And Then There Were None

Book jacket of the first 1940 U.S. editionI'm spending the Memorial Day weekend on Monhegan island ten miles off the coast of Maine. It's one of my favorite places for lots of reasons; among them is that Monhegan has all the ingredients for a classic murder mystery. There are towering cliffs for people to fall off (or be pushed from); the only law enforcement officer here is a part-time constable (the current occupant of the job also owns an art gallery); and storms frequently make it hazardous to travel back and forth to the mainland. I've often wondered what Agatha Christie would have done with Monhegan.

I was thinking of Dame Agatha last night when the fog rolled in and I could hear the bell buoys ringing out on the dark water. It occurred to me that it had been ages since I read her all-time bestselling book And Then There Were None (which is set on an even more remote island), but I remembered that the novel had also been published, and filmed, under the title Ten Little Indians, based on the well-known American nursery rhyme. Curious to learn more about the story, I did what anyone does these days and looked it up on Wikipedia.

Book jacket of the first 1939 British editionTo my surprise I discovered that the book had first been published in the U.K. under the title Ten Little Niggers. The racially insensitive nursery rhyme evidently has an even more racially insensitive version (early Americans seemingly found the deaths of any ten people of color cause for amusement). Christie originally set her story on fictional "Nigger Island" off the coast of Devon. The choice was meant to suggest that a Heart of Darkness beats inside the British body politic if you listen to scholar Alison Light. (The island was renamed "Soldier Island" in later editions.) These days, the book is mostly published under the title of And Then There None, but the racist version lives on through foreign translations (in Spanish the novel is still called Diez negritos).

Another serendipitous surprise—the name that Christie gave to the detective who discusses the case in the book's epilogue is Inspector Maine.