“And then there were none”

With The Moonstone, Wilkie Collins signed one of the first detective novels in English, and first published it serialized. What’s interesting with it, when we replace it in its time is that it opened the way for one of the most read genre today. The choice of the narration offers an exceptional possibility, and permits to eliminate the suspects one by one, just as in the Ten little niggers’ song. This song is an adaptation made by Agatha Christie of a minstrel American song published in 1868, written by Septimus Winner, and called Ten Little Indians. She modified the title for the needs of her novel; indeed, every time a death happens in the book, a statuette of a black person is broken. The word “nigger” is a reference to those statuettes, and not a way to qualify the characters of her book. It is also a reminder of where the action takes place : on an isolated island called “island of the nigger”, located in Devon, in England. Here is the song:

“Ten little nigger boys went out to dine

One choked his little self, and then there were nine.

Nine little nigger boys sat up very late
One overslept himself, and then there were eight.

Eight little nigger boys traveling in Devon
One said he’d stay there, and then there were seven.

Seven little nigger boys chopping up sticks
One chopped himself in half, and then there were six.

Six little nigger boys playing with a hive
A bumble-bee stung one, and then there were five.

Five little nigger boys going in for law
One got in chancery, and then there were four.

Four little nigger boys going out to sea
A red herring swallowed one, and then there were three.

Three little nigger boys walking in the zoo
A big bear hugged one, and then there were two.

Two little nigger boys sitting in the sun
One got frizzled up, and then there was one.

One little nigger boys living all alone
He went and hanged himself and then there were none.”

 

The great number of suspects in The Moonstone and the fact that they were all possible culprits immediately made me think of Agatha Christie’s famous novel. Wilkie Collins, in my opinion, hits stronger with his novel than Agatha Christie, by alternating the narrators, without whom it would not be possible to reunite all the clues needed to solve the investigation. . At every change of narrator, the vise it tightening and the list of suspect is reduced. We are leaded on wrong tracks by Sergeant Cuff and we do not have all the clues to solve the mystery by ourselves. Just as in Ten Little Niggers, we need deaths (Mrs. Verinder, Rosanna, Mr. Ablewhite) to move forward in the inquiry.

In both of the novels, it’s interesting to notice that the police is totally (Ten Little Niggers) or partially (The Moonstone) unable to help any of the characters. Indeed, Sergeant Cuff does help the inquiry but does not resolve it, and even suspects Rachel. He tells Mrs. Verinder with an amazing calm and certain confidence that her daughter is guilty, when all she did was saving Mr. Blake’s honor. A particular event, Mr. Ablewhite death, is necessary to guide the characters to the dénouement. The police, in Ten Little Niggers, do not find a solution nor a responsible to the ten deaths that happened on the island, the key of the mistery is given by an external help, a message in a bottle. We finally get a resolution but meanwhile, there were none.

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4 thoughts on ““And then there were none”

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  2. Jason Tougaw

    That’s a fascinating point–that the deaths are necessary for the solution to the crime. Why do you think that might be?

    I never realized that Agatha Christie wrote a novel with that title. Yikes! I did a little research, and apparently it’s based on a British blackface song. The novel is discussed in the African-American Registry’s history of the word: http://www.aaregistry.org/historic_events/view/nigger-word-brief-history. Take a look.

    The history of the word “nigger” and blackface are bound up with a shocking of history of racial violence. In some ways, they functioned to distance people from the horrific realities of that violence. Does the word have the same charged connotations in French culture that it has in the U.S.? I’d be curious to know. You mentioned that you learned English from Eminem. Famously, he won’t go near that word, out of respect for the hip hop community.

    Of course, the word is recontextualized–as “nigga”–in a lot of hip hop culture, in similar ways to the recontextualization of the word “queer” in gay culture. But both words are still extremely vexed. Their meanings will evolve over time, and we’re in a period now where they have been reclaimed but are still often used with hatred.

    It will be interesting to discuss all this in relation to questions about race in The Moonstone next week–which focuses on relationships between Britain and India–and stereotypes about Hindus that emerge from British colonialism.

    In the meantime, you might want to add a few sentences to your introduction to the song, just pointing out that you understand the charged quality of the word, but that you’re using the song to make an interesting point about Collins’s novel.

    1. Clémence

      Deaths are needed in both of those novels because, in my opinion, it’s a way to make the story heavier and to anchored the problem into reality, to show how the offense, which is the root of the damage done, is important and more serious than it may looks.
      Concerning the title and the strong word it contains, I choose to write it white its original title. It’s interesting to see that the title was changed when it was published in its american version… Actually, I didn’t think it was offensive to write down this title, since Agatha Christie choose it. I don’t mean it’s the right word to use, but it reveals a racial problem that we meet in The Moonstone too, with the way the Indians are describe. I think it is a European and British problem that no one avoid when we read literature from that time.
      In French this word is really offensive, we say “nègre”, and it is strongely related to slavery, no one (with common sens) uses it. We do have a big (in my opinion) racist problem but it is very different than it is here, it is not directed towards the same people.

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