The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
December 6, 2021 1:36 PM - Subscribe

Roger Ackroyd knew too much. He knew that the woman he loved had poisoned her brutal first husband. He suspected also that someone had been blackmailing her. Then, tragically, came the news that she had taken her own life with a drug overdose. But the evening post brought Roger one last fatal scrap of information. Unfortunately, before he could finish reading the letter, he was stabbed to death. Over ninety years after its initial publication, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd still stumps readers as a methodical, detailed, and suspenseful whodunit. When King’s Abbot resident Roger Ackroyd is found murdered in his study, the famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot is called in to help solve the mystery. As the clues and suspects add up, Christie masterfully weaves several possible scenarios, only to surprise readers at the end. Voted by the British Crime Writers’ Association as the best crime novel ever written — and said to be Christie’s favorite of her novels — it is the third book following detective Hercule Poirot. SPOILERS

Since this book was first published in 1926 and it's almost impossible to discuss meaningfully without revealing the solution, let's have a spoiler-ful conversation about it.
posted by bq (18 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Read this with my book group recently - 3 had never read it, two of those three guessed a few pages before the reveal - the other was taken by surprise.

Is this is original ur-unreliable narrator in the genre? There's a difficulty with murder mysteries in that if you make the mystery too obscure, then the reader feels cheated. If the mystery is too easy to figure out, then it's a) not fun and b) one wonders why the dickins this idiot hasn't figured it out yet. The joy of unreliable narrators is that it threads this needle from a slightly different angle than usual. They still can't break the 'rules' of the genre by lying. (As an aside, that's one reason I enjoyed 'The Girl On The Train' so much - the narrator is totally soused the whole time. There's no wondering why she hasn't figured it out yet. It's because she's drunk off her tits/)

Re-reading it with an eye for discussion, I enjoyed seeing the little hat tips Christie made to her readers along the way. In the very opening scene, Dr. Sheppard tells us that he attended the deathbed of Mr. Ferrars, making him perhaps the only person who could have sure knowledge of Mrs. Ferrars' murder. And then about halfway through the book, when Poirot is preparing to interrogate the butler about blackmail, he tells Dr. Sheppard “I hope it was he.” Poirot already has Sheppard on his radar. I thought it was a nice touch that the revelation of Dr. Sheppard's little workshop and tinkering doesn't come until pretty far along.

The fact that Christie does drop these little clues makes the solution seem more like fair play than an underhanded trick.

I found this was a good book for a listen. The first person narration makes it a good fit.

And finally, I listened to an audio dramatization of 'Death on the Nile' immediately following this, which also ends with the murderer committing suicide. Several other Christie books do as well. It does wrap things up in a nice little bundle, doesn't it, to get a confession and then not have to worry about the endless administrivia of a trial and sentence? And of course this was back when the UK still had capital punishment (by hanging if I recall correctly). It does seem very British.

Christie Anti-Semitism Watch: referral of loan sharks as 'semitic'
posted by bq at 2:07 PM on December 6, 2021 [2 favorites]

I feel so seen right now
posted by roger ackroyd at 2:12 PM on December 6, 2021 [27 favorites]

In Junior High my English teacher had a thing where you could read books for extra marks (1% per 400 pages to a maximum of 10%). She would quiz you a bit when you said you've read a book to make sure you'd actually read it. This was one of the books I read, and she obviously had read it before as well, as we talked about the ending and how surprising it was. Up to that point I don't think I'd read something with an unreliable narrator.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 4:09 PM on December 6, 2021 [1 favorite]

Roger, care to share your feelings about this one?
posted by bq at 6:58 PM on December 6, 2021

I haven't reread TMoRA in the past decade, so I can't comment on specific plot points, but by my count, there are at least four classic novels in which Agatha Christie subverts the rules of mysteries in a satisfying way, and this is one of them. That's a true testament to her skill.
posted by roger ackroyd at 7:31 PM on December 6, 2021 [3 favorites]

I re-read this one fairly recently and it is still so enjoyable!

I especially like how the narration/Christie gently walks us along after the reveal, taking the time to explain, like when Sheppard details how he always carefully told the literal truth. As if she knows that the readers will be winded, and will need time to get their equilibrium back--while they're still pulling themselves together, she's showing them that it's actually as straightforward and fair as it could have been. Under the circumstances. >:)

bq, your comment about murderers doing away with themselves reminded me of a couple of Peter Wimsey novels with the same denouement--in one, the killer who does so is already in jail, but in another there is the traditional 'the detective strongly implies it would be best for all concerned, and leaves the room so the killer can get on with it'. It makes me wonder if anyone has done a study on that trope and how it played out, during the golden age in particular but also afterward.
posted by theatro at 7:33 PM on December 6, 2021 [2 favorites]

I just reread this, and it really is beautifully done. I managed to read it the first time unspoiled (I knew there was *some* authorial shenanigans happening, but not exactly what) and reading it the second time was a lot of fun to see how it worked. I also appreciated that the narrator's much-maligned sister clearly suspects him the whole time - won't quite betray him, but knows exactly what kind of person he is.
posted by restless_nomad at 4:51 AM on December 7, 2021 [2 favorites]

I read this a few years ago, so I don't remember the details well enough to discuss. What I think is interesting is that I guessed the end about halfway through the book simply because none of the proposed suspects was interesting - there was no compelling story, so I knew it had to be something else, and guessed the narrator. But Christie's original readers wouldn't have had a precedent upon which to make that guess. To my knowledge, every time she broke a major rule of mysteries, she was the first to do it, which is so remarkable.
posted by tangosnail at 7:06 AM on December 7, 2021 [3 favorites]

narration/Christie gently walks us along after the reveal

The Detective Explains It All, a true delight in the Golden Age mystery (and most current Fair Play Mystery) novels.
posted by jeather at 7:14 AM on December 7, 2021 [1 favorite]

I first read this in middle school, and was completely unspoiled for the solution to this then almost 70 year old book. I remember being totally delighted by the reveal.

It's been a few years since I last reread it, so my memories are a bit hazy for specific insights on this narrative. But I agree that many of the books in this genre seem to end with murderers (of a certain class, anyway) being given the option of ending things themselves. It seems like part of the genre that the mysteries are tied up as neatly as possible - the escapism requires that the mystery be solved, but also that there is as little blowback as possible on parties involved but not actually guilty. Hence avoiding a trial that would expose messy blackmail details or the like. Similarly, so many of these seem to involve clearing an obstacle for a young couple in love by way of solving the murder (sometimes by clearing a suspect, sometimes by clearing the way for an inheritance, sometimes incidentally).
posted by the primroses were over at 7:58 AM on December 7, 2021 [5 favorites]

Yeah, his sister is my favorite. Miss Caroline knows everything.
posted by PussKillian at 9:45 AM on December 7, 2021

I listened to the audiobook of this a few months ago and was completely bamboozled. Towards the end I was thinking, "what did I miss??? She wouldn't introduce someone from the outside to be the murderer, right???" when he revealed the killer. I could. not. believe. it. I went and found the book and read it myself (just in case the audiobook was lying? Ha!). It was so damned good, and it was why I've been listening to her oeuvre ever since. I'm absolutely loving it.
posted by Gray Duck at 6:58 PM on December 7, 2021 [7 favorites]

there are at least four classic novels in which Agatha Christie subverts the rules of mysteries in a satisfying way, and this is one of them. That's a true testament to her skill.

Well, sort of. The problem with this trick is that readers start expecting it. There are two obvious examples of this from Christie's oeuve (one not long after Ackroyd and one published much later) where I anticipated the outcome from page two. The problem is that Christie became too good a writer to get away with set ups that you would dismiss as lazy writing by anyone else.
posted by SPrintF at 8:01 AM on December 8, 2021 [1 favorite]

True - and also, she established so many conventions of the genre that her innovative works can seem hackneyed and cliché now. This is something that comes up with Golden Age science fiction author as well. If you read Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters, you might think, ‘didnt they do this in Star Trek/ST:TNG/The Outer Limits/Invasion of the Body Snatchers?’ And you’d be right, they did, but he did it first.
posted by bq at 6:37 PM on December 8, 2021 [1 favorite]

Thinking about it, Murder on the Orient Express is a "locked room mystery" that obeys John Dickson Carr's rules (The Adventure of the Three Coffins). The "locked room" is the train. The mystery is a flaw in the killer's design. And there is no "magical" explanation for the victim's death. The solution, then, follows by reason.
posted by SPrintF at 1:05 AM on December 9, 2021

When I was young I wanted to get into classic mysteries (oh to be young and decide to just read ‘all’ of a genre) and chose this as my first foray. It seemed like Agatha Christie’s (best author) most popular novel. I was so betrayed by the ending. I did end up reading the rest of her books that summer nd have reread them many times since. Except this one.

I’ll prob love it now but now I’m saving it for the perfect occasion.

WRT the suicide/killing of murderer trope, I personally hate scenes courtroom when the murder has been solved. I can enjoy when there is uncertainty in what happened (Rumpole) but if I know what happened, court only brings uncertainty back into it. I like my mysteries set in a world of True Justice not human-mediated justice that depends on the skill of the prosecution and defense.

Anyway, I think all that might relate to the trope generally. Like with romances that end with the wedding rather than exploring how the relationship evolves/grows. And again, there is a subgenre that does do that but it’s not what is traditional or necessarily expected. It just wraps up the world nicely.
posted by hydrobatidae at 3:43 PM on December 11, 2021

Prompted by this thread, I've just re-read the book, having first read it (and loved it) 50 years ago when I was my early teens. I knew very broadly that the twist rested on an unreliable narrator, but remembered nothing beyond that.

One thing that struck me this time was Christie's repeated acknowledgement that she was perfectly well aware she dealt in archetypes, deliberately putting just enough flesh on each character's bones to let them serve their role in the story's careful construction but never an ounce more. She does this with with both Ackroyd and Poirot himself, cheerfully acknowledging through Sheppard's comments that they're simply cartoons of an English country squire and a comical foreigner respectively.

There's also a moment where Poirot cautions Sheppard - and, through him, the reader - to remember that not everything someone tells you is necessarily the truth, and another where she mocks part of her own plot as being like something you'd read in a detective novel. Finally, there's Sheppard's last confession, ventriloquizing Christie's own pardonable pride at how clever the writer had been in constructing those two key paragraphs.

For an author always said to serve up the mechanics of plot and nothing else, there were far more playful little nods like these than I'd remembered.
posted by Paul Slade at 7:41 AM on December 25, 2021 [3 favorites]

Anyone who likes / loves / is obsessed with The Murder of Roger Ackroyd should read Who Killed Roger Ackroyd? by Pierre Bayard
posted by chavenet at 2:43 AM on January 6, 2022 [2 favorites]

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