Ten Little Somethings

Most likely the best known of Agatha Christie’s mystery novels is­­—ah, but there’s the rub—what is it called?

For an especially well known novel, the one that ends with the mystery of ten dead bodies and no apparent murderer has gone through three different titles. The play based on the novel has also gone through this retitling process, not always in link step with the book.

These days, in English-speaking countries, the title of the novel in question is And Then There Were None. Formerly Ten Little Indians. Formerly–that’s the big problem. The original British title referred to ten little something elses—a word for people of African origin that rhymes with the name of Winnie the Pooh’s bouncy friend. The word caused neither offense nor brouhaha in the UK in 1939; consider how the word’s two occurrences in Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Mikado were also taken in stride at the time.

The word does cause offense (and would have caused brouhaha) in the United States. The novel was therefore rechristened And Then There Were None.

What many discussions of the book’s title fail to take into account is the doggerel nursery rhyme upon which the book’s ten murders are based (and which concludes with the line “and then there were none.”) The complete rhyme appears as a frontispiece to all editions of the book, and originally included the term “n…. boys” in every other line (“Ten little n… boys” etc.). Therefore the poem had to be altered along with the title for the first American edition. The solution found was “indians”, which fit the meter (omitting the recurring “boys”), although, as Charles Osborne points out in The Life and Crimes of Agatha Christie, “indians” risked confusion with the counting song “One little, two little, three little indians”, which has nothing to do with Mrs. Christie’s novel.

Still, indians it was, to the extent that, when the play drawn from the novel appeared on Broadway in 1944, it was under the title Ten Little Indians. (The original London production in 1943 went by the book’s original title.) That led to a furthering of the confusion, as reprint editions of the novel were issued in the United States as Ten Little Indians. The René Clair movie of 1945 was entitled And Then There Were None, although the first thing the audience sees in the film is the words “Ten Little Indians” splashed across the screen. (The film was issued in the UK under the book’s original title.) A subsequent film adaptation released in 1966 was entitled Ten Little Indians on both sides of the Atlantic, but the dreadful 1974 movie version was And Then There Were None in the UK but still Ten Little Indians in the US.

In the 1980s, Mrs. Christie’s literary heirs settled that all English-language editions of the book would be entitled And Then There Were None, although amateur acting editions of the play persisted with the Ten Little Indians title. The 1993 Harper Collins volume of most of Mrs. Christie’s plays calls the play And Then There Were None–and there things remain.

Ah, but the nursery rhyme: what’s become of those little indians?

They’ve become soldiers. The island on which the novel takes place, once called N… Island, and subsequently Indian Island is now called Soldier Island. Thus the poem begins “Ten little soldier boys”. Yes, it scans, but so would “Ten little heffalumps” or “Ten little cantaloupes.” It also makes no sense, as little boys aren’t usually soldiers. Nevertheless soldiers it is, at least until the next complete edition of Mrs. Christie’s works changes it to something else.

I go through all of this switching of titles, partly to clear up something that may be confusing to some of Mrs. Christie’s (and my) readers, and partly to introduce what strikes me as a more important point about the book.

The original title was changed for the first United States edition to avoid offending African-Americans. Given how charged the offending word is, it was just good commercial sense to have the book go by And Then There Were None and put the indians into the rhyme. I may be wrong, but I assume that subsequent concern for Native Americans transmuted the indians into soldiers. All we can do is wait for the military to protest the use of “soldier” in the nursery rhyme; for all we know, then it really may be changed to “cantaloupe”.

Thus there has been a great deal of concern about not offending potential readers by the title of a book that has sold untold millions of copies. Although the original title causes offense because of the nature of the word the author chose, nowhere inside the book is anything bad or derogatory actually said about people of African descent. If the word could be taken to be just another term for black people (as it was in the United Kingdom in 1939), there is nothing in And Then There Were None that could possibly offend a Black audience.

On the other hand, there are two passages that are definitely offensive to a different ethnic group.  Mrs. Christie’s text is unquestionably anti-Semitic.

In the book, Captain Lombard is lured to N…/Indian/Soldier Island by a certain Isaac Morris, described initially as “that little Jew.” A few lines down, Lombard’s interior voice states: “that was the damnable part about Jews, you couldn’t deceive them about  money—they knew.” (The italics are the author’s.) Before a scene that doesn’t run two pages is over, the narrator mentions Mr. Morris’ “thick Semitic lips” and Lombard’s inner voice calls Morris a “smooth little brute”. Later on, when Lombard comes clean about how he happens to be on the island, he describes Morris to Blore and Dr. Armstrong as a “little Jew-boy.”

Ironically, while somersaults have been turned to avoid offending people by the title of the book, these two passages – which make indisputably derogatory statements about Jews – have remained in all editions of the novel.

The anti-Semitism that turns up in many of Mrs. Christie’s novels of the 1920s and ‘30s is something that her Jewish fans learn to take in stride. Osborne calls Mrs. Christie’s anti-Semitism “casual and unthinking”, a characterization which seems eminently reasonable. Mrs. Christie was a child of her time and social class, and she ended up no better (and no worse) than her contemporaries. Is it unattractive? Certainly. Would we prefer it weren’t there? Definitely. It’s there, however, and we accept it as a quirk of the milieu out of which Mrs. Christie’s finest novels appeared. Just as a Jewish reader can enjoy Trollope, whose anti-Semitism is far, far more virulent than Mrs. Christie’s, so can a Jewish reader enjoy Ten Little­—And Then There Were None.

The issue, as I see it, is not that we should expurgate the unpleasant references to Isaac Morris from the text. I’m also not claiming that there is an anti-Semitic conspiracy on the part of the publishers who cannot extend their concern for African- and Native Americans to Jews. I think the reason that the “little Jew-boy” Isaac Morris persists between the covers of the book, is precisely because he is between the covers, while the offending words appeared on the cover.

Not that you have to read very far into the book to get to the offensive Mr. Morris: he appears on page 6 of the 2011 U.S. mass-market edition. We know, however, that people do judge books by their covers, thus the kerfuffle about the title, never mind the ugly anti-Semitism within.

When one considers the presence of the “little Jew-boy”, the changes in the title and the nursery rhyme appear rather silly. You can’t purge books of passages you think are offensive, because, once you redact one thing (the title), you have to consider redacting something else (the nursery rhyme), and then consider removing a further something (Mr. Isaac Morris.) There is no end to the matter.

As a writer, I am also obviously going to defend an author’s right to write what he or she wants. Mrs. Christie wrote Ten Little [never mind] the way she wanted to write it. It’s a masterwork of its genre. It should therefore be left alone. While the initial change in title was done ostensibly with Mrs. Christie’s consent, and for the justifiable reason of not impeding American sales, the soldier nonsense is going too far.

If we love Mrs. Christie (as so many of us do), we ought to be capable of loving her in spite of her faults. We can view the book’s title and Isaac Morris as part and parcel of what makes the book a charming period piece. And Then There Were None will be celebrating the 80th anniversary of its publication this year; it has earned the right to be judged by the standards of its own – and not our – time.

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