Skip to main content
You are the owner of this article.
You have permission to edit this article.
Morals and murder in 'And Then There Were None'

Morals and murder in 'And Then There Were None'


Eight strangers are ferried to an island off England’s Devon coast for a house party in a lonely mansion. Unsure why they have been invited and dubious about their new companions, they don’t rush to get attached.

Neither should you. As you might have suspected, this is the setup for a new BBC dramatization of “And Then There Were None,” the classic Agatha Christie mystery from 1939, airing Sunday and Monday on Lifetime.

Sometimes titled “Ten Little Indians,” “And Then There Were None” is listed as the best-selling mystery novel to date. It has been adapted for the stage, once by Christie herself, who gave it a less-dark ending than the book’s. It has been made into several movies and produced for television, with various different endings and altered locales.

The concept itself, in which people are picked off, one by one, by a mysterious killer, has been widely borrowed; “CSI” creator Anthony Zuiker even brought it to television as a reality-competition show called “Whodunnit?”

But this new “And Then There Were None” is what purists have been waiting for. Although it isn’t a line-for-line adaptation, it is almost excruciatingly faithful to the tone of Christie’s book, building tension as skillfully as the author did.

The cast is full of distinguished actors. Charles Dance (“Game of Thrones”) is elderly Judge Wargrave. Maeve Dermody (“Rake,” “Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries”) is school “games mistress” Vera Claythorne. Sam Neill is starchy Gen. MacArthur, Toby Stephens (“Black Sails,” “Inspector Lewis”) is bad-tempered Dr. Armstrong, and Miranda Richardson (“Parade’s End”) is the devout do-gooder Miss Emily Brent.

Americans are also likely to recognize Anna Maxwell-Martin (“The Bletchley Circle,” “The Frankenstein Chronicles”) as downtrodden cook Mrs. Rogers. And that’s Aidan Turner, “Poldark” himself, as mercenary Philip Lombard.

Respectably bland as most seem, each has a dark past, it turns out. Someone knew, and that’s why each was invited by a host whose name almost anagrams to “unknown.”

A nursery rhyme, conspicuously posted in each room, reveals the plot. “Ten little soldier boys” fall victim to bad luck, one at a time, and the guests eventually realize that they will die in the ways (choked, chopped up, etc.) detailed in the rhyme.

“And Then There Were None,” though, takes its time even getting to that revelation, giving us time to enjoy the gorgeous scenery and lush photography. The miniseries, which aired over three nights in Great Britain last December, lets the tension build ever so slowly.

Soon, everything seems ominous: the gloom, the fog, the brewing of tea. Thunder and lightning mark the realization that the killer must be one of them, and that there is no way off the island. (“It’s one by one, and in a particular way,” Vera snaps at one point. “Haven’t you been paying attention?”)

In the beginning, as viewers, we may think some of our favorites are innocent. Not so. Writer Sarah Phelps (“The Crimson Field”) and director Craig Viveiros reveal the crimes of which the house guests are accused in vivid flashbacks. If we still root for any of them, it will only be because their evil deeds stalk them as relentlessly as the killer does.

Fans of mysteries have as diverse taste as fans of any other genre. And the range is wide, from true crime and police procedurals to hardboiled detectives and dark tales of serial killers.

The British mystery, often set in a cozy, conventional town where a horrific event reveals many secrets, is almost a genre unto itself. Christie did a lot to establish it with her Miss Marple novels, which became a standby of British TV, and American, too. Many actresses played the crime-solving lady, most recently Julia McKenzie until 2013.

Of course, Christie also created Hercule Poirot, the fussy Belgian detective played so memorably by David Suchet until three years ago. Like Miss Marple, Poirot depends on his mind, and his hunches about people, to put a finger on the culprit.

The Marples and Poirots have all been done, British critics mused wistfully when the BBC rolled out “And Then There Were None.” That’s not to say any of the former might not resurface; it has certainly happened in the past.

But “And Then There Were None” is a different Christie, not cozy at all, and unsparing both in her depiction of the characters and in the story they inhabit.

Even though it was written in 1939, as a serialized newspaper story, it feels modern in its moral complexities. Fans of British mysteries, cozy or edgy, won’t want to miss it.{&rule}‘And Then There Were None’

Three stars (out of four)

When • 7 p.m. Sunday and 8 p.m. Monday

Where • Lifetime

More info •

Staying in? We've got you covered

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Gail Pennington is the television critic for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Related to this story

Get up-to-the-minute news sent straight to your device.


Breaking News


National News