While I’ve read quite a number of detective novels and murder mysteries, I realized in the past year that the work of the “Queens of Crime” (Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Margery Allingham, and Ngaio Marsh) was a significant gap in my knowledge, with the exception of Dorothy Sayers–even though I’ve watched almost every available episode of David Suchet’s Poirot productions. (Those adaptations were–and I mean this as warm praise–just about the only way I fell asleep every night when I was on the academic job market.) In the past year, with the excellent Shedunnit podcast to nudge me along, I’ve started to remedy this gap, starting with Allingham’s Sweet Danger, and when I was able to nab several of Christie’s Poirot novels at a bargain price, I did so. I finished The Murder of Roger Ackroyd on my flight home after New Year’s, and what a pleasure it was.
I knew from Caroline Crampton’s Shedunnit that Ackroyd featured an excellent twist ending, but had largely forgotten the identity of the murderer from the adaptation I’d watched a couple years ago. In the absence of Poirot’s longtime friend and chronicler, Captain Hastings, the novel is narrated by Dr. James Sheppard, whose friend Roger Ackroyd is murdered shortly after the suicide of his fiancee, the widow Mrs. Ferrars, who was perhaps being blackmailed about the questionable death of her abusive drunk of a first husband. Poirot has retired to this village, but, of course, retirement suits him ill (he hates gardening, and is mistaken for a former hairdresser thanks to his tidy mustache), and it takes very little enticement from Ackroyd’s niece Flora (who is engaged to Ackroyd’s heir, Ralph Paton) to draw him into the case.
Christie does her usual masterful job of laying out an array of possible suspects, each of whom has either a secret or a motive (or both!) that causes suspicion to fall upon them, and Sheppard’s narration gives the unsuspecting reader reason, at various points, to suspect any and everyone with whom Poirot meets. Of course it can’t possibly be Ralph Paton, who is the first and likeliest suspect due to his inconvenient disappearance on the same night as his stepfather’s murder, but then, who? And the question constantly dangles before the reader of Mrs. Ferrars’s suicide: who was blackmailing her, and would thus murder Roger Ackroyd to keep him from revealing the truth contained in Mrs. Ferrars’s final letter? And what does one do with all the details that are, as Poirot notes, “completely unimportant” and yet “so interesting”? While Poirot means the details of the crime scene with that remark, it’s also true of the inner lives of various characters, including the sullen housemaid Ursula Bourne, the forbidding housekeeper Miss Russell, and the seemingly open and honest Major Blunt (whose name is almost too on-the-nose).
In particular, Christie makes great comedic use of her most irritating characters: Dr. Sheppard’s sister Caroline, a genius for local gossip, works almost in unknowing tandem with Poirot, ferreting out information and irking her brother all the while. And the novel’s twist involves the confession of the one character readers were least likely to suppose might be the narrator, in a feat that enables Christie to push the conventions of the genre as established by Arthur Conan Doyle in surprising directions. (I hesitate to say more for fear of spoiling the surprise for other first-time readers, even if the statute of limitations on spoilers for a nearly century-old novel is probably up.) But the clues are both hinted at and masked all along; as Sheppard notes, “Fortunately words, ingeniously used, will serve to mask the ugliness of naked facts.”
A reader who, like Poirot, believes that “[t]he truth, however ugly in itself, is always curious and beautiful to seekers after it,” will find plenty of curious and beautiful moments in this classic of crime fiction.
(The David Suchet adaptation, while losing the effect of the brilliant narration, is still highly worthwhile, and has a pre-Battlestar Galactica Jamie Bamber cast as Ralph Paton. Also, if you like Golden Age detective fiction, do listen to Shedunnit. Caroline Crampton’s voice is wonderfully soothing, and her exploration of plot tropes, real crimes, and particular writers from the era is always satisfying.)