The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

by Agatha Christie

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 960

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is the story of a brutal disruption of order at an English country manor; famous from its first publication, it has been recognized as a classic model of the English mystery genre. It is narrated in the first person by the physician James Sheppard, the importance of which becomes wholly clear only by the novel’s end.

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The story begins the day before Roger Ackroyd’s murder, with the death of a prominent townswoman, Mrs. Ferrars. When Sheppard reports the death to Caroline, she rightly infers that it was not an accident but suicide based on remorse; she has believed all along that Mrs. Ferrars poisoned her late husband. While dining at Fernly Park that evening, the doctor learns from Ackroyd that his sister’s surmises are correct. Ackroyd confides in Sheppard that, after having been blackmailed for some time, Mrs. Ferrars confessed the truth to him, knowing that it would affect their private marriage engagement, but did not name the blackmailer. While the men talk, the evening post arrives, containing a last letter from Mrs. Ferrars. After reading the first few lines aloud, Ackroyd realizes that she intends to reveal the blackmailer’s identity, so he puts it aside to read when alone. When Sheppard leaves, he encounters a stranger on the grounds, looking for the manor house. Later that night, he receives a telephone call, purportedly from Ackroyd’s butler, telling him that Ackroyd has been murdered. He rushes back to Fernly Park. No one admits to having made the call, yet they find that, indeed, Roger Ackroyd has been stabbed to death in the locked study where Sheppard had left him.

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The local authorities allow Poirot to investigate, with the encouragement of Flora Ackroyd, who fears that Ralph, who has vanished since the murder, may be arrested. Poirot invites Sheppard to assist him with inside information and with gaining access to interview the defensive household members. Major Blunt heard Ackroyd speaking in his study, apparently with Geoffrey Raymond, some time after Sheppard’s departure. Flora claims to have seen her uncle even later, but this claim turns out to be an alibi for having stolen money from his bedroom. She claims, truthfully, not to have seen or heard from Ralph since the murder, and a case begins to shape up against Ralph. Caroline saw him talking to Mrs. Ferrars on the day of her death; perhaps he was the blackmailer. Two other motives are the debts he needed his stepfather’s money to pay and a confrontation they had the day of the murder over personal issues, the details of which remain unknown. Poirot decides that three motives are too many, and he quietly begins to search for another culprit.

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Poirot’s method of investigation involves close observation of physical items: a chair turned around in the murder room, a wedding band found in the pond, a scrap of linen in the garden house. His strategy is also based on conversation, listening carefully as people inadvertently give themselves away in exchanges with a foreigner whose manner and indirect line of questioning they underestimate. Poirot determines that everyone who was present on the night of the murder, including Sheppard, is holding back information, and he gradually extracts the secrets. Beneficiaries of the will, Raymond and Mrs. Ackroyd are in debt from gambling and shopping, respectively; Mrs. Ackroyd went so far as to search Ackroyd’s study for his will. Flora stole money from Ackroyd’s bedroom, and the butler has blackmailed a previous employer. Major Blunt lies to protect Flora, whom he loves. The mysterious stranger is the unacknowledged son of Miss Russell, who dropped her handkerchief in the garden house where she met him; his illegitimacy and drug addiction could jeopardize her hard-won respectability. Most surprising, Ursula Bourne is both the impoverished daughter of an Irish family of status and the secret wife of Ralph Paton. She threw her ring in the pond to hide this fact from Poirot, because it was the reason for Ackroyd’s angry meeting with his stepson. The engagement of Ralph and Flora was largely a financial arrangement suggested by Ackroyd, and the two had played along for their own reasons. Sheppard himself has not told all to Poirot or to the readers: He had checked Ralph into a private hospital under an assumed name, allegedly to protect him from capture and meanwhile prove his innocence.

Poirot’s solution, and the novel’s controversial success, depends on more that Sheppard has not told. Poirot deduces that Ackroyd, who was only heard but not seen speaking to Raymond (who denies having been present), was in fact already dead, and that the armchair had been turned to hide a clue from view. Ackroyd’s voice was being played on a timed dictaphone, which was hidden on a table behind the chair. The only way to remove the dictaphone would be to do so immediately when the body was found, and in a large bag, such as Sheppard’s medical bag. The telephone call was placed by a patient who was leaving town and had nothing to do with the murder. Sheppard had arranged it as an excuse to bring himself and the bag back to the murder scene. The doctor was blackmailing Mrs. Ferrars, having lost his and Caroline’s savings in speculation; this last fact was given readers through conversation before the murder occurred. Poirot outlines his findings privately to Sheppard, whom he has grown to respect despite his outrage at the crime, giving him time to choose his response. The doctor, closing his narrative, decides to kill himself with sleeping medication, just as Mrs. Ferrars did, a final act of discretion as well as of ironic justice.

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 351

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd had a huge impact as one of the best-selling novels of its day and the one that established Christie as a major writer. From The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920) through Curtain (1975), she became one of the best-known and best-selling writers of the twentieth century. She was also one of the most prolific, turning out one or more books a year throughout much of her career. Although there had been popular women novelists in the past, Christie was one of a number of women mystery writers who were acknowledged as among the leaders in the field, along with Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy Sayers, and others. In an era when “serious fiction” was still largely considered a male domain, these writers developed a readership, both female and male, which transcended borders of nation and class. Their influence has carried on in a tradition of successful women crime writers that has persisted over fifty years, up through the likes of P. D. James, Ruth Rendell, Sara Paretsky, Sue Grafton, and many others.

Christie was to use the character of Caroline Sheppard as a prototype for her other widely successful detective figure, Miss Jane Marple, who appears in more than a dozen novels. Using an elderly woman in a village as a detective allowed Christie a new range. A writer familiar with small-town life, Christie took this society’s customs and modes of communication, often centering on women, and built around them a series of mysteries with a different focus from that of the urban tradition of police and professional detectives. Like Caroline, Miss Marple has an ear for gossip, an understanding of human nature, and an unsentimental estimation of people’s capacity for evil. She adds to this an almost philosophical dimension, finding parallels in the everyday actions of village life for the larger acts of crime that sometimes erupt. Miss Marple uses this almost anecdotal or anthropological approach, together with a woman’s understanding of domestic details, to solve crimes and, in the process, show the underpinnings and tensions beneath the appearance of quiet, rural English life.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 318

Barnard, Robert. A Talent to Deceive: An Appreciation of Agatha Christie. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1980. Barnard counters literary critics who attack Christie as unsuccessful in high “literary” terms by examining possible cultural, formal, and literary-historical reasons for her enormous popularity. Barnard, himself a renowned mystery writer, presents simultaneously critical appraisal and readerly appreciation.

Fitzgibbon, Russell H. The Agatha Christie Companion. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1980. A basic survey of the history of the mystery genre and Christie’s position in it, the book also contains a bibliography, a short story finder, and a character index to the novels and stories.

Gill, Gillian. Agatha Christie: The Woman and Her Mysteries. New York: Free Press, 1990. One of the few writers on Christie to take a clearly feminist critical stance, Gill combines biography with social and literary critical theories to examine the career of Christie as a working woman writer and the ways in which her works, though generally not reflective of feminist politics, astutely portray middle-class women’s realities in modern Britain.

Reddy, Maureen T. Sisters in Crime. New York: Continuum, 1988. Reddy examines how women writers, including Christie, redefine crime fiction through their approaches to ideas of crime as well as through the use of women crime solvers, often using and overturning stereotypes of women to fool readers.

Riley, Dick, and Pam McAllister, eds. The Bedside, Bathtub, and Armchair Companion to Agatha Christie. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1979. A lively, casual compendium with synopses of all Christie’s novels and plays. Includes historical illustrations and articles on recurring themes and characters in Christie’s works, English customs and settings, and film adaptations.

Symons, Julian. Bloody Murder. New York: Viking Press, 1985. A sweeping, thoroughly detailed account of the development of crime fiction throughout the twentieth century, mainly in Britain and the United States, which puts Christie in a critical and historical context with her contemporaries in the genre.

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