After a restful stay at the Holiday Oasis, the alphabet in crime fiction community meme is once again on its crime-ridden journey. Thanks, as always, to Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise for keeping us safe : ). This week’s stop is the letter, “M.” It may come as a shock to readers of Confessions of a Mystery Novelist, but I’ve chosen an Agatha Christie novel for this letter. My choice is The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, published in 1926 in the UK and the US.
The novel opens on a domestic scene in the small, quiet village of King’s Abbot. Dr. James Sheppard, from whose point of view the novel is told, has just returned from the deathbed of Mrs. Ferrars, a local woman who’s died from an overdose of veronal. Sheppard’s sister, Caroline, who keeps house for him, is convinced that Mrs. Ferrars committed suicide, and although Sheppard himself privately agrees, he tries to dissuade his sister from spreading that rumor. As it happens, Mrs. Ferrars may have reason to have committed suicide. A year earlier, her husband, Ashley Ferrars, died of what was ruled complications from drinking, but which some people claimed was poison. Ferrars was an abusive alcoholic, and life with him was unbearable. Caroline claims that Mrs. Ferrars poisoned her husband to get free of him, but could no longer live with the guilt of having committed murder.
Most deeply affected by Mrs. Ferrars’ death is Roger Ackroyd, a very wealthy former manufacturing tycoon. Ackroyd, a widower himself, was in love with Mrs. Ferrars and she with him. In fact, the two had agreed to be married. So when Dr. Sheppard meets Ackroyd later on in the morning, he’s not surprised to see that Ackroyd seems devastated by Mrs. Ferrars’ death. Ackroyd tells Sheppard that it’s worse than anyone imagined, and begs him to come back to Fernly Park, Ackroyd’s home, to discuss the matter. Shepppard isn’t able to, but agrees to go to dinner at Fernly Park that night.
At dinner, we meet the members of Ackroyd’s household. There’s his widowed sister-in-law, Mrs. Cecil Ackroyd, and her daughter, Flora. There’s also Geoffrey Raymond, Ackroyd’s secretary, and Hector Blunt, a famous hunter and family friend of long standing. Finally, there’s Miss Russell, Ackroyd’s housekeeper. Not present at dinner is Ackroyd’s adopted son, Captain Ralph Paton. After dinner, Sheppard and Ackroyd go to Ackroyd’s study where Ackroyd opens his evening mail. Among the letters is a letter from Mrs. Ferrars that contains shocking news. In the letter, Mrs. Ferrars admits to poisoning her husband, and then says she’s been the victim of a blackmailer who knows her secret. The blackmailer has made her life, “hell on earth,” and she’s chosen suicide as her escape. Mrs. Ferrars has entrusted Ackroyd with the task of bringing the blackmailer to justice. Ackroyd is just about to read the name of the blackmailer when he remembers that Sheppard’s in the room. He puts the letter aside, saying he’ll read it later, when he’s alone. Soon afterwards, Sheppard leaves Fernly Park.
Not long after his return home, Sheppard gets a telephone call from the butler at Fernly Park, telling him that Roger Ackroyd has been killed. Sheppard rushes back to Fernly Park, only to find that the butler never made the telephone call. Nevertheless, he insists on checking on Ackroyd. They burst into the study to find Ackroyd dead from a well-placed stab wound. The police are called in and begin their investigation.
The investigation leads straight to Ralph Paton. He’s constantly short of money; in fact, he’s just recently had a quarrel with Ackroyd about money. He was actually at Fernly Park on the night of the murder. What’s more, prints from shoes just like his were found on the windowsill of Ackroyd’s study, showing what looks like his escape. What’s most damning is that Paton has disappeared. In fact, nearly everyone believes that Paton is guilty, except Flora Ackroyd, who’s engaged to be married to Paton. She insists on his innocence and persuades a reluctant Dr. Sheppard to go with her to ask Hercule Poirot, who’s just taken a house next door to the Sheppards’ house, to investigate.
From that point, we see Poirot’s investigation mostly through Sheppard’s eyes. Poirot interviews the witnesses, visits the crime scene, identifies the murderer and, in true Christie fashion, uncovers a number of secrets that everyone’s been keeping. In the end, Christie provides the reader with one of the most famous surprise endings she ever wrote.
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was criticized heavily at the time of its publication, because it was thought that Christie wasn’t “playing fair’ with readers. Since then, though, it’s held up well to the test of time. One reason is that Christie reveals each character’s secret a little at a time, so that the reader stays interested. We can believe that there is more than one motive to kill Ackroyd. As each secret is revealed, too, we learn a little more about what actually happened on the night that Ackroyd died; an apt analogy might be to a picture that slowly comes into focus. Again, this strategy keeps the reader engaged.
The characters aren’t as richly developed as some of Christie’s later characters are. Those rather undeveloped characters are quite possibly deliberate, though, as nearly everyone in the Ackroyd household is lying about something. In fact, those somewhat “flat” characters are a very effective choice for this kind of plot.
The novel contains some of the hallmarks for which Christie later became famous. For instance, there’s a dramatic scene where all of the suspects are gathered and Poirot, the center of attention, lays out his view of the case – and springs more than one surprise. The setting is the “typical” small English village that serves as the backdrop for many other Christie novels as well. In fact, that small village setting is the source of some interesting moments of humor in the novel. Poirot also assists at a romance – another Christie tradition.
I recommend The Murder of Roger Ackroyd highly for Poirot fans. He’s at his eccentric, conceited, insufferable but compassionate, brilliant and surprising best. Even if you’re not a Poirot fan, the novel is absorbing and interesting, the plot moves quickly, and Christie’s timing is effective. And of course, the dénouement is one of the more famous in crime fiction history. I have to admit, though, that I am quite biased. As you can see from the 'photo, I've had to replace my original, battered copy.
If you do choose to read The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, I recommend you read it after you’ve read The Mysterious Affair at Styles and/or The Murder on the Links. The novel makes some references to Captain Hastings (who, by the way, doesn’t appear) that will be more understandable if you do. Even without the back story, though, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd works well as a standalone.
An interesting tidbit about The Murder of Roger Ackroyd:
Christie makes reference to this novel in other novels. For instance, in The ABC Murders, Poirot mentions that once, he retired to grow vegetable marrows and immediately, a murder occurred. That’s a reference to the beginning of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, where we learn that Poirot has chosen to retire to King’s Abbot and grow vegetable marrows. In fact, his first meeting with Dr. Sheppard takes place when, infuriated with his vegetable marrows, Poirot throws one angrily over the wall between his property and Sheppard’s, hitting Sheppard.