There was a silence—a comfortable replete silence. Into that silence came The Voice. Without warning, inhuman, penetrating . . . “Ladies and gentlemen! Silence, please! . . . You are charged with the following indictments.”
This quotation comes from the beginning of Chapter III, when the guests have just finished their first meal on Indian Island. Before this moment in the novel, Christie has established a general mood of foreboding and has hinted that all of her characters have guilty secrets. Now these secrets are brought into the open by the recorded voice. We begin to realize that these people have been brought to Indian Island for some sinister purpose having to do with their past crimes. The way the voice presents the list of crimes (“You are charged with the following indictments”) serves as an important clue to the murderer’s identity. The guests are charged with their murders in the formal style of a courtroom, in the language that Judge Wargrave was accustomed to using during his career.
These words from Wargrave in the middle of Chapter IX mark the second crucial turning point in the novel (the first occurs when the recorded voice accuses the guests of murder). Prior to this moment, everyone has assumed, at least publicly, that their homicidal host, Mr. Owen, is hiding somewhere on the island and planning to murder them. But after Lombard, Blore, and Armstrong conduct an exhaustive search of the island and find no one, Wargrave boldly states the only plausible conclusion: the killer is one of their party. He speaks aloud what many of the others have considered but kept to themselves. This realization fosters paranoia and suspicion that build as the novel goes on and everyone begins to suspect someone different. This quotation also marks the point at which Wargrave steps in as leader of the group, a role he occupies until his apparent death four chapters later.
Do they keep bees on this island? . . . It’s sane enough what I’m asking. Bees, hives, bees! . . . Six little Indian boys playing with a hive.
Vera utters these sentiments early in Chapter XI, just after Mr. Rogers has been found dead in the woodshed. She becomes hysterical and points out that the murders have been patterned after the deaths in the “Ten Little Indians” poem that hangs in everyone’s room. Rogers, the third person killed, was murdered with an ax while he was getting firewood, and the corresponding verse reads “Seven little Indian boys chopping up sticks; / One chopped himself in halves and then there were six.” Vera’s wild reference to “[b]ees, hives, bees” reflects her realization that the next murder will be carried out to correspond to the line “Six little Indian boys playing with a hive; / A bumblebee stung one and then there were five.” She raves impatiently because the others do not understand, or do not want to admit, what is going on.
The poem is the novel’s dominant motif, and it adds an air of supernatural inevitability to the murders. We know that just as each successive verse of the poem brings the death of another Indian boy, so will each character on the island be killed off in sequence.
Dr. Armstrong . . . raised the wig. It fell to the floor, revealing the high bald forehead with, in the very middle, a round stained mark from which something had trickled . . . Dr. Armstrong . . . said—and his voice was expressionless, dead, far away: “He’s been shot.”
This passage comes from the end of Chapter XIII, when the group of guests finds what appears to be the corpse of Judge Wargrave. In fact, only Dr. Armstrong examines the body, and only he declares that Wargrave has died from a shot to the head. We discover later that Armstrong has agreed to help Wargrave fake his own death, going along with the ruse because he does not suspect Wargrave of being the killer. The conspiracy gives Wargrave a free hand, since no one but Armstrong knows that he is alive. As long as no one sees him, Wargrave can do as he pleases and no one will suspect him.
There is little to help us deduce that Wargrave is not actually dead. We share the perception of the remaining guests, who assume that Wargrave has died and has thus been eliminated as a suspect. By not telling us exactly what transpires, Christie breaks the rules of the traditional detective story, in which the reader can, theoretically, examine the clues and solve the mystery. This rule-breaking dramatically increases the novel’s suspense, since, with Wargrave’s faked death, subsequent events seem inexplicable and almost supernatural.
I have wanted . . . to commit a murder myself. I recognized this as the desire of the artist to express himself! . . . But—incongruous as it may seem to some—I was restrained and hampered by my innate sense of justice. The innocent must not suffer.
This quotation is taken from Judge Wargrave’s written confession, which appears in the epilogue to the novel. In this passage, Wargrave explains how he hatched the idea of bringing a group of unpunished murderers to Indian Island and killing them off. Killing people who committed crimes unpunishable under the law satisfied both his desire to murder and his desire to mete out justice for wrongdoing.
This combination of murderous zeal and obsession with justice leaves Wargrave occupying a paradoxical place in the novel. He is both the murderer and the detective in this mystery, both the agent of death and the agent of justice. He is not a likable character, and our sympathies lie with the other people on the island, even with the ones clearly guilty of murder. But in a sense, Wargrave does act according to just principles, killing those, including himself, who are themselves responsible for the deaths of others.