance, despite its title). But 'foreigners' are one of the key types of otherness by which her cosy-catastrophic narrative twostep of death (Order Lost) and detection (New Order Regained) is orchestrated. The other type, perhaps surprisingly, is 'middle aged men of the professional classes'. I can't remember where I first read about Christie's dislike of doctors, the textual consequence of which is that if you are reading a Christie whodunnit and one of the characters is a doctor (especially a surgeon or consultant) nine times out of ten he (of course the doctor will be a he) is the murderer. Other 'professionals', especially lawyers and judges, are also broadly distrusted by Christie. Nor do these two stereotypes fit together into an uncommon combination of dislike: the trope of distrusting, disliking and, of course, actively blaming the racial 'other' who has lots of money because he is unlike oneself and has lots of money gears only too easily up to some of the worst inhumanity of the twentieth century. The ten characters in Ten Little Niggers are all invited or induced to Nigger Island by the murderer, who cloaks him/herself under the ignotus-y pseudonym 'U.N.Owen' ('or by a slight stretch of fancy -- UNKNOWN! [72]'). The flash young Captain Lombard, for instance, is offered quite a lot of money, but although he goes he has his suspicions:
What exactly was up, he wondered? That little Jew had been damned mysterious ... A hundred guineas when he was literally down to his last square meal! He had fancied, though, that the little Jew had not been deceived -- that was the damnable part about Jews, you couldn't deceive them about money -- they knew! [16]
1939, ladies and gentlemen.

This is glancing enough, but not untypical. Elsewhere in pre-War Christie, Jews are vermin (‘he was king of the rats … his face gleamed white and sharp in the moonlight. There was the least hint of a curve to the thin nose. His father had been a Polish Jew’ The Mystery of the Blue Train, 1928) or repulsive toad-like moneylenders—as in The Secret of Chimneys (1925) whose villain Isaacstein has ‘a fat yellow face and black eyes as impenetrable as those of a cobra’ as well as a ‘generous curve to [his] big nose’. He represents ‘Hebraic people. Yellow-faced financiers’ and is dismissively referred to as ‘Ikey Hermanstein’, ‘Nosystein’ and ‘Fat Ikey’ by the novel’s gentile dramatis personae. T S Eliot and Wagner make references of this stripe in their art, and critics fulminate or wring their hands. Christie does it and people nod indulgently, mumble that she is 'of her time' and pass over it in silence.  Or they actively scrub it out of the books, via surruptitious Bowdlerisation and re-naming. This might be because people think they take Christie's art 'less seriously' than Eliot or Wagner; but I don't think her work is less serious. It's less complex, and less resonant, but its main theme -- death -- is exactly as serious, and she has enjoyed far greater cultural penetration and reach than either of the other two.

This, I think, is part of what is interesting about 'the whodunnit' as a form, a distinctively twentieth-century mode of art and indeed one of only a handful of modes invented by that troubled century (along with cinema, TV and pop music). Puzzle-mystery stories had been popular in the nineteenth-century, of course, but the emphasis there had been on the puzzle; it is a striking thing to read the complete run of Sherlock Holmes stories and appreciate how rarely Conan Doyle presented his detective with a dead body -- much more often the mystery will something stolen, somebody blackmailed or kidnapped, or a painted canine. But the default premise of the classic 20th-century crime novel is death, one or many; and that shift of emphasis is interesting.

One of the things that is new about the C20th-century whodunnit is precisely the way it handles death. Previously (excuse me if I talk a little over-generally) art encountered death as tragedy, either for the individual or (in Wagner) for the world, something to be apprehended with sorrow or defiance; or else art represented death as a portal, a transcendental supercession of mortality into (usually) a glorious spiritual state. These are both meaningful ways of relating to mortality, of course; but the Golden Age whodunit proposes a different one: it says not just that death is a puzzle -- which is fair enough, I suppose -- but that death is a soluble puzzle. That latter part is the radical bit, I think.

Martin Heidegger talks about humans embodying a 'being-towards-death', a dimension of our Dasein that, uniquely for us, can project itself forward against its own finitude. Now, Heidegger was for a time a member of the Nazi party, so we can intuit his attitude towards racial otherness.  But putting that on one side for a moment.  He elaborates 'being-towards-death' in his big book, Sein und Zeit, ('Being and Time' 1927) a text I'm tempted to characterise as 'boring-towards-death'. To cut a long boring short, here's Simon Critchley's deft summary:
There are four rather formal criteria in Heidegger's conception of being-towards-death: it is non-relational, certain, indefinite and not to be outstripped. Firstly, death is non-relational in the sense in standing before death one has cut off all relations to others. Death cannot be experienced through the deaths of others, but only through my relation to my death ... Secondly, it is certain that we are going to die. Although one might evade or run away from the fact, no one doubts that life comes to an end in death. Thirdly, death is indefinite in the sense that although death is certain, we do not know when it going to happen ... Fourthly, to say that death is not to be outstripped (unüberholbar) simply means that death is pretty damned important. There's no way of trumping it and it outstrips all the possibilities that my power of free projection possesses.
The puzzle-whodunit dramatises the first three of these modes of being-towards-death, fairly straightforwardly, but where it gets interesting is the fourth. I suppose that on one level, even (perhaps) a banal level, it is central to the form that the veil of mystery is always stripped away by these books' conclusions. You may object that this only happens in a trivial sense, but I'd suggest both that the structure of these sorts of novels constellates a plotted trivium against a metaphorical profundity. More, I'd go further and suggest that, regardless of what a large number of 'serious' novelists suggest, this is the right way round, actually.

I'll dilate upon this point for a moment, before coming back to Christie's novel. Crime stories still have huge reader appeal, but the puzzle-whodunit has (broadly) gone out of fashion. Instead we have a great many novels that attempt to put the profundity up front. There is now a different sort of generalised anxiety about the ‘death’ around which the genre is structured, a desire to ‘take it seriously’, in contemporary crime fiction.  Now personally speaking I’m drawn to the Golden Age whodunits because they often are superbly ingenious, and I prize ingenuity; but I suppose it's that contemporary crime stories have lost interest in ingenuity for its own sake. In such titles as I have read from the franchises of Dibdin’s Aurelio Zen books, or the Rebus novels of Ian Rankin, or from watching The Killing, the mystery itself is rather watery, and the emphasis is shifted over to the creation of atmosphere, location, a particular city (Rome, Glasgow Edinburgh) and a distinctive central character—or in the many historical whodunits, from Lindsay Duncan to Ellis Peters, a kind of historical infodumping. Or to direct our attention in another direction and our eye falls on the vasty stretches of ‘gritty’ crime novels, police procedurals, serial killer yarns, ‘psychological’ tales and so on. Here ingenuity seems simply to be out of place, perhaps because these novels pretend to verisimilitude, and ‘we’ don’t really believe the world to be a place of ingenious schemes and plots. Murder, the consensus today, is brutal and, in an existential sense, simple.  But it seems to me that, in fact, that death is not existentially simple. On the contrary, it is prodigiously puzzling, a mystery hidden in plain view—we all know we will die, after all, although that knowledge is not a simple thing. And furthermore it strikes me that there are things a notionally trivial mode of art, like the whodunit, can say about this puzzle—about its opacity, or more particularly about the disconnect between surface glamour and the resistance-to-interpretation of the depths—that more notionally ‘complex’ forms cannot.

One way of responding to Ten Little Niggers is to test it for plausibility and coherence. But this is not the best way, because of course the plot is implausible and incoherent; it makes no more pretence as far as this is concerned than do Samuel Beckett's plays. It's not likely all ten of the suspects would accept the invitation to the island, or that they would play along; it's not likely that the whole filigree elaborate scheme of 'the murderer' would run along its grooves as smoothly as the book has it doing. That the victims wouldn't simply swim away (the weather isn't always bad, and the mainland is clearly visible from the island), or build a boat.  That they wouldn't all just lock themselves in their rooms until rescue came.  But to think like this is to miss the point.  The artifice of the scheme, worked through in the narrative, is a feature, not a bug. Arguably it is a key feature. From a metaphorical point of view, whodunits like these are in effect saying: death is complex, ingenious, unexpected and artificial. And although perhaps it sounds counterintuitive, I wonder if this doesn’t actually encode a greater existential veracity than the ‘realist’ mode. Think of your own mortality. Of course in one sense it is the very opposite of ‘an unexpected thing’; we all know we must die. But in another sense it is necessarily radically unexpected: we can never anticipate it, because we shall not live through it. It is something incommensurate with our living being-in-the-world. Its complexity derives, I think, from this.

But there is also this question of the solubility of mortality. It is something, in a deep sense, insoluble; and perhaps the logic of the ingeniously difficult mystery is a better way of apprehending that than notions that death is, in any sense, straightforward. Or to be a little more specific: obviously these sorts of books do offer a ‘solution’; but unlike the death of Othello, or of Prince André in War and Peace these ‘solutions’ are radically unsatisfying. They address the epiphenomena of the victim’s death without touching in any sense upon the deeper questions—and this, I’m arguing, is more existentially honest than the conventional tragic mode. The artificiality of the Golden Age whodunit set-up refracts Heidegger's perspective: any notional ‘realism’ about death must be existentially mendacious, because death is not ‘real’ in the sense that the events of my life are real (having breakfast, dropping the kids at school, going to work and so on). Death is not a part of life, not lived-through, only ever lived-towards. It is an artifice, not in the sense that it has an artificer; or more precisely only in the sense that its artificer is us ourselves, the stories we tell ourselves. And Ten Little Niggers makes great play with its egregious artificiality. A character notes that ‘it’s only in books people carry revolvers around as a matter of course’ [146] precisely to set-up the discovery that one character is carrying around a revolver around as a matter of course. To quote General Macarthur: “the whole thing is preposterous—preposterous!”’ [64]. Of course it is, and designedly so.

This is not to absolve Ten Little Niggers of its horrible title, or Christie's work generally of its ubiquitous though low-level racism.  On the contrary; it is to highlight the way that this novel -- not to labour the point, but a book published in 1939 -- is precisely about an ingenious though sadistic plot to isolate a number of clever, mostly affluent but fundamentally wicked people on an island, and dispose of them.  The late 30s and early 40s had no shortage of crazy schemes to solve the (please note my inverted commas) 'Jewish problem' by bunging them all on an island somewhere. Paul De Man wrote an essay on "The Jews in Contemporary Literature" (published, notoriously, in Le Soir early in 1941) in which Jews are described as possessing precisely the calculating, remorseless qualities of the murderer in Christie's novel ('Their cerebralness, their capacity to assimilate doctrines while maintaining a cold detachment from them ...').  De Man actively advocates isolating them all on an island: 'one can thus see that solution to the Jewish problem that would lead to the creation of a Jewish colony isolated from Europe would not have, for the literary life of the West, regrettable consequences. It would lose, in all, some personalities of mediocre worth.'

The 'solution' to Ten Little Niggers is a final one. In that respect the euphemistic re-titling is correct, 'and then there were none'. Film versions of the book fudge this issue, leaving a couple of survivors. Christie is more ruthless -- all die. All must die. We could put it, appropriating a contemporary's words, that her position is that reasons of race and religion combine to make any large number of free-thinking 'bad people' undesirable. And a spirit of excessive tolerance is to be deprecated.

More particularly, in Ten Little Niggers, as in some other of her titles, Christie knowingly pushes the 'puzzle whodunit' form to an extreme. Usually, of course, a whodunit will entail one murder, a gaggle of suspects -- a dozen, say -- one of whom is shown to be guilty. But in Christie's most remarkable books everyone is guilty (Orient Express, Ten Little Niggers), or the Law itself is guilty, both in the sense that the representative of the law is the murderer (Ten Little Niggers, Hercule Poirot's Christmas, Mousetrap, Curtain) and in the broader sense that justice is the same indiscriminate, mortal process as murder. Her more conventional whodunits pale into feebleness beside this splendidly, Lutheran conceit -- that we are all guilty, that the law exists to punish us all.

Regular whodunits are stagey, right down to the assemble-in-the-library-please denouement. But Ten Little Niggers takes this aspect to stagier-than-thou lengths. The murderer addresses the assembled group via a pre-recorded gramophone record; but this is described in the novel in terms of a capitalised Voice (‘into that silence came The Voice. Without warning, inhuman, penetrating ...’ 56). The starkly typified characters—retired Judge, religious spinster, flash young man and so on—in this bright-lit artificial environment, as the storm rages outside, Lear-like (or Peter-Brook-Staging-King-Lear-like): there is a sense of unaccommodated man facing down his mortality, although when Christie reaches (uncharacteristically) for the Vatic it doesn’t really convince (all the following ellipses are hers: ‘Aeons passed ... worlds spun and whirled ... Time was motionless ... It stood still: it passed through a thousand ages ...’ [277])

The last two left alive are Vera and Philip Lombard. Vera has the gun, and Philip jumps her for it. ‘He sprang. Quick as a panther—as any other feline creature ... Automatically Vera pressed the trigger ... Lombard’s body stayed poised in mid-spring, then crashed heavily to the ground’ [281]. In another setting, the Wile E. Coyote touch of ‘Lombard’s body stayed poised in mid-spring’ would be simply risible. Here, in this pared-down Beckettian landscape, it feels oddly right.

What does all this have to do with the question of racism, with which this post opened? The obvious answer to this is that Christie's novels, as unusually pure examples of the puzzle-whodunit form, necessarily trade in stereotypical characters; and that therefore the Weltanschauung they construct must be stereotypical too.  This is because a puzzle whodunit needs to put its pieces in play, for the reader to solve the puzzle; and that a too rich or detailed individuation of those pieces would interfere with the crispness of the larger pattern. Reading Christie's whodunits puts me in mind of what Nabokov said in Speak, Memory about his favourite hobby, constructing chess problems:
It is a beautiful, complex and sterile art related to the ordinary form of the game only insofar as, say, the properties of a sphere are made use of both by a juggler in weaving a new act and by a tennis player in winning a tournament. Most chess players, in fact, amateurs and masters alike, are only mildly interested in these highly specialized, fanciful, stylish riddles, and though appreciative of a catchy problem would be utterly baffled if asked to compose one.
Mutatis mutandi, as the mutant Latin goes, this applies wonderfully to the relationship between Christie's puzzles and actual crime; the relationship between Christie's 'death' and actual death. There is a sterility to what she does, it is true; but an invigorating rather than enervating one.

I'm tempting to suggest that the real theme of Ten Little Niggers is not death, so much as the way we are trapped by death, the way it permits us no get-out. Like the monolithic, mind-straitjacket called racism, death closes down our possibilities, and fills us with fear and irrational suspicion. Plus, it has to be said, a weird, gallows hilarity. In the novel, all the occupants of the island have a mortal sin on their conscience. In the case of Philip Lombard, this is that when an army once officer he abandoned a company of native soldiers, making off with their supplies and so ensuring their death. Vera Claythorne and Emily Brent discuss his case. ‘He admits to having abandoned twenty men to their deaths,’ notes the latter. ‘They were only natives!’ retorts Vera. Emily’s response to this (that ‘black or white, they were our brothers’) provokes laughter in Vera: ‘our black brothers—our black brothers! Oh, I’m going to laugh. I’m hysterical. I’m not myself ...’ [122] What is it that Christie finds funny here, I wonder: that 'we' might consider black people 'brothers'? The grounds of the comparison are the gravest, and the most profound: that black people, Jews and white people all share the predicament that they are thinking, feeling beings who will die. This grim brother- and sisterhood unites us all, after all; and it is this, most fundamentally, that makes a mockery of racism.


Mike Taylor said...

Well, once more I am left not quite sure how much of that you really meant. Maybe more importantly, I don't how much of it Christie meant.

But I am enjoying this series immensely.

jane said...

Me, too! (but the Rebus books are set in Edinburgh, not Glasgow)

Adam Roberts said...

Jane! Quite right! Have corrected.

Vic Parker said...

You've amazed me twice in a row, now, sir. First with a surprisingly respectful assessment of C.S. Lewis and now with this, one of the best essays about detective fiction I've ever come across -- and I've read a few. Thank you!

For Glasgow, BTW, not Edinburgh, Denis Mina can't be recommended highly enough. Crime novels rather than mysteries, and certainly not puzzle stories, but vivid and complex.

Adam Roberts said...

Vic: that's an extraordinarily kind thing to say -- thank you. We might go further: it's too kind.

I'll check out Mina.

Bill from PA said...

Excellent essay, Adam; I too am enjoying this series very much, and found this the best entry yet. I assume that The Killing refers to the recent TV series (which I did not know existed before Googling it while reading your essay) and not the Kubrick film, which has both ingenuity and grit.

One quibble: Wagner never made explicit anti-Semitic references in his art, meaning the dramas he wrote for musical setting. His prose pamphlets are another matter, but they were intended as polemics rather than works of art.

Adam Roberts said...

Bill -- thank you!

I'd quibble with your quibble, though. Even if we set aside Wagner's pamphlets and letters, I'd say nobody can listen to Parzival and seriously doubt its anti-Semitism, as an opera.

Ruzz said...

"That the victims wouldn't simply swim away (the weather isn't always bad, and the mainland is clearly visible from the island), or build a boat. That they wouldn't all just lock themselves in their rooms until rescue came. But to think like this is to miss the point. The artifice of the scheme, worked through in the narrative, is a feature, not a bug."

The Ship of Fools seems to me to have some resonance. The idea of the confined company on a journey that will End Badly.

Rich Puchalsky said...

I think that this conclusion about approaches to writing about death may be a bit overdetermined by your already existing preferences. For someone who believes that consciousness is a matter of brain function -- that death is, essentially, the last moment of life, after which your brain no longer works and there is no longer any "you" to experience anything -- the moment of death is the moment when fiction takes over.

People create stories of how it would be after death, or even of how it would feel during the process. (The Barda Thodol is really pretty amazing in this regard.) So then the attempt to write about death becomes, somehow, metafictional. This is why gritty stories about murders, that attempt to seem "realistic", don't work for some people. It's rather like the superhero comic books that try to seem "realistic". A confusion of esthetic values seems to be taking place. Better to have a glittery puzzle box that knows that it is a puzzle box.

Matthew David Surridge said...

Here's a question: Can the puzzle-whodunnit style of the classic mystery be a kind of equivalent to the Golden Age SF story? Both (in general) seem to be more interested in details and mechanics than in traditional character; both can be read as as being about more profound themes than the busy-work of the story. And both (implicitly or explicitly) emphasise the use of reason to explain mysteries — death, the universe, and, er, everything, I suppose.

Bill from PA said...

Thanks for responding, Adam. To my thinking one can find anti-Semitism in Parsifal only by interpreting the work (trying to answer Gurnemanz’ question, “Do you know what you have seen?”), but one finds it in Christie (or Buchan or The Merchant of Venice or the St. John Passion) merely by reading the text.

Adam Roberts said...

Rich: "I think that this conclusion about approaches to writing about death may be a bit overdetermined by your already existing preferences."

That's a very fair point, I think.

Matthew: it's funny you should say that! I spent the summer writing a deliberate cross-over novel, melding the conceits of Golden Age SF with the tropes of Golden Age crime fiction -- a puzzle whodunit in space. It's coming out in 2012. But it was a very interesting exercise in exploring the consonances between the two forms.

Bill: I see your point. I suppose I'd argue that opera is, as a mode, less straightforwardly declarative than the novel; and that racism often operates via a sort of encoding of pre-existant social prejudice. But I agree, it's not the same thing as I quote from Christie in this blog post.

Nick Barnes said...

Matthew: yes. Not a new idea but one with some clear truth to it. There's a rather good essay comparing whodunnits with SF along these lines in (hmm) New Maps of Hell, I think.