Roger Ackroyd knew too much. He knew that the woman he loved had poisoned her brutal first husband. He suspected also that someone had been blackmailing her. Then, tragically, came the news that she had taken her own life with an apparent drug overdose.
However the evening post brought Roger one last fatal scrap of information, but before he could finish reading the letter, he was stabbed to death. Luckily one of Roger’s friends and the newest resident to retire to this normally quiet village takes over—none other than Monsieur Hercule Poirot.
A couple of weeks ago I realized that today’s post would see this blog reach another important milestone. This would be the three hundredth book I would have read and written about on this blog – not a bad achievement to reach in about two and a half years.
It seems to me that when I hit a milestone I should find a book to write about that is a little special (particularly as I wasn’t actively blogging a few months back when this site would have hit its second blogiversary).
When I hit 50 I reviewed a very early Italian inverted crime story, The Priest’s Hat. 100 saw me read what is probably the most influential inverted mystery, Malice Aforethought. Unfortunately I messed up with 200 (I miscounted and passed it before I realized it was coming up) so I was determined that this time I would make sure to find another landmark title to write about.
Which brings me to the subject of today’s post, Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.
This novel is frequently (and, in my opinion, deservedly) voted one of the best crime novels of all time and it is certainly one of Christie’s most famous. An unfortunate consequence of that fame is that it is really easy to get spoiled about the solution.
Generally I try to avoid giving away significant spoilers about the solutions to stories and, of course, I will attempt to do so again here. That being said, if by chance you are someone who has never experienced this story I would urge you to skip reading the rest of the review and get hold of a copy as soon as possible. Then obviously come back here and let me know what you think of it.
So to briefly recap the scenario: Roger Ackroyd is a rich industrialist who has been romantically associated with a wealthy widow whose husband died a year earlier. After she unexpectedly dies of an overdose of veronal, presumed to have been suicide, Dr. Sheppard meets with the distressed Ackroyd in his study where he hears that she had confided in Ackroyd that she had murdered her husband and was being blackmailed. During that conversation a letter is delivered to the study and Ackroyd opens and reads it, finding it is a suicide letter. Ackroyd asks him to leave so he can read it alone and Sheppard leaves, returning to his home.
When Sheppard gets back he receives a telephone call claiming that Ackroyd is dead and races back to Fernly Park. He gets there to find that the butler denies having called him at all and upon entering the study they find him dead at his desk having been stabbed with a curved knife from his own collection.
Poirot, now living in the country as Sheppard’s neighbor, agrees to a request from Ackroyd’s niece to end his retirement and find her uncle’s murderer…
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd departs from the setup Christie had established in the previous Poirot adventures by returning the detective to relative obscurity. This recalls the circumstances of his first appearance back in The Mysterious Affair at Styles, reinstating him as an outsider. To illustrate this, Christie has the locals speculate about the new neighbor and has the narrator, Sheppard, suspect that he must have been a hairdresser – an idea that he returns to at several points later in the narrative.
This is a Poirot then who felt that he had given up on detecting but finds a case thrust upon him. It is an intriguing idea but not always a wholly convincing one. It is hard to imagine the relatively vital Poirot of The Murder on the Links deciding on retirement, let alone a life of growing ‘vegetable marrows’ in the English countryside. In my opinion, this story would make a whole lot more sense had Christie placed it between Poirot’s first and second cases – but I suppose there was a desire to keep Poirot’s story moving forward, even if it didn’t feel like a natural evolution for that character.
If we ignore the continuity however it is an interesting starting point and gives Poirot’s story a depth that I think was missing from The Murder on the Links. Poirot’s arc here then will be that he begins determined to maintain his obscurity and then, drawn reluctantly into the case, finds he must prove his abilities and solve it only to find that he cannot return to retirement. This is not only an interesting character journey in respect to this novel, it also serves as an opportunity to relaunch the character (perhaps anticipating that a change of publisher might bring a new audience).
The absence of Hastings reinforces this arc and is an obvious difference between this novel and The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Where Poirot had a champion and enthusiastic colleague in Hastings, Sheppard is reluctant to get involved in the investigation and on several occasions makes comments that suggest he doubts the detective’s abilities.
Though he does provide Poirot with information, particularly with regards the events on the night of the murder, Sheppard is less an assistant than someone who is documenting the case. This allows us to get a sense of the household and community affected by the murder. As the village doctor, he is able to mingle freely with the other characters and record their actions and opinions in a way that Hastings could not while Poirot’s odd lines of questioning seem all the more eccentric without that prior knowledge and friendship.
Compared with Hastings, Sheppard may seem to be somewhat lacking in personality. While I have a tremendous fondness for Captain Hastings, his previous appearances each had moments that grated on me. In The Murder on the Links he acts thoughtlessly, bumbling his way through the investigation. In contrast, Sheppard’s conservative and deliberate personality feels quite refreshing and while he is less lively, his narration does contain a few amusingly caustic remarks about others involved in the case.
In revisiting this novel I was particularly interested to see how the case would hold up given I could remember its solution so clearly. I am happy to report that I came away just as impressed with its construction as the first few times I experienced it.
The first thing that grabs me is the way Christie provides us with an interesting historical crime but almost immediately gives us a clear solution with the murderer’s identity, the motive and means. The idea that one crime begets another (whether directly or indirectly) is one that runs throughout Christie’s work and prompts several of her most interesting novels. I love that she leaves us with the tantalizing idea that Ackroyd had in his possession a letter naming the likely murderer and I think every reader encountering the novel for the first time must share the frustration that Sheppard is asked to leave before the name is read.
While the cast of suspects is not Christie’s most colorful collection of personalities, I think most are well defined and there are several good prospects among them. Each have secrets they are keeping from Poirot and Christie keeps the pace of the revelations steady, at each stage making it increasingly difficult to see who could have done the crime.
One of my favorite characters is not really a suspect at all but Sheppard’s older spinster sister, the gossipy Caroline. A favorite running gag is the doctor’s exasperation that no matter how quickly he returns to his home she seems to already have his news before he gets there. Similarly I enjoy that, while he is ultimately fond of her, he frequently complains about her in his narration.
All of which, I suppose, brings me to the ending.
While The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is generally considered to be a classic work it is not without its detractors. The most common complaint is the idea that the book simply does not play fair with the reader. This was one of the aspects of the book I was most interested to consider in revisiting it.
In my opinion the ending Christie gives us is absolutely fair and appropriately clued. Not only is each aspect of the solution clearly referenced earlier in the text, I think the solution Poirot gives is the only one that makes logical sense in the context of the information we have.
That is not to say that I think the reader should guess it. Rather the solution is clever because Christie understands her readers and predicts how they are likely to respond to and interpret those clues. It is certainly cunning and creative but it is not, in my opinion, cheating.
The only weakness I can point to in the ending is that I don’t love Poirot’s resolution of the matter which doesn’t feel earned to me. That is quickly forgotten however as in every other respect the ending is a triumph.
Overall I was happy to find that The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is one of those novels that actually matched up to my teenage recollections and its enormous reputation. It is not Christie’s most creative scenario, though it is certainly very clever, nor does it have her most colorful characters or setting but it has one of her very best solutions.
The Verdict: Right considered a classic and one of Christie’s greatest achievements. Make sure you read it before the solution is spoiled for you.
Puzzle Doctor @ In Search of the Classic Mystery offers a short but glowing review, defending it as playing completely fair. I clearly agree with his comments about revisiting it.
Moira @ Clothes in Books writes about the book for the Tuesday Night Bloggers, making some excellent points about its social context that I wish I had been smart enough to think of myself.
JJ @ The Invisible Event has not reviewed the book but did share a wonderful essay also as part of the Tuesday Night Bloggers about his experiences with the novel and how it was spoiled for him (he doesn’t spoil the solution but be careful in the comments!).
Amazingly I couldn’t find a post from Christi-anado Brad @ Ah Sweet Mystery focusing on just this book (if it’s there, I apologize – it’s already the early hours of the morning and I may be overlooking it). He does however list it on his Five Books to Read Before They’re Spoiled post!
Finally there are some shorter reviews from Nick @ The Grandest Game, Jose @ A Crime is Afoot, Christian @ Mysteries, Short and Sweet (complete with fantastic cover reproductions of the various Swedish reprints)