Book Review: And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie

Book Review: And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie

I’m supposed to be reading The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead at the moment. I started in October and got about halfway before I decided it was time to read some more appropriate reading for the scariest month of the year. It might not be the first choice for a Halloween read but I decided it was about time to reread And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie. I always find it a bit weird to reread a crime novel because it has a completely different feel when you know whodunit. It’s not necessarily a bad thing to know because you start to pick up on things that you didn’t the first time. I guess a more pedantic person might try and pick apart the plot knowing what you know but, for me, I think it’s just worth reading a classic Agatha Christie novel whenever you can. She is still the Queen of Crime for good reason. Something that I find worth celebrating as we reach the 100th anniversary of the publication of her first novel. I’ve tried to read contemporary crime fiction but, to be honest, I’m fucking bored of psychological thrillers with unreliable narrators and super dark themes. Every other week we’re being introduced to ‘the new Gone Girl‘ which would be fine if I’d actually felt that Gone Girl was actually worth finishing. I found it tired and predictable. It was obvious we were being played with but it wasn’t a good enough book for me to let myself be taken along for the ride. These days, it always seems like crime writers are just trying to one-up the last big sensation and it’s getting too out of control. Girl on the Train was not worth my time and every book I’ve read that tried to build off that was abandoned early on. I know classic novels like Agatha Christie’s seem tame in comparison but they are based on well-crafted narratives and not cliched plots. If you call yourself a fan of thrillers and you haven’t read anything by her then you’re really doing this reading thing wrong.

What is the greatest crime thriller of all time? It’s a difficult question and one that will, undoubtedly, have different answers depending on who you ask. If you look at numbers alone then I’d say that And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie has to be in with a shot. It is, using estimates of all time sales, one of the greatest selling books of all time and most probably the number 1 selling mystery novel. It’s certainly one of my top Christie novels trumped only by The Murder of Roger Ackroyd simply because I adore that novel’s unprecedented twist ending. Although, I have to agree that And Then There Were None is one of the best crafted mystery novels ever written with an ending that will keep first time readers guessing until the end. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

And Then There Were None brings together a group of 10 strangers on an isolated island and kills them off one by one. Each character is drawn to the island by a mysterious letter but, when they become stranded due to stormy weather, they are left fearing for their life when it becomes clear that one of their number has set them up for their murderous games based around a well-known nursery rhyme. Each guest is accused of committing their own murder on a dark stormy night and, moments later, the first of their party is found dead. With no sign of anyone else on the island, they have no option but to suspect each other. As their numbers dwindle the tension increases and it becomes harder to work out who can be trusted.

And Then There Were None is a deceptively simple novel from the outside. It is very self-contained with the list of characters sticking to the main 10 and the narrative taking place on the island over the space of a few days. There isn’t a great deal of action beyond a few searches of the house and there is a lot of sitting around waiting for stuff to happen. However, there is so much more to this novel. Christie’s narrative is so well-crafted that it will, genuinely, leave readers guessing who the killer is up until the last minute. You’ll forever be trying to second-guess everything and read too much into the little details. It’s a fantastically fun novel to try and unravel. It’s also incredibly tense and, in it’s own way, scary novel. Yes, it’s lost something over the years as we get used to authors taking horror further and further but this novel has enough atmosphere to keep you unnerved.

This mostly comes down to the sense of claustrophobia you get. Just as the guests on the island are stuck with nowhere to go as the weather rages outside, the reader is kept very insular. This is a novel that doesn’t venture further than it needs to. We barely get a glimpse of anything beyond the walls of the house and very little happens between the murders. Everyone is just sitting and waiting for the next strike and trying to figure out which of the party could be capable of such awful crimes. It has a pretty big body count in the end but And Then There Were None could hardly be described as bloody. Each death is described in a suitable manner for the period in which is was published. It all feels very British as the murder is swept under the carpet to keep the true horrors up to the imagination of the reader.

And Then There Were None is a very clever novel and is classic Agatha Christie. I don’t read her novels as much as I should anymore. Every time I do I get that familiar sense of joy and admiration. She remains one of the most loved mystery writers for a good reason and this novel is probably the perfect example of why. It can be a bit of mind fuck working out where to start with Christie. You’re tempted to start with a Miss Marple or Poirot story but that begs the question of where to start. Do you try and get them in the right order or do you just go with the most popular ones? I’m sure there are people out there on the internet who have found the perfect order but I can’t say that I’m clever enough to have worked it out. If anyone asked me where to start then I, at least for the time being, would probably recommend this one. It exists as it’s own novel but is such a Christie trademark. It’s pretty perfect… no matter how many times you read it.

TBT – Prometheus (2012)

TBT – Prometheus (2012)

I’m going to be honest, as much as I’ve defended Prometheus to people it’s a film that I had, until very recently, only watched once and that was just after it was released on DVD. Yes, I didn’t even watch it in the cinema. That, obviously, hasn’t stopped me feeling qualified to defend it and, if there’s one thing you can be absolutely sure of about me by now, I won’t back down in an argument regardless of how much I know/remember about a topic. Especially if I think I’m morally superior. And, when it comes to Prometheus, I am definitely on the moral high ground. A lot of people I know have unduly criticised this film because it wasn’t what they were expecting. It’s a similar situation to the time I nearly ruined an old friendship because of the film Hugo: they hated it because they thought it was going to be a kid’s adventure instead of a love-story to cinema. People were so desperate for another Alien that anything else was bound to be torn apart. It’s nonsense. Ridley Scott always made his intentions for the film super clear and warned audiences not to go in with any stupid expectations. Is it the film’s fault if they didn’t listen and just wanted another Sigourney Weaver type killed massive black alien creatures? No. Look, I’m not a stubborn monster who isn’t willing to listen to people’s reasoned arguments about why it’s a terrible film. I myself think it has a few major issues. However, if you’re only going to negatively compare it to one of the best films of all time… well, let’s just say, in my head nobody can hear you moan.

Prometheus had a lot to live up to when it was first released. It was Ridley Scott’s return to the Alien franchise and it was our chance to finally understand more about the history of the alien corpse that the crew of the Nostromo discovered in the first film. It promised to set us on a path that would answer a lot of questions that have been raised over the years. Strictly speaking, it isn’t a prequel but a film that is related to the later films whilst being a story in its own right. It exists in the same universe but don’t expect too many moments of face-hugging or chest-bursting. Especially after Damon Lindelof got his hands on the first draft and erased as many Alien-isms as possible. Prometheus, as the name would suggests, deals with humanity’s relationship with their creators. Prometheus was the Titan who went against the wishes of the Gods and gave mankind fire. For that act of treason, he was banished and punished by the Gods. He gave humanity fire and was then forced to have birds eat his liver every day for eternity. So, if there’s one thing that the crew of the Prometheus ship should know, you don’t fuck with your God/Gods.
Regardless, the crew set out on a journey to discover where they came from. After discovering various cave paintings depicting mankind worshipping God-like figures and a mysterious star chart. They decide to follow the map and track the beings, who they dub The Engineers, to the distant moon LV-223. After receiving funding from the Weyland Corporation, Dr Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Dr Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) lead the mission to try and find the creatures they believe created mankind. They are, naturally, joined by a whole host of staple sci-fi supporting characters. The gruff and distant Commander (Charlize Theron), the laid back but dependable Captain (Idris Elba) and the naive biologist and clearly destined to be the first to die (Rafe Spall).
Most importantly, in terms of both plot and scene stealing, is the mega creepy android, David (Michael Fassbender). He was created to be as human-like as possible and is more than capable of feeling those pesky emotions that most robotic creatures tend to avoid. It clearly spells trouble and, despite everyone else being unable to see it, David obviously has his own secret agenda. Fassbender is the breakout star of the show and brings a new level of fucking creepy to androids. Everything about the performance works to make David seem more inhuman and uncanny. It’s amazing. 
Less outstanding are the rest of the performances. I’m afraid, no matter how much I love her, I never really got behind Noomi Rapace in this role. She never quite sells the character or her relationship with fellow scientist Dr Holloway. I realise that we’re trying to avoid comparing this with its predecessors but, when you’re part of the franchise that invented badass, sci-fi women, Prometheus needed Dr Shaw to really pack a punch. She doesn’t. Equally, Charlize Theron is kind of thrust into a underwhelming role where she has little to do other than (SPOILER) die in the most unnecessary way possible, What is it with people not being able to run away from something properly? She and Rickon need to start a club. 
Anyway, that’s not to say that Prometheus doesn’t have some good moments. It’s not that the characters are completely underwhelming, it’s just that they don’t feel as developed as they need to be. And that’s not to say that we needed hours of background and context for them. We know basically fuck all about the crew of the Nostromo in Alien but they felt more like cohesive characters than a lot of these ones. The only one who comes close to Fassbender is Idris Elba’s captain but even he can only do so much with so little. Prometheus falls down under the weight of it’s own expectations. It wanted to do so much that the important details suffered. It was great that Ridley Scott wanted to explore the background of this universe and go a little existential. However, it was huge task. Somewhere along the way it became too much. 
The narrative shows promise but has so many twists, turns and unanswered questions that it feels a little shoddy. Now, I did like the open ending and the secrets that were left unrevealed but it still felt like it wasn’t enough. There is too much predictability at play here and a lot of the dialogue is just awful. There’s so much going on and it never feels like it all forms one major plot. It’s too fragmented and separate. There needed to be more clarity. The big action and horror set-pieces are great but, even with these bursts of excitement, there is no real momentum to this film. It doesn’t feel like it’s moving anywhere and it’s easy to get distracted along the way. It wastes more time on myths and legends that don’t matter than in answering the questions we wanted answers to. It’s still watchable, though. Of course, that is mostly down the fantastic design and Fassbender’s haunting performance. Ridley Scott can still pull some great sci-fi moments out of his hat but this film needed a much stronger script. I commend the idea of what this film should have been but Prometheus could never have achieved everything it set out to be… so it didn’t.
Tuesday’s Reviews – Alien: Covenant (2017)

Tuesday’s Reviews – Alien: Covenant (2017)

Before I started writing this review I decided it was time to remind myself of Ridley Scott’s first prequel to Alien. I feel like I’m always having to defend Prometheus from people who thought it was a disappointing addition to the franchise. When I looked at the reviews I was shocked to see that a lot of critics gave the film moderate praise. I mean, yes, that praise was mostly for the aesthetic appeal and Michael Fassbender’s performance but I was under the impression that it had received more of a negative response. I, personally, didn’t mind the film. I knew going in that it wasn’t going to be another wild ride of alien escapes and craziness in space. So I went in with realistic expectations. The people that I know who were most disappointed by it are the ones who expected Ridley Scott to pick up where he left off. Before 2012’s prequel, Scott had only directed the original film in the franchise so there were fans who were hoping he would give us the same treatment that Sigourney Weaver got but a few years earlier. Instead, we went on a journey to discover humanity’s existence and find out where the Alien menace came from. The story wasn’t quite as slick as we were used to and, for the most part, Prometheus gave us more questions than it answered. However, it was still enough to whet our appetite for the prequel’s sequel. Although, there was always the chance that we would get another Attack of the Clones here. I mean nobody expected that to be even more disappointing to fans than Phantom Menace but then Hayden Christensen managed to take shit to a whole new level.

I admire Ridley Scott for making this film. I mean, he was responsible for making one of the single greatest sci-fi films of all time. Hell, I’d happily say that Alien is one of the single greatest films of all time. The last time I watched it I was still scared shitless and I know exactly what’s going to happen at this point. So, he could have bowed out gracefully and let that be his legacy. Instead, he risked pulling a George Lucas and decided to show us the background to a much loved classic. Now, I know a lot of fans weren’t too keen on Prometheus but, if you take away all of your expectations of a film in the franchise, it is actually not that bad a film. There is a great cast and an interesting, if slightly overreaching, narrative. It has fantastic visuals and attempts to solve the mystery surrounding the alien that caused so much grief on the USCSS Nostromo. I enjoyed it and, with every repeat viewing of the Alien: Covenant trailer, I was really looking forward to its sequel.

A sequel which appeared to go out of its way to make connection to both the original Alien and its own sequel Aliens. We are introduced to a colonisation ship, the Covenant, in the midst of its journey to a distant and habitable planet. When an accident causes a few issues, the crew are awoken from hyperspace and discover another habitable planet that is closer to their current location. Now, because the crew have never seen a science-fiction movie before, new Captain Oram (Billy Cruddup) decides it is worth checking out this mysterious, new planet. He goes against the wishes of his second in command, Daniels (Katherine Waterson) for the good of the audience. So we see most of the crew head down to the weird planet whilst a small minority remain to keep things in order.

Unfortunately but not unexpectedly shit starts to go down in typical Alien fashion. The crew starts to be infected by a weird spore that, strangely, causes creatures to burst from their bodies. Hmm, I feel like I’ve heard of that happening before. Luckily, though, David (Michael Fassbender) the creepy android from Prometheus, is on hand to give the crew his new expertise on the creatures. Turns out he became stranded on the planet 10 years earlier and has spent his time alone studying them. The scenes in which he takes Orman through his weird museum of Xenomorph skeletons is super creepy and just amazing.

In terms of plot Alien: Covenant still isn’t exactly as tight as Ridley Scott’s original but it feels as though it is reaching for something within its grasp. It attempts to answer as many of the questions that Prometheus left us with whilst getting closer to the structure of the earlier parts of the franchise. We see glimpses of both Alien and Aliens as the action moves from the wide open spaces of the planet to the confines of the ship. We have the inevitable nods to the very first facehugger and chestburster scenes but with the added gore of CGI. This film certainly pays fan service and will delight for nostalgia alone. However, it may still feel kind of empty to those who are used to this kind of thing. Just as Prometheus was a bigger hit with younger audiences, I believe those unfamiliar with the series will get a bigger kick out of these moments than lifelong fans. That doesn’t mean they aren’t worth a watch of course.

The problem isn’t that Covenant is a bad film; it’s just that it doesn’t feel new enough. People criticised Prometheus for being too dissimilar to anything that had gone before but this is starting to feel like a step back. The cast is great and, I have to say, that Katherine Waterson makes a much more convincing lead for the film than Noomi Rapace did before her. Waterson has more of the Sigourney Weaver feel about her and handles the character well. Michael Fassbender, in the dual role of David and his contemporary Walter, is still on fantastic form and is clearly having a blast making these films. The film, as its predecessor was, is absolutely stunning. However, there is something missing. The first Alien made so much of such a small concept but, since that point, the concept are getting bigger and less terrifying. I get that Scott wants to handle bigger ideas but, if this is to continue, everything needs a bit more clarity.

TBT – Aliens (1986)

TBT – Aliens (1986)

On Saturday 25th February it really was “game over, man. Game over” for actor Bill Paxton. The 61 year old died after complications during heart surgery. 61 really is no age at all and I can hardly imagine how his family and friends are coping. I liked Bill Paxton; although, I find this a sort of hypocritical statement to make considering most of the time I didn’t get his name correct. Yes, I’m one of those people that could never tell the difference between her Bills. Just like trying to get a USB stick into the hole, it always takes me 3 attempts to work out if I mean Bill Pullman or Bill Paxton. Even though I know there is one Bill I prefer, I just can’t remember his name. Bill Paxton was a great actor who had the ability to turn his hand to any number of roles. In order to honour his work and, conveniently, find something to write about for TBT, I decided to rewatch one of his greatest early roles. It was the role he won himself a Saturn Award for Best Supporting Actor. It only seems right.

Apparently there is still something of a debate going on about which film is better: Alien or Aliens. The major consensus seems to be that James Cameron’s follow up is the better all round film but Ridley Scott’s Alien is still a classic mixing of two genres that has never been equalled. Really I don’t understand why we need to pick between them. The two are very different films with very different approaches. They just happen to be about the same Alien creature. It’s about as fair as comparing Dracula and Twlight because they both contain vampires. I say, just admit they are both great. Alien was a triumph of horror and sci-fi. As I discussed a few weeks ago, it is still terrifying after all this time. Aliens, on the other hand, is more action driven and ramps up the special effects. The Alien is no longer a single entity stalking it’s prey. There are loads of them going to war with the crew of the spaceship of the USS Sulaco. Alien was Hitchcockian whilst Aliens is the kind of film that would have inspired Michael Bay.

The film picks up 57 years after the end of the first film when Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is rescued after drifting through space in stasis. Her employers, the Weyland-Yutani Corporation, are skeptical about her claims about the Alien that killed the crew. Ripley is then informed that the exomoon, where the crew of the Nostromo first encountered the eggs and Kane got infected, is now the home to a colony of people. When Weyland-Yutani lose contact with the colony they as Ripley to accompany a unit of Marines and a company representative to investigate. Obviously, it turns out Ripley was right and a lot of bad shit had gone down. The colonists have been turned into hosts for Alien embryos and there are Facehuggers and Xenomorphs waiting to strike the Marines. Ripley must use her knowledge to get the Marines out and ensure the safety of the colony’s only survivor: a young girl called Newt (Carrie Henn).

As I mentioned earlier, Aliens is a much more familiar seeming sci-fi film. It keeps certain amounts of the horror and tension of the original film but adds more violence and explosions. Instead of an unsuspecting group of civilians trying to outwit a monster, this time we get to experience a group of full-blown Marines blow them the fuck up. It makes the first film look kind of tame and is unrelenting and uncompromising in it’s quest for more bloodshed. It’s a wild and crazy ride that was pretty technologically advanced in it’s day. It is the perfect action film. Although, I will say that out of the two films, it is the earlier one that has stood the aesthetic test over the years. The only problem with cutting edge special effects is that, in years to come, they start to look very silly and outdated.

All this talk of action doesn’t mean that the film lacks depth. Maybe it lacks a tiny amount of finesse that the first film did but has much more to offer than gunfire. Sigourney Weaver is given more room to develop the character of Ripley as she revisit her past and has to deal with the emerging mother-daughter relationship with Newt. She has a lot of emotional drama to deal with as well as going further to prove that Ripley really is the original badass female. The rest of the crew also have greater room to move than most of the original crew. We get to know the group of Marines much better than we did the crew of the Nostromo and their relationships feels more familiar and understandable. The soldiers are brave, bloodthirsty and scared in equal measure. They are like a family and a realistic military unit.

Just like Alien before it, this sequel will leave you in a fragile and terrified state but it will be for much different reasons. Rather than the slow build up of tension, this films offers a much more visceral punch and is a non-stop assault of action, scares and violence. Is it better than the original?  I refuse to make a choice. Both films are fabulous in their own way. Why can’t we live in a world where we enjoy each of them?

TBT – Alien (1979)

TBT – Alien (1979)

On 25th January this year, legendary British actor John Hurt died. He was the kind of actor that never really fit into the role of leading man but would have been familiar to a whole host of people thanks to his supporting roles. As I’ve talked about multiple times since his death, John Hurt was the kind of actor that could turn his hand to anything and had a great deal of skill to bring all sorts of people to life on screen. My review on Tuesday looked at one of Hurt’s final films before he died where he made a great impression in the small role of a Catholic priest who Jackie Kennedy talked to after her husband’s death. His role has been made all the more poignant following his death as the character discusses death and the prospect of what follows. The film is definitely emotional but it was watching Hurt’s performance that really got to me. So I wanted to use my TBT post to revisit of his classic films. There are plenty of great ones to pick from and, normally, I should have watched something like The Elephant Man. There are so many great performances to decide between that it becomes impossible to pick just one. Instead, because I’ll take any chance to watch it, I picked Alien. John Hurt may not be in it for very long but his role in the film was certainly one of the most memorable moments in movie history. John Hurt is iconic in this role.

Alien is one of the greatest films of all time and, after watching it again the other day, I can honestly still say that it is still fucking scary. It’s a masterpiece of suspense and horror set in space. The casting is fantastic and the design is great. However, it wasn’t always considered to be one of the greatest sci-fi films of all time. On it’s first release, several eminent film critics declared it to be nothing more than a mass of effects and little else. Oh how the table have turned. Alien is the film that changed its genre and became the template for so many films that followed it. In the 70s science-fiction was becoming more popular but was staying in the fairly family friendly realm. Alien reinvented space with a hideous Hitchcockian twist. And it’s fucking fantastic.

The premise is super simple and it really doesn’t matter. The small crew of a commercial towing vessel are woken from stasis early. Their ship brought them out of sleep to answer a distress call coming from a nearby ship. Upon investigating they discover the crew were killed and the ship has become a breeding ground for some mysterious being. Whilst taking a closer look at one of the creepy eggs on board, one of the creatures attaches itself to a crew member, Kane’s (John Hurt), face.
When the creature eventually becomes unattached and dies, it appears that Kane is unharmed. Until a fucking tiny alien creature bursts from his chest. The rest of the crew then face the bigger issue of a fully grown and deadly monster chasing them around the corridors of their ship and picking them off one by one.

When it comes down to it, Alien isn’t a success because of it’s narrative or it’s script. It’s a mixture of elements taken from so many science-fiction or horror films before it. Writer Dan O’Bannon freely admits that he took inspiration from multiple sources to create a familiar but workable story. What elevates the film is it’s design. O’Bannon and director Ridley Scott were inspired by the artwork of H.R. Giger and it was his paintings that inspired the final look for the film’s fearsome creature. Scott hired Giger to work on the whole of the film and it is down to him that we have such amazing visuals. Those images of the inside of the crashed ship and the egg chamber are all down to his dark vision and it is the making of the film. And it is not just Giger. Every aspect of the film’s design comes together perfectly to create this materpiece. At the time, it was a special effects dream. Everything was done by a skilled team who made some incredibly complicated set pieces come to life. The chest bursting scene is one of the most infamous moments ever seen on screen and has been parodied an infinite number of times by now.

That scene is a feast of blood, gore, and jump scares but Alien is so much more than jut a mindless horror show. The film carefully builds up tension as it goes along and is designed in such a careful way to ensure that the audiences experience is just as terrifying as the crew’s. The film doesn’t rush and takes a perverse pleasure in slowing down the pace as much as possible. It’s all about the suspense because, when it comes down to it, that’s what we want. Shots are held a little longer than necessary to suggest something is about to happen. The lighting and sound helping to create that sense of claustrophobia. Ridley Scott and co. came together to create something that has stood the test of time and is, to this day, one of the most terrifying films ever created. It’s simple and full of cliches but it’s so well crafted that it doesn’t matter. It is the film that started the trend and only goes to prove that you can’t beat the original. I still have to sit through certain scenes with my hands over my eyes. But I’ll always go back for another watch.