Book Review: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

Spoilers ahead!

My copy of the book.

I know it’s not a novel (heh) idea to read books older than I am, for obviously novels have been written for centuries before me, but I still get tickled reading a book nearly a century old, just as I do watching films nearly a century old, and most impressively, I think, is that the novel in question is a genre-specific book and yet, it still holds up nearly a century later. Because, of course, it was written by the master, Agatha Christie. I’m talking about one of her most famous novels and the third (and first for me) of the Hercule Poirot mysteries, 1926’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.

Allow me the indulgence of being basic: Christie is such a blast to read. I’m a neophyte to her world, having only previously read And Then There None last year, but her writing style is so darn clever. When I’m reading her, I get the sense of being enveloped in perpetually falling puzzle pieces — picture the money booth game, but instead of desperately clinging for dollar bills, it’s these mysterious puzzle pieces only detective Poirot sees the fuller picture of — until the picture gets clearer and clearer and then is unveiled by the “artist,” Poirot.

The book is set in a tiny village in England and is told from the perspective of Dr. James Sheppard, the village doctor, who lives with his sister, Caroline. A widow, Mrs. Ferrars dies, presumably by suicide, setting off a chain of events that leads to our titular character, Roger Ackroyd, being murdered. The whodunit begins in earnest when Flora Ackroyd, Roger Ackroyd’s niece, requests Poirot’s help in catching the killer. As it happens, Poirot is living next door to Dr. Sheppard, but he’s in retirement. (As James Prichard’s introduction in my 2021 edition notes, that’s a funny detail given Poirot would go on to “star” in 50 more novels, but Christie couldn’t have known that at the time.) It doesn’t take long to coax the intelligent, if boastful, Belgian out of retirement, though. (There is also a bit at the end of the novel where Christie explains her inspiration for making Poirot a Belgian was the stream of Belgian refugees during WW1 in 1914; I love that.)

Roger Ackroyd was killed in his study in a seemingly locked room and in a seemingly tight window of time, and it must be said, in a house with scores of other individuals present, including the aforementioned niece, his brother’s widow, Cecil Ackroyd, Major Hector Blunt, Roger Ackroyd’s secretary, Geoffrey Raymond, and a number of servants, including John Parker, his butler, Elizabeth Russell, a housekeeper, and Ursula Bourne, the parlourmaid. Then, there is Captain Ralph Paton, Roger Ackroyd’s stepson from a previous marriage, who wasn’t at the house, but is the prime suspect, owing to his seeming disappearance after the murder.

Once Poirot is on the case and does his investigation, he figures out that all of them are holding in a secret. Flora stole Roger Ackroyd’s money, and her relationship to Ralph is more akin to a business arrangement; Blunt loves Flora, and he thinks it unrequited; Russell has an illegitimate kid, Charles Kent, who is a drug addict and hits her up for money; and Ursula, who is secretly married to Ralph. All of those secrets, in one way or another, could have amounted to a motive for murder.

From the beginning, however, I “crossed off” Ralph from my list of likely suspects since he was the obvious red herring one thrown in our face. But who was the killer? My brain always goes to the most unlikely one because it would be the most shocking reveal, so, I suspected … Caroline. That’s right. I suspected her for two reasons: 1.) She wanted to prove her mettle to Poirot by getting one (a murder) past him, as she seemed obsessed with knowing everything in the village and interjecting herself; and 2.) Christie obviously made her a character, with repeated cameos as it were, so I thought it was possible she was planting some subtle seeds.

I’m not exactly sure at what point it was in the novel, but Poirot tells Dr. Sheppard, who has been tagging along with him to solve the murder, and the Inspector on the case, to rethink their premises. From the beginning of the murder being discovered, we were operating under the premise of the murder occurring at quarter to 10 p.m. But what if it hadn’t? That was the point I started shifting my suspicions toward Dr. Sheppard because he was the source for such a time frame from which everything else flowed. And like my suspicion of Caroline, he also was interjecting himself in the case (and I thought, by equal measure, Poirot was necessarily keeping him close). I didn’t know what Dr. Sheppard’s motive could be, however.

And the killer was was Dr. Sheppard! It didn’t come as a total surprise to me, but even then, some of the clues Poirot unraveled and displayed to Dr. Sheppard were exquisitely brilliant and flew right past me, mainly, that Dr. Sheppard was an unreliable narrator and when he told us that he locked the window at Roger Ackroyd’s request when meeting him in the study the night of the murder, that doesn’t mean he did. Instead, he left it open as a means of re-entering the study after killing Roger Ackroyd. Another brilliant bit of premise-rethinking was the purported conversation overhead between Roger Ackroyd and some other, unknown individual in the study the night of the murder. Instead, it was Roger Ackroyd dictating a message with a Dictaphone, or as Poirot further revealed, that’s what Dr. Sheppard wanted us to think (we learned earlier in the book Dr. Sheppard is good with mechanical instruments and he used the Dictaphone like an alarm clock to dictate when it did to throw people off). As for motive, Dr. Sheppard was the on blackmailing Mrs. Ferrars, and he worried Roger Ackroyd would figure it out, and I also think, as the case went along, he wanted to get one (a murder) by on Poirot.

What a wonderfully fun evening tonight was devouring one of Christie’s most famous works and my first introduction to Poirot. While I had a strong inkling of who the killer was before it was fully revealed, it didn’t take away from the pleasure of Poirot assembling all the pieces.

Far be it from me of all people to be the one to validate it, but Christie’s acclaim is richly deserved. To re-frame Poirot’s oft-used line, Christie is good at using her “little grey cells” to deceive and misdirect my little grey cells.

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