The Murder of Roger Ackroyd Essay - Critical Context

Agatha Christie

Critical Context

Agatha Christie published her first mystery novel in 1920: The Mysterious Affair at Styles: A Detective Story. Four more novels plus a collection of Hercule Poirot short stories followed in the next five years. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd came next, in 1926, and was immediately successful, a second impression being required within a few weeks. Its cleverly contrived plot alone would have assured at least a modicum of popularity, but having the Watson-like narrator turn out to be the murderer undoubtedly contributed to its popular appeal (as did the publicity surrounding Christie’s mysterious disappearance later in the year). Others had used variations of the device prior to Christie, but hers is the most fully realized, and it was controversial. One attack was by Willard Huntington Wright (who wrote whodunits as S. S. Van Dine). In 1927, he dismissed her trick as “hardly a legitimate device” and claimed that the denouement “nullified” whatever was good about Poirot’s work in the novel. His objections were echoed by Ronald A. Knox, also a whodunit writer, who in 1929 said that “the criminal must . . . not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to follow” and “the Watson . . . must not conceal any thoughts which pass through his mind.” Coming to Christie’s defense was critic and crime-fiction writer Dorothy L. Sayers; in 1928, she said of Wright’s objection:

  I fancy [his] opinion merely represents a natural resentment at having been ingeniously bamboozled. All the necessary data are given. The reader ought to be able to guess the criminal, if he is sharp enough, and nobody can ask for more than this. It is, after all, the reader’s job to keep his wits about him, and, like the perfect detective, to suspect everybody.

The critical controversy notwithstanding, the appeal of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd has withstood the passage of time, and its reputation as a tour de force is undiminished.