The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

by Agatha Christie

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 467

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd elicited controversy immediately because its format and solution broke what were then two unwritten laws of the mystery genre: The murderer was the detective’s sidekick and therefore apparently above suspicion, and he was the narrator. This last fact was stunning enough in itself, but it also meant that Christie had given readers a narrator who did not reveal all his thoughts and actions to them until the end. Throughout, Christie’s use of Sheppard gives both immediacy and distance to the narration: The doctor is a friend of the Ackroyd family but is not directly implicated in their family tensions. His presence also opens the story line for actions outside the manor, including comic scenes involving Caroline, their village neighbors, and Poirot.

Typical of Christie’s style is the way in which she slides the actual murder past the audience by means of careful omission and verbal cleverness: Sheppard tells how Ackroyd puts aside the letter that will name the blackmailer, despite the doctor’s desire to hear Mrs. Ferrars’ words. After this moment, the narrative continues:The letter had been brought in at twenty minutes to nine. It was just on ten minutes to nine when I had left him, the letter still unread. I hesitated with my hand on the door handle, looking back and wondering if there was anything I had left undone. I could think of nothing.

What seems to be a normal setting out of time in narrative, incidentally providing a false time frame for the murder, actually gives Sheppard time to commit the murder, and his comments, which seem to refer to the earlier conversation, actually refer to the killing he has just committed. Similarly, Caroline overhears her brother’s side of the telephone call, which he falsely claims is a notification of the murder, but since he is narrating, Christie does not have to show the other speaker’s words or identity, which would prove that the doctor is lying.

Debate raged among mystery writers, critics, and readers regarding whether Christie had played unfairly. Generally, opinion tended toward an acceptance of having been fooled by Christie’s tinkering with generic expectations. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd appeared near the beginning of Christie’s career of more than fifty years throughout which she would test the limits and rules of the mystery genre: The killer would turn out to be someone thought to have been proved innocent, or a child, or an apparently intended victim, or all the suspects in league. Particularly from the 1920’s through the 1940’s, a period known as the Golden Age of the mystery, Christie was one of the writers who not only excelled in popularity and sales but also helped to redefine and develop the range of the genre itself.

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Critical Context