The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

by Agatha Christie

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Set in the bucolic English village of King’s Abbot, the novel is narrated by Dr. James Sheppard, physician to the area’s leading residents, one of whom is Roger Ackroyd, a wealthy industrialist. Sheppard is a bachelor who lives with his sister Caroline, an elderly spinster with a bent for gossip. Ackroyd, a widower, lives with his widowed sister-in-law, the penurious yet proud Mrs. Cecil Ackroyd. Her daughter Flora is engaged to marry Ralph Paton, Ackroyd’s penniless and irresponsible stepson.

Shattering the usual calm are two deaths, seemingly connected only by proximity of time and place, but in fact directly related. First, Mrs. Ferrars, a wealthy widow, dies, presumably of an accidental overdose of veronal. (Her husband had died a year earlier, seemingly of acute gastritis complicated by alcoholism, though Caroline Sheppard thinks his wife poisoned him.) Roger Ackroyd is murdered the next night, stabbed in his study soon after Dr. Sheppard visited with him. The two men were friends, and during their last visit, Ackroyd told Sheppard that he and Mrs. Ferrars had planned to marry, but the previous day she confessed to having poisoned “her brute of a husband” a year earlier. What is more, someone knew of the crime and was blackmailing her. Ackroyd blamed himself for her suicide because he reacted to her revelation with repulsion and horror, instead of with sympathy, but he was “not the type of a great lover who can forgive all for love’s sake.... All that was sound and wholesome and law abiding in him must have turned from her utterly in that moment....” She asked Ackroyd for twenty-four hours before he reported her crime, and during this period she committed suicide. While he was telling Sheppard the tale, the butler brought in the evening mail, which included a letter from Mrs. Ferrars, presumably identifying her blackmailer. Ackroyd set it aside to read after Sheppard left. When the police search the room after Ackroyd’s death, the letter is gone.

In the aftermath of the murder, a newcomer to the village enters the picture. The Larches, a house next to that of the Sheppards, has been rented by an elderly foreigner, thought to be a retired hairdresser but actually Hercule Poirot, the Belgian private investigator, who knew Ackroyd and hoped to retire anonymously to King’s Abbot and cultivate vegetable marrows. Poirot, however, agrees to take on the case at the behest of Flora Ackroyd and works with the police in attempting to solve the mystery.

Poirot’s sleuthing determines that several people in the Ackroyd household stood to benefit from the man’s death: his sister-in-law; his niece; Geoffrey Raymond, his secretary; Elizabeth Russell, his housekeeper; Parker, the butler; and Ursula Bourne, the parlormaid. Mrs. Ackroyd and Flora had been totally dependent upon Ackroyd for financial support, which the man—wealthy though he was—provided grudgingly; therefore, an inheritance would lift a burden from each. Raymond is badly in debt and admits that the fortuitous legacy of five hundred pounds from Ackroyd came in the nick of time. Miss Russell had an illegitimate son (Charles Kent) who was a drug addict in desperate need of money, and she also once had delusions of marrying her master. Further, Poirot learns that Parker, the imperturbable butler, had blackmailed his former master; if Ackroyd had discovered this aspect of his butler’s past, Parker surely would have gone to any means to preserve his secret. Finally, Ursula Bourne “seemed too perfect for the role she tried to play,” had given—or had been given—her notice, and was the one member of the household whose alibi could not be confirmed.

Thus there is...

(This entire section contains 918 words.)

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a plethora of suspects; chief among them for much of the novel, however, is none of the above, but rather Ralph Paton. Ackroyd, from whom he is estranged, thinks Paton is in London, but he actually is staying at a local inn. On the night of the murder, and at the time it presumably was committed, Paton was seen going toward Fernly Park, the Ackroyd estate; after the crime, however, he seems to have disappeared, and not even Flora knows his whereabouts. During his absence, the terms of Ackroyd’s will are revealed, and Paton is a prime beneficiary (as are Flora and her mother). In the course of his investigations, Poirot discovers that the engagement between Flora and Paton came about through Ackroyd’s matchmaking efforts and that the two were amenable only because they did not want to antagonize their potential benefactor.

With all the suspects on hand except for Ralph, Poirot pursues his quest for a solution, focusing primarily upon answering four questions: Who made the call to Dr. Sheppard that led to the discovery of the murder? Why was a chair moved in Ackroyd’s study after the murder? Were the bootprints outside the study window indeed made by Ralph Paton? Who owned the discarded wedding ring that Poirot found in the pond on Ackroyd’s estate?

When Poirot finally announces his solution to Dr. Sheppard at the end of the book, not only do the answers to these questions become known, but also the clues Agatha Christie has planted throughout the novel seem obvious. This is not to minimize the surprising, even startling, nature of the conclusion, for only the most astute reader is likely to have suspected Dr. Sheppard, the narrator and Poirot’s Watson, of having been the blackmailer of Mrs. Ferrars and the murderer of Roger Ackroyd.