On a hot summer day in the British countryside, a group of travelers makes their way to a mysterious resort called Indian Island. Each travels separately, but all have been summoned to the place by letters of invitation.
Mr. Justice Wargrave reads the political news from the Times as the train rolls through the countryside towards Devon. He recalls all of the recent rumors in the paper regarding Indian Island. According to rumor, an American millionaire had purchased the island and built a luxurious house upon it. The millionaire’s third wife, however, had been a poor sailor, so the house was now up for sale. The gossip columns in the papers each reported different news on the island. Some reported that Miss Gabrielle Turl, a Hollywood film star, bought the place or that it was being purchased as “an abode for Royalty.” The most outlandish gossip was that the Admiralty was buying it in order to carry out “hush hush experiments.” The only reliable source reporting the matter claimed that a Mr. Owen had bought the house. Mr. Justice Wargave pulls out the letter of invitation that he had received. It is signed by Lady Constance Culmington, the kind of woman “who would buy an island and surround herself with mystery.”
In another cabin on the train, this one a third class cabin with other travelers in it, Vera Claythorne leans her head back and tries to sleep. Though the train is hot, she is looking forward to the cool seacoast. She feels lucky to have gotten such a wonderful opportunity for a holiday post. Mrs. Una Nancy Owen hired Vera through an employment agency for a secretarial job. Vera knows all about the controversy over Indian Island and knows that she will be working at a luxurious house. She knows she is lucky to get the job because there has been trouble in her own recent account. She thinks of a Coroner’s inquest and how she had been acquitted of all blame. Then she thinks of Hugo, the man who told her that he loved her. In the seat across from her, Philip Lombard sums up the girl across from him as “one who could hold her own – in love or war.” He tries to focus on the job at hand. The “little Jew” had offered him a hundred guineas to go to Sticklehaven, Devon, where he would then be at the service of his client. Philip Lombard told the Jew that he could not do anything illegal, though it was apparent that each knew that in his past actions, “legality had not always been a sine qua non.”
In a different carriage, Miss Emily Brent sits upright, unlike the lounging of this younger generation, of which she does not approve. Miss Brent is “enveloped in an aura of righteousness and unyielding principles” and thinks about how everyone makes a fuss over things these days. She thinks, “She would like to make an example of certain people.” She remembers the letter that came to her, inviting her to this island off the coast of Devon. “U.N.” signed the letter, and Miss Brent cannot remember the name of the person for whom the initials stand. Even though she cannot remember the name of her host, she is pleased to be getting a free holiday, especially since her income was so reduced in recent times.
Also on the train is General Macarthur. He looks out his window as the train pulls into Exeter and curses at how slow these things move. He is not quite clear on who this Owen fellow is supposed to be. He was invited to come and share some old times with a few cronies. Some of the men were shy of him recently, a fact that he attributes to “that damned rumour” of the things that had happened thirty years ago. He is interested to see if the rumors are true that the Admiralty had bought this Indian Island. He is curious to see what they might be doing there.
Dr. Armstrong drives across the English countryside in his Morris. He is tired but only because he has been so successful as a doctor recently. He knows that part of this is good luck – a few women came to him, some of them with quite a bit of money and position, and he had been able to correctly diagnose them and cure their illnesses. They recommended him to their friends and, suddenly, he had more business than he knew what to do with. This holiday to Devon and to this island would be a nice getaway, and it did not hurt that these Owens people were paying him a whacking fee. As he drives, a Super Sports Dalmain rushes past him and almost runs him off the road. The driver of this car is Tony Marston, a dashing young playboy type. He is looking forward to the “rather good fun” of the island. His main concern is that the house has enough drinks.
In his own cabin, Mr. Blore sits and goes over his notes. He has the names of all the guests of the house. He thinks to himself that his job should be easy enough. He had been to Indian Island as a boy, and he remembers the bad weather and funny smell of the place. An old man in the corner of the cabin wakes from a nap and declares that a squall is coming. Blore does not believe him. The man then sits up, looks at Blore, and tells him that his day of judgment is coming soon.
The train pulls into Oakbridge, where several taxis are waiting to take all the guests to the house. Two of the travelers, Vera Claythorne and Philip Lombard, stay at the station, waiting on another guest coming on the slow train, while Mr. Justice Wargrave and Miss Brent take the first taxi. Lombard and Vera Claythorne make small talk, she telling him of her secretarial position and asking about the Owens. Lombard quickly changes the subject by pretending there is a wasp on her arm.
The slow train arrives and General Macarthur joins the two waiting guests. As the guests drive through the countryside, they remark on the scenery and the sea. They see the house on the island as they crest a hill and Vera thinks that there is “something sinister” about it. They come to a small inn, the Seven Stars, and meet up with three of the guests, Mr. Justice Wargrave, Miss Brent, and Mr. Blore, who introduces himself as “Mr. Davis” from Natal, South Africa. They quickly board the ferry that takes them to the house. They see a very powerful car speeding towards the boat, and Anthony Marston, looking like some kind of young “Hero God out of some Northern Saga,” joins them. As they travel across the channel, Fred Narracott, the boat’s captain, thinks to himself what an odd lot is coming to the Owen’s house. They look nothing like film stars or millionaires. Only Anthony Marston looks as though he belongs.
The boat lands on the south side of the island and Mr. Narracott mentions that if the sea is rough, the island is often cut off for a week. The party ascends to the house where a butler greets them and escorts them in. The butler tells them that Mr. Owen has been delayed and will not be arriving until tomorrow. Vera follows a maid, Mrs. Rogers, upstairs where her luggage has been unpacked. The luxury of her room surprises her. She asks Mrs. Rogers about the Owens, but Mrs. Rogers tells her she is yet to meet her employers. Vera observes that Mrs. Rogers is a nervous type; she seems to be in fear. Vera explores the room and, in front of a fireplace, finds a piece of parchment with an old nursery rhyme written on it. It is the rhyme of the Ten Little Indian Boys, in which each of ten boys die until no one is left:
“Ten little Indian boys went out to dine;
One choked his little self and then there were nine.
“Nine little Indian boys sat up very late;
One overslept himself and then there were eight.
“Eight little Indian boys traveling in Devon;
One said he'd stay there and then there were seven.
“Seven little Indian boys chopping up sticks;
One chopped himself in halves and then there were six.
“Six little Indian boys playing with a hive;
A bumblebee stung one and then there were five.
“Five little Indian boys going in for law;
One got in Chancery and then there were four.
“Four little Indian boys going out to sea;
A red herring swallowed one and then there were three.
“Three little Indian boys walking in the zoo;
A big bear hugged one and then there were two.
“Two Little Indian boys sitting in the sun;
One got frizzled up and then there was one.
“One little Indian boy left all alone;
He went out and hanged himself and then there were none.”
Vera observes the sea and starts to remember the traumatic drowning in her past, but she pushes it out of her mind.
Dr. Armstrong takes a later ferry over the island and cannot help but imagine that he is leaving his old life behind him. When he arrives at the house, he meets Mr. Justice Wargrave and remembers him from several instances of when he testified in court. Wargrave also remembers Armstrong and does not think highly of him. He asks Armstrong if he knows of Constance Culmington, but Armstrong does not. Mr. Rogers, the butler, also does not know of any Constance Culmington, and Wargrave thinks to himself, “There’s a fly in the ointment.”
In his room, Mr. Blore ties his tie and worries about his looks. He does not want to “bungle his job.” General Macarthur begins to have second thoughts about coming, but the boat has left and he is stuck. Lombard walks through house as if he is a “beast of prey.” In her room, Emily Brent dresses for dinner and reads a passage from the Bible. It is a passage about how the wicked will be thrown into hell by the judgment of God.
All the guests eat dinner and begin to become acquainted with each other. Tony Marston notices ten Indian figurines on a tray and all the guests note that the “Ten Indian Boys” poem is posted in their rooms. Miss Brent and Vera Claythorne look at each other and remove themselves to the drawing room where they listen to the sound of the ocean, a sound that Miss Brent thinks is nice, but that Vera believes is horrible.
In a few moments, the rest of the guests join them in the drawing room. Rogers serves them all coffee. Suddenly, a voice comes booming into the room. None of the guests can tell where it is coming from. The voice tells the guests that they “are charged with the following indictments.” The voice lists the names of each guest and accuses each of committing murder on a particular date. At the end, the voice says, “Prisoners at the bar, have you anything to say in your defense?” There is a moment of silence, then a scream and a thud.
The guests rush out of the drawing room and find that Mrs. Rogers has fainted on the floor. The men lift her onto the sofa and fetch her a glass of brandy. The guests start to wonder whose voice it was that they had heard. Lombard begins to move around the drawing room and opens the door to the next room. There is a table with a gramophone on it pushed up next to the wall. There are several small holes in the wall where the gramophone is projected. Lombard puts the needle on the record and again, they hear the voice. Each wonders who could have turned the gramophone on.
Mr. Rogers brings Mrs. Rogers back to consciousness and the guests learn that Mr. Rogers had played the record. He swears that he was told to do it by Mr. Owens, who had instructed him in a letter to put on the record just as he was serving coffee. Lombard tells the guests that the title of the record is “Swan Song.” Each guest serves their self a drink in order to relax, and they discuss the circumstances of how they arrived at the island.
Each gives their own story of how they were contacted in some way, asking them to arrive at the Island on this particular date. Mr. Rogers fetches the letter that instructed him to play the record. It is from the Ritz Hotel, typed, and signed Ulick Norman Owen. Others tell of how they were contacted by old friends, all of whom they were not able to be in touch with, asking them to come. Mr. Blore lies and tells them the same, but Mr. Justice Wargrave and Lombard call him out on his lie. They note that the voice had not mentioned a “Mr. Davis,” but rather a Mr. Blore. Blore confesses that he is a detective, and Mr. Owens had hired him to watch and observe each of the guests. Now he doubts that Mr. Owens even exists. Wargrave strokes his upper lip, his tell of deep thinking, as he notes that the initials of Mr. Owen are “U.N. Own. Or by a light stretch of fancy, UNKNOWN!” The judge tells the guests that he believes that some “dangerous homicidal lunatic” has summoned them to this island.
The book begins with an introduction of each character. The introduction tells the reader why the character is going to Indian Island, and it reveals a small bit about each character’s past. Not enough is revealed so that the reader completely understands the circumstances that have led each to Indian Island, but the reader does see that each character has some kind of stain in his or her past. Each has done something that either weighs on the conscience or implicates him or her in a very bad deed. Christie uses the device of flashback to deepen the novel’s characters. Their flashbacks to the various acts of deaths they have caused provide commonality of characters in the reader’s mind and help explain from the first chapter why they might be heading to Indian Island.
Many of the characters in Christie’s novel remain one dimensional in many respects. For instance, Miss Brent is described as a religious fundamentalist of “righteousness and unyielding principles.” Miss Brent’s general description will not change throughout the novel. These overplayed character flaws allow Christie to implicate each character as the possible murderer until they themselves die.
The novel is told in the third person, but the narrator of the novel is not omniscient. Instead, the voice of the novel portrays the reader’s own understanding of the events happening. The reader, then, becomes the novel’s detective in the same way that actual detectives, such as Hercule Poirot, are the main characters in other Christie novels. The narrator is unaware of the killer’s identity, as is the reader. When the narrative delves into the psychological characteristics of each character, it is only a limited view of the character’s mind and inner turmoil. Not enough is ever shown to give away the murderer’s identity. Not until the final chapter of the book does the narration switch to the first person, as the killer confesses the motivations and the means for each murder.
Detective genre novels such as And Then There Were None follow particular rules. One of the first rules is that once all of the characters in the novel have been introduced, the murderer will always be one of these characters. There might be other ancillary characters, such as Mr. Narracott or the Scotland Yard detectives at the novel’s end, but none of these will be the murderer. In the case of And Then There Were None, Christie makes sure that all her characters are secluded on an unreachable island, meaning that one of the characters is definitely the murderer.
Christie upends the traditional notions of protagonist vs. antagonist in And Then There Were None. The traditional use of this literary device sets a clear protagonist, or main character, against a clear antagonist attempting to oppose or foil the plans or narrative progression of the protagonist. In And Then There Were None, each character plays the part of protagonist, yet the reader soon knows that at least one of these is also the murderer, or antagonist. The characters’ flawed past precludes anyone from being a clear “good guy” or “bad guy.” The uncertainty of each character’s guilt heightens the suspense of the mystery.
The old man in Blore’s train cabin who wakes from a nap and tells him that a “squall” is coming is a use of foreshadowing. Weather is symbolic of the psychological confusion and terror that develops on Indian Island. This old man is a kind of seer, or fortuneteller, who has no connection to any other character or any part of the novel except for this first chapter. Blore’s prediction that the old man will see an early demise is actually a prophecy of his own demise.
The use of the Ten Little Indian Boys rhyme is an example of the macabre playfulness inherent in Christie’s novel and in the genre of detective fiction. The use of such a silly rhyme as the basis for such horrible murders alerts the characters and the readers to the psychotic nature of the killer. It also allows the reader to take part in the mystery by following along with the rhyme. The rhyme gives clues as to the nature of the murders and to which character might die next. It becomes an elaborate guessing game for the reader. The reader and the detective, in this sense, become one. This playfulness is also seen in the revelation that the name “Mr. U.N. Owen” is a play on the word “unknown.” Subconsciously, the reader and the characters realize that if they had solved this puzzle earlier, the characters could have avoided their terrible fates.