ten little niggers book review

The image makes less sense than the book, I promise.

Also Known As Ten Little Indians and And Then There Were None

Author Agatha Christie

Things You Might Like

  • A detective novel without a detective
  • A genuinely stunning twist in the tale
  • Characters that are believable
  • Palpable terror and tension in most scenes

Things You Might Not Like

  • The pointless rebrandings of the book
  • The premise is a little stretched at times
  • People saying ‘Oh.’ when you tell them what you’re reading.

Conclusion
Without a doubt the finest crime thriller ever written, Ten Little Niggers overcomes any of the detective clichés by eliminating the detective entirely.

5 out of 5 Disappearing Figurines

Errol Stephen Philip Flynn left all alone, he went and hanged himself and then there were none.

***

I’ll be coming back to this point later, but before we begin, let us make something perfectly clear — ‘nigger’ is, at the very least, a taboo word in today’s society, seen as denigrating and racist. In Christie’s day, racism was perhaps more prevalent, yet the term ‘nigger’ was, and still semantically is, simply description. It is never the word that is offensive, but always the meaning that hides behind it. In Ten Little Niggers, the word refers both to a rhyme and an island. No solid reference is made as to the ethnicity of the characters, and not one expresses a thought that one hue of skin is better than another. If you remain offended by the word and the word alone, then I recommend that you read And Then There Were None, and keep away from the real world for a while.

All views expressed within this article are the views of the reviewer, and do not necessarily represent the views of Bullet Reviews or its contributors, advertisers, and sponsors.

***

In the increasingly more obscure words of Max Bygraves, I wanna tell you a story.  I was reading my copy of this book on campus, sitting on the grass under the shade of a tree.  A shadow loomed up.

What’s that?  Uh oh.  What’s just happened is a rather burly chap has wandered up to me, and seems cross with the book I’m reading, just because of the title.  I have never been so certain I was about to die.   I thought about running.  Then I took a far more sensible course of action: I told him what I’m about to tell you; about the book itself.

Written in 1939, Ten Little Niggers was subsequently (much later) renamed Ten Little Indians, with the island being renamed Indian Island.  This also seemed too much for the censors, as the text was then further fiddled with, the island being renamed again to Soldier Island, and the title changing to And Then There Were None.  To this reviewer, this chopping and changing is like removing Nazis from World War Two films because they are no longer acceptable, but besides changing a few words, the rest of the manuscript remains the same, and I’ll try to avoid touching on the subject again, but it is interesting to note that it still keeps its original title in several countries, including Spain and Greece.

As far as plot is concerned, Ten Little Niggers is truly unique — it is famous as a detective novel with no detective.   We begin with eight short chapters, each a vignette of one of the main characters travelling towards Nigger Island.  They all seem to have been invited by the mysterious (and perhaps now cliché) U. N. Owen.  Christie’s writing is charming and elegant, portraying the usual mystery cast of brigadiers, nursemaids, judges and prudish spinsters with aplomb.  Suddenly, the ‘stock characters who each have a guilty secret’ mould seems somehow fresh and new.  The characters are amusing and interact with each other perfectly.  When they all meet up for the first time, Christie’s depiction of the awkward conversations about the weather are spookily accurate to those we would have experienced ourselves.

Eventually, these eight people all make it to the island, where an elderly husband/wife, butler/maid team inform them that (surprise, surprise) Mr U. N. Owen is currently absent, but they settle down to dinner regardless.  In the dining room are ten porcelain figurines of black people (or Native Americans, or soldiers, depending on the subsequent reprints).  This is a further echo that something is very much about to go wrong, as in each of their rooms is an identical framed rhyme:

Ten little nigger boys went out to dine;

One choked his little self and then there were Nine.

Nine little nigger boys sat up very late;

One overslept himself and then there were Eight.

Eight little nigger boys travelling in Devon;

One said he’d stay there and then there were Seven.

Seven little nigger boys chopping up sticks;

One chopped himself in halves and then there were Six.

Six little nigger boys playing with a hive;

A bumble bee stung one and then there were Five.

Five little nigger boys going in for law;

One got into Chancery and then there were Four.

Four little nigger boys going out to sea;

A red herring swallowed one and then there were Three.

Three little nigger boys walking in the Zoo;

A big bear hugged one and then there were Two.

Two little nigger boys sitting in the sun;

One got frizzled up and then there was One.

One little nigger boy left all alone;

He went out and hanged himself and then there were None.

Note: Agatha Christie did not write the rhyme, which originated in the late 19th Century.  It was this that inspired the book, and thus the title.

This simple children’s rhyme is seen as quaint and a mere foolish diversion by our motley crew.  As an audience, we know bad things will happen right from the off, and that this rhyme will play a macabre role in events, but the characters get their first real shock when a mysterious voice comes from the walls of the drawing room.  This voice accuses each and every guest of being guilty of murder, giving names and dates.  The accusations are clear and the tension is high, and from each character’s reaction, we know they are all probably guilty as charged, but they deny culpability.  When the source of the voice is discovered to be a gramophone hidden in the wall cavity, they finally reach the rather obvious conclusion you made 486 words ago: U. N. Owen is a fake name, and looks a touch like UNKNOWN.  Gosh!

The tension really heats up, each noting something about the others that makes them look shifty, and the paranoia really grips when they realise that they are the only people on the island.  Whoever is responsible must be one of them!

Moments after this revelation is made, one of them collapses and dies in front of everybody.  They soon discover that his drink was poisoned (One choked his little self, and then there were Nine).  The rest of the book reaches new heights of intrigue, betrayal and fear, as although everybody takes precautions to stay alive, the guests fall away one by one, each following the manner of the rhyme.  As this happens, the little porcelain figurines begin to disappear also; a grisly reminder that they are being hunted one by one.

Now you could, I’m sure, tell that is was going to be this way, but that isn’t the point.  Of course it’s going to happen like that, it’s a damned detective novel!  What makes this book special is that all our victims are trying to ascertain who the murderer in their midst might be.  They are cut off from aid or rescue, and the terror and madness the characters endure is unbelievably well written.  In true traditional Christie style, we do find out what truly happened on Nigger Island, but only in the last few pages.

As I told the guy whom I thought was going to kill me over a silly word in the title, Ten Little Niggers is the ultimate exercise in murder mystery.  Before reading, I was incredulous as to how you could have a detective story that ignores the whole section where the suspects are gathered together and a chap in outdated clothing with a pipe points at one of them and says “It was you.”  By deliberately subverting the clichés, Christie has created something unique and spectacular, and you will be guessing to the end.  So, do what my almost-killer did - stop being angry about what title it has, and go and read the damned thing instead.

Buy Ten Little Niggers on Amazon

Buy And Then There Were None on Amazon

 

3 Responses to Ten Little Niggers (1939)

  1. Anonymous says:

    I remember reading this in class as Ten Little Indians. The teacher–I
    think–mentioned that it was called Something Else before the title we
    knew it by, and then, ultimately, And Then There Were None. (We read it
    as Ten Little Indians because the state of Tennessee doesn’t believe in
    funding schools, thus the books were quite old.)

    I didn’t think much about it until seeing the recent hullabaloo (how old
    am I?) when Nigger Jim was changed to… what, Slave Jim? It’s tricky
    to understand why people are in favor of this sort of thing, but I think
    you could draw an analogy between Americans’ vaguely icky feeling at
    the mention of slavery or the wholesale slaughter/exile of Native
    Americans and the strongly icky feeling Germans feel at the mention of
    the H word.

    It’s understandable, that feeling, and there are two ways to approach
    it: Total admission and acceptance of the responsibility to keep these
    events from happening again, or simply embrace the icky feeling and do
    nothing. Honestly, I can’t blame anyone who takes the latter approach,
    because responsibility’s a tough thing to handle.

    What’s that? Oh, I’ve gone off-topic again.

    Good read, but I stick by my guns saying Kinky Friedman’s the best non-Doyle mystery writer.

  2. Dakota Legend says:

    “…yet the term ‘nigger’ was, and still semantically is, simply description.” I find it enjoyable when a writer doesn’t comprehend what they’ve actually written.

  3. [...] novel so high in the list of best selling books. When we reviewed it (under its original title of Ten Little Niggers) at Bullet Reviews it became the most visited page on the website and remains so today. Hunger for [...]

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