Historical Context

(Novels for Students)

World War II
The world experienced a decade of aggression in the 1930s that would culminate in World War II. This second world war resulted from the rise of totalitarian regimes in Germany, Italy, and Japan. These militaristic regimes gained control as a result of the great depression experienced by most of the world in the early 1930s and from the condi- tions created by the peace settlements following World War I. The dictatorships established in each country encouraged expansion into neighboring countries. In Germany Hitler strengthened the army during the 1930s. In 1936 Benito Mussolini’s Italian troops took Ethiopia. From 1936 to 1939 Spain was engaged in civil war involving Francisco Franco’s fascist army, aided by Germany and Italy. In March 1938 Germany annexed Austria and in March 1939 occupied Czechoslovakia. Italy took Albania in April 1939. One week after Nazi Germany and the U.S.S.R. signed a Treaty of Nonaggression, on September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland and World War II began. On September 3, 1939, Britain and France declared war on Germany after a U-boat sank the British ship Athenia off the coast of Ireland. Another British ship, Courageous, was sunk on September 19. All the members of the British Commonwealth, except Ireland, soon joined Britain and France in their declaration of war.

Ten Little Indians was published in 1939, the year World War II began. While the novel is set in an...

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Literary Style

(Novels for Students)

The novel is structured as a mystery, although Christie adds her own innovations. Stories of good versus evil have been told since the beginning of time, but the mystery story emerged in the second half of the nineteenth century with the works of Edgar Allan Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle. The mystery structure includes motives and alibis, detection, clues, and red herrings (diversions from the real culprit). Characters become suspects before the true one is unmasked. The hero discovers the villain only at the climax of the story, and then, in the denouement, explains how the crime was committed. Christie carries on several of the traditions of the mystery but adds some new twists. The characters in Ten Little Indians present motives for past crimes and alibis for the murders on the island. Judge Wargrave, who at the end of the novel, identifies the murderer and puts all the pieces of the puzzle back together, engineers detection, clues, and a red herring. Christie’s twist on the traditional mystery structure is that all of the characters are discovered to be villains; none are innocent. The final irony and delightful innovative turn is that the hidden villain in the novel, Judge Wargrave, also becomes the “hero,” in the modern sense of the term.

Christie uses the setting symbolically in the novel. The house becomes a symbol of the characters’ fate. As the others search for “Mr. Owen,” the narrator...

(The entire section is 454 words.)

Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

As is the case with any good mystery writer, Christie's most valuable technical ability is her knack for misdirection. To keep her reader from guessing who the real killer is, Christie must lead the reader to suspect the wrong person. Admittedly, some of the suspects can be ruled out, but what makes Ten Little Indians one of her most popular novels is the difficulty, the near impossibility of ruling out nine of the ten possible suspects. Christie makes this effort especially difficult by closing off her characters from the outside world. They are on an island that is, without a doubt, inhabited by nobody but themselves. One of them must be the killer, but in the end all ten are dead. If the case ended there, the reader might suspect that, in spite of all clues to the contrary, Vera, who hangs herself, must be the killer. But the epilogue, which holds out hope of clearing things up, reveals that the chair Vera kicks out from under herself was carefully returned to the wall. Thus, the plot thickens: one of the nine deaths that preceded Vera's must have been a red herring. Determining which is nearly impossible.

To make the task of identifying the killer more difficult, Christie, like Edgar Allan Poe, gives her reader clues but not all the clues. The detectives' dialogue that makes up the epilogue succinctly sums up the case, but in such a way as to conceal the crucial facts. Were Christie to give every detail, any reader would be able to pick up...

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Ideas for Group Discussions

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Ten Little Indians is more than a great mystery, it is a meditation on the psychology of isolation and the nature of trust. The characters operate in a tense situation yet are thrown more closely together than many of us can imagine. While it considers the psychological reactions that would, perhaps, be universal, Ten Little Indians also warns against moral and judicial zealotry. When taken to extremes, the desire to check the behavior of others has, for Christie's characters, disastrous effects.

Behind all of this is the historical backdrop. When Christie penned this work, an evil force was at work in Europe. Though she may not have been able to imagine the parallels between Hitler's isolated concentration camps and her murderer's systematic rounding up and execution of criminals, they are certainly discernible in retrospect. Written in a chaotic era, Ten Little Indians is, finally, a novel that depicts chaotic events.

1. This novel has endured as one of Christie's most popular in spite of the fact that her two most famous characters, Hercule Poirot and Miss Jane Marple, are absent. What elements make this particular story so compelling?

2. The British title of this novel, Ten Little Niggers, has never appeared as the title of an American edition because of the offensiveness of the word "nigger." Is "Indian" really a suitable replacement? In other words, has our sensitivity toward racial labels made...

(The entire section is 415 words.)

Social Concerns

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Much more than a mystery novel, Ten Little Indians reveals many of the tensions at work in Great Britain between the wars. Published in 1939, the novel is set off the western coast of England, a nation that still remembers the brutality of the Great War and is on the brink of World War II. Additionally, Ten Little Indians reveals a concern with the crumbling British Empire and growing sense of guilt about what occurred during the imperial regime. Finally, Christie betrays a deep ambivalence about the institutions of justice. Though in her other novels the vehicles of justice, usually private detectives, are the heroes, in Ten Little Indians Christie examines the corrupting nature of police power.

The First World War lingers in the minds of Christie's characters. Though set about twenty years after the conclusion of "the war to end all wars," Christie's novel, in its remembrance of the atrocities that occurred in France, betrays British society's concern for the trouble that was brewing in Europe. By 1939 Adolph Hitler had risen to power and the German military machine had begun to flex its muscle. In a way, the closed society that Christie places on Indian Island reflects the closed society of nations isolated in our world. Just as the isolation and closeness of the characters cause tension, inspire allegiances, and prompt violence among the guests, the European society was about to be fractured by tension and mistrust. Her willingness to put all ten of her characters to death betrays Christie's apocalyptic view of the rumblings of war then heard in Germany and Poland. Locked in a tight, isolated struggle, nobody would win either on Indian Island or in another European war. World War I had taught Christie that lesson, and Ten Little Indians is her attempt to teach it to the rest of the world.

In addition to an implicit concern for the future, Christie shows her ambivalence in Ten Little Indians toward Britain's colonial past. At the dawning of the twentieth century it was common to hear natives of Great Britain say with pride that "the sun never sets on the British Empire." Great Britain controlled lands on every continent: Canada in North America, the Falkland Islands in South America, Australia, as well as parts of Africa and Southeast Asia. This...

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Bibliography and Further Reading

(Novels for Students)

Stewart H. Benedict, “Agatha Christie and Murder Most Unsportsmanlike,” in Claremont Quarterly, Vol. 9, No. 2, Winter, 1962, pp. 37-42.

David Grossvogel, Death Deferred: The Long Life, Splendid Afterlife, and Mysterious Workings of Agatha Christie, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979.

Marty S. Knepper, “Agatha Christie-Feminist,” in The Armchair Detective, Vol. 16, No. 4, Winter, 1983, pp. 398-406.

Anthony Lejeune, review in Spectator, September 19, 1970.

Max Lowenthal, obituary in New York Times, January 13, 1976, p. 1.

Ralph Partridge, review in New Statesman, November 18, 1939.


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Compare and Contrast

(Novels for Students)

1930s: The economy collapses and causes a decade of poverty and hunger for millions of people.

Today: The economy is booming, but many fear the year 2000 could cause another period of economic crisis.

1930s: World War II begins in 1939. The United States plans to remain neutral in the war, until its ships are attacked at Pearl Harbor in 1941.

Today: The United States helps control the 1999 crisis in Kosovo through air strikes and is able to keep from deploying ground troops.

1930s: Adolf Hitler becomes chancellor of Germany in 1933. His dictatorship promises order for his country, but instead, results in fear, suffering, war, and death for many of...

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Topics for Further Study

(Novels for Students)

Conduct a mock trial for Justice Wargrave to determine whether or not he should be convicted of first-degree murder. If he is convicted, determine his sentence.

Research English culture and determine whether or not the characters would behave any differently if they were American instead of British.

Read another mystery story and compare the two works, focusing on how the mystery in each is constructed.

Investigate psychologists’ conclusions on the nature of the criminal mind and compare those findings to the characterization of Justice Wargrave.

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Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Like all mystery writers, Christie owes allegiance to the American writer Edgar Allan Poe, whom critics generally regard as the creator of the mystery genre. In "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" (1841) and "The Purloined Letter" (1845), Poe introduced the carefully observant egotist Dupin, who both Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes and Christie's Hercule Poirot rely on for a model. Poe's stories set the model for suspense, misdirection, and improbability that mystery writers such as Christie would follow.

In addition to precedents in its particular genre, mystery, Ten Little Indians has precedents in the wider world of literature. The isolation experienced by the victims and the mistrust, tension, and...

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Related Titles

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Ten Little Indians is not, like so many of Christie's other works, part of a series. The book features neither of her famous detectives, and since all the characters die by the novel's end, Christie left herself no chance for a sequel. In later works such as Three Blind Mice (1950) and Pocketful of Rye (1953) Christie once again used nursery rhymes as either key clues or as models for a killer's actions. A posthumous publication, Sleeping Murder (1976), retained the idea of psychological manipulation as a tool for a killer. Nowhere, however, did Christie approach the improbability or tension of this particularly closed society of victims. Thus, though Ten Little Indians is thematically and...

(The entire section is 129 words.)


(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

It is important to note that any version of this novel read in the United States is itself an adaptation. The book was originally published in England under the title Ten Little Niggers and centered on deaths that paralleled a nursery rhyme about "ten little nigger boys." Either the racial epithet carried less stigma in Great Britain or American sensibilities were more sensitive to the violence done by the word "nigger." Regardless of the reasons for British retention of the offensive title, it was never used in any American edition for reasons that should be obvious. The nursery rhyme that appears in the guests' rooms is changed to one about ten little Indians, and the setting is moved from Christie's Nigger Island to...

(The entire section is 682 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Novels for Students)

Christie adapted Ten Little Indians for the stage. It first played with the novel’s original title, Ten Little Niggers, in London, opening October 17, 1943; it was produced under the title Ten Little Indians on Broadway and opened at the Broadhurst Theatre on June 27, 1944.

The novel was made into three film versions, all titled Ten Little Indians. The first (1966) was directed by George Pollock and starred Hugh O’Brian and Shirley Eaton. The second (1974) was directed by Peter Collinson and starred Oliver Reed and Richard Attenborough. The third (1989) was directed by Alan Birkinshaw, starring Donald Pleasence and Brenda Vaccaro.

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What Do I Read Next?

(Novels for Students)

In Murder on the Orient Express (1934) Agatha Christie writes a variation on Ten Little Indians, gathering together a diverse set of characters and focusing on the murder of one of them. This time, though, Hercule Poirot, a Belgian detective, solves the crime.

Dorothy L. Sayers’s Strong Poison (1930) centers on Lord Peter Wimsey’s determination to find out who poisoned novelist Harriet Vane’s fiancé.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, a collection of short stories published in 1892, introduces Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous detective and his sidekick, Dr. Watson, in four classic mysteries.

In P. D. James’s Innocent Blood (1980) Philippa Palfrey meets...

(The entire section is 115 words.)