Happy Birthday To Agatha Christie, Inventor Of The Slasher

Author photo: Wikipedia Commons

Agatha Christie was born on September 15th, 1890. The author is already much celebrated as one of the greatest mystery writers of all time, but there’s one area where Christie still deserves recognition: as the inventor of the slasher. Whether intentional or not, the horror subgenre owes a huge debt of gratitude to Christie and her 1939 novel And Then There Were None.

Now, before diving too deep into this topic, a few elephants in the room need addressing. It should be noted that this book originally went by a different, racially offensive title — one that never crossed pond from England to the U.S., even in 1939, according to Sadie Stein and The Paris Review. It also went by a second name that, while still widely acknowledged in its publication history, is also contentious among Indigenous populations. The novel has been sanitized at this point, and frankly, it’s a move in the right direction, one that allows readers to enjoy the narrative experience without being appalled every time Christie drops a racial slur, something that would otherwise happen often throughout the text given the ten little figurines at center of the story. There’s still a sliver of antisemitism in the novel — a recurrent problem in the author’s bibliography that prompted further sanitization efforts in her works, though Christie apparently recanted her viewpoints later in life, according to The Times of Israel and Gabe Friedman. Moreover, the antisemitism in And Then There Were None comes from a particularly bigoted character, so it ends up sticking out less so than, say, Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple, reappearing heroes in Christie’s work, uttering some hateful nonsense. 

With that, we can now focus on why we’re here: bloody murder. And this book is indeed bloody. It centers on ten strangers who have all been summoned to the remote Soldier Island near Devon, England for various reasons by a mysterious man named U.N. Owen. Thomas and Ethel Rogers, the caretakers, were hired by Owen to oversee the upkeep of the island’s lone mansion, while Vera Claythorne has been hired by Owen’s wife to be her secretary, and Dr. Armstrong was employed to check in on Mrs. Owen’s health. The other guests were called for social reasons, some by friends of theirs, some directly by the Owens, though as everyone gathers on the island, it becomes clear that the letters from friends were forged, bringing in some people under false pretenses. Stranger still, there is a copy of a children’s nursery rhyme hanging in each guest’s bedroom, one that tells of misfortunes befalling ten little soldier boys. The rhyme is a countdown, explaining how the ten boys whittle down to one:

Ten little soldier boys went out to dine;

One choked his little self and then there were Nine.

Nine little soldier boys sat up very late;

One overslept himself and then there were Eight.

And so on.

Things take a sharp turn when, after dinner, a record is played that reveals dark secrets about each of the gathered party. It turns out the Rogers killed their former employer for her inheritance. Vera allowed her former charge as a governess to drown in the sea. A drunk Dr. Armstrong allowed a woman to die on his operating table. Mr. Justice Wargrave, a retired judge, swayed a jury to reach a guilty verdict for a man widely believed to be innocent. Ethel Brent, a wealthy and overly pious woman, fired a maid who’d become pregnant out of wedlock, who in desperation then drowned herself. General MacArthur, a retired war hero, knowingly sent a man to his death because he was having an affair with MacArthur’s wife. William Henry Blore, a former police officer turned private investigator, committed perjury and sent a man to an early grave in prison. Anthony Marston killed two youths while speeding. And last but not least, Philip Lombard, a soldier of fortune, abandoned the men he was hired to protect and let them starve to death. 

Not long after the record makes its accusations, Anthony Marston takes a swig from his drink and promptly dies a horrible, choking death. Dr. Armstrong surmises Marston was poisoned with cyanide. Mrs. Rogers is next to go, dying of a sleep aid overdose sometime in the night. The group initially suspects suicides, but when MacArthur turns up clubbed to death by an unknown blunt object, it becomes clear that there’s a murderer loose on the island, and the killer may be one of the seven remaining. Not only this, but everyone’s death correlates to the macabre nursery rhyme displayed prominently around the house — Marston “choked his little self,” while Mrs. Rogers “overslept,” for instance. On top of this, with each death a glass soldier figurine disappears from a table in the house.

The killer continues their cat and mouse game, and the deaths become more and more gruesome as the narrative unfolds. The victims, with their past transgressions, have been found guilty, and each must suffer the consequences. And this framework is exactly the same approach taken by most slasher films, beginning in earnest with Friday the 13th (there are of course precursors to the subgenre, including Halloween, Black Christmas, the early Italian giallo films, and even Psycho, but Friday the 13th was the film to most formally set the trend). Directed by Sean S. Cunningham, it features a group of friends gathered together in a remote location — a summer camp just before the kids are set to arrive — getting offed one by one in increasingly brutal ways by a vengeful killer, leaving one lone survivor, the “Final Girl,” to stop the killer’s reign of terror. And Then There Were None does feature a kind of prototypical Final Girl with Vera, though as the title and trajectory of the nursery rhyme suggest, she doesn’t come out of the ordeal unscathed. Nonetheless, the essential format is there, one that would be copied numerous times over after the release of Friday the 13th, including in the movie’s own sequels, as well as Prom Night, The Burning, My Bloody Valentine, The Prowler, and countless others. 

So Happy Birthday Agatha Christie, you problematic Queen of Mystery, and thanks for all the thrills and gore. 

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