Thursday, 14 June 2012

Penguin no. 684: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
by Agatha Christie

The motto of the mongoose family, so Mr Kipling tells us, is: 'Go and find out.' If Caroline ever adopts a crest, I should certainly suggest a mongoose rampant. One might omit the first part of the motto. Caroline can do any amount of finding out by sitting placidly at home. I don't know how she manages it, but there it is. I suspect that the servants and the tradesmen constitute her Intelligence Corps. When she goes out, it is not to gather in information, but to spread it. At that, too, she is amazingly expert.

I wonder if anyone with an interest in Golden Age mysteries manages to come to this novel unaware of the identity of Roger Ackroyd's murderer. It is a detail which is widely discussed and easily stumbled upon without warning, simply because of the significance of the novel, considered by some to be Agatha Christie's finest book. I think its most interesting aspect is not the innovation, the puzzle, the story, or the solution; instead, it is the novel's place in the development of the genre, for its publication in 1926 ignited a controversy as to whether Agatha Christie had conformed with the concept of fair play, and it was referenced in the title of Edmund Wilson's 1945 essay criticising detective fiction, Who cares who killed Roger Ackroyd? In the 1970s Pierre Bayard re-examined the murder and suggested that Poirot's solution was mistaken.

The story begins with the suicide of the widow Mrs Ferrars. For the past year she has been paying to ensure the silence of the one person in the village who knew of the part she had played in bringing about her husband's death, but when the blackmailer becomes too demanding she confesses her guilt to Roger Ackroyd, and takes her own life. Roger Ackroyd is found murdered the following evening, possibly on account of something he knew.

But he had been a wealthy man, and someone exceedingly careful with money, and he had lately been supporting a number of ungrateful and grasping dependants, all of whom stood to gain from his untimely death. The situation looks blackest for his charming but profligate stepson Captain Ralph Paton, who had been seen conversing with Mrs Ferrars on her final day, and who seems now to have disappeared. And the police certainly assume that he is the person responsible for Ackroyd's death. It is perhaps fortunate then that Hercule Poirot has chosen to retire in the village of King's Abbot, hoping to lead a quiet life devoted to the growing of marrows, and that he is willing to temporarily leave his garden in order to discover the truth behind the deaths. Poirot's neighbour Dr James Sheppard narrates the story and takes on the role of his generally perplexed assistant.

Perhaps it is a little odd that life in the village continues so calmly in the wake of these two unexpected deaths, with no one particularly given to grief at the loss of their close friend, or to concern at the alarming prospect of a murderer in their midst. As with any Agatha Christie novel the focus is on uncovering the solution to the mystery, and everything else seems only sketched, with the village written off immediately as being very much like any other village in England. Its most interesting feature seems to be the village grapevine, which facilitates the free passage of information between interested villagers, including Dr Sheppard's unmarried sister Caroline. Yet despite everything being observed and disseminated, this crime is marked by the fact that so much is hidden, with each suspect concealing some vital piece of information.

To come to the book forewarned of a vital component of the solution inevitably alters the experience of reading the story, but I'm inclined to believe it was enhanced. I felt like an observer on the text, able to consider page by page whether the author was playing fair, and I think with a single exception that she was. With the distraction of the unknown murderer removed, the story became instead an intricate network of smaller mysteries, all uncovering the various details being hidden by the suspects, and the plot was revealed as comprehensive and satisfactory. When I think back I'm not sure that all of these mysteries actually need elucidating, except in the interests of thoroughness, and perhaps to make the solution satisfactory to the reader, to quell those stray 'but what about...' thoughts; in his explanation Poirot makes it clear that he is aware there is only one possibility almost from the beginning.

I find I only ever choose a novel by Agatha Christie when I need something lightweight but distracting (and this was exactly that kind of week, with my youngest daughter requiring treatment under general anaesthetic). The story was all that I needed it to be, and I enjoyed it up until the last few pages. I think, though, that the need for a surprising ending always seems to undermine the conclusion of this type of book. I could accept the identity of the murderer, and I could enjoy observing the process by which Poirot reached his conclusion, but I did have some difficulty accepting the reconstruction of the crime. It seemed feasible but unlikely. And yet so far, this is the Agatha Christie novel I have enjoyed most.


  1. Very nice review. I read Agatha Christie so many years ago that I can't remember the details but I do agree that the ending is what ruins many a crime novel, in that the mechanics take over. In particular, the style of novel in which there is a big exposition at the end as to who did it, how & why, is a bit tedious. It was forgiveable in AC's day I suppose as she was something of a pioneer, but modern crime novelists could do better (some do).
    I hope your daughter is recovering well - general anaesthetics are tough at the best of times but very hard for a child to have to cope with.

  2. Thanks Maxine, it's not the easiest book to discuss without giving too much away, but I think the book itself was much better than its ending. And my daughter is fine: I've never seen anyone more delighted with the novelty of the whole experience, although she was a lot less delighted once she woke up.

  3. I didn't know who the murderer was when I started the book, but I did guess correctly (the one and only time that I've done so). It was my favourite until I read The Mystery of the Blue Train recently, which has overtaken it.
    I'm glad that your daughter is doing well, I know that when Billy had surgery he coped with it a lot better than either me or my husband did! Children are remarkably resilient.

    1. Thanks for the recommendation, Joanne. The Mystery of the Blue Train is a Penguin and I own it, so I'll make that my next Agatha Christie.

  4. Great review - I think it is a book that repays rereading: one really appreciates the effort that goes into making those all important information lapses!

  5. This was the first Agatha Christie I ever read - in my early teens in the late '60s - and although I can't remember who his murderer is (LOL) I feel I owe a debt of gratitude to "Roger Ackroyd".

  6. A great review of a novel that is at once deeply formulaic and genuinely innovative.

    I can also recommend 'The Mystery of the Blue Train'.

    You might be interested in my own sort-of review of the Poirot book that came after 'Roger Ackroyd', 'The Big Four', which can be read here:

  7. I came to this one in my teens knowing nothing about it and I didn't warm to it, but when I realised the significance I did appreciate it a little more. But I am still inclined to think that her best books were still to come, most of them in the 1930s.

    I reread The Murder at the Vicarage a few weeks ago and I wondered if the role the vicar played in that was a (false) clue that this book might go the same way as this

  8. Arnold Bennett wrote in a review of crime fiction that Agatha Christie's books were ones he could start but not finish. He much preferred Edgar Wallace's thrillers, in particular The Gunner. Unfortunately, it was never published by Penguin but I think I shall hunt it down. I thoroughly enjoyed your review.



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