And Then There Were None. Agatha Christie. 1939
This novel is considered one of the most clever mystery novel of all time firstly because it outlines a very engaging plot, secondly because it encourages the reader to reflect on the nature of justice, Good and Evil. To this regard it is interesting to notice how the title of the novel has changed throughout the years.
The original title was Ten little Niggers in reference to the nursery rhyme that is at the centre of the story. The title and the name of the nursery rhyme has, of course, no political or racial implication however in the United States of the 1940s it is considered inappropriate and changed in Ten little Indians. Then also this expression becomes unsuitable so the title is re-changed in And then there were none and the nursery rhyme in Ten little soldiers. The Italian edition keeps the “Indians” title because of the cultural distance from the implications that made the term indelicate in the US.
These transformations are interesting not only because they show the importance of cultural mediation in localization processes but also because they are somehow in line with the considerations at the heart of the plot of this amazing mystery novel, namely on whether the nature of justice is to be considered relative or absolute.
A mysterious Mr. Owen invites eight people to spend the weekend on his villa on a desert island called Nigger Island, along the coast of Devon in England. After a boat trip they reach the island to discover that there is no Mr. Owen but two only the butler and the housekeeper which make the people on the island ten. They are soon to discover that the villa and the island are to become claustrophobic places able to make their past guilt and crimes come alive, preannouncing the homicides they will all be victims of. In fact, a framed copy of a nursery rhyme hangs in every guest’s room. It tells the story of ten little niggers and the ways they die. Ten figurines sit on the dining room table and every time that a guest finds his or her death one of the figurine disappears.
The originality of the book lies in presenting the detective fiction subgenre of the look-room mystery without the the presence of the detective and with a subsequent innovative characterisation of the guests who play simultaneously the role of suspect, detective and victim. This characterisation allows the novel to offer an insightful reflection on justice ambiguity considering also the fact that the punishment is not being inflicted by any judicial institution but by some kind of avenger disguised as inner categorical imperative.
“It was my ambition to invent mysterious crimes no one would have been able to solve. But no artist, I now realize, can be satisfied with art alone. There is a natural craving for recognition, which cannot be gain-said. I have, let me confess it in all humility, a pitiful human wish that someone should know just how clever I have been.”
The ability of the mysterious avenger lies in answering to the fallibility of justice with a cruel moral relativism that turns the novel into a potentially philosophical discourse on the nature of Good and Evil, developing in the subtext and transforming some of its narrative elements in conceptual symbols.
The boat leading the characters to the island calls to mind the one used by Caronte to transport the dead to the underworld. The island, in its dreamlike function, represents a magic place, where every norm can be overturned: there the injustice becomes justice and vice versa creating an explicit ethical ambiguity hardly compatible with the dry land. The nursery rhyme suggests a return to childhood and to the unconscious dimension where the characters hide their guilt in the vane hope to forget it.
This subtle scenario creates the particular atmosphere of the novel that can engage the reader with a dynamic narrative rhythm leading toward an unexpected end while offering room for reflecting on the nature of personal responsibility and the thin border between justness and justice, crime and punishment.