And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie

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I used to have a period long ago when I read lots of books by Agatha Christie. I wasn’t methodical, I didn’t have a plan, and altogether I read perhaps a third of her books. And this novel is one I keep returning to. I’ve read it three or four times already, and even though I know all the twists by heart, it’s enough for me to read the little poem on the first page, which serves as an inspiration for the murderer when he plans his murders, and I immediately have the shivers running down my spine. (I’m not intending to name the murderer, but his identity might be guessed from the following paragraphs.)

As for the story – at the beginning of the novel, ten guests arrive on a small island that’s just off the coast of England but inaccessible in bad weather. One guest dies on the first evening, and by the next morning, the housekeeper’s wife is also dead. No wonder then that a panicky mood soon sets in among the remaining guests as the suspicion arises that there’s probably a killer hiding somewhere on the island. They soon establish that there’s nobody else on the island except for the guests, so the only important question remains: who among the eight is the murderer, and how can he be stopped before he goes on to kill everyone?

Reading And Then There Were None for the first time was a stunning, deeply unsettling and uncomfortable experience for me, and this hasn’t changed much during the subsequent re-readings. This novel is so ominous and so claustrophobic that it doesn’t matter that I learn the truth in the end (or that I already know the truth because I remember it from my previous readings), because by that time I’m already well under its effect. Finishing this novel is not like finishing any other mystery story: here I don’t feel the comfort and satisfaction I usually feel, and I cannot sit back and say: well, this was an interesting murder mystery, brilliantly solved by a smart detective while I had some good fun. Instead, I feel as if I finished a deep psychological drama of several hundred pages, something that would occupy my mind for several days to come, something I’d never be able to completely forget.

In this novel Christie managed to do something that is quite unusual in a murder mystery and something that sets this novel apart from her own works, too. This is the only murder mystery (not only by Christie but in general) I’ve read more than once in my life, so it’s definitely more than a moderately engaging story that’s good for a rainy Saturday afternoon.

What makes it special, then? First, that it deals with the question of sin much more deeply, analytically and philosophically than most crime stories. The specific murders don’t even matter that much here – what matters is the philosophy of the murderer, the philosophy that makes him want to kill and see to it that the truth prevails. This philosophy here often reminds me of Crime and Punishment without the long psychological analyses – and in fact, these analyses aren’t even missing here, they are hidden, in embryonic form, in the epilogue.

Another thing that makes this novel special to me is its atmosphere. I’m too lazy to look for specific examples, but the way Christie depicts the mounting tension, the unbearable claustrophobia, and the feelings of rising doubt, terror, and animosity is deeply terrifying.

And one more thing which I didn’t notice at first, but which became obvious through subsequent re-readings: this is a deeply ironic novel. It makes for some good (and comparatively light) fun in this dark novel to note how often and in how many different ways the murderer claims that the culprit can only be a dangerous maniac, while no-one has a clue that he’s talking about himself. I’m grateful for this irony here – even with that, this novel is terrifying, and I wouldn’t even like to imagine how it would be without it.

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At Bertram’s Hotel by Agatha Christie

atbertramIt’s been a while since I read anything by Agatha Christie, but I remember when I was a great Christie reader as a teenager, I always used to like her Poirot stories better than the ones with Miss Marple. I didn’t originally know whether At Bertram’s Hotel is a Poirot, a Miss Marple or a standalone story, but I liked the title (which is very often enough for me to get a craving for a book), so I read it, even when I realized that this is a Miss Marple mystery. And actually – I really liked it. But of course, Miss Marple doesn’t have much to do with me liking this novel, because this clever, mistrustful but not at all cynical old lady – who solves mysteries in quite an off-hand manner – can hardly be considered the most important character in this novel.

The main character is Bertram’s Hotel itself: a respectable, subtly elegant hotel with a gently luxurious early 20th century atmosphere – the perfect choice for impoverished aristocrats who like to pretend that their past wealth is still intact; for silly but lovely old clergymen; and for old-fashioned ladies and gentlemen looking for a place where they can indulge in some pleasant, harmless nostalgia for things which might never have existed in the first place. Bertram’s Hotel is a place of make-believe, a miniature Disneyland in the middle of England in the 1950s – everything here is fake, everything here is a copy, or a sentient or insentient piece of decor. The world’s most perfect hotel maid is in fact not a maid but a talented actress; and the impoverished aristocrats get their afternoon tea for the price they would have paid for it in the 1900s because even if this is a loss of income for the owners of the hotel, their presence amply compensates for this – they create an elegant, distinguished atmosphere,  valued greatly by the paying guests of the hotel. Moreover, the undeniable luxury offered by the hotel is made in such an unobtrusive way that the guests doesn’t actually consider it luxury; and perhaps the hotel’s famous seed-cakes, perfect muffins and real red strawberry jams are all made of plastic.

It’s highly unlikely that someone runs a luxury hotel which loses massive amounts of money just out of pure philanthropy, for good old nostalgia’s sake. This probably didn’t often happen at the beginning of the 1900s (which was a – presumably – more peaceful and friendly era), and it’s even more unlikely that someone in the 1950s would do this when the aristocratic old world is quickly coming to the end: England is plagued by crime; wayward young girls fall for singers with long hair and for those violent types with race-cars; and it’s simply impossible to find a decent dish-towel with a sensible pattern. So naturally, the members of the police investigating a series of crimes and Miss Marple (who’s staying at Bertram’s Hotel) all ask: why can it be in someone’s interest to recreate England as it was in the 1900s? And as more and more strange events occur in and in the vicinity of Bertram’s Hotel (an absent-minded clergyman goes missing from the hotel; seedy characters seem to be going about the place; etc.), it slowly emerges that below the perfect, shiny surface of Bertram’s Hotel there are secret dealings going on – and of course, there’s also a murder, but that doesn’t interest me much.

I don’t read murder stories anyway because I’m interested in the murder itself, and in this novel, the plot line following the murder is especially flimsy and not too important. Here there are only several smaller mysteries which are often solved in a very anti-climactic way, so At Bertram’s Hotel is by no means the most exciting crime story of the world. But this is not a problem at all, because despite the lack of thrilling crimes, the novel is very atmospheric and ominous. The hotel – the main character – seems to be a living entity, and even though nothing fatal happens within its walls (only on the street, close to the hotel), it still gives me the creeps with its eerie strangeness and its fake nature.

Moreover, Agatha Christie is not only good at creating an oppressive, uncanny atmosphere – she simply writes very well. It’s a pleasure to read her wonderful, toned-down, gentle-yet-ironic, prettily ceremonious English-countryside sentences, and it’s quite an experience to read her descriptions of England in the fifties – which is so very much different from the fake 1900s England as recreated in Bertram’s Hotel. And also – the way she writes about the good old seed-cakes and wonderful, real jams of Bertram’s Hotel makes my mouth water, and I would be absolutely delighted to taste all these wonders – it’s sad they don’t actually exist.