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Saturday, 27 January 2018

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie

Party time! It's my 100th review!

This special post concerns an acknowledged classic of crime and detective fiction. Agatha Christie's sixth novel, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, was published in 1926. The first book under a new contract with Collins -- who still publish her work today -- the legendary twist in this novel, combined with a good publicity campaign and an unfortunate media sensation around the author, launched her into genre-writing stardom. Her light has not yet dimmed.


It's impossible to discuss The Murder of Roger Ackroyd without discussing the twist, for reasons that will become apparent. Okay, so: the narrator did it. I've lectured on this novel a few times, and I always begin my lectures with those four words. They serve as evidence that students need to do the advance reading before each class, and also set the stage for any careful consideration of the text and its contribution to crime writing.

Laura Thompson has written that 'Roger Ackroyd is all genre: not an atom of authorial personality comes between the writing and the reader.' As I argue in my book, Queering Agatha Christie, there is something very significant in the fact that it reads this way: up until the final revelation, the book is supremely conventional. It is, in fact, a more stereotypical Agatha Christie book than anything else she ever wrote. The setting is a country house, the victim in a nouveau riche type ('more impossibly like a country squire than any real country squire'), the suspects are stock figures, and the narrator is -- well, a country doctor. So, not only is he a doctor, like Holmes's Watson, but he is a country doctor; he's a local, reassuring, and reliable presence in every sense.

The plot: Hercule Poirot has retired to grow vegetable marrows (nothing unique here -- Sherlock Holmes retired to keep bees). However, when his old friend Roger Ackroyd is murdered, he is forced to investigate. The body is discovered by Dr James Sheppard, our narrator, who follows Poirot around until Poirot gathers together all the suspects.

In the final chapters, the profound conventionality ends. Poirot reprimands the suspects, tells them he knows the truth, and dismisses them. Then he takes Sheppard aside, and explains in private the truth of the matter: only one person could have committed the crime. 'In fact -- Dr Sheppard.' He then hints to Sheppard that the best thing to do in the context is to commit suicide. The truth, says Poirot, should not be revealed, for the sake of the murderer's devoted spinster sister. Sheppard goes home and writes an 'apologia' to the reader, gloating over his cleverness, and explaining that The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was intended as a chronicle 'of Poirot's great failure.' On the verge of suicide, he leaves us.

Thank you to Chris Chan for pointing out
this cartoon's source: the New York Times
All throughout the novel, there are references to genre fiction, especially to Sherlock Holmes. Sheppard frequently tells the reader he is 'playing Watson to Poirot's Sherlock', and Poirot even compares him to Hastings. Although early reviews of Ackroyd tended to be glowing ('[few detective novels] provide greater analytical stimulation', wrote the New York Times critic), a light-hearted charge of foul play -- dismissed by Dorothy L Sayers as sour eggs over readers' having been successfully 'bamboozled' -- is often elevated by modern critics to the status of national outrage. To read contemporary scholarship on The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, you'd think that daily life ground to a stop when the Watsonian figure was proved to have 'dunnit'. However, these commentators are reading too literally on two levels.

First, they are not appreciating the great fun and artifice that characterised the writing and reading of detective fiction in the late 1920s. Second, they are wrong about the murderer's identity. Yes, the Watson figure never 'dunnit' -- and let me tell you why!

Sheppard is an unreliable narrator. We know this -- he gloats about it in the final chapter, referring back to the preceding text and to the act of writing itself; the trick that he -- and therefore the author -- has played. In chapter 4, Christie glosses over the murder without so much as a paragraph break:

the letters were brought in at twenty minutes to nine.  It was just on ten minutes to nine when I left him, the letter still unread.  I hesitated with my hand on the door handle, looking back and wondering if there was anything I had left undone.
And gloating over the fairness of the mystery, the narrator of course refers back to this in chapter 27: 'supposing I had put a row of stars after the first sentence!' he says.  'Would someone then have wondered exactly what  happened in those blank ten minutes?'

When Sheppard says he has been 'playing Watson' he is misleading us again. He might be playing the part, but Poirot never joins in. Poirot never actually tells our narrator anything he wouldn't make public knowledge. The person he confides in -- the person he treats as a sidekick -- the person he shows affection for at the end of the book -- is James Sheppard's gossipy sister, Caroline. So, is it a foul? No, it's ingenious.

As most Christie fans know, Christie loved the character of Caroline, and eventually elevated her to detective status, creating Miss Marple in a set of short stories in 1928. Marple, an elderly spinster who relies on gossip to find out clues, is a direct literary descendent of Caroline -- and Christie felt so strongly about the original's narrative function that she objected when a playwright tried to turn her into a sexy love interest for Poirot, called Caryl. Christie knew exactly what she was doing.

Gossip is the key to everything in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. My favourite scene fills a chapter, which is entitled 'A Game of Mah Jong'. It's absolutely one of the best and most ingenious scenes in the history of twentieth century crime fiction. The chapter is almost entirely made up of dialogue between four game-players. The Sheppards are, of course, among them. As the play their hands, they discuss the murder and the various suspects. Clues emerge, but so do psychological insights, both through the gossip and through the greed or restraint that characterises each player's contribution to the game. To my mind, this scene is much more elegant, concise, and interesting in execution than any variation of the 'Let's all look at the crime board and conveniently summarise the case' scene that occurs half way through most books and dramas.
'I'm a common, vulgar little thief!'

Poirot processes the gossip with a kind of popularised version of Fre
udian psychoanalysis. He has a surprisingly powerful speech in Chapter 17 about the corrupting power of money, and the socially-constructed nature of 'moral fibre'. In a 1926 context, the book is not quite as old-fashioned as it first appears, even before we get the 'twist'. Awareness that the world imagined -- the familiar, formulaic crime novel territory -- is a false one is spread throughout the book. One of Sheppard's tricks involves using a dictaphone to fake the time of death. So, after he's been killed, Roger Ackroyd is heard through the study door saying 'the calls on my purse have been so frequent of late...'

Of all the characters, it is only Thoroughly Modern Hercule who realises that nobody actually speaks like that; that what people heard was the recorded voice of Ackroyd reciting a letter.  What is so marvellous about this is that the novel doesn't just twist the old conventions and any nostalgia we might associate with the crime fiction genre. It tells us that (a) we can trust no one, however reassuring their presence might be, (b) tradition is artifice and conservatism simply doesn't work in real life, and, devastatingly, (c) we are no judges of the world we live in.

It is great that Roger Ackroyd is acknowledged as a classic and innovative crime novel. It's wonderful that it's taught at schools and universities, that it's used by narratologists discussing concealment and creative writers discussing revelation. However, as a novel, it is so much more than a stock puzzle with a shock solution. It is a stylised, self-referential tour de force.


  1. Terrific essay, Jaime! The comic is from the "New York Times" – it's one of their "graphic reviews."

  2. Thank you, Chris! I’ll edit the post tomorrow.