Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Agathon #7 – The Murder of Roger Ackroyd [1926]

UntitledTansy and I have taken the challenge to read every book written by Agatha Christie, in order of publication and we’re blogging as we go along. We spoil all the things! We’re joined this time by guest reviewer Cranky Nick. (see Tansy's post here:


To me, this book is the first one that feels like an Agatha Christie to me – or at least, what I think of as an Agatha Christie. It’s also one of a handful of her books where I knew going into it what the gimmick/trick to it was – as with The Orient Express, the solution to the murder is a matter of general pop culture knowledge.


But I was impressed at how fun and interesting the novel was to read, even knowing the trick to it. I think Christie is quite devastatingly clever with this one (a dreadful precedent to have to live up to for her whole career) because the book seems designed to be reread with care, or read with the knowledge of the solution. It was far from a ‘spoiler’ – I knew that the narrator was the murderer, and yet I couldn’t see for a good chunk of the novel how he had managed to do it, and unravelling the howdunnit was great fun.

I also really enjoyed the clever phrasing in which our unreliable narrator was concealing his acts – I could often spot where it was being done, but didn’t always know what was being concealed.
One of the great misdirects of this novel is that Poirot treates Dr Sheppard (our narrator) as if he is a replacement figure for Hastings, who previously narrated his stories – indeed, he often tells us (by telling Sheppard) how similar the two men are, which encourages us to think of Sheppard as being both trustworthy and slightly dim. Though in fact, if you’re reading (as I was) with a suspicious mind, it becomes fairly obvious that the two men aren’t the least bit alike, and Poirot is messing with everyone’s heads.

While I liked Hastings, I have to admit that the Poirot of this novel is my favourite so far – his intelligence and subtlety comes across much better than in the earlier books where he’s really only smarter than Hastings (not hard). Here you see him really enjoying himself and stretching his intellect – and maybe this is the first time he’s had a seriously worthy adversary?

I also enjoyed the cast of characters as a whole – Sheppard’s relationship with his dizzy gossip of a sister Caroline, and all the social details that come across, and the many revelations that are unravelled in the course of the story. I can see why this one is so well known – while I have enjoyed reading her early books and the bizarre fluffy spyish romps, this is the first book where I get the sense that Christie has really got a handle on what she is doing.


I was also quite surprised at how readable Roger Ackroyd was, even when you know the twist. I originally read this when I was very young, but have always avoided a retread, because I assumed the novel would survive a spoiled ending – but that’s certainly not the case.

Even when you know the twist, and you’re looking for a way to trip up the narrator and “solve” the crime early, Roger Ackroyd is still a very engaging novel.

What mostly fascinates me with this book, though, is how much of a risk Christie was prepared to take with Poirot. Published in 1926, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, is only her sixth novel – and only the third including Poirot (there was also a collection of short Poirot stories, Poirot Investigates).

The Mysterious Affair at Styles, and Murder on the Links were both narrated by Captain Alfred Hastings, in very much the tradition of Sherlock Holmes – with the “narrator as stooge” trope to the fore. Hastings often plays a role in the solution of the crimes in earlier works, but is almost never correct. The central character, though described through Hastings, is still Poirot.

Poirot was barely a character in Roger Ackroyd – he was described only partially by the narrator, who (for obvious reasons) didn’t give the full insight into his character and actions that the earlier books, narrated by Captain Hastings, did.

Reading it again, it’s clear how big a shift it was for Christie. To take what was becoming her defining character and relegate him to the sidelines, and to depart so radically from the earlier “narrator as stooge” theme was an extraordinarily bold step.

The flaws are the usual Christie ones – in particular, the side characters are little more than cardboard cutouts etc.

The wikipedia description pretty much sums them up, sadly

“The suspects include Mrs. Cecil Ackroyd, Roger’s neurotic hypochondriac sister-in-law who has accumulated personal debts through extravagant spending; her daughter Flora; Major Blunt, a big-game hunter; Geoffrey Raymond, Ackroyd’s personal secretary; Ralph Paton, Ackroyd’s stepson and another person with heavy debts; Parker, a snooping butler; and Ursula Bourne, a parlourmaid with an uncertain history who resigned her post the afternoon of the murder.

The initial suspect is Ralph, who is engaged to Flora and stands to inherit his stepfather’s fortune. Several critical pieces of evidence seem to point to Ralph. Poirot, who has just moved to the town, begins to investigate at Flora’s behest.”

None of them really move beyond those fairly shallow descriptions. I had some hopes for James Sheppard’s sister, Caroline, the village gossip – but she largely disappears from the narrative by the end.

It’s still a very readable book, though, well worth reading again.


Roger Ackroyd is one of the quintessential Christie novels. The setup is entirely traditional – there’s a big house in the English countryside, an excellent assortment of hangers on and poor relations for suspects, and a lovely, changeable timeline of alibis and non-alibis. And right in the middle of this, Christie swings out perhaps the biggest twists in who-dunnit-storytelling of its time (apparently there were complaint letters to The Times upon publication!). I’ve read Ackroyd several times over the years so rereading it for review now was interesting because, not only did I know who the murderer was, I’m sufficiently familiar with the book to remember when Dr Sheppard (and Christie) is diddling us. I did wonder if this would make the experience anticlimactic, and to be honest I do feel some regret that I can’t have the revelation that I presume I felt on my first reading because, unfortunately, I have no recollection of my first time. However, I still think this is Christie’s strongest work to date, so it was still a pleasure to work through the book and watch what she did.

Probably my biggest surprise for this work is that it’s only Christie’s 3rd Poirot novel, and only her 7th book overall (including one collection of shorts). In my mind Ackroyd sits much later in oeuvre – probably partly because it is one of her classics, but also because Poirot is described as being so old! He’s come to King’s Abbot to retire, Hastings has run off to Argentina (presumably with Cinderella). It feels like things are winding down for Poirot, yet Christie will be writing about him for another 50-odd years.

Regardless of the twist, I found the novel itself is very entertaining and funny. Some of my favorite scenes are when Dr Sheppard is describing the behaviour and opinions of his sister, Caroline. The evening game of mahjong in particular hugely entertaining, while the running joke of Poirot being a retired hairdresser is also very fun. I think Christie does an excellent job with Dr Sheppard. When he’s not murdering people, he has a gently snarky humor and he’s a lot cleverer than Hastings (poor Hastings!) Combine that, with his relatively awful sister, and Dr Sheppard is a very sympathetic character – which is another way Christie has pulled the wool over the reader’s eyes. Having said that, I’ve always been particularly concerned how Caroline took the news that her brother was a murderer (and – perhaps worse – a blackmailer). I’ve always been afraid that she would have been completely undone by the revelation, which is of course ridiculous because she is Not Real!!


The Big Four (1927)
[Hercule Poirot, Arthur Hastings, Chief Inspector Japp]
The Mystery of the Blue Train (1928)
[Hercule Poirot]
The Seven Dials Mystery (1929)
[Eileen “Bundle” Brent, Superintendent Battle]
Partners in Crime (1929)
[apparently the main character is a mystery!]

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