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Agatha Christie, the "Queen of Crime" is perhaps the world's best-known mystery author. She published 66 mystery novels and several short stories between the years 1890 and 1976, not to mention romance novels and the world's longest-running play. Most mystery fans know her beloved characters Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple as staples of the genre. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, first published in 1926, signified a turning point in Christie's career. Orson Wells later adapted it into a radio play.
So…why hadn't I ever heard of it? Yes, I know Murder on the Orient Express, Death on the Nile, and Crooked House, but maybe that's because they're also films. I watched Miss Marple on PBS when I was young and have seen more than one actor portray Hercule Poirot. Wait a minute…have I ever read an Agatha Christie novel? (Shhh…don't tell anyone or I'll lose my mystery fan street cred.) Full disclosure: I did consume this novel as an audiobook. I never really know whether to count audiobooks as "reading" when it's someone else reading the book to me.
Without further delay, however, let's get into The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. The setting is the fictional village of King's Abbot in England. It's your quintessential quaint English town, home to the Ackroyd family, Dr. James Sheppard, and newcomer retired detective Hercule Poirot. Sheppard is our narrator, describing the clues and events Poirot discovers as the good doctor shadows him throughout the plot. Shortly after he's called to examine the body of the widow Mrs. Ferrars, another of his patients turns up dead. Hercule Poirot joins the story when Roger Ackroyd's niece insists Dr. Sheppard introduce her to his new neighbor. Retired and trying to grow vegetable marrows (I had to look these up) Poirot has just moved in next door.
We're given our first batch of clues as Poirot examines the crime scene. Ackroyd has an unusual dagger buried in his throat, a chair has been moved, there are footsteps on the windowsill, and a fire is just dying down in the hearth. Of course, we have an inadequate police presence on the scene to make speculation about the fingerprints on the murder weapon. Speculation, of course, that our star detective scoffs at. But there aren't quite enough clues to put all the pieces together just yet.
A good chunk of the plot is driven forward by the narrator's sister, Caroline. She somehow manages to gather all the town gossip without ever leaving the home she and the doctor share. This is much to the doctor's chagrin, as he's definitely over her "told you so" attitude. Funny how nobody appreciates the town busybody peering around her curtains until somebody turns up dead. Caroline helps Poirot gather additional clues and adds more than her two cents (or two pence?) when it comes to guessing the killer. There are plenty of suspects to choose from and they all seem to have a secret. Whether or not those secrets include murder is for Hercule Poirot and us readers to find out.
It's hard to read a book like this and not think you've seen this all before. But, when Christie wrote it, it hadn't been done at all. One of the reasons this book sticks out among her other novels is the Shyamalan twist at the end. I'm proud to say that I did have a guess as to the killer this time and it turned out to be right. However, it was one of about a dozen guesses...heh. The big reveal reminded me strongly of a film that came out a few years ago and reading this made me look at that movie in a whole new way. I'm sure it was a poke at this book and the genre as a whole. But, I won't reveal the name of that movie here, lest it spoil the book for you. If you know, you know.
I enjoyed The Murder of Roger Ackroyd for a myriad of reasons. First, it's just a well-told story. It's got everything I love in a mystery novel. The reader is given all the clues to be able to piece the mystery together on their own, but we don't realize that until the end, of course. There is an interesting cast of characters and about a half dozen other scandals woven in to distract from the real motive. It's a classic small English countryside town mystery, something I seem to be consuming a lot of lately in the form of shows like Shepherd, Father Brown, and Loch Ness (tell me you watch a lot of British television without telling me you watch a lot of British television). None of those shows would likely exist if it weren't for Agatha Christie in the first place.
Roger Ackroyd won't be the last Christie novel for me (although I'll probably save the Westmacott books for last). It's important, sometimes, to go back to the source of the things we enjoy today to appreciate how novel they were at the time. I like watching old movies for the same reasons. These are the plots and the characters and the techniques that inspired generations of creatives to bring us what we have today. And despite how old The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is (first published in 1926), it still holds up nearly 100 years later.
As always, don't take my word for it. Read more:
Photo by Spencer Means via Flickr
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