Lessons Learned from Agatha Christie: The Omission Says It All.

Studying Agatha Christie’s Poirot mysteries has been a real treat this year. But like any favorite food, its taste has grown a touch stale on my writing pallette. Before I take a good, long break from one of the greatest authors of all time, I wanted to share one of the lessons learned from what many consider to be her masterpiece: And Then There Were None

And-Then-There-Were-None-HBI had written this book because it was so difficult to do that the idea had fascinated me. That people had to die without it becoming ridiculous or the murderer being obvious. 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 an epilogue in order to explain it. It was well received and reviewed, but the person who was really pleased with it was myself, for I knew better than any critic how difficult it had been. –Agatha Christie, “Author’s Note”

One extraordinary achievement in this book is the slick point-of-view-leapfrog Christie plays to bamboozle readers from the very start. Yes, changing p.o.v. is something that has irritated me in the past, but has also been used well in her Poirot series. In And Then There Were None, Christie deftly takes readers in and out of a killer’s mind without readers ever having a clue it happened.

How?

Well to start, they’re all killers.

Yup.

We glean this from the little things, the thoughts in the characters’ minds that run to the front of the bus like a child unbuckled…

A picture rose clearly before [Vera’s] mind. Cyril’s head, bobbing up and down, swimming to the rock… Up and down–up and down…. And herself, swimming in easy practised strokes after him–cleaving her way through the water but knowing, only too surely, that she wouldn’t be in time… (3)

Well, [General Macarthur would] enjoy a chat about old times. He’d had a fancy lately that fellow soldiers were rather fighting shy of him. All owing to that damned rumour! By God, it was pretty hard–nearly thirty years ago now! Armstrong had talked, he supposed. Damned young pup! What did he know about it? (7)

Lucky that [Dr. Armstrong had] managed to pull himself together in time after that business ten–no, fifteen years ago. It had been a near thing, that! He’d been going to pieces. The shock had pulled him together. He’d cut out drink altogether. By Jove, it had been a near thing though… (9)

Many of the characters wander in and out of such thoughts–all but one. The novel itself begins with Justice Wargrave (is that not just one of the most awesome names for a judge?) en route via train to the coast, where he will take a boat to Nigger/Indian/Soldier Island.* We learn nothing of his past, whereas all the other character introductions dip into the past for at least a paragraph or two. Why don’t we see his past? We’re too distracted to ask, for he’s thinking about the mysterious island, and the letter inviting him there from one Lady Constance Culmington. He thinks about her exotic, impulsive behavior:

Constance Culmington, he reflected to himself was exactly the sort of woman who would buy an island and surround herself with mystery! Nodding his head in gentle approval of his logic, Mr. Justice Wargrave allowed his head to nod… (2)

Note the words “his logic.” Why does he need to reason out something that, on its bare page, seems very straightforward? After all, the letter inviting him to the island is signed with her name. When he’s reasoning out why she’d send it, he’s not thinking about friendship or past pleasures together. Nope, he’s just thinking about why someone like her would buy an island. Why? We’re not told why.

Another curious moment arises in Chapter 2, when the judge addresses Dr. Armstrong about Constance Culmington and her “unreadable handwriting.” Who brings up that trait of all traits to someone they’ve only just met? We’re not told why.

Chapter 3 kicks the plot into high gear as a vinyl record states all the characters’ names and their murder charges. Justice Wargrave gathers up everyone’s connections to the island’s owners, Mr. and Mrs. U.N. Owen, and shows the other guests there are no such owners, that the name simply stands for “unknown.”

Vera cried: “But this is fantastic–mad!”

The judge nodded gently. He said. “Oh, yes. I’ve no doubt in my own mind that we have been invited here by a madman–probably a dangerous homicidal lunatic.” (41)

Why the hell would a judge, a man of law and order, go spoutin’ off a description that’s bound to incur panic and other extreme reactions from the guests? We’re not told why.

But by story’s end we surely know: because he knows, in his own mind, what he is.

Such little details given without context, like single puzzle pieces without a box, are as close to clues as we’re going to get. In Chapter 4, Wargrave’s the only one “picking his words with care” (43). In Chapter 6, he tells the others in “a slightly ironic voice”:

“My dear lady, in my experience of ill-doing, Providence leaves the work of conviction and chastisement to us mortals–and the process is often fraught with difficulties. There are no short cuts.” (66)

For all my ripping over the use of outlines and plans for a story, there’s no denying that one needs to plan a mystery such as this in extreme detail in order to find what one can omit and what one can say with “a slightly ironic voice.” How else could Christie describe a man as “passionless and inhuman” (108) in a setting and plot driven by fear and humanity’s fight to survive against an unseen threat? Plus, Christie distracts readers in Chapter 10 by using characters Philip Lombard and Vera to move suspicion from Wargrave (“He gets to see himself as all powerful, as holding the power of life and death” (114)) to Dr. Armstrong (“He’s the only person here with medical knowledge” (115)). These maneuvers successfully keep readers from missing the omissions.

the-eleventh-hourThis level of subtle hint-craft reminds me of Graeme Base’s The Eleventh Hour: A Curious Mystery. We owned the picture book when I was a kid, and yes, I broke open the super-secret solution envelope at the end to find out who stole the birthday feast. Base painted wee mice into every single picture of the book as clues to the culinary culprit, but these mice were a part of the furniture, the yard, the tennis court–only when you knew what clues to look for were you able to actually see them.

So it is with And Then There Were None: when one’s just reading, one moves with the ebb and flow through the different points of view. Only when the reader reaches the end and learns the judge is the culprit can he/she see the absence of the past, the details that don’t quite fit with such a character, and so on.

Perhaps, like me, you enjoy flying by the seat of your pants through that first draft. If you wish to create a mystery with no clear answers, though, plan to work hard on the, well, plan. Some clues need to be heard, seen, touched, but other clues can be created with an absence, removal, a tearing-outing. Only by knowing your villain’s moves from story’s end and back, back to before the story’s start, will you be able to create clues as stealthy as a mouse.

*I have to say that I find the soldier iteration of the poem better than the ethnically offensive versions. Any one of any race can be murdered, but one expects a soldier, let alone a group of soldiers, capable of overtaking a murderer.

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36 thoughts on “Lessons Learned from Agatha Christie: The Omission Says It All.

    • Oh yes, we had Animalia, too! I think my mother still has both books, but they’re lost in the basement shelves where the kids rarely go. I think the next time we visit I’m going to do some digging, and see my wee B’s get as lost in those pictures as I did. Oh, and Merry Christmas! Yeah, I’m early, but it’s just fun to say. 🙂 xxxxxxx

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      • Probably no photos. This is Australia in summer. In many houses are pretty low-key about decorations. Our tree is ancient, small and not very photogenic, but we have some nice decorations. Maybe a pic or two?

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      • Sounds perfect! Unless God has other plans, this is looking to be a rather wet Christmas than a white Christmas. No one wants to see a bunch of dormant trees and grass. But I do want to show off Blondie’s tree-topping star! Our “normal” tree-topper broke a couple of years ago; I hunted through the stores and never found a decent one, so Blondie up and colored a star.
        I love new traditions. 🙂 xxxxxxxx

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  1. Clues are the most interesting things, Ms Lee. This immaculately researched and intellectually analysed post has taken me back to my days as a PI. Before I move on I must point out that this short tale is entirely true. You see, many years back a poor gal heading, sadly, for death’s door instructed me to locate her former lover in order that she might say her last goodbye. Her time was fast running out and all she had was his name plus a possible road name he might once have lived in some years previous. The road in question had over 200 hundred houses and she had no house number, or even an idea of what side of the road he may have lived. I was getting nowhere fast, then one night I had a dream. In that dream was a front door painted white, with the number ’47’ on a china plaque fixed thereupon. Curiosity took me to that house number, in the street she had provided me. The chap was long gone yet the residents were aware of the town he had moved to. Cutting a long story short, from that info I located him and the dying gal was able to say her goodbyes. Not quite Agatha I know, yet a forgotten memory plucked out the library in my head because of your post. My thanks.

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  2. Interesting! It’s been a while since I read And Then There Were None, but I do remember that my mouth was agape at the end. Decades later I learned about its original title which blew my mind and hurt my feelings. As a black person walking around telling people “Oooo – I love Agatha Christie mysteries!;” then you learn, and you’re like “Well, damn, Agatha!!….I guess I wasn’t your target audience….hm….” It sucks to learn that someone whose craft you’d been admiring likely wouldn’t recognize your humanity.
    In terms of the planning, wonder HOW LONG those plans were in the works? months? years?

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    • Very true, Leslie. I was looking up a particular phrase present in the original edition: “Nigger in the woodpile.” I couldn’t remember seeing that in other editions (“fly in the ointment” was used instead), and wanted to know what this saying could mean. It meant that there was something deeply wrong with the situation; I assume she used this phrase because that “fit so well” with the rest of the original iteration. In fact, the phrase was used so much in the 1800s that a play was made with that phrase for a title. A comedy, I think.
      I wish our current society wouldn’t just *react* to words. We need to study them, find where they come from. Find out how they root themselves into our vernacular, and pull them out, roots, soil, and all.

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    • As I began reading, farther and farther afield I was drawn to Christie–then that title and I never read a word she wrote. Sadly, I have other once-adored authors of questionable choices in my library and I know how you feel.

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  3. Fascinating… I lie the idea of assuming that every character could eventually be the murderer. In fact, it is a good starting point… I love Crime series and watch them on Netflix, ID and Youtube… I found it interesting mainly due to a psychological aspect… Why and how someone becomes a killer?… and how they dare to risk everything just because of the pleasure of killing.
    Anyway… I have always thought that not knowing too much about the suspects could be the best way to get away with murder… However, I am amazed when I see that after yeras … or even decades detectives could be able to re-open a cold case. And finally unravel all mysteries.
    Excellent post, dear Jean. Love & best wishes 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you so much! And yes, that’s why I’m a sucker for a good cold case, too. Even when the forensics fade, it’s what people know, or saw, or thought, and how one can stitch them all together as no one has before to create a complete image. Thanks again for the comment!

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  4. Man, don’t reveal those spoilers. There’s always new and young (and old) readers who have not read her work. She is the master as far as I am concerned. I enjoy re-reading any of her stories. You did a good job dissecting this work. 🙂

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  5. Jean, I am so sorry I haven’t been here so long. My dear life just doesn’t give me a moment to catch a breath. But I am delighted that you have more and more readers on your blog which you do deserve. I love reading your blog as we share the love for the same authors and music, and I know I would never be able to express my thoughts as brilliant as you do it. Hope you have a great pre-Christmas time and enjoy the end of the year! xxxxxx

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  6. I have read part of your post, but I think I need to read the book, as I only saw the film, before I read the rest of your analysis. So interesting. What captured me is Christie’s own quote about the difficulty, and the feeling after it was accomplished.

    One of my novels (both unfinished) is a rather convoluted attempt at something like Chandler’s books, but modern. Every time I read sections of it, I fear the first reader will drive a truck through its plot holes and chuck the book before finishing.

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    • I know what you mean. Mysteries are damn hard, especially when you’ve got to start the clues as early as you can. I most certainly recommend the book, if you have the time to read it. The BBC recently did a mini-series that’s also stellar, and very faithful to the book. Thanks for stopping by!

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