Justice Wargrave, a recently retired judge, is taking a train to the seaside town of Sticklehaven, where he is to catch a boat to Indian Island. He recalls the rumors that have swirled around the island: since a mysterious Mr. Owen purchased the place, people have suggested that a film star or a member of the royal family really owns the island. Wargrave takes a letter from his pocket and glances over its contents. The letter invites him to spend some time on the island and is signed by an old friend of his, Constance Culmington, whom he has not seen for eight years. He reflects that Constance is exactly the kind of woman who would buy a place like Indian Island.
On the same train, Vera Claythorne ponders her invitation to the island. She has been hired as a secretary by Una Nancy Owen, apparently the wife of the island’s owner. Vera reflects how lucky she is to get this job, especially after her involvement in a coroner’s inquest into someone’s death. She was cleared of all blame for the death, we learn, but Hugo Hamilton, the man she loved, thought her guilty. She thinks of the sea and of swimming after someone in particular, knowing she would not reach him in time to save him. She forces her mind away from those memories and glances at the man across from her, thinking he looks well traveled.
The man, Philip Lombard, gazes at Vera and finds her attractive and capable-looking. He has been hired for a mysterious job on Indian Island and is being paid well for it, because he has a reputation as a “good man in a tight place.” He has never met his employer; someone named Isaac Morris hired him. Lombard looks forward to whatever he will find on the island.
In another part of the train, Emily Brent sits up straight; she disapproves of slouching. She approves of very little, in fact. She is a very conservative, religious woman who holds most of the world in contempt. She has been invited to Indian Island for a holiday by someone who claims to have once shared a guesthouse with her. Emily Brent has decided to accept the invitation, even though she cannot quite read the name on the signature.
General Macarthur is taking a slower train to Sticklehaven. He has been invited to the island and promised that some of his friends will be there to talk over old times. He is glad to have the invitation; he has worried that people avoid him because of a thirty-year-old rumor. He does not explain the nature of the rumor.
Dr. Armstrong is driving to the island, having been asked to report on the condition of Mr. Owen’s ailing wife. He is a wealthy and successful medical man, but, as he drives, he reflects on the good luck that enabled his career to survive an incident that happened some years before, when he drank heavily. A sports car roars past Armstrong, driven by Tony Marston, a rich, handsome, and carefree young man on his way to Indian Island.