Friday, January 10, 2020

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (possible spoilers)

Oh! money! All the troubles in the world can be put down to money--or the lack of it.
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926) by Agatha Christie

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd actually begins with the death of Mrs. Ferrars, widowed within the last year. The rumor mill of King's Abbot had been grinding away--envisioning wedding bells between Mrs. Ferrars and the wealthy Roger Ackroyd. But Mrs. Ferrars is found dead from an overdose of veranol in what is first supposed to be an accident, but the village grapevine suspects is suicide. Dr. James Sheppard, our narrator, is confronted by his  sister when he returns home after the discovery.

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. (p. 3)
When Sheppard insists on accident, Caroline rejects the idea. She's convinced the woman killed herself out of remorse. Because obviously she killed the husband who was cruel to her. 

Then that evening Roger Ackroyd is found dead--stabbed to death by his own decorative dagger and rumors are flying about blackmail. But then there is also the fact that Ackroyd's nephew, known to have disputes with his uncle over money, has disappeared from the scene. And what about the maid who gave notice that very afternoon? And the mysterious stranger who was looking for Ackroyd's home at about the time of the murder? And who made the phone call to the doctor that brought him to Ackroyd's house and resulted in the discovery of the crime?

Fortunately for King's Abbot, a funny little foreigner who "looks like a hairdresser" has come to the countryside for his retirement. A foreigner by the name of Hercule Poirot. He's sure to get to the bottom of the mystery, for as he tells Ackroyd's niece (who has asked him to investigate): What one does not tell to Papa Poirot he finds out.

PSI: It is quite likely that there are spoilers ahead. Some are deliberate--because there are aspects of the solution that I want to discuss. Some will be unintentional--but I've read several Christie novels many times and may blurt out things that I think everyone knows which would spoil the story for first-time readers. Proceed with caution--especially after the first two paragraphs. 

This story is one those that I consider Christie's "Big" stories. It has a solution that once read is never forgotten. No matter how sieve-like the memory may be (I speak of myself). There are a number of Christie's books that--if it has been long enough since the last time I read it--I may find myself fooled once again by this Mistress of Mysteries. Or at least very unsure whether I'm right about who did it. Not this one. What is so delightful about Christie's books is that it doesn't matter if I know that the most likely suspect did do it or the narrator did it or everybody did it or apparently nobody did it--I get completely wrapped up in her Golden Age world and the intricacies of her plotting and red herrings and settle down for a good evening's enjoyment. And even though I know the solution to this one, there is still that moment of frisson when Poirot turns to the murderer and says "Thou art the man." As if somehow it might have turned out differently this time....

Last year I started reading Christie's novels in publication order. That's something I've never done before. When I discovered Christie--through a Scholastic Book Fair that thought Murder on the Orient Express and At Bertram's Hotel were the best ways to introduce elementary kids to Poirot and Miss Marple (Express--yes; Hotel--not so much)--I started with two books that were well into her work. After that, I read whatever I could find of her in whatever order I found it. There are a few of her novels (Express and And Then There Were None to name two) that I have read repeatedly. Most I've read only once before. I have read Ackroyd only twice before--that very first time in elementary school and then again before my blogging days.

It was interesting to read it this time with a particular eye to phrasing. I was on the look-out for how she worded her story in such a way that it could be said that she had played fair with the reader. My current Vintage Mystery Challenge is playing with the "Rules" for writers of detective fiction that were devised in the Golden Age era by Father Ronald Knox and S. S. Van Dine. One of the rules is that the criminal must not be someone whose thought the reader has shared--generally speaking this would mean the narrator. And, yet, here we are in this book. Strictly speaking, however, we never share Dr. Sheppard's thoughts. At the end of the book, it is revealed that this has been his written record of the case--a document that he planned to be a record of one of Poirot's failures. His hubris is such that he thinks he will outsmart the detective. Unfortunately for Sheppard, the detective's little grey cells are too much for him.

Christie through Sheppard explains her trick: 

I am rather pleased with myself as a writer. What could be neater, for instance, then the following: 'The letters were brought in at twenty minutes to nine. It was just on ten minutes to nine when I left him, the letter still unread.'


'I hesitated with my hand on the door handle, looking back and wondering if there was anything I had left undone.' All true, you see. 

Another rule which appears to have been broken is that the detective's "Watson" must not conceal any thoughts from the reader. But again, Sheppard is not truly Poirot's Watson--that honor belongs to Captain Hastings who is not here. In fact, Poirot himself reminds us who his true sidekick is repeatedly throughout the story--telling us often that his friend in the Argentine would often say "this" or would often do "that." 

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel when I first read it--giving it a full five-star rating back in the days when I simply kept a list of books read and their rating. I am happy to say that nothing has changed even though my motives in reading the book did. ★★★★

[First line] Mrs. Ferrars died on the night of the 16th-17th September--a Thursday. 
It is odd how, when you have a secret belief of your own which you do not wish to acknowledge, the voicing of it by someone else will rouse you to a fury of denial. (p. 3)

I don't think you're very logical. Surely if a woman  committed a crime like murder, she'd be cold-blooded enough to enjoy the fruits of it without any weak-minded sentimentality such as repentance. (Dr. James Sheppard; p. 4)

...Mrs. Cecil Ackroyd, widow of Ackroyd's ne'er-do-well younger brother, has taken up her residence at Fernly Park, and has succeeded, according to Caroline, in putting Miss Russell in her proper place.
~I don't know exactly what a "proper place" constitutes--it sounds chilly and unpleasant..... (p. 7)

DS: Caroline do you never reflect that you might do a lot of harm with this habit of yours of repeating everything indiscriminately?
CS: Nonsense. People ought to know things. I consider it my duty to tell them.
(Dr. Sheppard, Caroline Sheppard; p. 19)

I do not see why I should be supposed to be totally devoid of intelligence. After all, I read detective stories, and the newspapers, and am a man of quite average ability. If there had been toe marks [instead of fingerprints] on the dagger handle, now, that would have been quite a different thing. I would then have registered any amount of surprise and awe. (pp. 50-1)

Everything is simple if you arrange the facts methodically. (Poirot, p. 66)

Women observe subconsciously a thousand little details, without knowing they are doing so. Their subconscious mind adds these little things together--and they call the result intuition. (Poirot, p. 113)

On looking back, the thing that strikes me most is the piecemeal character of this period. Every one had a hand in the elucidation of the mystery. It was rather like a jigsaw puzzle to which every one contributed his own little piece of knowledge or discover. But their task ended there. To Poirot alone belongs the renown of fitting those pieces into their correct place. (p. 119)

Mrs. Ackroyd is totally incapable of pursuing a straightforward course. She always approaches her object by torturous means. (p. 119)

DS: Curiosity is not my besetting sin. I can exist comfortably without knowing exactly what my neighbors are doing and thinking.
CS: Stuff and nonsense, James. You want to know as much as I do. You're not so honest, that's all. You always have to pretend.
(Dr. Sheppard, Caroline Sheppard; p. 128)

One can press a man as far as one likes--but with a woman one must not press too far. For a woman has at heart a great desire to speak the truth. How many husbands who have deceived their wives go comfortably to their graves, carrying their secret with them! How many wives who have deceived their husbands wreck their lives by throwing the fact in those same husbands' teeth! They have been pressed too far. In a reckless moment (which they will afterwards regret, bien entendu) they fling safety to the winds and turn at bay proclaiming the truth with great momentary satisfaction to themselves. (Poirot; p. 154)

Mademoiselle Flora, you love her with all your heart. From the first moment you saw her, is it not so? Oh! let us now mind saying these things--why must one in England think it necessary to mention love as if it were some disgraceful secret? (Poirot; p. 167)

Never worry about what you say to a man. They're so conceited that they never believe you mean it if it's unflattering. (Caroline; p. 189)

[Last line] But I wish Hercule Poirot had never retired from work and come here to grow vegetable marrows.

Vintage Mystery Extravaganza: Gold - Rule #16  A death that looks like suicide [I opted not to go for the obvious-to-dedicated-Golden-Age-Readers rule.]
Calendar of Crime: June (Pub month)
PopSugar: 7 deadly sins: Greed
Pick Your Poison: Singles (single figure on cover)
Mystery Bingo:
Weapons: Medicine or drugs
Clues & Cliches: Fingerprints
Red Herrings: Listening at keyhole; Secret marriage


LeslieG said...

This is my favorite of all Christie's books! I so agree with you that this book is one which can be enjoyed even knowing the solution.

Interesting thoughts about how the book fares in regards to the "Rules". Personally, although I never looked into it, I always secretly thought that the rule about the culprit not being someone who was narrating was due to their chagrin about this specific book!

Leslie (from Goodreads)

Robin M said...

I thoroughly enjoyed this one the first time I read it. Now I want to go back and read again thanks to your review. :)

Rick Mills said...

I'm going to have to pull this one off the shelf for a re-read. For some reason, hearing "Roger Ackroyd" always makes me want to go put a record on the phonograph!

Carol said...

This is one of my favorites! And I do agree that it's enjoyable even when you know the solution.