Agatha Christie is one of the greats when it comes to mysteries and psychological thrillers. Unfortunately, I started with what I consider her all-time best, And Then There Were None. Years later, I read Murder on the Orient Express which was also fantastic and is similarly famous for its climactic reveal. I hadn’t heard much about The Murder of Roger Ackroyd but since it was on the 1001 Books to Read Before You Die list, I figured it would have a similarly iconic twist and I was not disappointed.
One of Christie’s Hercule Poirot novels, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is narrated by Dr. James Sheppard. Soon after the death of a local woman, Mrs. Ferrars, a local gentleman, Mr. Roger Ackroyd who had been romantically involved with Mrs. Ferrars, seeks an audience with Dr. Sheppard. Combined with the personal complications of living with his dependent sister-in-law and niece, the money problems of his stepson, and a household staff with secrets of their own, there are many issues weighing on the man’s mind. Dr. Sheppard offers what counsel he can before leaving for the evening. Several hours later, Dr. Sheppard receives a mysterious call that Mr. Ackroyd had been murdered. Arriving to find Mr. Ackroyd still shut up in his study, the door locked from the inside. Lucky for Dr. Sheppard and the local authorities, the recently retired Hercule Poirot has just moved to the neighborhood.
It’s been a while since I read anything Agatha Christie and I don’t think I truly appreciated the complexities of Christie’s writing. It’s an easy thing to miss with the mystery/thriller genre. So much attention is put into who’s where when and puzzling through it to try and figure it out before the characters do. It’s easy to miss things like the way Christie carefully constructed Hercule Poirot’s speech patterns to demonstrate that English was not his first language. It isn’t presented as through an accent but in the very grammar, the word choices and the corrections of those around him are there as well, lending an even greater level of realism.
It goes beyond simply the character of Hercule Poirot. Each of the characters – or rather, suspects – is developed in equal detail with mannerisms and ways of speaking unique to them. The reason the Christie’s red herrings work so well is this level of detail. There are, to a certain extent, types that the characters fit into: the nosy servant, the self-absorbed and dependent relation, the meek houseguest. But they each go beyond their type. Mrs. Ackroyd, the victim’s sister-in-law, rivals some of Jane Austen’s great self-absorbed characters (she specifically reminds me of Anne Elliot’s sister Mary in Persuasion though with concerns related to finance rather than her health).
With most mysteries, I find the reveal doesn’t live up to the buildup and while I did guess the culprit at one point, I was far from certain while reading through the novel’s climax. I dismissed it largely because it seemed to be almost a cliché for it to be that particular person. Of course, if it feels that way, it is only because it has become cliché. But in truth, this was probably the original time that particular twist was used. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is original and that is why it is still an amazing book after almost a hundred years (which is bringing out my inner nerd, bringing to mind the episode of Doctor Who in which the Doctor and Donna meet Agatha Christie and their comments made about her enduring legacy, comments that are only too true).