John Culuris's Reviews > Murder of Roger Ackroyd, The

Murder of Roger Ackroyd, The by Agatha Christie
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“It’s not for me.” If the phase sounds familiar, in some form or another it’s the most common refrain when a practitioner of an artform, usually a writer, wants to avoid insulting the work of a fellow professional. If you were not the intended audience, or the work was produced in a style to which you do not personally respond, you cannot be blamed for not connecting with it. So while you’re secretly thinking How is this person a best seller? or Why are people buying this stuff?, you have a plausible reason for not publicly endorsing something you actively dislike. And so:

It’s not for me.

But sometimes it’s the truth. And in the case of Dame Agatha Christie and me, I assumed it was the truth. I thought I had reason. I’d read one of her novels decades ago and the only thing I remember was the main clue was something completely inconsequential and that on the whole I came away unimpressed. And yet I was surrounded by an abundance of evidence to the contrary. Books sold in the millions, for one. And then there are the adaptations. I’ve seen two Murder on the Orient Expresses, two Witness for the Prosecutions (one vastly inferior), a Death on the Nile, an And Then There Was None, a Murder under the Sun--and I’m sure many others that escape memory. When the interpretations work but the source does not, there is only one logical conclusion:

It’s not for me.

Of course there is an obvious flaw in the above supposition. It is unwise to build a theory on a single experience. It would be true in this case too if it were not for Erle Stanley Gardner. I love the classic TV show but when I later sought out the novels, I found them mostly a convoluted mess. And here is another hugely successful novelist. Apparently an hour of television time necessitated the removal of some plot complications, at least in the episodes adapted from Gardner. It made them clearer and smoother and more enjoyable, a joy I simply did not get from reading the books. So if “It’s not for me” was not a completely sound assumption in regards to Agatha Christie, neither was it completely baseless.

Luckily I’ve been periodically working my way through the classics of the mystery field. Gleamed from various essays and the adaptations I’d seen, I came to The Murder of Roger Ackroyd expecting cardboard characters paraded before a master detective to be asked questions that established the parameters of the mystery, with maybe an occasional nonsensical question, the meaning of which would not be made clear until the solution. I also came to the novel already knowing that solution. It’s a classic for a reason. Besides, previous knowledge hasn’t kept me from rereading my favorites. With Roger Ackroyd, I likened it to a backstage pass to a magic show. I was being allowed to see how a master illusionist worked her magic.

Preconceptions were immediately smashed. What I found was a vivid picture of life in a 1926 English village. Perhaps Christie did produce cardboard characters--I’ll try to avoid making such assumptions again--but thanks to the first person narrative of the town doctor, these were real people to him. Dr. Sheppard knows most of the principals personally, which allows the reader a smooth introduction to each character. We can see him slipping into the Dr. Watson role even before meeting Hercule Poirot, retired about a year from detecting and living in anonymity next door to the doctor. As this is only Poirot’s third full-length mystery, clearly retirement didn’t take.

The ill-fated Roger Ackroyd, as is often the case in classic British mysteries, is the richest man in town and is killed in his mansion, which houses many a family, friend and servant for the reader to suspect. The motive, for once, is not a part of the puzzle. Ackroyd, hoping to marry a local widow now that her year of mourning is complete, is devastated to learn of her suicide. He feels in part responsible. He had not reacted well when she’d confessed to him that she was responsible for the death of her husband. His guilt is mixed with anger because of the other factor contributing to the taking of her own life. She had been the victim of blackmail. The evening following her death Ackroyd receives in the evening post a letter from her in which she names her blackmailer. When his dead body is found, the letter is not.

From there Dame Agatha’s magic reigns in full force. It is a pleasure to watch, so much so that I am tempted to break one of my own rules when it comes to reviews. I do not award extra stars for historical significance or innovation. I’ve seen too many “All Time” lists that automatically name the first book of a series, and I know for a fact there are several better works further down the line. It sets up unrealistic expectations for the reader and runs the risk losing him before he gets to experience the true masterworks. Similarly, there are too many readers who will figure out the identity of Roger Ackroyd’s killer. The techniques pioneered here have simply been re-imagined too many times--or in lesser hands just outright copied. They have become a part of the experienced reader’s subconscious. What completely fooled readers in the early 20th Century will be intuited in the early 21st. But this will only disappoint those expecting to be wowed by Agatha Christie’s formidable reputation. Once you are willing to step back and allow an honest assessment, you’ll realize that “feeling” whodunit does not begin to explain how. The clues are there. And the layers to be removed before reaching the final solution. And there’s a story worth following. As for the mystery? You can read the book as originally intended and enjoy the reveals as they come, or you can treat it as a masterclass in the art of the murder mystery. Either way, as long as you remember that we are coming up on 100 years since this novel was written, and also remember that yesterday’s innovation becomes today’s template, you will leave with a satisfying experience.

ADDITIONAL NOTE: As pointed out by James L. Thane in his review of this book, though this is considered book #4 in the progression by Goodreads, it is actually Poirot’s third novel. A collection of stories preceded this entry.
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Reading Progress

May 16, 2016 – Shelved
June 2, 2018 – Started Reading
June 7, 2018 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-9 of 9 (9 new)

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message 1: by Kathy (new)

Kathy Impressively astute review worthy of further contemplation. Thank you for that reminder -
"we are coming up 100 years" on this one.

message 2: by John (new)

John A thoroughly enjoyable review -- thanks.

I confess I have similar reactions to Christie. The first couple of novels I read by her were poor (Christie fans have since delighted in telling me that I could have hardly made worse choices!), and my attitude toward her has never really healed.

I read a Christie every now and then just as a matter of self-discipline, so to speak, and some of them are good and I really do enjoy them. This novel's one; my favorite by a fairly long chalk has been Endless Night. But with quite a few of the others I come away shaking my head and wondering, "What's supposed to be so special?"

James Thane Nice review, John. I'm about to read this again for one of my book clubs. Looking forward to it.

Carol Good review. Unfortunately not my favorite read. Glad you had a good experience. Happy Reading James and John. Merry Christmas!!!!

Adrienne John, great review. Cheers

message 6: by Nancy (new)

Nancy Love your review John!

KATHLEEN Great review. I've always liked Christie as the purest escapism and a peek at the old way of English life. As she got older, she probably slipped a bit and got a little silly. Thanks for your review.

message 8: by Joe (new) - rated it 5 stars

Joe Santoro I wasn't super thrilled with the previous Christie novel I read (I just don't like Poirot very much as a character) but the universe asked me to read this.. I popped up at my library book sale just after reading your review here... I was pleasantly surprised for sure! Maybe I'll give ol' Hercule another chance or two.

John Culuris As I understand it, Joe, the great ones are great but there are a lot of bad novels in between. I plan to stick to the more famous ones, just to be on the safe side.

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