Sir Thomas Legge and Inspector Maine sit in their office in Scotland Yard and discuss this strange case: ten people on an island, dead. They have found nothing helpful in the doctor’s report. Wargrave and Lombard died from gunshot wounds. Miss Brent and Anthony Marston both died from cyanide poisoning. Mrs. Rogers died from an overdose of chloral, a sleeping medication. Rogers, Blore, and Macarthur were all killed by blows to the head. Armstrong died of drowning. Vera Claythorne was hanged.
Legge asks the Inspector who provisioned the island, and Maine tells him about Isaac Morris, an unsavory man implicated in numerous crimes. Morris had brokered the real estate deal for the island and had made all the arrangements. Morris doctored all the paperwork, however, so there is no way to tell who actually bought the island. The police had found Morris dead, overdosed on sleeping medication. It is an “opportune” death, according to Legge.
They discuss how Narracott, the ferry captain, discovered the bodies after hearing reports of an S.O.S. signal. Narracott had been sure that no one would have been able to leave the island since it is over a mile to the shore. The record they found on the gramophone had been recorded for a Mr. U.N. Owen by a theatrical group, who thought it a recording for a performance. Maine tells Legge that he has investigated all of the accusations on the record as closely as possible and explains how each of these people had been involved in a death in some way or another, though none of it seemed criminal. The point of this affair, Legge thinks, is that “U.N. Owen dealt with cases that the law couldn’t touch.”
Legge bangs his fist on the table and declares that the whole thing seems impossible. Maine says that they are on the trail of some “fanatic with a bee in his bonnet about justice.” Legge stirs, he feels as though he has some kind of clue about the whole affair, but then cannot quite grasp it. Maine determines that if U.N. Owen had not been able to get off the island, then Owen must have been one of the ten dead. Maine tells Legge that several diaries had been found, those kept by Miss Brent and Claythorne, as well as some notes made by Wargrave. The police, then, know the order of the first deaths to have been Marston, Mrs. Rogers, Macarthur, Rogers, Miss Brent, and Wargrave.
Maine speculates that Armstrong had gone mad and then thrown himself off the cliff. He knows, however, that Armstrong’s body had been laid out on the beach after the high water mark of the storm, meaning that someone must have drug him out of the water. Since Lombard had been shot on the beach, and Vera Claythorne’s fingerprints were on the revolver, while Blore’s body had been found under Vera’s window, Maine thinks that it must have been Claythorne that murdered everyone. However, he says, there had been a chair in Vera’s room with her footprints, showing it to be the chair she used to hang herself. The chair had been neatly put back up against the wall, something she could not have done. The only possible explanation could be Blore, but it seems unfeasible that he would jump out a window and pull some block of marble onto his head at the same time. Since the people in the village are positive that no one could have left the island, the police can do nothing but sit there and wonder who killed all of these people.
A Manuscript Document Sent to Scotland Yard By the Master of the Emma Jane, Fishing Trawler
The narrator begins his letter by explaining that, since his earliest youth, “I realized that my nature was a mass of contradictions.” This is the reason, he explains, that he has written this confession to the murders on Indian Island, and then placed the letter in a bottle and tossed it out to sea. He promises now to explain the murders.
He says that crime and punishment has always interested him. He has enjoyed watching others squirm in discomfort or pain, to see “a wretched criminal squirming in the dock, suffering the tortures of the damned, as his doom came slowly and slowly nearer.” He explains that this was the case with Edward Seton. He knew that Seton was guilty of murder. Though the jury in that case was persuaded by an emotional counsel, the killer explains that he had simply laid out the facts for them.
He explains that he has felt a change within him. “I have wanted…to commit a murder myself. I recognized this as the desire of the artist to express himself!” He wanted to commit the murders in a dramatic way, “something stupendous – out of the common!” He hears from a doctor friend of a recent patient, an elderly lady, who he is sure died after an important drug was withheld from her by her caretakers. The doctor is sure it was murder, though there is no way to prove it. This was “the beginning of the whole thing.” The killer plans to commit murder on not just one person “but murder on a grand scale.” He remembers a childish rhyme from his childhood, the rhyme of the Ten Little Indian Boys, and decides that this will be the basis for his work.
He begins to collect victims over time, listening to the stories that others tell him about strange incidences of violence or murder that went without justice. This is how he decides whom to invite to Indian Island. He particularly remembers of how he learned of Vera Claythorne. He had been drinking with a man named Hugo Hamilton who, after much alcohol, told him, “Murder isn’t what most people think—giving some one a dollop of arsenic—pushing them over a cliff—that sort of stuff.” He tells her that he knew Vera had murdered that child as soon as he saw her. During the time that he is planning for the murders, the killer learns that he has an inoperable illness that will cause him to die slowly and painfully. This, he decides, will not happen. He decides that he will “live before I die.”
He then goes into the mechanics of the murders. After using Morris to make the arrangements for Indian Island, he gave him a poison disguised as an antacid. He plans carefully for the order of death on the Island. He decides that there are varying degrees of guilt on the Island. “Those whose guilt was the lightest should, I decided, pass out first, and not suffer the prolonged mental strain and fear that the more cold-blooded offenders were to suffer.” Marston and Mrs. Rogers go first. Mrs. Rogers goes because she had been only an unwitting accomplice, Marston because he has no sense of moral responsibility. The killer slips potassium cyanide, easily obtained, into Marston’s drink after the gramophone recital. He then uses chloral hydrate, a sleeping medication, to kill Mrs. Rogers. He slips it into her brandy after Mr. Rogers put the glass down caring for his wife.
The killer kills General Macarthur “quite painlessly.” The General does not hear the killer coming. The killer then drafts Dr. Armstrong as an ally as suspicion on the island heightens. Rogers is killed as he chops wood, with a simple blow to the head. The killer takes the key to the dining room from him, which is how the ceramic Indians are broken even though the door is locked. During the confusion of Rogers’ murder, he slips into Lombard’s room and takes the revolver. The last dose of chloral goes into Miss Brent’s coffee. When she is asleep at the table, he comes in and injects the cyanide into her, also leaving a small bee in the room. It is a “childish gesture,” but the killer likes to adhere “as closely as possible to my nursery rhyme.”
The killer tells Armstrong that it must appear that the killer is then the next victim. This, he tells Armstrong, will help them trap the real killer since he could then spy on the real killer. That evening, it was carried out: “A little plaster of red mud on the forehead—the red curtain and the wool and the stage was set.” Armstrong is the only one that examines him closely. All the others believe he is dead. The killer and Armstrong then meet up that night. Armstrong should have known that he was in danger if he had only remembered the rhyme: “A red herring swallowed one.” Armstrong takes the red herring and is pushed over the cliff into the sea.
The killer returns to the house, making just enough noise to wake the others so that they will search the house. He pretends again to be a corpse and they do not notice anything amiss. The revolver is returned to Lombard’s room. The killer had hidden it in a can of tongue buried under untouched foodstuffs. Then comes the moment that he was waiting for: “ three people who were so frightened of each other that anything might happen—and one of them had a revolver.” After Blore comes in the house, he is killed with the marble clock. From his window, he sees Vera Claythorne shoot Lombard. The killer than sets the stage in the bedroom and, just as he suspected, the guilt-wracked woman comes in and commits suicide.
The killer admits that he is writing all of this because he does not want to share in his work of art alone. He is certain that no one will solve this mystery, although he reveals three clues: the first is that the police will know that Edward Seton was an actual murderer. Therefore, they will know that one person on the island was not guilty of an accidental murder. Paradoxically, this means that person is the actual murderer. The second clue is that there was only one person on the island who could have persuaded Armstrong to be tricked into his death—a professional person of his own stature. The third clue is symbolic; the red mark on his forehead, the “brand of Cain.”
The killer then says that he will go into his room and rig a mechanism that will allow him to commit suicide by being shot through the forehead in the same way that the accounts of the murders say happened. When the sea calms and the police arrive, “they will find ten dead bodies and an unsolved problem on Indian Island.” The letter is signed, Lawrence Wargrave.
The Epilogue and the closing letter chapter serve as an overview of the previous sixteen chapters, to sum up the facts and clues of the murders on Indian Island, and to offer solutions to the mystery. While the previous chapters of the novel sought to disguise the essential facts of the case and to disrupt any meaningful interpretation of the story, these chapters seek to clarify through a restatement of the facts as seen through the eyes of the Scotland Yard detectives, and then through a reevaluation of the facts through the eyes of the killer. We see in these two evaluations where the detectives, and the reader, have gone astray in their assumptions regarding the murder.
It is important to note the change in voice in the final chapter. While the first seventeen chapters of the novel are written in the third person, the final chapter is written in the first person, from the point of view of the killer, Mr. Justice Wargrave. This change in perspective is necessary because it highlights an essential element of the detective novel: the narrator is always unreliable. In this case, the narrator had limited omniscience. The reader could observe characters and even hear their conscious thoughts, but the narrator was never able to relate facts outside of the limited purview of the murdered guests. Thus, the narrator was not able to know that Wargrave faked his own death or that Armstrong was unwittingly complicit in helping the murders take place.
The final chapter is the novel’s denouement, the final untying of the novel’s complication. In detective fiction, this final act of confession or unveiling serves several purposes. The first is to verify in the reader’s mind that anyone and everyone might be a killer. The guessing is part of the fun in the Detective genre; this guessing is not meant to stop with the novel’s final pages. One reason that the genre, and Christie’s books in particular, has so many fans is that no matter how unrealistic, the mysteries always seem plausible.
The tension between reason and the supernatural in the novel is played out in the final chapters as Vera wanders into her bedroom. She feels the spirit of her former love, Hugo, urging her to take her own life. Earlier in the novel, Vera had commented on the fact that the whole episode seemed dreamlike, as if some supernatural force were guiding the horror. Mr. Justice Wargrave plays the part of logical reasoning. In the end, the reader sees that logical reasoning has won. In this way, detective fiction can be thought of as a genre of its historical era, a period when the polite Victorian world of the nineteenth century was replaced by the reality of war and the messiness of life. Reason and science became the dominant influence of culture over religion and superstition. While detective fiction is not strictly Realist, it is nevertheless a genre of reason.
This reliance on reason over superstition is the reason that Wargrave relies on Vera Claythorne to finish his work of art and of murder by committing suicide. Throughout Christie’s body of work, murder is anathema to the value of life, but suicide is the ultimate act of insanity. It is not simply the taking of another life but an extinguishing of the most precious thing any person has. This proves that Wargrave’s experiment in murder is as much an experiment in the limits of human sanity. He has attempted, and succeeded, in producing a grand metaphor of humans as wild animals. His belief in logical reasoning leads him to believe that the guilt of Vera’s crime will lead her into her own act of justice. That Wargrave seeks to use these murders as an unsolvable puzzle only cements his own logical insanity in the minds of readers.
The final chapter of any Detective novel provides a measure of catharsis for the reader. The previous chapter, by highlighting the important clues and facts of the case, only heightened the sense in the reader’s mind that the world is somehow out of balance. Evil has had its reign on Indian Island, and the prevailing thought is that if evil can persist in this work of fiction, then it must be able to persist in the real world. The final chapter of explanation provides the reader with the knowledge that the world has been set right. The murderer must always be brought to justice, even if that justice is the act of suicide by the killer. By leaving a note that is then turned into Scotland Yard by a ship captain (the title of the chapter tells us this fact), the killer has, in fact, not gotten away with the crime. Even if institutional justice is not able to punish the killer, the reader knows that a kind of cosmic justice has been administered. Wargrave sought to create confusion, disguise, and mystery. His confession, in fact, does the opposite. It creates order and structure to what seems mysterious.