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.
Mr. Blore, a former detective and another guest, is taking a different train from the one the others are taking. He has a list of the names of all the other guests, and he reads it over, reflecting that this job will probably be easy. His only company on the train is an old man who warns him that a storm is coming and that the day of judgment is near. As the man gets off the train, Blore reflects that the old man is closer to death and judgment than he himself is. The narrator warns us that “there, as it happens, he was wrong. . . .”
Agatha Christie opens And Then There Were None with a shifting point of view unusual in the mystery genre. She gives us a look into each character’s thoughts during his or her journey to Sticklehaven and Indian Island. Murder mysteries usually avoid such a tactic—an early glimpse into the murderer’s thoughts might reveal his or her guilt and thereby ruin the suspense. In this novel, however, Christie’s innovative perspective into different characters’ thoughts increases the difficulty of discerning the true murderer and, as a result, establishes a more satisfying ending. For instance, by letting us know what each character is thinking—and such glimpses continue throughout the novel—Christie actually increases the suspense, since each character seems to harbor both innocent and guilty musings, even in the privacy of his or her own thoughts. One of them may be a killer, but we have no way of telling exactly who it is, since man, woman, young, and old alike express suspicious thoughts alongside genuine fears. By the time the killer is revealed, we have run the gamut of responses, from condemnation to sympathy for several characters.
The opening chapter also builds suspense through Christie’s use of dramatic irony, the contrast between what a character thinks to be the truth and what we, the readers or audience, know to be the truth. While some of the characters, like Emily Brent and General Macarthur, believe that they are going to Indian Island to visit old friends and others, like Blore and Lombard, believe that they have been hired to do odd jobs on the island, we sense early on that they are all being deceived. The lack of a single reason for the various visitors to come to the island makes the whole process seem like a pretext for some deeper, hidden motive. Because Christie gives us access to her characters’ minds, we can see that each character, for the moment, possesses only a limited understanding of the situation, while we can understand that each character is embarking on a greater adventure than he or she realizes.
Christie’s partially developed insinuations that her characters possess dark secrets emphasize the suspicious nature of the situation. She reveals nothing definite in these opening scenes, but she gives hints of ugly pasts: Vera recalls being acquitted by a coroner’s inquest, which typically takes place after a suspicious death; Lombard thinks about the fact that he has not always followed the law, but “always got away with it”; General Macarthur’s thoughts turn to a “damned rumour” that has dogged him for years; Dr. Armstrong thinks about how lucky he has been to “pull himself together” after some “business” years before. Even before the really sinister events begin, we recognize that each potential victim is also a potential suspect.
Christie also establishes a clear authorial presence in the first chapter. She creates a mood of foreboding by using the old seafaring man, who tells Blore that “the day of judgment is at hand.” Christie imbues the situation with an even more ominous tone when she explicitly states that Blore is wrong to assume that the old-timer is closer to judgment than he is. This foreshadowing sets a precedent for a significant authorial presence throughout the novel, as Christie repeatedly comments on events in a dramatic or even melodramatic fashion. Because And Then There Were None lacks a brilliant detective to serve as an agent of the moral order, the authorial presence must provide omniscient commentary on events.
This kind of heavy-handed writing may be connected to the fact that And Then There Were None lacks the brilliant detective who usually plays a central role in murder mysteries. Figures like Sherlock Holmes or Christie’s own creations, Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot, typically serve as agents of the moral order, bringing their powers to bear on violent events and thereby investing them with meaning. With no such figure present in this novel, the authorial voice becomes stronger, providing the kind of omniscient commentary on events that a detective usually provides in works of the murder-mystery genre.