10 April 2011

Review: TEN LITTLE NIGGERS, Agatha Christie

Originally published 1939
My edition: Fontana books 1975
190 pages
ISBN 0-00-611727-9
Source: my father's library

Publishers blurb
10 people are invited to a fabulous mansion on Nigger Island off the coast of Devon. Though they all have something to hide, they arrive hopefully on a glorious summer evening... But soon a series of extraordinary events take place: the island is suddenly bathed in a most sinister light .. panic grips the visitors one, by one ... by one... by one...

My take

You will have noticed that I have unapologetically used the original title of this novel, because that is the title of the copy that I have in hand.
This really is a novel with an extraordinary history.
Complaints about the perjorative nature of the original title resulted in it being renamed with the last line of the original rhyme And Then There Were None for the American publication. The island became Soldier Island. In the version published as TEN LITTLE INDIANS, we have Indian Island.
That people still feel very strongly about the use of THAT word was an issue I raised in a post earlier this year: Creating P.C. Reading by whitewashing the classics.

Wikipedia tells us that "it is Christie's best-selling novel with 100 million sales to date, making it the world's best-selling mystery ever, and one of the best-selling books of all time". There is more about the history of the publication here.

Each of the ten guests has been responsible for at least one death, and in each of their rooms is a framed copy of the original "Ten Little.. " rhyme which details how each of the ensuing deaths will occur. The reader will find himself/herself consulting that page in the book to see how the next death will be accomplished. The guests do that too as they realise that the person committing the murders has to be one of them. On the dining room table are ten china figurines and as a guest dies, so the number of figurines is reduced.
The guests are stranded on the island by the weather and the novel is consequently an example of a very clever "locked room" mystery.

Even though this was far from my first reading of the novel (I used to teach it as a text back in the 1970s),  it was still enjoyable to try to pick up finer details. Even when the police finally investigate the sequence of events that led to the ten deaths on the island, they don't get the chronology right. The reader knows that because of course we were there as the deaths happened. But even the reader doesn't know, unless they are clever, who the murderer is. Christie does give us just one tiny clue. In general, readers will need the final ten pages when a message in a bottle, picked up at sea, reveals all.

I have read TEN LITTLE NIGGERS as my next novel for the Agatha Christie Reading Challenge and I will also be listing it in the British Books Challenge

My rating: 4.5


Anonymous said...

Kerrie - That title does have an interesting history, doesn't it... Thanks for the reminder of this fine novel. Christie was said to have liked this best of her work, and it's certainly one of her toughest "nuts to crack."

Margaret @ BooksPlease said...

I've found that her books are just as enjoyable the second or third or whatever time around. I really must read this one again!

Uriah Robinson said...

I think the N word is particularly offensive, but its use in an educational historical context could be justified. Certainly writing books set in Alabama in the 1920s and having klansmen refer to black people as "African Americans" would be ridiculous. We should perhaps differentiate the offensive use in language from the historically accurate use in books. I did not read your post Creating PC at the time, but I believe that books should be left as they were written, in order to show the younger generation what attitudes were like in the past.
Start removing the xenophobia and anti-semitism from authors such as Sapper, Buchan and Sayers and their books might be very thin. But frequently it is the villains who express these opinions, and they do not reflect the authors own views.
The doll on the cover of TLN has also had a history of controversy. Since my childhood, when the image was all over jam jars, the only place I have seen them for sale was ironically at Carter's Grove Virginia, in 1995, where there was a reconstructed slave settlement near the house.
Shops in England were prosecuted for selling these dolls in the 1990s.
I read today that the Elder tree fungus named Jew's Ear [from Judas Iscariot hanging himself on an Elder] has been renamed Jelly Ear!
I must reread this book using my new copy purchased from Greenway in 2009, and of course titled And Then There Were None.

Dorte H said...

I agree that this is a very fine Agatha Christie, and it is so interesting how the titles (and the covers) have changed.

Who knows which aspects of our time will be considered offensive by our grandchildren.

Uriah Robinson said...

Dorte, I just hope they don't rename the Danish pastry. ;o)

Dorte H said...

Danish pastry?

Oh, you mean wiener-brød :O

Kerrie said...

I did think about not reading this one yet again, but I'm glad I did. I agree with Margaret that there is always something new that pops up during a re-reading. Australia rather missed out on the furore over the N word even back in the 70s because it is basically a word we have never really used. So the change of title was always a bit of a puzzle.

However we were on the fringe of the "golliwog" furore that Norman mentions.

BTW I think the artist incorporated a bit of a "spoiler" in this particular cover - if you have read the book, you may spot it. The murderer is depicted.

kathy d. said...

In good conscience and because I have a tough moral code, I have to say that it nearly knocks me over to see this heinous word in print; it is a word I have never spoken nor written nor will I ever do that. I would not read a book with this word on the cover.

In the States, African-American people are very offended by this word, and ask that it not be used; it, as many people have said, brings up images of slavery, Jim Crow unequal laws and even horrific lynching, which was a horror here for decades.

It took the Civil Rights movement, where many lost their lives, were seriously injured and showed enormous courage, despite vicious beatings, attack dogs, water cannons, arson and more.

The Civil Rights legislation of the mid-1960s helped with legal rights, but awful attitudes remain, especially in the South.

These days, with an African-American president, there is still use of these words, and in the South, politicians are using this and other awful words and phrases to try to appeal to their political bases.

It's not a done deal, but still a problem here, and it is important to take a stand -- and I have to to live with myself.

Uriah Robinson said...

Kathy as I said the N word is particularly offensive.
I agree it is still a problem in the USA, and here, but it is infinitely better than the 1960s or 1970s. I shall never forget the reaction by some people when I shared a flat with a black Jamaican, a great friend, back in 1966.
We understood to never ever use that word with our black friends, even though we joked around constantly. They would occasionally use the H word to us whites, but we did not mind. They said we were not as good as them at sports or picking up women, and even though that was not true, about sports anyway, we learned that people of different races could live and work together under stressful conditions.

kathy d. said...

Of course, people can live and work together from different cultures, communities, backgrounds, races, religions.

Eight million people live in my city cooperating every day, and I swear people from every country live here -- and it's fantastic. It's a great social and learning experience.

But, as far as using insulting words, it shouldn't be done no matter who is or isn't around.

It's part of one's morality not to do this. I and folks I know won't put up with this in their houses; I surely won't, not that it's come up.

Unknown said...

This book was just put on the School curriculum for 12 year olds here in Belgium with the original title.!!!!!

This word was the key to enable the slave traders, King leopold of Belgium, colonizers , Slave owners, etc to dehumanize, degrade and destroy an entire continent.

Agatha Christie knew exactly what she was doing when she choose this "poem" as the basis of the story.

I will not accept this in a school setting without proper historical context and explanation. here in Belgium there is no book on the school curriculum about King Leopold mass murder in the congo. so any one who has any doubt about the word and how it has huge significance. I suggest you start and read the book called "King Leopolds Ghost". by Adam Hochschild. and then go from there to USA and beyond to read the endless evil the African people had to endure with this word as its host.

Unknown said...

I think you mix up the 'whitewashing' and 'pc' aspect. To me, the discussion is whether it is important to the story to have such derogatory terms. In this story, does it reduce it's impact for not using the offensive word?

In this instance I would say that all it lets the viewer know is that Christie had racist views. Particularly, with the cover's drawing, I am sure someone as educated as she was not unaware what was going on in the states.

I do think it is important to remember these views existed and still do, so it is maybe important to note any edited changes, and to give an explanation as to why it is no longer acceptable.

Lastly, would you still hold true if the cover had featured a crooked nosed doll in an oven, published in 1946, with the title 'Ten Little Jews'.

Unknown said...

Nb: Unknown

Not sure why blogpost marked me as 'unknown'. Signed in from my google+ account!

Anyway, kind regards, David Simpson


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