How to begin an introduction like this? "Welcome, dear reader" sounds plummy and proprietorial, particularly given it's not actually my book. "Hi!" sounds a little informal, and almost certainly not an address Agatha Christie would have approved of. If I plunge straight in with my thoughts on the literary significance of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, that feels a little egocentric-you didn't come here for a lecture after all. I think one thing is certain, however; given you are picking up this book (particularly if you've already read it and are buying another copy as a gift or just because you can't resist this delicious new edition), then you have good taste, and we already have something in common. So I'll choose this: "Hello, friend."
If you're settling down with this book for the fourth, fifth, or even tenth time, then there's a good chance we're kindred spirits. But if you're reading this book for the first time, I envy you. I can't remember when I first read The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, although it was probably as a young teen. I began reading Christie around the age of nine or ten, and she was one of the first proper "adult" writers whose work I tackled, the perfect combination of grown-up but not too daunting.
Along with, I suspect, many readers of my generation, I consumed the books alongside the superb TV adaptations of the late eighties and early nineties. Joan Hickson, who played Miss Marple for eight years, was "my" Marple, and David Suchet, who played Hercule Poirot for an astonishing twenty-four years, from 1989 to 2013, was very much "my" Poirot. The adaptations were shown in the prime-time evening slot, usually midweek, and I have cozy, nostalgic memories of being curled up on the sofa alongside my mother, doing my homework to the sound of the well-remembered theme music.
I read the books sometimes in advance of the adaptations, sometimes after, and my image of both detectives was irrevocably shaped by their on-screen portrayals; but one thing is certain: I read The Murder of Roger Ackroyd cold, without ever having seen a dramatization.
I am so glad that I did, because it's a novel that really repays going into it blind, without spoilers, and more than that, it's a novel that no TV version could ever hope to equal-too much of the reveal lies in the unique way the book is written; what we see, whose thoughts we share, the exact perspective on events that Christie allows us. A good adaptation (and the 2000 David Suchet version is good) captures some of that, but not all, and I don't think it could possibly hope to convey the particular shock of the reveal at the end of the novel.
It is at this point that I'm going to stop-and ask anyone who hasn't read the book to pause here, read the novel, and return when you've done so. If you want, you can even fold the page over to keep your place; I'm not going to judge, assuming you've bought the book. But from this point onwards, I'm going to be discussing spoilers-and this is a novel you can only read once in the way Christie wanted you to.
That's not to say it isn't a novel that bears rereading. It absolutely is, and I must have read it half a dozen times myself, probably more, finding something new and clever each time. But I would not deny anyone that first, blank-slate experience for the world.
Okay. It's just us now-the people who've read the book before, yes?
Good. Because I want to talk about what makes The Murder of Roger Ackroyd so shocking the first time you read it-so groundbreaking, even.
The issue, of course, is the way The Murder of Roger Ackroyd breaks the rules.
Ah. Those rules. We all know them-all crime writers at any rate, and probably a good chunk of readers, too. Even someone who's never encountered the originals could probably draw up a fairly good version of them, just based on the unwritten codes of classic crime. They are as follows (quoted verbatim from The Best Detective Stories of 1928, Knox and Harrington, eds. Published by Horace Liveright):
The criminal must be mentioned in the early part of the story but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to know.
All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.
Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.
No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.
No Chinaman must figure in the story. ["No racist stereotypes," in other words.]
No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.
The detective himself must not commit the crime.
The detective is bound to declare any clues which he may discover.
The "sidekick" of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal from the reader any thoughts which pass through his mind: his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.
Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.
They are, of course, the famous Knox Commandments or Rules of Fair Play, drawn up by one of the first members of the Detection Club, Ronald Knox, and adopted by its members as part of their creed.
Membership of the Detection Club reads like a Who's Who of the Golden Age of crime fiction. G. K. Chesterton was the very first president. Dorothy L. Sayers wrote the oath members swore when they joined. The first American member was John Dickson Carr. Writers were selected to join by invitation and underwent a fanciful initiation ritual, which included promising that "your detectives shall well and truly detect the crimes presented to them using those wits which it may please you to bestow upon them and not placing reliance on nor making use of Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence, or Act of God."
Agatha Christie presumably signed on to these rules-she was, after all, one of the founding members of the club, and served as president from 1957 to 1976, the longest standing president thus far. And yet it's striking how many times she broke them over the course of her career, perhaps never more deliberately than in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.
The rules were of course written tongue in cheek-they were never meant to be binding commandments. But there are times, particularly with this book, when Christie seems to be rebelling at the very idea, starting with the first rule, which was regarded at the time as the most essential to the notion of fair play with the reader: "The criminal must be mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to know."
That, of course, is the big reveal of Roger Ackroyd: that Dr. Sheppard, the slightly pompous, mild-mannered, Watson-ish narrator-presented to us as a kind of successor to Poirot's "dear Hastings"-is in fact a cold- blooded killer of extraordinary arrogance.
It's not the only rule Christie breaks, though. Numbers two and three-ghosts and secret passages-she wisely leaves well alone. But number four, "No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end," is toyed with in a way that seems almost mischievous. First Sheppard's sister, Caroline, introduces the idea of poison, asserting (correctly as it turns out) that the woman Roger Ackroyd hoped to marry, the widowed Mrs. Ferrars, poisoned her first husband. Caroline is right, as we find out fairly quickly-but not before Roger Ackroyd's housekeeper, the austere Miss Russell, has introduced a diversion, faking a painful knee in order to question Dr. Sheppard about "certain poisons so rare as to baffle detection."
"The essence of a detective story," Dr. Sheppard tells her with some condescension, "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. That is the kind of thing you mean?"
Miss Russell says it is and asks whether there is such a thing. Dr. Sheppard is, of course, obliged to let her down. "I'm afraid there isn't."
This scrupulous, almost ostentatious adherence to rule number four is not so much a red herring, however, as a red flag. It simultaneously signals and also distracts from the other half of the rule-the "appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end."
Such an appliance is, of course, at the heart of the mystery: a Dictaphone, rigged with a timer to turn on at 9:30 pm and off shortly before Dr. Sheppard's arrival. Not quite a "long scientific explanation," perhaps, but complicated enough that Christie must play fair by making Dr. Sheppard's mechanical know-how clear.
Perhaps the most interesting rule is number nine, not just from the point of view of plot, but in relation to the character of Dr. Sheppard himself. It reads, "The 'sidekick' of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal from the reader any thoughts which pass through his mind: his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader."
This rule is interesting on two accounts. The first is that it's broken not just once, but many, many times over. Dr. Sheppard conceals his guilt, his avarice, his growing apprehension as Poirot edges closer and closer to the truth. He conceals his plan to kill Ackroyd, he conceals his actions in tampering with the crime scene, he conceals every detail of his despicable subterfuge with Ralph Paton aimed at throwing deliberate guilt on the young man.
Dr. Sheppard fesses up to all this at the end of the book, with the quibble that he hasn't exactly lied to the reader, but has rather hedged around the truth. His excuse-the famous line, "I did what little had to be done"-certainly wouldn't stand up in court, as Christie tacitly points out with her chapter headings for the denouement. Taken from the judicial oath they are Chapter 25, The Whole Truth, and Chapter 26, And Nothing but the Truth. Sheppard may have told us the truth, but it certainly wasn't the whole truth. His lie was one of omission, and as a lifelong churchgoer, Christie would have been quite well aware of the Biblical teachings on sins of omission: they're still sins!
But Dr. Sheppard might arguably have felt more strongly about the second half of the rule: "his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader."
For Sheppard is emphatically not, at least in his own mind, slightly less intelligent than the average reader. His arrogance on that point seeps out again and again in the narrative. He is patronizing to his patients, to his friends, and most particularly to his family, in the shape of his sister (who is right again and again, even on matters about which Sheppard has to confess ignorance, but who is dismissed by her brother as a nosy, gossipy old maid). He even-quelle horreur!-believes himself intellectually superior to Hercule Poirot himself. Right up until the very end, Dr. Sheppard thinks that he is fooling Poirot. Even in his epilogue he writes, "A strange end to my manuscript. I meant it to be published some day as the history of one of Poirot's failures! Odd, how things pan out."
To the reader, of course, it isn't odd at all. This is Poirot we're talking about. There's nothing the least odd about his "little gray cells" triumphing. But Sheppard's arrogance reaches out even beyond the pages of the book to encompass us, the readers, as is cleverly made clear in that initial exchange with Miss Russell in the doctor's surgery. When she asks him about poisons, he puts it down to her overactive imagination and consumption of trashy literature. "It pleases me very much," he writes, "to think of her stepping out of the housekeeper's room to rebuke a delinquent housemaid, and then returning to a comfortable perusal of The Mystery of the Seventh Death, or something of the kind."
In other words, crime novels are trashy and formulaic, and fit only for women and bored servants, not educated, professional men like Dr. Sheppard. It's a criticism Christie must have been used to-the title cited by Sheppard is invented but could have been one she used herself. It's also a criticism that she probably resented, and it's hard not to imagine her thumbing her nose at the condescension, both in creating a novel that subverts Sheppard's view of her genre, and in turning one of her detractors into a ruthless and patronizing killer.
Narcissistic sociopath was not a diagnosis Christie would have been very interested in; in later books, written after psychiatry had become more mainstream, she's briskly dismissive of the idea that a "kink in the brain" could be an excuse for crime. But it's one that fits Dr. Sheppard to a T-and that perhaps is the most shocking part of the reveal; not only has she broken the first rule of the Detection Club, but the man whose voice we have cozily listened to for close on 358 pages is in fact a cold-blooded sociopath.
In line with her own personal code, Christie gives us ample clues. There's Sheppard's misogyny for a start-he is relentlessly unsympathetic to women, particularly the older women in the story. He shows absolutely no grief over the sudden death of his friend and neighbor Mrs. Ferrars; on the contrary, he notes briskly that there "was nothing to be done" and then goes home and eats a large breakfast of bacon and eggs. Later he admits that he "detest[s]" Ackroyd's widowed sister-in-law, describing her as "all chains and teeth and bones. A most unpleasant woman." However, the person who comes in for the most frequent barbed asides is his sister, Caroline, who he dismisses in the very first scene as a voracious gossip with a "twitching" nose, in spite of her considerable empathy and intelligence.
It is perhaps fitting, therefore, that it is Caroline who first voices the solution to the mystery-that none of the inhabitants of Fernly Park killed Roger Ackroyd-as well as the story behind it, namely that Mrs. Ferrars did indeed poison her first husband, and was driven to suicide because of it. Most interestingly of all, she is the only person who calls out her brother and diagnoses him, not as a sociopath, but as something Christie probably regarded as almost as damning: weak. "You are weak, James . . . With a bad bringing up, Heaven knows what mischief you might have got into by now."
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