Murder of Roger Ackroyd, The; The Moving Finger Characters
by Agatha Christie

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Murder of Roger Ackroyd, The; The Moving Finger Characters

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Christie's most characteristic works set eight to ten people in a closed environment. The people are usually those associated with the British upper classes, their servants, friends, and relatives, and the setting usually a village or large country house (both of which appear in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd). Christie also used trains, boats, airplanes, and islands to provide the insular setting she needed for the investigation of crime, but she was at her best when dealing with the village crime and its attendant suspicion, fear, and gossip, as in The Moving Finger. The peace and order of these settings are disrupted by a crime early in the book, usually murder and usually a murder done by poison. Christie admitted that she preferred a "tidy" murder, and poison provided the tidiest means; moreover, Christie herself had been a dispenser during the war (similar to a pharmacist) and she had a wide working knowledge of drugs and poisons. However, she also used other means of murdering her victims; in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and The Moving Finger, poison and stabbing are both used.

Once these elements are established, Christie begins her dramatization of the investigation of the crime, and it is in her use of misdirection that she excels. She manages to cast suspicion on almost everyone, and her "red herrings" are famous. One of the most famous is the poison pen letters in The Moving Finger, which serve to conceal a more ordinary crime and its motive. The clues which she allows the characters and the reader are almost always intangible ones: a look, a time lag, a seemingly trivial comment. Such an intangible clue caused the outcry over The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, a number of writers and readers complaining that Christie had not "played fair" with them. In fact, Christie had supplied all the clues necessary to the intellectual game between mystery writer and reader in this book, but with an extra plot twist that was highly original.

In most detective fiction, characterization is necessarily subordinate to plot. The reader must believe in the characters, but not care too deeply about their plight; otherwise the intellectual puzzle is subverted. Christie solved this problem as well as any other writer in the genre, creating interesting, sometimes eccentric, essentially believable stereotypes which she established with a minimum of detail. Her most famous are her amateur detectives, Hercule Poirot and Miss Jane Marple. The majority of Christie's books feature the "little Belgian"; his egg-shaped head, curling moustache, and green eyes appeared in her first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920), and although she grew tired of him, he became so popular she continued to write about him throughout her career. His chief characteristics are his passion for order, his assumed foreignness (his command of English is perfect when he wants it to be), and his high regard for himself; these often make Poirot a figure of fun but also disguise his formidable deductive powers. In The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, he identifies the murderer fairly soon, tricking him into revealing himself by the typical Poirot method of bringing all the suspects together and pointing out that they all have something to hide.

Far fewer of Christie's books featured Jane Marple, but she has become almost as famous and popular as Poirot. A sweet spinster lady from the village of St. Mary Mead, she too disguises her deductive powers; she often seems confused and dithery, apologizing for being in the way and being stupid and digressing about people she has known in the past. But her knowledge of human nature is infallible. "One learns so much from living in a village," she often says, and she has absolute faith in the essential depravity of people. Christie thought of her as "fluffy and pink," but she is also wise and courageous, and her many friends do not hesitate to call on her when they are in trouble. She appears only toward the end of The Moving Finger, when all else has failed; by just listening to casual conversation, she is able to discern that "everybody was looking at the wrong thing," and she identifies the murderer from the one weakness in his nature: He could not bring himself to send a poison pen letter to the girl he loved.

Christie occasionally used other amateur detectives, such as Tommy and Tuppence Beresford, Mr. Parker Pyne, and Harley Quin. The stories in which these characters appear are more obviously comic than those of Poirot and Marple, and indeed are generally short stories rather than novels, a form which allows far less of the dramatic plot development so necessary to a successful mystery tale. These characters consequently never enjoyed the wide popularity of Poirot and Marple. One critic has remarked that Christie's consistency in sketching Poirot and Marple allowed them to grow in the minds of the readers, who filled in all the details they needed until the characters became comfortably familiar as they appeared in successive books.

Christie's other characters — whether murderers, victims, society ladies, bright young people, or retired colonels — are established just as economically, and sometimes reappear in successive books as well. The tools Christie uses most often are focusing on a single characteristic, such as Miss Sheppard's love of gossip in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, and a remarkable talent for reproducing speech. Christie once described her technique of writing as getting the characters to talk to her, and indeed her characters, from overbearing headmistresses to silly kitchen maids, all talk most believably. If some critics have complained about the flatness of Christie's style, that flatness has never extended to her characters' speech.