Eight strangers are invited by a mysterious person named U. N. Owen to a luxurious mansion on an island off the coast of Devon. Waiting for them on the island are the housekeeping couple, Mr. and Mrs. Rogers. After dinner, the group hears a recording in which a disembodied voice exposes each of them as a murderer whose crime has has gone undetected and unpunished. Playboy Tony Marston is accused of driving recklessly and causing the deaths of two young people; Mr. and Mrs. Rogers are accused of murdering their aged employer by withholding medication from her; General Macarthur is accused of arranging for the death of a fellow officer; Emily Brent is blamed for the death of her maidservant; Justice Wargrave is blamed for sentencing a possibly innocent man to death; Dr. Armstrong is accused of killing a patient; former policeman William Blore is accused of knowingly sending an innocent man to prison, where he died; soldier of fortune Philip Lombard is accused of allowing native Africans to die of starvation; and former governess Vera Claythorne is blamed for the drowning death of a boy in her care.
The guests defend themselves, determined to preserve their status as acceptable members of English society. Lombard justifies the deaths of the natives in modern, social Darwinist terms, citing the law of self-preservation and the superiority of the Anglo-Saxon race, while Blore asserts that he was simply doing his job. Armstrong admits his guilt, but uses his inebriated condition as an excuse. Marston insisted the deaths of the two young people were accidental.
Marston soon dies from drinking cyanide-laced whiskey. Justice Wargrave immediately takes command, suggesting one of the group is in fact “Mr. Owen,” who is toying with them sadistically. Comparing notes, they realize that none of them knows their host and that his name, U. N. Owen, translates into “unknown.” Shaken, the guests further reflect on the accusations against them. Rogers admits that he and his wife inherited money from the woman from whom they withheld medicine; his wife’s nervous demeanor further confirms their guilt. General Macarthur breaks down, admitting that the young man he sent to his certain death was his wife’s lover.
Ten figurines are arranged on the mansion’s dining room table, representations of the characters in a nursery rhyme that is also framed and hung in each guest’s bedroom. This nursery rhyme, originally “Ten Little Niggers,” was changed to “Ten Little Indians” in the American edition of the novel. In the twenty-first century, some editions changed the rhyme once more to “Ten Little Soldiers.” In each case, the rhyme features the deaths of ten little boys, counting the number of boys who remain alive at the end of each verse. The rhyme ends when all ten are dead, “and then there were none.”
Vera Claythorne notes the similarity between Marston’s poisoning and the death of the first boy in the rhyme, who chokes to death. The next day, the group discovers that Ethel Rogers has died from an overdose of sleeping pills, matching the second little boy’s death by “oversleeping.” The survivors also find that only eight china figurines are left on the table; they begin to fear that there will be successive murders, each one matching the next verse in the rhyme.
A violent storm prevents anyone from coming to or leaving the island. As the pressure builds, Emily admits that a maidservant she had dismissed because she was pregnant and unmarried had subsequently committed suicide. A mood of fear and suspicion intensifies. General Macarthur, increasingly passive and penitential, is found dead; the next day, Rogers is also found dead. Each death conforms to the manner of death of the next little boy in the nursery rhyme. Each time, a figurine disappears.
Confessions and deaths continue to accumulate. Blore admits to Lombard that he had indeed caused an innocent man to be sent to jail. Emily Brent is found dead from an injection...
(The entire section is 2,731 words.)