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The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie
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The Murder of Roger Ackroyd first published in 1926, is a very audacious novel. Why? Ah, but that would be telling!

Is it for its complexity of plot? No, although that is a regular feature we are coming to expect of Agatha Christie, and this novel has a goodly share of red herrings. Is it for its blood and gore? Decidedly not! Is it perhaps, that it broke new ground in some way? Yes. You’ve got it!

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is perhaps the most controversial of Agatha Christie’s novels, and some consider it to to be her masterpiece. In 2013, fully 87 years after it was first published, the “British Crime Writers’ Association” voted it as the best crime novel ever. Although it seems to be a conventional orderly and analytical puzzle for the reader, the clever device she employs had such a big impact on the genre, that it has been considered one of the most influential crime novels ever written, with many ensuing imitations.

Moreover, it stars Hercule Poirot, who was destined to become the most popular detective in crime fiction since Sherlock Holmes. And it was the first of Agatha Christie’s novels to be dramatised, as “Alibi”, and to have a successful run in the West End of London, years before “The Mousetrap”.

“The truth, however ugly in itself, is always curious and beautiful to seekers after it.”

The plot has a typical Agatha Christie setting, taking place in a small English village, King’s Abbot, with a community largely made up of its inhabitants. It is the third novel to feature Hercule Poirot, the Belgian investigator we all love, but this time he is not assisted by his friend Captain Hastings, because Captain Hastings is now married, and has settled in the Argentine. Instead we have a treat of a narrator, the local doctor, James Sheppard, who delivers the tale with a dry sense of humour.

When Captain Hastings is involved, much of his humour is deadpan, coming about from his self-assurance, and tolerance of what he sees as Poirot’s flighty methods, whereas the reader can see all along that it is Poirot who is the genius. In fact Captain Hastings can seem a little dense at times. Here, refreshingly, we see that Dr. Sheppard is intelligent and droll, and quite conscious of the humour of his tale:

“He talked a lot about the little grey cells of the brain, and of their functions. His own, he says, are of the first quality.’
‘He would say so,’ I remarked bitterly. ‘Modesty is certainly not his middle name.”


The fact that Dr. Sheppard is regularly irritated, and almost driven to distraction, by his tenacious nosy gossip of a sister, Caroline Sheppard, with her constant random theorising, is most entertaining. And as Hercule Poirot observes, with typical “modesty”:

“Les femmes,” generalized Poirot. “They are marvellous! They invent haphazard—and by miracle they are right. Not that it is that, really. Women observe subconsciously a thousand little details, without knowing that they are doing so. Their subconscious mind adds these little things together—and they call the result intuition. Me, I am very skilled in psychology. I know these things.”

The two, bachelor and spinster, are chalk and cheese. They share a house, tolerating each other. Dr Sheppard is so confident that his is the objective “normal” view, and Caroline equally confident, with her “sharp beady eye”, is the one who stays informed about all the activities in the village:

“The motto of the mongoose family, so Mr Kipling tells us, is: ‘Go and find out.’ If Caroline ever adopts a crest, I should certainly suggest a mongoose rampant. One might omit the first part of the motto. Caroline can do any amount of finding out by sitting placidly at home.”

And the activities seem to be all the conventional ones of a small village in timeless Agatha Christie-land, until a murder occurs. The title tells the reader who it is to be, so the beginning of the novel seems a little surprising. Roger Ackroyd is alive and well (so far!) and hosting an evening dinner at his home, Fernly Park. He is a widower:

“The history of the marriage was short and painful. To put it bluntly, Mrs Ackroyd was a dipsomaniac. She succeeded in drinking herself into her grave four years after her marriage.”

Yet he is currently once more engaged to be married. His guests include his sister-in-law Mrs. Cecil Ackroyd and her daughter Flora; a big-game hunter Major Hector Blunt; and Roger Ackroyd’s own personal secretary Geoffrey Raymond. Dr. James Sheppard, who narrates the story, had also been invited earlier that day. The dinner is marred by the fact that Roger Ackroyd’s fiancée, the wealthy widow Mrs. Ferrars, has unexpectedly committed suicide.

After the meal, Roger Ackroyd is keen to confide in Dr Sheppard, and takes him into his study. (view spoiler)

When he arrives at his own home, Dr. Sheppard receives a call from John Parker, Ackroyd’s butler, claiming that Roger Ackroyd is dead. Dr. Sheppard rushes back to Fernly Park, yet unaccountably, when he arrives Parker denies having such a call. Both men check the study, along with Major Blunt … and here we have the commencement of an intriguing closed room murder mystery. (view spoiler)

Of course this the cue for our favourite private detective to enter the scene. Hercule Poirot has fortuitously retired to the village of King’s Abbot. Nobody knows his earlier status and reputation, except his friend, Roger Ackroyd, who had agreed to keep his identity anonymous. To all appearances, Hercule Poirot is an eccentric, pursuing his chosen retirement project of perfecting vegetable marrows. Dr. Sheppard is dismissive of him, and Caroline, the doctor’s sister, is inquisitive, so Dr. Sheppard teases her by suggesting:

“There’s no doubt at all what the man’s profession has been. He’s a retired hairdresser. Look at that moustache of his.”

Except … is this poking fun, or does the doctor himself believe this? He is perhaps a little too aware of his own cleverness. Consider this exchange:

“My sister continued: ‘What did she die of? Heart failure?’
‘Didn’t the milkman tell you that?’ I inquired sarcastically.
Sarcasm is wasted on Caroline. She takes it seriously and answers accordingly.
‘He didn’t know,’ she explained.”


Agatha Christie’s skilful writing leaves us wondering. Dr Sheppard can certainly seem a pompous fellow on occasion. Our own first encounter with Poirot in the book is an hilarious scene, involving the afore-mentioned vegetable:

“I was busily exterminating dandelion roots when a shout of warning sounded from close by and a heavy body whizzed by my ears, and fell at my feet with a repellant squelch. It was a vegetable marrow!”

Frustrated by the slowness of his new hobby, Poirot had tossed a marrow over the garden wall, where it narrowly missed hitting Dr. Sheppard:

“I demand of you a thousand pardons monsieur. I am without defence. For some months now I cultivate the marrows. This morning I enrage myself with these marrows. I send them to promenade themselves - alas! not only mentally but physically. I seize the biggest. I hurl him over the wall … Monsieur, I am ashamed. I prostrate myself.”

At this point, I recognised that Agatha Christie had almost certainly recently been reading the works of Charles Dickens. Unless there is an old tradition unknown to me, of using vegetable marrows as projectile missiles in suburban English gardens, the episode is lifted almost entirely from one of his novels (whether intentionally or not!). In “Nicholas Nickelby” a neighbour is enamoured with Nicholas’s widowed mother, and shows his feelings in an unusual courtship routine:

“But when he began to throw his cucumbers over our wall — ’
    ‘To throw his cucumbers over our wall!’ repeated Nicholas, in great astonishment.
    ‘Yes, Nicholas, my dear,’ replied Mrs Nickleby in a very serious tone; ‘his cucumbers over our wall. And vegetable marrows likewise.’
    ‘Confound his impudence!’ said Nicholas, firing immediately. ‘What does he mean by that?’
    ‘I don’t think he means it impertinently at all,’ replied Mrs Nickleby.
    ‘What!’ said Nicholas, ‘cucumbers and vegetable marrows flying at the heads of the family as they walk in their own garden, and not meant impertinently! Why, mother — ’…
… there are the presents which come pouring over the wall every day, and very fine they certainly are, very fine; we had one of the cucumbers at dinner yesterday, and think of pickling the rest for next winter. And last evening,’ added Mrs Nickleby, with increased confusion, ‘he called gently over the wall, as I was walking in the garden, and proposed marriage, and an elopement.
… upon my word, I think there’s another large vegetable marrow sticking, at this moment, on the broken glass bottles at the top of the wall!’”


And this is not an isolated instance of Charles Dickens’s overt influence on Agatha Christie in this novel. Consider this statement by Dr Sheppard:

“I am sorry to say I detest Mrs Ackroyd. She is all chains and teeth and bones. A most unpleasant woman. She has small pale flinty eyes, and however gushing her words may be, those eyes of hers always remain coldly speculative.
I went across to her, leaving Flora by the window. She gave me a handful of assorted knuckles and rings to squeeze.”


Instantly with this thumbnail sketch, in my mind’s eye I saw the abominable Jane Murdstone, sister to David’s cold-blooded and heartlessly “firm” new father in “David Copperfield”. She of the “numerous little steel fetters and rivets, with which Miss Murdstone embellished herself when she was dressed…”

When first introduced:

“She brought with her two uncompromising hard black boxes, with her initials on the lids in hard brass nails. When she paid the coachman she took her money out of a hard steel purse, and she kept the purse in a very jail of a bag which hung upon her arm by a heavy chain, and shut up like a bite. I had never, at that time, seen such a metallic lady altogether as Miss Murdstone was.”

It seems a clear influence to me! And the humour in these early Poirot novels is refreshing, as some of the popular later ones have a far less lively tone. Clever convoluted plots they may certainly have, but increasingly the writing tends to be pedestrian, even leaden in places. This one is a treat by comparison.

However, the involvement of Poirot is not automatic, and once more we are delighted to find that his involvement in the case is not welcomed by the police. There are three: the investigating officer, Inspector Davis; an inspector from the nearby larger town of Cranchester, Inspector Raglan; and the Chief constable for the local area around King’s Abbot, Colonel Melrose. It is par for the course, in cosy crime novels, that professionals tend to view the private consulting detectives as bumbling amateurs, and naturally the reader can barely wait until they are made to eat their words. Then, bursting out resentfully, will come something like:

“You seem to know a hell of a lot about everything, you little foreign cock duck.”

to amuse us all.

There are plenty of suspects in this one, each one an enjoyably distinct type:

“in King’s Abbot we permit people to indulge their little idiosyncrasies freely.”

As well as those described already, the “Flora” mentioned in the quotation is Flora Ackroyd, Roger Ackroyd’s niece. She had announced her engagement to Captain Ralph Paton, Roger Ackroyd’s stepson from his late wife’s previous marriage, during the dinner at the beginning of the novel. Flora herself is the daughter of Mrs. Cecil Ackroyd, the widow of Roger’s brother, Cecil. Both mother and daughter are financially dependent on Roger Ackroyd, and have been living at Fernly Park for the past two years. When Ralph was nowhere to be found after the murder, Flora pleaded with Hercule Poirot to help the investigation, and prove him innocent. There is Mr. Hammond, Roger Ackroyd’s lawyer. Plus there are also two other servants, Elizabeth Russell, Roger Ackroyd’s attractive housekeeper, and Ursula Bourne, his parlourmaid, who seems a little haughty. And finally there is one more relation, who is to enter the action later.

However, although I have described the situation and relationships as they are conveyed to us at the start of the novel, we can be sure that nothing, absolutely nothing, is as it seems:

“always bear in mind that the person who speaks may be lying”.

Agatha Christie is widely acknowledged as the “Queen of Crime”, with eighty crime novels and short story collections, nineteen plays, and six novels written as Mary Westmacott to her credit. In my opinion, some are far better than others. If you haven’t read this one, then I recommend you give it a try:

“Now there has been a rearrangement of the kaleidoscope.”

And when you have finished reading this novel, please don’t be too surprised if the “rearrangement” makes you want to reassess everything; to start at the beginning, and read it all over again. I suspect that only at that point, may you agree with Hercule Poirot’s assertion:

“Everything is simple, if you arrange the facts methodically.”

Did she cheat? Only you, the reader, can decide that.

****

Here are some of the accolades:

“The most brilliant of deceptions.” – Julian Symons
“Very few [detective stories] provide greater analytical stimulation.” – The New York Times
“No one is more adroit than Miss Christie in the manipulation of false clues and irrelevances and red herrings; and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd makes breathless reading from first to the unexpected last” – The Observer
“The truly startling denouement … will restore a thrill to the most jaded reader of detective stories” – New York Herald Tribune
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Reading Progress

April 17, 2014 – Shelved
March 6, 2019 – Started Reading
March 6, 2019 – 0.0% "3%"
March 6, 2019 –
3.0%
March 14, 2019 –
20.0%
March 16, 2019 –
34.0%
March 21, 2019 –
44.0%
March 24, 2019 –
50.0%
March 29, 2019 –
69.0%
April 5, 2019 –
83.0%
April 17, 2019 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-18 of 18 (18 new)

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message 1: by Leila (new)

Leila A brilliant and absorbing review Jean as always. I have read this book a long time ago. You have got so much from it and I'm glad you enjoyed it so much.


Bionic Jean Leila wrote: "A brilliant and absorbing review Jean as always. I have read this book a long time ago. You have got so much from it and I'm glad you enjoyed it so much."

Thank you Leila! I partly remembered a dramatisation, but it didn't spoil the read one bit :)


Sara Lovely review. I love the way you have tied Christie's writing back to the influences of Dickens. I would imagine that most good writers have been influenced by the great ones, like Dickens, and it is always a treat when the specificity of that can be seen.

I enjoyed your review more than the actual book, Jean. I can't help wondering if I might have enjoyed the book more had I read your review first.


Bionic Jean Sara wrote: "Lovely review. I love the way you have tied Christie's writing back to the influences of Dickens. I would imagine that most good writers have been influenced by the great ones, like Dickens, and it..."

It just hit me Sara - and was such a surprise! Thanks for reading my review, and the lovely comment :)


Rita Wonderful review, Jean! I'm afraid I have not made much progress on whatever number reread I'm on of this book but I will get back to it eventually. I had just reached the part about Mr Porrot being a retired hairdresser and growing vegetable marrows when life intervened as it often does.


Phrynne Lovely review Jean. I gave this book five stars!


message 7: by Lesle (new)

Lesle Appreciate the review, now its added to my wish list! Thanks :)


message 8: by Bionic Jean (last edited Apr 18, 2019 03:25AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Bionic Jean Rita wrote: "Wonderful review, Jean! I'm afraid I have not made much progress on whatever number reread I'm on of this book but I will get back to it eventually. I had just reached the part about Mr Porrot bein..."

LOL "Porrot" is so funny! There's never any rush with reading - just enjoy it and take it as it comes ... that's what I do anyway. Hope you're OK Rita :)


Bionic Jean Marita wrote: "Jean, I'm glad that you are back on my radar. Thanks for your fine review."

Thank you Marita! Everything is in fits and starts at the moment, but I still read and write reviews as I'm able :) I'm looking forward to having more energy later in the year, after chemotherapy finishes.


Bionic Jean Phrynne wrote: "Lovely review Jean. I gave this book five stars!"

Yes, perhaps it deserves it! It's always a tricky decision. Thanks for your kind comment, and I'm so glad you enjoyed the book :)


Bionic Jean leslie hamod wrote: "Thankyou! A wonderful review! I love Agatha Christie!🌹"

Thanks for reading my review leslie, and your lovely comment :)


Bionic Jean Lesle wrote: "Appreciate the review, now its added to my wish list! Thanks :)"

You're welcome Lesle, and I do hope you enjoy the read :)


message 13: by Leila (new)

Leila A fascinating review Jean and so detailed as always. I do love reading your reviews.


Bionic Jean Leila wrote: "A fascinating review Jean and so detailed as always. I do love reading your reviews."

You're so kind Leila! Thank you :)


Pamela Shropshire Wonderful review, as always! I read the book many years ago, long before I began reading Dickens (except for excerpts from the obligatory David Copperfield in high school) and certainly didn't get the references. Now I want to reread it!


message 16: by Kathrin (new)

Kathrin Great review. I read 'And Then There Were None' a while ago and it stayed the only book I read by Christie although I want to read more books by her. What would be a good place to start in your opinion?


Bionic Jean Pamela wrote: "Wonderful review, as always! I read the book many years ago, long before I began reading Dickens (except for excerpts from the obligatory David Copperfield in high school) and certainly didn't get ..."

Thank you so much, Pamela! I hope you enjoy it as much as I do, if you reread it :)


message 18: by Bionic Jean (last edited Apr 18, 2019 03:19PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Bionic Jean Kathrin wrote: "Great review. I read 'And Then There Were None' a while ago and it stayed the only book I read by Christie although I want to read more books by her. What would be a good place to start in your opi..."

Thanks Katrin :) I know you're in RFP, and we are reading through the Poirot novels in order, so you could join in with us there, and just pick one as you like. I'm finding these early ones have more humour, so that might be a good place to start.


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