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SHORT PLOT/CHAPTER SUMMARY (Synopsis)
The book begins with all but two of the ten main characters en route to Indian Island, a mysterious place off the Devon Coast of England, rumored to be owned by either a millionaire or an actress. They have each been invited but none are absolutely clear on the details of their stay. Justice Wargrave is a retired judge, invited to vacation by Constance Culmington, an old friend. Vera Claythorne is a young teacher, hired by a Una Nancy Owen for secretarial duties. Philip Lombard, a former captain, has been hired my an anonymous client to spend a week on the island. Miss Emily Brent, an old-fashioned and proper spinster, was invited by an acquaintance for a free vacation at Indian Island. General Macarthur is a retired army man invited to Indian Island by a Mr. Owen he has never met. Dr. Armstrong is a successful physician, sent for by a Mr. Owen to check on his wife’s health. Tony Marston is a rich and attractive young man who likes drinking and enjoying himself. Mr. Blore, an ex-police man, already knows the names of everyone else who is going to the island, and plans to falsely introduce himself to the other guests as a rich man from South Africa.
Once in Devon, Fred Narracott takes the guests by boat to Indian Island. The butler greeting them announces that the host will be delayed until the following day. The servants, Mr. and Mrs. Rogers, have just been hired and are no more acquainted with the owner of the island than the other characters. The guests are amused that all their rooms contain a framed copy of the old nursery rhyme, "Ten Little Indians," and that ten china Indian figures serve as the dinner table centerpiece. The rhyme describes how ten Indians are killed one by one until none remains.
After dinner, the shocked characters are each accused of a past murder by a gramophone recording, played by Rogers by previous order from his unknown employer, Mr. Owen. All but Justice Wargrave and Miss Brent are quite shaken from the accusations, and Mrs. Rogers faints when she hears them. Because Mr. Blore is accused with his real name, he is forced to reveal his true identity to the others, explaining that he was hired to protect Mrs. Owen’s jewels from the other guests. The angry guests discover to their shock that none of them have met Mr. or Mrs. Owen, and some of the guests had thought their host was someone else all together. They conclude that Mr. and Mrs. Owen do not exist, and Justice Wargrave adds that he believes they have been invited to Indian Island by an insane killer.
Following this, the guests try to explain their innocence in their accused murders. Justice Wargrave starts by stating that the man he passed sentence on was indeed guilty and worthy of the death sentence. Next, Vera Claythorne argues in tears that the drowned child swam off on his own and it was not her fault; even his mother admitted her innocence. General Macarthur follows with an absolute denial of both his wife’s infidelity and his murder of her alleged lover. Philip Lombard surprises everyone by admitting he left the group of natives to starve to death, and justifying it as self-preservation. Anthony Marston explains away his manslaughter on the road as an innocent accident. Trembling, Rogers denies he and his wife did anything wrong in their former boss’s death. Yet the others question the couple’s motives since the old woman’s death brought them money from her will. Mr. Blore claims he was doing his duty in presenting the evidence that put Landor in prison for life, where he soon died. Yet he also benefited from this death by receiving a promotion for the successful conviction. Dr. Armstrong, for his part, denies even remembering a patient by the name of the alleged victim, but thinks to himself how horrifying it was to accidentally kill his patient while operating drunk.
Finally, Emily Brent refuses to comment at all on the accusation against her, but later tells Vera: An unmarried girl working for her became pregnant and when Miss Brent banished her, the destitute girl committed suicide. Yet Miss Brent refuses to accept any responsibility.
Moments later, Anthony Marston falls dead from his chair after choking on his drink. Dr. Armstrong discovers Potassium Cyanide traces in Anthony Marston’s glass and everyone assumes suicide. Later that night, Rogers notices only nine Indian figures left on the table, and Vera Claythorne shudders to read the first line of the nursery rhyme about the first Indian choking himself; it mirrors what happened that evening.
Mrs. Rogers is found dead the next morning, but the cause of death is unclear. Meanwhile, everyone is wondering why Fred Narracott’s boat is late, and they begin to doubt if it will come at all. General Macarthur is convinced the boat’s absence is part of the conspiracy and that none of them will ever leave the island alive.
Dr. Armstrong, Lombard, and Blore methodically search the island for U.N. Owen, convinced Marston and Mrs. Rogers have been murdered by their missing host. They come across General Macarthur staring out to the sea and believe he is unstable when he says the end is near and he must be left in peace. After scouring the house as well, the three men realize that the island holds no one besides the eight remaining characters. Meanwhile, Blore demands to know why Lombard brought a revolver to the island. Lombard confesses that he was hired to come and look out for trouble, but says now he believes that was a trap and that he is also at risk of being killed along with the others.
Throughout the book, various characters recall their past crimes and are haunted and disturbed by guilt. Early in the plot, General Macarthur lies in bed deep in thought about how he sent his wife’s lover deliberately to death in battle. Now as he listens to the waves on the rocks, he realizes that he does not want to go on with life; he does not want to leave Indian Island. Vera Claythorne also lies awake, thinking about Hugo, her lover that disappeared from her life after his nephew, Cyril, drowned on her watch. Hugo had confided in her that if Cyril had been born a girl, he would have inherited a large sum and could afford to marry her. Emily Brent writes in her diary that Beatrice Taylor (the woman she was accused of murdering) is the killer, and quickly thinks to herself that she must be losing her mind.
Later in the plot, Vera remembers how Cyril had begged her to let him swim out to a far rock and she had secretly consented, assuming the child would drown. She had purposefully arrived too late to save him and no one but Hugo, her lover, had suspected any evil intentions on her part. Blore stays awake pondering everything that has happened so far and the problem of the missing revolver. He tries to think methodically and thoroughly, as he had been trained to do as a police officer, but his thoughts turn to Landor, and man he helped sentence to prison through his false testimony.
When General Macarthur is late to lunch, Dr. Armstrong discovers him dead from a blow to the head. Justice Wargrave unemotionally leads the remaining guests in summarizing the facts so far: Since no one else was discovered on the island, one of them must be the murderer, and no one can be cleared of doubt for position, character or probability.
The next morning, the guests discover Rogers murdered with an ax as he was chopping wood for the stove. Vera Claythorne becomes hysterical and reminds everyone that the murderer is mirroring the verses of the "Ten Little Indians" poem. The guests begin to think panicked thoughts about who might be the killer, and quietly discuss their suspicions with others.
Between breakfast and a scheduled group meeting, Miss Brent is murdered by an injection of poison through a hypodermic syringe. Hearing that Dr. Armstrong is the only one who brought a hypodermic syringe to the island, the other four characters immediately suspect him. When the doctor’s syringe is not in its proper place, everyone submits to a search of their person and room. Any dangerous objects are rounded up and securely locked. Lombard reluctantly agrees to add his revolver to the locked-up objects, but it cannot be found anywhere.
The five surviving characters agree to stay together in the drawing room, with only one person leaving at a time. They forsake normal conversation and eat lunch out of tin cans, standing together in the kitchen. Before dinnertime, Vera Claythorne goes up to her room and smells the familiar scent of the sea at the beach where she let her lover’s nephew drown. She feels a wet hand on her throat and screams hysterically, until the men run to help her. They find a thick strand of seaweed hanging from the ceiling, which Vera had mistaken for a human hand. They realize the judge did not run up with them, and discover that he has been shot.
The four remaining characters march up to their rooms as a group that night, simultaneously locking and bolting their doors and barricading themselves in with furniture. Philip Lombard opens his bedroom drawer, only to find his missing revolver returned to its place. Later that night, Blore hears footsteps outside his door and ventures out to investigate. Seeing a figure slip out the house, he knocks on the other three survivor’s doors to ascertain who is still in their room. He finds only Dr. Armstrong missing, and recruits Lombard to help him hunt the doctor down. Lombard and Blore return to tell Vera that Dr. Armstrong is nowhere on the island or in the house. They did, however, find the window broken and only three Indian figures left on the table.
When morning comes, Vera insists the doctor is hiding somewhere, and points to the nursery rhyme line, "a red herring swallowed one and then there were three" as evidence that Dr. Armstrong is only pretending to be dead. The three venture outside to flash SOS at the mainland, in vain, and stay in the open until Blore suggests they return to the house for lunch. He goes alone as the other two refuse to reenter the house, and is murdered by a large marble clock dropped on him.
At this point, Lombard and Vera become convinced that Dr. Armstrong is indeed hiding somewhere on Indian Island, waiting to attack them next. Soon, however, they discover his drowned body, and are terrified that the other is the murderer. Vera seizes Lombard’s revolver and shoots him in the chest. Finally feeling safe, Vera returns to her room to rest, but finds a noose hanging from the ceiling and robotically climbs a chair to hang herself. She remembers the last line of the "Ten Little Indians" nursery rhyme, "He went and hanged himself and then there were none." She hallucinates that her lover, Hugo, is near and thinks about how the guilt of letting his nephew drown has never left her.
After Scotland Yard investigators probe the ten deaths on Indian Island, they are left with an unsolvable case. The disreputable man who made the arrangements, Isaac Morris, is dead from an overdose of pills. The townspeople had been told a survival experiment was underway and that they should ignore any pleas for help. Fred Narracott, the boatman, decided to respond to the SOS anyhow, but by the time the sea was calm enough to sail, he found everyone on the island dead. Scotland Yard looked into the accusations on the recording and concluded the following: U.N. Owen wanted to punish people for murders he believed they committed, which the law had not been able to prosecute for lack of evidence or clear intent. The two investigators conclude that one of the ten must have been U.N. Owen. Vera Claythorne seems the most likely candidate, but her guilt is made impossible by the fact that the chair she must have kicked away to hang herself was put back straight against the wall - obviously by someone else.
Sometime later, a fishing boat finds a confession letter from Justice Wargrave and forwards it to Scotland Yard. Wargrave admits he had a strong urge to commit murders. Yet to be just, he would not kill any innocents. So he began to collect cases of neglected justice, in which someone had committed a murder or contributed to death but had faced no criminal prosecution. He heard of his nine final victims from their former friends and acquaintances and gathered intimate information about them in order to lure them to Indian Island. Wargrave’s tenth victim, after excluding himself, was the man he hired to arrange the island logistics, Morris; Wargrave gave Morris a poison capsule, telling him it would cure his indigestion. After describing how he killed each victim, Wargrave reveals that he had hid Lombard’s revolver in a tin of food at the bottom of a pantry drawer and had returned it knowing the remaining characters would use it against each other at the end. He also describes how he gained Dr. Armstrong’s confidence, claiming they would sniff out the real killer together by having Wargrave pretend to be killed. Wargrave double-crossed the doctor when they rendezvoused the next night, and pushed him into the ocean.
Finally, Wargrave details the trap he prepared for Vera Claythorne as soon as he saw her shoot Lombard. He considered the waiting noose a "psychological experiment," to see if Vera’s guilt from drowning the child, impact of having just killed Lombard, and mysterious feel of the setting would be enough to convince her to take her own life. After the plan succeeded, Wargrave shot himself with the revolver using a complicated sequence of events, which would make it impossible for anyone to guess he killed himself.