Mr. Justice Wargrave tells the others about the circumstances that brought him to Indian Island. He tells them that he received a letter from Lady Constance Culmington, an old acquaintance. Wargrave tells them, “Whoever it was who enticed us here, that person knows or has taken the trouble to find out a good deal about us all.” The others all refute the charges that the voice from the record leveled against them.
Wargrave tells them he has a clear conscience over the man he is accused of murdering, a defendant in a trial who was convicted and sentenced to death by the judge. Dr. Armstrong remembers the case and recalls that he heard rumors that the judge in the case had been unfair. Armstrong asks the judge if he knew the convicted defendant before the trial. Wargrave denies it, but Armstrong thinks to himself that he knows the judge is lying.
Vera Claythorne tells the group about the boy she is accused of murdering. The boy, Cyril Hamilton, drowned in a swimming accident while Vera was taking care of the child. General Macarthur tells them all that the man he is accused of murdering, Arthur Richmond, died in the “natural course of events in war time.” Lombard admits that he left a tribe of natives alone in the African wilderness to die but that he feels no guilt over the matter because “self-preservation’s a man’s first duty.” Anthony Marston’s victims, John and Lucy Combes, died after Marston hit them with his car in a bit of “beastly bad luck.”
Mr. Rogers tells of how he and his wife cared for an elderly lady, Miss Brady, until she fell ill, and they were not able to fetch a doctor in time. Blore guesses that the Rogers might have come into a little money after the old lady’s passing, but Rogers defends their inheritance. Blore then tells them he was responsible for finding the evidence that convicted an accused fraudster who later died in prison. Armstrong admits that he does not recall the name that the voice accused him of murdering. He silently confesses that it must have been the patient who died after he operated while intoxicated. Only the Sister knew of the matter, “but she held her tongue.” Dr. Armstrong cannot imagine who could have known about the matter.
All the guests look at Miss Brent, but she tells them that she has nothing to say. They all eye her suspiciously. Mr. Justice Wargrave then questions Rogers on how they can all leave the island. Rogers tells them that Narracott will return with the boat in the morning. They all decide it will be best to leave in the morning. Anthony picks up his drink, toasts a “life of crime,” and takes a big swallow. He begins to choke and falls to the floor.
Dr. Armstrong rushes over to Marston and is stricken to discover that Marston is dead. Armstrong sniffs the glass and tastes a bit of the drink. He tells them that he thinks there was probably potassium cyanide in the drink, a poison that kills instantaneously. Armstrong goes to the drink table and tastes a few of the liquids with which Marston made his drink but none contains any poison. Lombard is shocked and cannot believe that Marston put the poison in the glass himself, committing suicide. None of the other guests can believe that a man in the prime of his life would commit such an act.
All the guests agree that they must get some sleep. Lombard tells Rogers to straighten the dining room up in the morning, but he insists on doing it tonight so as not to disturb his wife’s sleeping. As the guests go to their rooms, they all think of how an old house might contain secret passageways and sliding panels in the walls. This house, however, is new and bright and had “the essence of modernity,” which was “the most frightening thing of all.”
In his room, Mr. Justice Wargrave starts to think about Edward Seton, the man he was accused of murdering. He remembers how the defense had been very charismatic while the prosecution “had bungled it a bit.” The jury had been impressed with the defendant and Wargrave remembers how he had given his own summation of the case to the jury and had “cooked Seton’s goose all right!” Downstairs, in the dining room, Rogers stares, puzzled, at the ceramic Indian figurines. There are only nine there, and he swears that he remembers seeing ten before.
General Macarthur tosses and turns in his own bed. He remembers Arthur Richmond and how his wife, Leslie, had taken quite an interest in the man. He believed it to be an innocent friendship until he found a love letter written between the two. Macarthur sent Richmond out on a patrol for which there was no hope of him returning alive. Macarthur is reasonably sure that, to this day, no one knows of what he did. When he returned from war, he did not even tell his wife that he knew of the affair. Leslie had died a few years later, and now Macarthur lives in retirement in a quiet town. Sometimes, however, he feels as though the townspeople are talking about him and avoiding him, as if they know something about him. Macarthur has the strange thought that he does not want to leave the island.
Vera Claythorne lies in her bed and has a flashback to her time as a nursemaid to little Cyril. She remembers falling in love with a man named Hugo, though he cannot ask Vera to marry him since he has no money. Hugo tells her that if Cyril had been a girl, he would have come into a great deal of money, but he still feels strongly for the child. Vera remembers how Hugo, though a “puny” kid, still wanted to swim out to the rocks in the sea, though she kept telling him it was too far. Vera gets up and walks around the room. Her eyes happen to see the first lines of the “Ten Little Indian Boys” poem: “Ten little Indian boys went out to dine; / One choked his little self and then there were nine.” Vera shudders because she cannot imagine death.
Dr. Armstrong has a vivid dream. He is back in the operating room, standing over the woman that he killed while intoxicated. She looks different this time. The nurse pulls back the sheet and he sees Emily Brent who tells him, “In the midst of life we are in death.” The nurse puts a handkerchief back over the patient’s face and when it is again pulled off, Dr. Armstrong sees Anthony Marston. He is purple, convulsing and laughing. Armstrong wakes up and it is morning.
Rogers stands over Armstrong and shakes him awake. He tells him that he cannot get Mrs. Rogers to wake. Armstrong quickly goes to her bedside and finds that she is dead. Rogers asks if her heart had failed, but Armstrong tells him he has no way of knowing. Rogers says that he knew of nothing wrong with her except that she did not sleep well. Armstrong looks for sleeping medicine that she might have overdosed on, but finds nothing. Rogers tells him that she only had the bit of brandy that he gave her to calm her nerves.
The other guests are around the house, all waiting on the motorboat to arrive, but it is yet to show. Rogers calls them to breakfast and Armstrong apologizes that Mrs. Rogers was not able to cook for them. After they eat, he tells them that she died in her sleep. Vera notes that she was a “nervous looking creature” and Emily Brent declares that her conscience killed her. Brent tells them all Mrs. Rogers must have broken down with guilt after remembering that she had killed the old woman under her care. Everyone else thinks Mrs. Brent is carrying things too far. Each guest tries to think of a reason that Mrs. Rogers might have died, but none can. Rogers returns to the room and Mr. Justice Wargrave asks him when to expect the boat. Rogers tells them all that the boat usually arrives between seven and eight and that if Mr. Narracott is ill, he always sends his brother.
After breakfast, Blore and Lombard discuss the boat’s absence from the island. Blore decides that it is not an accident that the boat has not arrived and that everything is tied together. General Macarthur enters the conversation and tells them that the boat will never come and that this is “the meaning of the whole business. We’re not going to leave the island…. None of us will ever leave…. It’s the end, you see – the end of everything.” Macarthur tells them, “That’s peace – real peace. To come to the end – not to have to go on….” Dr. Armstrong joins the men on the terrace but just as he is about to speak, Rogers pulls him back into the house. He points him towards the china figures in the middle of the table. Rogers is frightened and points out to him that last night there were ten, but now there are only eight.
In Chapter Four, each character elaborates on the crimes that he or she is accused by the gramophone recording of committing in their past. This allows the reader to understand better the stories that had only been hinted at through inner dialogue in the first few chapters. However, the reader—acting as detective—also inherently understands that each character is being less than truthful in their stories. No character can yet be eliminated as “U.N. Owen.”
Detective fiction works best under a set of rules known in the genre as the Van Dine Principle. This principle, articulated in an early twentieth century essay, asserts first that detective fiction works only if the truth of the mystery is hidden throughout the book. The killer cannot be revealed until the final pages of the book. It is not enough simply to hide the motivations or the means by which a murder was committed, although this is part of the game-playing dimension of the novel. The identity of the killer must also remain hidden.
The second part of this Van Dine principle works in concert with the first. This is the disguise principle. Though the truth of the killer’s identity, motivations, and means are hidden in the novel, their truth must be accessible to the reader. This means that there are never elements such as an unknown character, or a hidden clue. Upon a second reading, the reader should be able to pick out all of the clues, giveaways, and telltale signs of guilt that were missed during a first reading.
The setting of the novel also becomes important in creating a tone of suspense. As opposed to other genres, such as horror, which often relies on dimensions of neglected past to insinuate haunting or possession, Christie sets her novel in a minimalist modern setting. Indian Island is nothing more than a barren rock out in the middle of the ocean. The house, though described as large, is never characterized as particularly luxurious or inviting. Instead, it is a modern, sterile environment free from mystery. This creation of setting represents the tension between superstition and strict rationality that plays out throughout the novel. By creating this barren, modern setting, Christie alerts the reader that this is not a supernatural mystery or a story of a haunted house.
The first two murders on the island, those of Anthony Marston and Mrs. Rogers, alert the guests to the fact that they have all been called to this island indiscriminate of their social class or standing. In a previous chapter, Captain Narracott noted that the motley crew of passengers he was taking to the island did not resemble the glamorous movie stars or wealthy persons he had previously ferried there. Class distinctions in British society have a deeper history than in American society, so it would be more natural for European readers of Christie’s novel to pinpoint the eccentricity of having a doctor, a judge, or a general socialize with a secretary or a butler.
As the murders begin, the reader sees how each murder alludes to the Ten Little Indians in the rhyme. Marston chokes to death through poisoning. Mrs. Rogers never wakes after fainting. The reader can already see that General Macarthur will be the next victim. He foreshadows his own fate through his dire predictions of never leaving the island just as the eighth Indian Boy said that he would never leave Devon. The reader’s job is to guess how and when the next murder will occur, based on a reading of the nursery rhyme.