In which we become reacquainted with Christie’s most renowned detective, Hercule Poirot, and witness him solve the murder of Roger Ackroyd, as narrated by Dr Sheppard, in the absence of Poirot’s usual narrator, Captain Hastings. And, despite the enormous difficulty in doing so, I’ve written this blog post so that you can still read it without finding out whodunit!
It’s been a fascinating nostalgia trip to re-read The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. It makes me feel a little deprived of one of life’s most exciting surprises, as, just before I read this as a lad, a “friend” told me who the murderer was. I still think that was one of the rottenest things to do to anyone. I read it of course, but there was no sense of mystery for me. Many critics and observers cite this book as Christie’s masterpiece. In 2013, the British Crime Writers’ Association voted it the best crime novel ever. Because I’ve always known whodunit, I find it hard to imagine reading it without knowing. Whenever I read it, I always feel that the identity of the murderer is, in fact, pretty obvious. But that’s the baggage I bring with me from my childhood, and I guess I must be mistaken, or else the book wouldn’t be held in the great esteem that it enjoys.
Christie dedicated the book to “To Punkie, who likes an orthodox detective story, murder, inquest, and suspicion falling on every one in turn!” Punkie was the family nickname for Christie’s big sister Margaret, and in fact it was Margaret who originally inspired Agatha to write The Mysterious Affair at Styles. However, it was her brother-in-law, James Watts, to whom she had dedicated The Secret of Chimneys, who actually gave her the inspiration for The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Coincidentally, Lord Mountbatten, too, had written to Christie in 1924 suggesting a similar storyline and structure, although she was so overworked at the time that she forgot to reply.
So welcome back, Hercule Poirot, we’ve missed you. We last saw you dealing with all those short story cases in Poirot Investigates, two years previously; for a full length novel we had to go back three years for The Murder on the Links. Christie has now bundled Hastings off with his lady love to make a new life for himself in The Argentine, as it used to be called. We now have an image of Poirot, missing his old pal, having moved from his London digs that they shared, now retired to the village of King’s Abbot, where he devotes his life to growing vegetable marrows. Honestly; is there anything more unlikely? Poirot, who thrives on the psychology of people’s brains, whom we last saw avidly reading the gossip and celebrity magazines, whose life has been a celebration and a triumph of the power of the little grey cells – settling down to a village where he spends the day grubbing about in the earth growing vegetables? Christie has always pointed out how fastidious he is; can you imagine Poirot accumulating garden dirt under his fingernails? No. It’s never going to happen. So either it’s a complete lie – which I’m not sure is right as I believe Poirot’s apparent affection for marrows recurs later in Christie’s oeuvre – or it’s a complete miscalculation of his personality. Whatever, as soon as crime rears its ugly head in King’s Abbot, Poirot doesn’t give another moment’s thought to his prize crop.
Of course there is no such place in the United Kingdom as King’s Abbot; but, with Christie based in the south-west, maybe the name was inspired by a mixture of Newton Abbot and Kingsbridge. There’s no Cranchester either, not that it matters. What’s more important to the story is that Poirot needs a replacement for Hastings, and one turns up just perfectly in the shape of Dr Shepperd, who takes on the mantle of being Poirot’s scribe. He even draws us a couple of plans of room layouts to help our understanding, just like Hastings used to do. Poirot takes him under his wing and into his confidence with surprising alacrity, and for most of the book, Shepperd seems to just follow him around, occasionally revealing how impressed he is with the old man’s powers of deduction, but primarily there in order to feed Poirot with local insights and backgrounds about the characters. Like Hastings, Shepperd isn’t a particularly nice man, I don’t think; he has a rather unpleasant view on suicide: “women, in my experience, if they once reach the determination to commit suicide, usually wish to reveal the state of mind that led to the fatal action. They covet the limelight”. He does though, have a rather cynical sense of humour too: “lots of women buy their clothes in Paris, and have not, on that account, necessarily poisoned their husbands”. He doesn’t hold back at describing the worst aspects of a character he doesn’t like; of Ackroyd’s butler Parker, he says “what a fat, smug, oily face the man had, and surely there was something decidedly shifty in his eye”.
He also doesn’t hesitate to pick Poirot up on his poor use of English – not something many people would dare to do, I suggest. “Is there anything else that I can tell you?” inquired Mr Hammond. “I thank you, no,” said Poirot, rising. “All my excuses for having deranged you.” “Not at all, not at all”. “The word derange,” I remarked, when we were outside again, “is applicable to mental disorder only”. “Ah!” cried Poirot, “never will my English be quite perfect. A curious language. I should then have said disarranged, n’est-ce pas?” “Disturbed is the word you had in mind”. “I thank you, my friend. The word exact, you are zealous for it.” I must say I was personally very pleased with that exchange, because Poirot’s misuse of the word had really annoyed my own sense of language. Interestingly, it’s only Caroline who criticises Shepperd in the book: “take James here – weak as water, if I weren’t about to look after him”. Christie was later to observe that the rather meddlesome Caroline was her favourite character in the book, and that elements of her were like a prototype for Miss Marple, who would be hitting the shelves in a few years’ time.
But where the book becomes delightfully surreal and rewarding, is when Shepperd confesses to Poirot that, just like Hastings, although he wouldn’t have known it, he has been writing up the case every night. It’s when you realise that the book you are reading is actually the account that Shepperd is talking about – even to the detail that he has just finished the twentieth chapter, and you look back and realise that yes, that is the part of the story that Shepperd has written up so far, that you feel like you are almost part of a book within the book. You feel that, by reading thus far, you are probably the first person ever to have read those words – because, in real time, it clearly hasn’t been published yet. This gives a strong sense of involvement and immediacy. From then on you really imagine Shepperd at his late-night desk, catching up on the day’s events and getting them down on paper. In a way, the book takes on the extra dimension of being a creative piece of work that examines its own creative process, which I always find very stimulating. Near the end it really turns itself on its head when Shepperd actually starts to critique himself; really most inventive writing that’s a delight to read. And there’s a certain symmetry to his narrative which leaves you with a sense of balanced satisfaction at the end too.
Certainly the book as a whole is a gripping read. There are several moments of exquisite tension and suspense, plenty of detailed plotting for the amateur sleuth reading it to lose themselves in, bags of clues, likely suspects, unlikely suspects, and even a highly suspicious brand new character brought in with only about sixty pages before the end. Shepperd is a great narrator, the domestic staff who at first appear rather nameless and insignificant, unexpectedly grow in importance as the story develops; and Poirot is on fine form as he quickly eclipses the rather dull and underwritten police officers, expounding what may appear at first to be general theories but which are in fact targeted examinations of particular suspects. As usual, he has to run the gauntlet of the police accusing him of senility: “Then a grin overspread [Raglan’s] weaselly countenance and he tapped his forehead gently. “Bit gone here,” he said. “I’ve thought so for some time. Poor old chap, so that’s why he had to give up and come down here. In the family, very likely. He’s got a nephew who’s quite off his crumpet”. Not the most enlightened times when it comes to mental health, were they?
If you’ve read any of my previous Agatha Christie Challenge blogs, gentle reader, you’ll know I like to convert any financial values mentioned to what they would be worth today, just to give you a greater insight into the comparative size of the sums we’re talking about. There’s only one real instance of it in this book – the sum of £20,000. This is the amount of money that Miss Flora Ackroyd says her Uncle Roger has left her in his will. That sum is worth about £850,000 today – no wonder she feels like all her Christmasses have come at once.
As usual there are a few references and idiomatic use of language that might merit a little further investigation. I fully recognised the first one: in the fifth paragraph of the first chapter, the irrepressibly snooping Caroline is given the motto of the mongoose family: “Go and Find Out”. That is a reference to Rudyard Kipling’s Rikki Tikki Tavi, the perpetually curious and nosey companion of young Teddy. One of the most enjoyable short stories I know – if you’ve never met Rikki Tikki Tavi, you really should read his victorious tale.
After that my confidence with Christie’s references gets weaker. “I don’t know what Mrs Cecil Ackroyd thought of the Ferrars affair when it came on the tapis”. On the what? That’s French for carpet, isn’t it? Well yes it is, but apparently “on the tapis” is an obsolete phrase meaning “under consideration”. Yes, I don’t understand why it should mean that either. Flora and Blunt are looking in the water and think they can see a gold brooch. “Perhaps it’s a crown,” suggested Flora. “Like the one Melisande saw in the water.” “Melisande,” said Blunt reflectively – “she’s in an opera isn’t she?” Yes, she is, by Debussy, but originally she was in the play “Pelléas and Mélisande” by Maurice Maeterlinck, first performed in 1893. All sorts of misfortunes befall Melisande, but none of them really bear any resemblance to what happens in the book – so it’s a bit of a classical garden path moment. In what would now feel quite a trendy observation, Poirot is quick to recognise the tools of the drug addict and remarks that the goose quill found in the summer house must lead to the presence of “snow”. That’s cocaine of course, sometimes (I believe) snow refers to particularly fine powdered cocaine – and cocaine was a very aspirational drug back in the 1920s. “I’ve been every kind of fool,” said Blunt abruptly. “Rum conversation we’ve been having. Like one of those Danish plays”. Well, your guess is as good as mine there. He can’t be thinking Ibsen – he’s Norwegian. Strindberg? – he’s Swedish. All the big Danish names at the time wrote novels or poetry. Weird. I don’t suppose he’s thinking of Hamlet?
And now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for The Murder of Roger Ackroyd:
Publication Details: 1926. My copy is a Fontana paperback, published in July 1979, twentieth impression, priced 25p. The cover painting is by Tom Adams, and, on the whole, I think it’s fairly lousy.
How many pages until the first death: 34; unless you count the death of Mrs Ferrars, which gets reported in the very first line of the book. However, it’s not really the death of Mrs Ferrars that we’re investigating, although it is relevant to the murder of Roger Ackroyd. And of course, because of the title, the reader spends the first 34 pages fully aware that Ackroyd is going to croak at some point.
Funny lines out of context:
I don’t know whether Christie had turned a corner with the seriousness of this book – generally speaking there are far fewer little moments of humour here than in most of her other stories. As a result there’s not many funny lines to be enjoyed. The only one that stood out for me was when Charles Kent was infuriated by Poirot and called him a “little foreign cock duck”. What a bitch.
I’m not sure that many of the characters are that well delineated to make them memorable as such. Caroline Shepperd is amusingly nosey, but her brother doesn’t give too much of his personality away in his narrative. Parker the butler is creepy in a slightly eerie way.
Christie the Poison expert:
Although Roger Ackroyd is killed by an antique silver dagger (this is a very posh murder), poisons do still play an active role. Mrs Ferrars was suspected of poisoning her husband, and she herself commits suicide by taking an overdose of veronal. Veronal, of itself, was not a poison – in fact it was the first commercially available barbiturate, sold as a sleeping aid from 1903 until the 1950s. Taking about four times the recommended dose though was enough to kill you.
It is Ackroyd’s housekeeper Miss Russell who corners Shepperd on the subject of poisons. “[She] asked me if it was true that there were certain poisons so rare as to baffle detection. “Ah!” I said, “You’ve been reading detective stories… The essence of a detective story…is to have a rare poison – if possible something from South America, that nobody has ever heard of – something that one obscure tribe of savages use to poison their arrows with. Death is instantaneous and Western science is powerless to detect it. Is that the kind of thing you mean?” “Yes. Is there really such a thing?” I shook my head regretfully. “I’m afraid there isn’t. There’s curare, of course.” I told her a good deal about curare but she seemed to have lost interest once more. She asked me if I had any in my poison cupboard, and when I replied in the negative I fancy I fell in her estimation.”
Class/social issues of the time:
There’s a nice dig at vegetarianism, which had really hit public awareness about ten to fifteen years earlier. Shepperd (or, I suppose, Christie) gives us an amusing description of the time when he invites Poirot to join his sister Caroline and him for lunch but Cook has only prepared two chops. In order to avoid a scene, Caroline pretends to be vegetarian. “She descanted ecstatically on the delights of nut cutlets (which I am quite sure she has never tasted) and ate a Welsh rarebit with gusto and frequent cutting remarks as to the dangers of ‘flesh’ foods”. Later we discover that Poirot wasn’t fooled for one moment.
There’s the usual anti-foreigner invective every so often from Christie, not only with Kent’s rather absurd little insult I mentioned earlier, but also from Mrs Ackroyd, in her annoyance at what she sees as Poirot’s interference. “Why should this little upstart of a foreigner make a fuss? A most ridiculous-looking creature he is too – just like a comic Frenchman in a revue.” I think if I were Poirot I’d be much more insulted than he tends to be.
Classic denouement: Yes and no. Poirot sets up the big meeting with all the suspects present but leaves it with a cliffhanger, so that all the suspects (bar the murderer) leave the room before the truth is revealed. As a result, there’s no big shock in front of a room full of people, as it were, although the final surprise is still extremely exciting and suspenseful.
Happy ending? Not especially. Justice isn’t entirely seen to be done. The murderer escapes trial, although he does not get off scot-free. A number of people will feel very unhappy in the weeks, months and years after the book ends. Additionally, a theft of money appears not to be followed up and the thief doesn’t seem to carry the can at all. It’s all a rather dark story from that perspective.
Did the story ring true? Yes! For me everything fits very believably into place, and although it’s a bold and ambitious crime, Christie fairly presents us with all the clues. In addition, this book seems to rely on chance coincidence much less than some of her others.
Overall satisfaction rating: 10/10. Who am I to disagree with the British Crime Writers’ Association?
Thanks for reading my blog of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment – but don’t tell us whodunit! Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge we move forward to 1927, and another Hercule Poirot mystery, The Big Four. I can’t remember a thing about it, so I’m looking forward to rediscovering it. I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!