Book Review – And Then There Were None (By: Agatha Christie)

How much of an introduction does And Then There Were None need? It’s probably the most well-known mystery novel of all time by the most well-known mystery author in the world. The story of 10 unrelated people arriving on an island only to be murdered one by one has now become a trope, and is found throughout popular culture. But having been written back in the (19)30’s, can it really hold up today as the classic of its genre?

The first thing to note is that the version of the book you can buy today has been altered several times since its original publication, and since the version I read. Most of these changes have been to remove offensive material that wasn’t “as” offensive when the book was published… the most obvious change is the removal of the word “nigger” (I think this is my 4th book this year with some variation of the word) from the title and the poem, but without many reference points myself I couldn’t tell you if anything of substance was changed.

The main gist of the book is as described above: 10 people who have nothing in common save having potentially committed and un-prosecutable crime are brought to an island, accused of their crimes, an systematically murdered. The island is cut off from the outside world by the supply boat not coming back, and weather that is agreeable to the plot. You, as the reader, don’t specifically have to continue guessing who the murderer is, but it’s fun to play along and it becomes easier and easier as you go along because people, you know, die. The writing is a bit stilted, and at times sparse. It feels like things were just left out of some places, whether that was due to a time constraint (real or self-imposed) or is just part of the style I couldn’t say, but I can’t keep up with how these interactions between people are supposed to be going.

And it does move by quickly, it’s a real page-turner, and the problems with the style are mere pinpricks in an increasingly exciting plot. It’s all a bit silly, of course, with the murders all based on the “Indian” rhyme, putting the characters in situations that feel a bit contrived. But it wasn’t written to be the pinnacle of literature: it is, of course, a mystery novel. And without going into too much plot detail I think it is a fascinating idea that turns the genre a bit on its head (though not now with it being so engrained). But it was one of her earlier novels, and I can’t help but feel like a more experienced Christie could’ve done more with the work. It’s still fun to read, but it doesn’t feel like one of the best mystery books of the century (and some of her other famous books were written even before this one).

Because of the format of the novel, you get more than your average introduction where everyone must be described in enough detail that you know why they are there and how they could be the killer before everyone starts dying. But once you get over that hump (the only major hurdle in the novel, and it isn’t very long) you get many of the standard tropes, along with the interesting puzzle of determining whether you think the General, or the Detective, or the Judge, or the Secretary, or whoever is doing the killing. It even has my personal favorite possibility: Butler did it. And this is very entertaining right up until the end where you discover who the actual murderer is, and I was quite surprised. There might be a bit of a disconnect here and there since the book was written by someone who presumably wasn’t actually around murder a whole lot and didn’t have the internet to verify facts about how murders go down. I was easily able to suspend my disbelief, though, and besides this only opened up one plot hole that turned out to be less of a plot hole later on.

I’m not really a big fan of mysteries (certainly not as much as the person who previously owned one of my copies {where the poem was changed to “soldiers”} who underlined and took down notes in an attempt to figure out the culprit), but I would like to think I do know an entertaining book. And this certainly is one. I’d be very surprised if you liked mystery novels and haven’t read this one, but if that is the case it’s worth a look. It might not be the greatest one of its kind ever, or even of Christie’s work, but it’s a solid and entertaining read which I would recommend to my friends who are fans of mysteries, thrillers, or just quick and easy-to-read books.

Book Review – Are You My Mother? (By: Alison Bechdel)

I was very surprised upon finding a copy that I hadn’t heard of Alison Bechdel’s follow-up to the outstanding graphic novel Fun Home back when I was getting more in to comics. Certainly Are You My Mother? had been published by the time I was reading its predecessor and looking up its author. But this “sequel” just slipped through the cracks, it seems. While the original got awards and a musical adaptation, this book didn’t quite seem to find its audience (at least as far as one can tell from the footprint it left). But is that deserved or is Are You My Mother? an overlooked treasure?

Are You My Mother? is (perhaps in a limiting capacity) linked very closely to Fun Home. Indeed the events and creation of Fun Home are mentioned throughout Are You My Mother?, and I suspect that if one reads the second without the context of the first they will get less out of it. Whereas Fun Home was a memoir half about Alison and half about her father, this memoir is half about her mother (surprisingly). The focus is a lot more on the present than the past, and a surprisingly large chunk is taken up by the few years between the release of Fun Home and this book’s creation. There are also large chunks dedicated to Alison’s dreams, both relating and interpreting them, and her therapy sessions. At many moments is seems to be less than half about (or indeed “about” as it supposedly is) her mother and more about her.

That isn’t necessarily a problem, even if it would mean the title is misleading. But a few chapters in, with the pages filled by enough text to write a novel (if she hand-lettered everything that is an amazing feat in and of itself), lots of allusions to famous works/people, and more than one would expect about the (psycho)analysis of dreams (something I personally find… well, “suspect” would be the nicest way to put it) and I start to understand why maybe this one wasn’t as well read as its ancestor. Similar “faults” were present in Fun Home: it was a wordy graphic novel and perhaps a bit “pompous” in its allusion to grander works. But it was much more “readable”. There is quite a lot more packed onto a page this go around and I can’t help but think Alison wanted to just keep going and going. That packing of information didn’t really stop me from reading, though, and the work is presented in a way that makes the reader want to keep going. I’m a sucker for graphic novels anyway, and this one took about an average time to read: less than 3 days, and I even gave up my nightly novel-reading-time as I got engrossed.

And the writing and illustration are engrossing. The level of artistry (upgraded this time in detailed renderings of scenes that force you to extract information from them as if it was real life) is still incredible in how expressive, understandable, and atmospheric it is. The fact that the only color is red(/pink in its various tints and shades), as opposed to green in the first book really puts you in a different mindset than Fun Home and is expertly rendered to influence the feeling of a page. The writing, likewise, is compelling and human. Alison is understandable (if not-at-all understandable) and while I could never “understand” myself making several decisions (like cheating on a partner {ha! partner…} or attempting to analyze my dreams) I can “understand” her well enough to comprehend why she made those decisions and what they meant in the small amount of her life contained in this book. I’m trying to say that the encapsulation of thoughts and feeling into words is as well rendered as the illustration.

But it just never quite gets up to the level it wants to be at. It’s trying very hard to get to the same resonant place that made Fun Home so successful (and I assume cathartic) but there isn’t as much to draw on, and it’s weighed down by length accounts of Virginia Wolff and Dr. Winnicott. It plateaus just below the breakthrough of its older sister(?) and wanders around distantly. Though I suppose that does capture Bechdel’s relationship with her mother fairly well, and maybe the first was more popular (with me and the masses) because her father’s story was more excitingly tragic.

I feel very strange having mentioned another book so many times in this review. But it seems appropriate that if one knows of both works the two can’t really be separated, especially with the success of the first. I’m sure there’s someone out there that has only read Are You My Mother? (potentially the children’s book and neither of the books I’ve been talking about) but it is a very unlikely scenario, and the stories intertwine so much that catering to such a person seems silly (though I don’t know why they would be reading this review). Together the two books form a whole. But it is a whole you can read the first half of and be relatively okay.

At one point I found a fairly pristine copy of Fun Home in a second-hand store and then put it in my “cart” before I even knew who I was going to give it to, but I knew there “was” someone I knew who I could give it to. Are you My Mother? unfortunately doesn’t make it up quite that high, and I can’t imagine myself recommending it to anyone who hasn’t read Fun Home. It’s a bit pretentious and it attempts to find correlation and causation where there is none, but it is tremendously well crafted, artistically inspiring with a story that is well told and meaningful to people in a myriad of difficult situations.