SPOILER ALERT: WE’RE REVEALING THE MURDERER…
REALLY…STOP NOW IF YOU DON’T WANT TO KNOW!!
Okay, I warned you…
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926)
This was the novel that established Agatha Christie’s mystery-writing reputation. As mentioned in my earlier post (part 1 – Product of a Golden Age), Christie had written five mystery novels before this one, two of them Hercule Poirot mysteries.
Here’s the teaser blurb, as it appears on the back of my copy of the book:
Village rumor hints that Mrs. Ferrars poisoned her husband, but no one is sure. Then there’s another victim in a chain of death. Unfortunately for the killer, master sleuth Hercule Poirot takes over the investigation.
Sounds run-of-the-mill, doesn’t it? However, it’s anything but ordinary, because Christie makes her first-person narrator – the likable, ethical, trustworthy village doctor, James Sheppard – the murderer.
There was quite a brouhaha about it when the novel came out, mostly from other mystery writers and book reviewers, rather than the readers themselves. There’s a story that has floated around for a while that Christie narrowly missed being kicked out of the Detection Club (an organization of fellow mystery writers in London) and was dramatically saved by the vote of then-club-President Dorothy Sayers. However, since the Detection Club was formed in 1929-30, and the novel was published in 1926, the story seems fanciful at best.
The premise of making the narrator the murderer was independently suggested to Christie by both her brother-in-law and Lord Louis Mountbatten, who wrote her a lengthy letter sketching his idea for another Poirot story.
Gasp! “Dr. Watson” as the killer:
Christie did more than construct a skillful 1st person narrative of a killer who pretends he’s an innocent bystander. She made Dr. Sheppard an active participant in finding the solution, as he is drafted by Poirot to act as his assistant in the case, compounding the deliciousness of the denouement of him as the murderer. Remember the old adage of keeping your friends close and your enemies closer? That should be the novel’s motto.
In a post-Columbo age, this isn’t as much of a surprise to us as it would be to the readers of Agatha Christie’s time, of course, but we can still appreciate the irony and the sense (in retrospect) of Poirot closing the net around the good doctor, until he’s finally trapped.
Yet, at her most distinctive, Agatha Christie had often confronted her readers with impossible murderers. Not necessarily impossible because of their social class, race, gender, psychology, background, etc, although those elements factor into the equation. Rather, her murderers were impossible because the typical detective fiction reader of Christie’s time wouldn’t have considered them suspects at all.
The sole objection (for those who did object) to the solution of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was that it didn’t ”play fair” with the reader. Ironically, in the “highbrow” literature of Christie’s time period, the unreliable narrator was becoming more common. But reading conventions of “Golden Age” mysteries had never allowed for an unreliable narrator, and that’s part of the reason it was such a surprise.
And the narrative did play fair (as Sheppard points out). Neither Christie nor Sheppard lies to the reader, although there is a good deal of misdirection and omission. Here’s a passage from Sheppard’s final revelation:
I am rather pleased with myself as a writer. What could be neater, for instance, than the following:
“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.”
All true, you see. But suppose I had put a row of stars after the first sentence! Would somebody then have wondered what exactly happened in that blank ten minutes?
As you can see from the above excerpt, the type of clue shifts from material clues (what Sherlock Holmes relied upon) to textual clues: omissions, ambiguities, and the contexts of certain statements. This shift in clue type points to the importance of the detective’s skill as a “reader,” and puts us, who are also readers, on equal footing. Many of Christie’s stories work this way.
The charge of not “playing fair,” I think, is really a veiled objection to allowing Christie’s killer to get too close to us. By the time we discover his guilt, he is a familiar, even intimate, figure – a stand-in for Poirot’s usual trusted side-kick, Captain Hastings. Under these circumstances, it’s easy to sympathize with him. And we don’t want to. That’s the beauty of what Christie has done.
Would you like to re-read it? Check it out on Good Reads.
The novel has also been dramatized in the Poirot television series. Click on imDb for more details and links.
Perhaps in the 21st century, we readers are a bit more worldly-wise to unreliable narrators; especially in mystery fiction, we’ve seen a lot of plot tricks (many of them done by Agatha Christie) tossed our way. I would maintain that we are still capable of being surprised, though. Otherwise, mystery novels would be dying out, and that’s certainly not the case. Thank goodness!
Here’s to enjoying many more surprises, from our current mystery writers and those to come!
What’s your favorite mystery story? When has a story truly surprised you? I’d love to hear from you.
Until next time,