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la vérité sur "dix petits nègres"

2 february 2019

Pierre Bayard has made a regular shtick out of taking classic murder mysteries and demonstrating how their authors gave them incorrect solutions. He has done it with Agatha Christie, Conan Doyle, and even Shakespeare. With his newest book, Bayard returns to Christie again, and to the island that has long since lost the English name that survives in the French translation, "l'île du Nègre." As the now-purified title of her 1939 novel puts it, And Then There Were None – a conclusion that Bayard stiffly disputes.

I will try to make it through this review without spoiling either And Then There Were None or La vérité sur "Dix petits nègres". Though of course Bayard's book will be of most interest to fans of Christie's. Even though Bayard gives a pretty clear summary of the action of the novel, and quotes extensively from it, his project is deliberately somewhat esoteric.

But the project does give Bayard a chance to discuss optical illusions, cognitive bias and misdirection, and other techniques that artists, rhetoricians, and criminals use to conceal elements of their work – for delight or for more sinister purposes. That's his critical contribution here, along with a survey of locked-room mysteries, especially those of John Dickson Carr (to whose memory the book is dedicated).

And Then There Were None is a locked-room mystery on a large scale: for locked room, substitute inaccessible island. (In the mildly campy 1965 film Ten Little Indians starring Hugh O'Brian, it's a snowed-in ski resort, which comes to the same thing.) The device of Christie's island novel is simple: assemble ten strangers who seem to need killing, kill them one by one, and leave behind a baffling mystery, because the whole episode seems to fold in on itself without motive or perpetrator.

Clearly somebody, either one of the ten little victims or some well-hidden other, must have set the whole murderous mechanism going, and given it a jump-start now and then when necessary. Christie's novel ultimately provides that killer, after the police have given up. Bayard's book – which he too casts, tongue in cheek, as a novel, though it's not much of a narrative – presents a different solution.

Both solutions are frankly far-fetched, and perhaps that's the real insight behind La vérité sur "Dix petits nègres". And Then There Were None is the kind of mystery where the killer must be in plain sight all along, simultaneously revealed and concealed by the author's artistry. Unlike the classic twice-told mystery which uses the story of an investigation to reconstruct the story of a murder, And Then There Were None presents the murders in real time, and gives us the investigation as a fruitless afterthought. Hence it is possibly a mystery where any solution works. Any of the ten victims may have faked his or her death along the way in order to kill the others; any of the few possible external suspects is equally as "good" (and bad) for the murder as any of the ten.

Does the reader have unlimited freedom to choose his or her own adventure? Not in all fictions, but in a certain kind of postmodern detective story, perhaps readers do. I can't shake the feeling that the copy of La vérité that I bought is one of at least nine alternate editions, each providing just as good an alternative solution as any other.

Bayard, Pierre. La vérité sur "Dix petits nègres". Paris: Minuit, 2019.