This lovely mystery book is first and foremost about the administration of the long-overdue justice, right? At least that's what the mastermind behind it all believes.
But the question is - who has the right to decide what justice is? And who is to decide what punishment serves the crime? And is perceived justice at all costs the ultimate goal, or is it the frequently pointless work of a maniac? As a matter of fact, what is justice after all?
I think the story of this book (the one that may win the contest for the most offensive original title, after all) is familiar to most readers. It is a lovely and fascinating idea. Ten people are lured onto a remote island under false pretenses just to realize that they are all about to be punished by death for the 'crimes' that they have committed in the past and have gotten away with. Killed in a manner predicted by a silly yet ominous children's poem with the conclusion of "... and then there were none". What's more, they come to realize that the mastermind - or maniac? - has to be among them. And the (very polite, in the traditional British way) game of survival begins, complete with all the necessary societal rituals¹ and classism² that are not disposed of even under the threat of imminent demise.
¹The politeness and overt show of respect to one another even in the face of imminent murder by someone in their midst - because, of course, you would not want to offend anyone. Continuing to socialize and take meals together. Insisting on chivalry when a woman could be the murderer just as well as a man ((view spoiler)) - these are just some of the examples.
² Just think of everyone expecting the impeccable service by the butler even though HIS WIFE JUST DIED! Everyone deciding to stick together and be careful - but never including the servants in it. The belief by some that people of 'proper class' would be incapable of murder ((view spoiler)). The list can go on and on. And all of these assumptions prove to be wrong.
And as, despite the precautions, the number of people trapped on the island continues to decline, the uneasy tension sets in, and the impeccable facades begin to crack.
"The others went upstairs, a slow unwilling procession. If this had been an old house, with creaking wood, and dark shadows, and heavily panelled walls, there might have been an eerie feeling. But this house was the essence of modernity. There were no dark corners - no possible sliding panels - it was flooded with electric light - everything was new and bright and shining. There was nothing hidden in this house, nothing concealed. It had no atmosphere about it. Somehow, that was the most frightening thing of all. They exchanged good-nights on the upper landing. Each of them went into his or her own room, and each of them automatically, almost without conscious thought, locked the door."
The story is captivating and very smart, and the ending had me baffled for a bit the first time I read it. It has a neat resolution despite an obvious plot hole (view spoiler). It's an enjoyable read to say the least.
But what made me unsettled both of the times I read it was the nagging question of justice, as I mentioned above. Yes, on one hand, it's almost poetic justice to punish the criminals who thought they got away with it. On the other hand, is eye-for-an-eye the best way to get even? And who's to judge, anyway? Who is either conceited enough or deranged enough to assume that he has the right and the moral authority to determine guilt and the extent of punishment just like that?
Don't get me wrong - the people accused on the island are undeniably guilty (even though it's not necessarily murder as we think of for some of them - Vera Claythorne is really guilty of neglect, albeit with a desire to kill, and Emily Brent is pretty much guilty of being a judgmental über-righteous heartless prude). But the degree of their guilt varies quite significantly in my perception, and it does not always coincide with what their 'unknown' judge/executioner thinks(running two children over with a car and feeling no remorse is to me worse than firing a pregnant servant who then goes on to kill herself, for instance). And is arbitrarily and single-handedly determining their guilt and doling out punishments not just as much (or even much worse) or a crime than they have committed? Conceited, self-righteous crime? Decide for yourself.
Speaking of guilt - this novel has quite a bit to say on this subject. You see, many of the characters have already been judged and condemned by their own selves. Vera Claythorne and General Macarthur both are tormented by their guilt (and (view spoiler)). Interestingly, others, no less guilty, are not tormented by their conscience at all. But ultimately this does not matter at all for their survival; only the fact that they were deemed guilty ((view spoiler)). So should being tormented by guilt versus a cold-blooded killer factor at all in the administration of justice?
These are the thoughts that kept running through my head as I was reading this excellent non-traditional critically-acclaimed specimen of mystery literature. And therefore bravo to Miss Christie for making me think and care - and not just mindlessly flipping pages to get to the bottom of the whodunit. Because'WHO' was much less important to me than 'HOW' and 'WHY' - especially 'WHY'.
For all of this, I give it the unflinching guilt-free 4 stars.