Form and Content
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.
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.
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.
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...
(The entire section is 1,629 words.)