The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, pt 2: the novel that made Christie’s career



The surprise ending. Photo by K.B. Owen




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:

Paget's illustration from "The Greek Interpreter" - via (public domain)

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,



8 people like this post.

11 thoughts on “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, pt 2: the novel that made Christie’s career”

  1. StephLoveStephLove

    I do love this one, too. When I taught genre fiction I used to tell my students there was a Christie mystery in which the narrator was the murderer, but not which one…

  2. Margot KinbergMargot Kinberg

    Kathy – What a fabulous post on the ending to this novel and Christie’s willingness to break new ground with it. You are absolutely right in my opinion that she “played fair.” There are pointers all the way through the novel to tell the reader what’s really going on. But you have to look closely, pay attention and so on. And the main point is, Christie changed the game and in my opinion, made it a better one. Thanks for the excellent post!

  3. Julie GloverJulie Glover

    I still recall reading the ending of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and being utterly shocked. I simply hadn’t entertained the possibility of narrator as murderer because, as a reader, I felt that I did know and like him. I thought the surprise ending was brilliant! I have no complaints about being tricked in some way. I wanted a mystery, and I got one.

  4. Natalie HartfordNatalie Hartford

    I am not a mystery reader by nature but this post made me totally want to read this book! Amazing explanation of how everything works. I had no idea and am now in love with the technicality of it all…squeee…
    FAB post Kathy!!!

  5. Ditas P.Ditas P.

    I remember back in college, when we would be waiting in line for Agatha Christie books. My friend who read The Murder of Roger Ackroyd before passing it on to me kept saying: “I think I got it, I’m almost done, and I think I got it..” then suddenly, this loud: “WHAAAAAAAAT?!?!” followed by a furious flipping of pages. When I got my turn at the book, I had virtually the same reaction! ^_^ I scour used-books stores for Agatha Christie novels – I’ve got around 30, but I’ve read more than that. Favorite stories? The short story collections (Mousetrap is GENIUS!), The Seven Dials, The Man in the Brown Suit, Ten Little Indians/And Then There Were None, A Murder is Announced, and Curtain. I guessed, but refused to believe my guess, Curtain, and I still cry whenever I read Poirot’s last letter to Hastings. The critique that she didn’t work on character development crumbles when you realize, as you read more of her books, that they grow after each adventure (not like Nancy Drew, Frank & Joe Hardy, and the Bobbsey Twins who were always the same age in all the books – I love them, by the way. They whetted my appetite for mysteries). I also found her autobiography, but I haven’t read it. I’ll be reading it soon!

  1. Sunday Mash-Up: 07/29-08/04/2012 | Rhonda Hopkins

Comments are closed