Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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....

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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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.


(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

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.