Monday, May 4, 2015

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

I have an embarrassing confession to make. Although I claim to be a fan of golden age detective fiction I have never read The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Yes, I know it’s Agatha Christie’s most celebrated mystery and I really have no excuse. I have now rectified this glaring omission.

This is not only Christie’s most celebrated novel but also her most controversial. There is a major plot twist that is responsible for the controversy but don’t worry, I’m not going to reveal it or even hint at it.

The novel is set in the village of King’s Abbott. The local doctor, Dr James Sheppard (who narrates the story), has just lost a patient. There is a suspicion of suicide. The lady’s husband had died a year earlier, apparently of natural causes although Dr Sheppard admits to some doubts about the case.

The name of the deceased patient, Mrs Ferrars, had been romantically linked with that of King’s Abbott’s wealthiest and most illustrious citizen, Roger Ackroyd. Not long afterwards Roger Ackroyd is found dead, in circumstances that admit of no doubt - this was clearly murder.

Meanwhile Dr Sheppard and his gossipy sister Caroline have made the acquaintance of their new neighbour, an odd little foreign gentleman (possibly a Frenchman) named Mr Porrott. They suspect he may be a retired hairdresser. Of course the reader knows immediately that Mr Porrott is neither French nor a hairdresser, retired or otherwise. He is of course Hercule Poirot, who has retired to the country to grow vegetable marrows. Poirot finds retirement to be intensely dull and is only too willing to be engaged to investigate the murder of Roger Ackroyd.

There’s no shortage of suspects. There’s also no shortage of possible motives. Almost everyone seems to stand to benefit from Ackroyd’s death, either directly or indirectly. He was a very wealthy man. There is also a case of blackmail although it is not clear how exactly this relates to the murder. 

Captain Hastings having retired to the Argentine Poirot is only too willing to recruit Dr Sheppard as his unofficial assistant. The fact that Sheppard’s sister Caroline knows more about the local gossip than anyone alive may also prove to be rather useful.

There is one very strong suspect and the fact that this individual has now decamped tends to strengthen the suspicions against him. There are however a number of factors that are worrying Poirot - why was a particular chair moved for no obvious purpose and why was a particular telephone call made?

In this novel Christie produces a plotting tour-de-force which raises an important question - is she really playing fair with the reader? My answer to that is - yes and no. All the clues are certainly there, and yet there is an element of deception. Which raises a further related question - while a writer of detective stories has to try to throw the reader off the vital scent, to what lengths is it permissible to go in order to do this? Does Christie go too far? I think she does, but that’s purely a personal opinion.

When the novel was published in 1926 most readers were apparently successfully deceived. In my view a reader sufficiently well-read in golden age detective fiction and and on the alert for the full array of possible authorial tricks will probably not be deceived. Without that one piece of deception the solution is blindingly obvious. I consider myself to be very poor at finding the solution to murder mysteries but I had no problems with this one.

Whether Christie’s technique is fair or not it’s certainly a clever trick.

Fortunately this novel has many other things very much in its favour. I’m always surprised when Christie is dismissed as a mere maker of puzzles and a writer of mere entertainment. There is so much brilliant and witty social observation in this novel. Christie was an acute observer of human nature. In Caroline Sheppard she has given us an extraordinary character that any writer would be proud to have created. There’s some delightful dialogue between Dr Sheppard and his sister. Even relatively minor characters have perfectly believable motivations. King’s Abbott and its inhabitants come to life.

Added to this there’s Christie’s characteristic sly humour. Poirot is in good form and delivers some memorable (and rather wise) aphorisms. If this is mere entertainment it’s very superior entertainment. Whatever you think of her sleight-of-hand in this book it’s still thoroughly enjoyable. Highly recommended.

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