Agatha Christie and Burgh Island

StepsToday, Burgh Island is chandeliered by a posh Art-Deco hotel-mansion. It is located off the west coast of Devon near Plymouth in southern England. The hotel has twenty some bedrooms with the capacity to cater weddings or business meetings. Patrons can enjoy a first rate restaurant and several beautiful walking trails around the island with a chance to see dolphins, rabbits, and foxes. Furthermore, visitors can stay in the newly renovated Beach House that cascades over the cliffs. The bedroom has a spectacular view of the luminous Devon sunsets. As she describes in And Then There Were None, “The house itself was really most attractive, the view from the terrace magnificent.” Agatha Christie herself frequented this hotel. Consequently, there is a room that bears her name with the same desk she used to write portions of both And Then There Were None and Evil Under The Sun.

[Take the Walking Tour of Burgh Island]

In the two stories that take place on a version of Burgh Island, And Then There Were None and Evil Under the Sun, Agatha Christie closely writes the mysteries in connection to the West Devon atmosphere. And Then There Were None combines a contrived murder mystery with isolation. Set in the early 1920s, ten guests are strategically brought to Indian Island by a U. N. Owen, or Mr. Unknown, and punished for some type of murder in the past. Indian Island receives its name from “its resemblance to a man’s head- an American Indian profile.” This head is synonymous with the perception of the chaotic American Indians: the profile shadowing that of a mug shot.Piano

The twisted catch of the story is that Mr. Unknown is one of the ten guests. The book takes place in isolation, but more importantly in a vivacious illusion. Each guest comes to Indian Island with the expectation of a wonderful Devon holiday filled with fine dining, first class service, and relaxation. As Christie describes: the mansion was built by a “millionaire and was said to be absolutely the last word in luxury.” Rich patron flocked to coastal Devon to enjoy the ocean, gardens, and exclusive society. This explains why ten people from the lower classes accepted an ambiguous invitation to Indian Island. But, within a few hours of arriving, their reverie turned sour. First, each guest is publicly accused of murder, and then almost instantaneously witness to one. As the story unravels parallel to the poem Ten Little Soldiers, which hangs in each room of the mansion, we learn that the murderer, who likens him/herself to Cain, has a distorted vision of justice and will stop at nothing to enforce it.

[Read more about the Brand of Cain]

Due to public outcry, the title of the book has been changed twice: first from Ten Little Niggers to Ten Little Indians, and then to And Then There Were None. Nonetheless the book is easily Christie’s most successful novel, selling an estimated 100 million copies. In 1943, Christie rewrote the novel for the stage, slightly altering the ending. It has also been adapted to film several times.

In Evil Under the Sun, a murder takes place at the height of summer where the sun casts an eerie aura over a guilty crowd of conspirators. Here, Agatha Christie satirizes the superficiality of the aristocratic society. The name of the story itself is derived from the notion that in the seemingly comfortable and luxurious atmosphere of the coastal Devon beach culture, “there is evil everywhere under the sun.”

Arlena Stewart is murdered and the stories and alibis of the guests on the island do not match up. It immediately becomes clear that the various guests not only know Arlena, but also are jealous of her beauty. Set during the height of summer in the 1930s, the atmosphere is awkwardly tense. Unable to flee the island, the guests are forced to maintain their aristocratic facade while they enjoy the grass tennis courts, rocky coves, and wonderful weather on Smugglers Island.

BalconyIt takes the legendary Belgian detective Hercule Poirot’s unique detecting skills to interview every witness and discover the unlikely truth behind Arlena’s death. This acclaimed novel has also been adapted into a film starring Peter Ustinov as Hercule Poirot.

In either setting, Agatha Christie incorporates the two extremes of the Devon climate, the clear beautiful summer beach days that attract the wealthy summer crowd to places like Burgh Island and Tor Bay and the dreary thunderstorms that cave the simple Devon inhabitants. Furthermore, Christie shows two contrasting styles: the perfectly contrived yet mysterious bloodbath in And Then There Were None, and the traditional inspector mystery in Evil Under The Sun. We also find two different visions of Burgh Island. In And Then There Were None, Christie takes the liberty of completely isolating Indian Island, even though in reality it’s accessible by foot on a low tide. There is no literal or figurative escape from their fate. Furthermore, in Evil Under the Sun, Christie makes Smugglers Island more luxurious and inserts a causeway that serves as a metaphor that taunts the trapped conspirators, for they are unable to flee the investigation. Even in the ostentatious atmosphere, the truth cannot hide from Hercule Poirot. Nonetheless, Burgh Island serves as a perfect spot in Devon for vacation or in the cases of Agatha Christie, murder.

[Classical Tor Bay]



© Copyright Christopher Chanock 2007


There was something magical about an island-the mere word suggested fantasy. You lost touch with the world-an island was a world of its own. A world, perhaps, from which you might never return.
-And Then There Were None