Into that silence came The Voice. Without warning, inhuman, penetrating . . . “Ladies and gentlemen! Silence, please . . . You are charged with the following indictments.”See Important Quotations Explained
The guests enjoy a delicious dinner and begin to relax in spite of the odd circumstances. They notice a set of ten china figures of Indians sitting in the center of the table and immediately associate the figures with the rhyme that hangs framed in all of their rooms. When dinner is over, the whole company moves into the drawing room. Everyone except Mrs. Rogers is in the drawing room when suddenly the group hears a disembodied, mechanical-sounding voice, seemingly coming from nowhere. It accuses each of them of murder, naming the victim and the date of each guest’s purported crime. After listing the crimes, it asks if anyone at the bar has something to say in his or her defense.
The voice falls silent, and almost everyone expresses shock and anger. Mrs. Rogers, who has been standing outside the room, faints. While Mr. Rogers goes to fetch her some brandy, everyone else searches for the source of the voice. Eventually, Lombard finds an old-fashioned record player in an adjoining room. Rogers returns and admits to turning it on in accordance with orders from his employer, but he denies knowing what it was going to play. The record is entitled “Swan Song.”
Mrs. Rogers revives, and her husband and Dr. Armstrong help her to bed. People pour themselves drinks. When Mr. Rogers returns, he explains that he and his wife have never met their employer, Mr. Owen. He says that an agency hired them, and they received instructions by mail. Everyone else takes turns explaining his or her invitation to the island, and they realize that “Mr. Owen” impersonated various old friends and specific acquaintances in the letters. Judge Wargrave, who has taken charge of the discussion, notes that the recorded message mentioned a Mr. Blore, but not a “Mr. Davis,” the name Blore has chosen as an alias. Blore then reveals his real name and admits that he was hired via post as a private detective to protect the jewels of Mrs. U. N. Owen. Wargrave suggests that U. N. Owen sounds like and stands for “unknown,” and that a homicidal maniac has invited them all here.
The subject turns to the accusations made by the voice on the record, and the guests defend themselves. Wargrave, accused of killing a man named Edward Seton, says that Seton was an accused murderer on whom he passed sentence. Armstrong, remembering the case, privately recalls that everyone felt sure Seton would be acquitted, but Wargrave influenced the jury, which found Seton guilty. Vera, accused of killing Cyril Hamilton, tells the group that she was his governess, and he drowned while swimming to a rock. She says she tried her best to save him. Macarthur, accused of killing his wife’s lover, Arthur Richmond, says that Richmond was one of his officers who died on a routine reconnaissance mission; Macarthur denies that his wife ever had an affair. Lombard, accused of killing twenty-one members of an East African tribe, admits to taking their food and abandoning them in the wilderness, saying that he did so in order to save himself. Tony Marston, accused of killing John and Lucy Combes, remarks that they must have been two children he ran over by accident.
Mr. Rogers says that he and his wife did not kill Jennifer Brady, their employer, an old, sickly woman who died one night when Mr. Rogers could not reach the doctor in time. He admits that they inherited some money after her death. Blore says that when he was a police inspector, he testified against a man named James Landor in a bank robbery case. Landor later died in jail, but Blore insists that Landor was guilty. Armstrong, accused of causing the death of a woman named Louisa Mary Clees, denies knowing the name but privately remembers the case. Clees was an elderly woman on whom he operated while drunk. Only the dignified Emily Brent will not speak to the accusation made against her.
Wargrave suggests they leave in the morning as soon as the boat arrives; all the guests but one concur. Tony Marston suggests they ought to stay and solve the case. He then takes a drink, chokes on it, and dies.
The truth about the party on the island is now partially revealed, since the recorded voice clarifies the hints that Christie has dropped so far about her characters’ shady pasts. Now we know that they not only all have secrets, but that they have all committed murder in one form or another. We also learn that their host, whoever he or she may be, has a dark sense of humor and delights in tricks and word games. The name “U. N. Owen,” or, as Wargrave translates it, “unknown,” is a play on words. Additionally, the title of the record that announces their crimes is “Swan Song,” a term that refers to the sweet song supposedly sung by dying swans. The host’s central and most perverse word game involves the “Ten Little Indians” poem, as becomes apparent after a few murders have taken place.
Most of the guests stoutly deny the accusations made against them. As the novel progresses, however, these early denials begin to break down under the strain of the situation, and one after another the characters admit their guilt to each other. It is telling to watch, in Chapter IV, the way each deals with the allegations against him or her. Most of the guests deny the charges, but the ones who do so the loudest, we realize, are actually the people most wracked with guilt. We see earlier how Vera, Macarthur, and Armstrong, for example, are haunted by memories of their crimes but now claim to be innocent.
Meanwhile, the people who seem to feel no guilt over their alleged crimes manifest different reactions. Lombard, who throughout the novel never displays remorse for anything, willingly admits to leaving men to die in the wilderness. He sees no problem with having self-preservation as his highest value. Similarly, Tony Marston readily owns up to running down the children. A complete egotist, he seems to regard the incident chiefly as an inconvenience for himself, since his license was suspended. Emily Brent, for her part, refuses even to speak about her incident, which reflects her intense sense of propriety but also her powerful conviction of her own righteousness. She is not a criminal, her mind tells her, but virtuous and pure, and so there is no reason to even bother denying the charges, which she finds too ridiculous to trouble her.
The self-righteousness of some of the characters reflects their position in the social hierarchy. Emily Brent does not care about the death of her former maid partly because her maid is not her social equal. Similarly, the attractive and youthful Tony Marston inhabits the top tier of the social hierarchy; he is wealthy and frivolous, and feels no remorse for killing children who live in what he describes as “some cottage or other.” Those on society’s lower tiers behave more meekly in the face of the accusations. Mr. Rogers, for example, continues to perform his duties as butler even after Mrs. Rogers has fainted and she and her husband have been accused of murder. Even as the situation on the island deteriorates, constricting social hierarchies prevail.