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AGATHA CHRISTIE. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926).

13 Jun

It’s probably the most famous detective puzzle ever contrived, and it amply deserves all of the renown (if not all of the notoriety) that attaches to it. The clueing is both pleasantly deceptive and exorbitantly fair. As in other novels that feature Hercule Poirot, Christie makes clear through him precisely what the pivotal clues are—be they psychological cues of the kind that are her specialty or the physical details that she handles no less skillfully. MurderAckroyd.jpgA gold ring with an obscure inscription, a chair that has been moved, a lacuna in the timetable of events before and after the murder, an overheard conversation that involves the victim, a late-night telephone call: Poirot repeatedly announces to his fellow characters, and hence to the reader, that these are matters of great moment. It is central to Christie’s genius that she can flaunt her clues and yet hide what they signify, and whose guilt they point to, until a time of her choosing. And although characterization is hardly a major strength of hers, Christie peoples her fiction with recognizable types who ring true enough to be amusing, plausibly homicidal, or both. Particularly well developed here are the circumspect murderer who nonetheless becomes unforgettable; Caroline Sheppard, a village gossip who cultivates a network of spies (and who foreshadows the creation of Miss Marple); and Poirot, who blends comic oddity and intellectual mastery in one incomparable package.

[ADDENDUM: Part of this novel’s notoriety derives from Edmund WIlson’s much-cited and much-reprinted critique on the detective genre, which he titled “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?” Wilson missed the point, I think. Most detective-story enthusiasts care less about “who” than they do about “how”—how the story of a crime unfolds, how a master sleuth sorts through various clues and arranges them into a pattern, how an author manages to pull the narrative wool over the keenest of readerly eyes. Another factor behind the notoriety of the book, of course, is its one-of-a-kind trick solution. What struck me when I reread Ackroyd, however, is that it holds up exceedingly well even after the trick has lost its element of surprise. As a pure exercise in clue manipulation and reader misdirection, it’s a tale virtually without peer.]

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7 Comments

Posted by on June 13, 2013 in British, Golden Age, Novel, Puzzle

 

7 responses to “AGATHA CHRISTIE. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926).

  1. John

    June 14, 2013 at 8:29 AM

    Two years ago I re-read many of my favorite Poirot books in their original form. (Apprarently some of the most recent paperback editions have some PC editorial revisions and are condensed!) It is a marvel to see her display her rarely mentioned wry sense of humor (she also has a flair for farce when she puts her mind to it) and of course her skill in misdirection. You are right about the whodunnit aspect of mysteries not being the appeal to most readers. Even with full knowledge of the culprit anyone can enjoy Christie’s mysteires on an entirely different level by paying attention to her plotting and seeing how she still manages to trip up the reader.

     
  2. Richard

    June 14, 2013 at 10:42 AM

    I read it just once, without knowing anything about the story or the ending. I thought it was great, but doubt I could re-read it without looking for any and every clue to the truth which will be revealed, and that looking would probably ruin the book for me.

     
  3. Mike

    June 15, 2013 at 8:00 AM

    Thanks for your comments. John, your praise of Christie’s humor is music to my ears (or should I say “to my eyes”?). As I believe I’ve noted in several reviews posted here, there’s a huge imbalance between the common perception of AC as clumsy but oh-so-clever hack and the fact of her very solid gifts as a writer. She wasn’t a master stylist by any means, and she was often sloppy, but she was consistently and impressively able to build a scene or to sketch a character in an amusing way. Her writing, as often as not, was better than it needed to be if her goal was simply to move the plot along.

    Richard, I guess I should be careful about presuming to speak for all readers of detective stories. As I suggested, I *like* being in a position to observe how a trick was done—that is, if it’s a good one. Rereading a so-so mystery holds little appeal for me. Anyway, I too had the good fortune to read “Ackroyd” without knowing the solution to its puzzle. In the age of the Internet, it can be hard to avoid spoilers of landmark tales such as that one.

     
  4. Ethan Iverson

    June 15, 2013 at 8:46 AM

    I discovered your blog yesterday and really enjoy your tight and accurate reviews. (We seem to agree on almost everything.) Just wondering — I don’t see a last name here — are you also the author of http://mikegrost.com/classics.htm? (Another valuable site that shares much with Only Detect)

     
  5. Mike

    June 15, 2013 at 9:00 AM

    Ethan: Many thanks for your kind word about this site. No, I’m not the Mike (Mike Grost) who maintains that other site. That Mike is quite the polymath, and my work here is hardly in the same league as his.

     
  6. Curtis Evans

    June 20, 2013 at 3:09 PM

    I agree about Christie and humor and social observation–so underappreciated. One contemporary reviewer compared The Murder at the Vicarage to Cranford!

     
    • Mike

      June 21, 2013 at 11:37 AM

      Thanks for commenting, Curt. I’ve long thought that a sophisticated history of the English novel would place Christie in the tradition of Jane Austen. Not that AC was quite the literary equal of JA, but she did a fine job of writing a sort of gentry-class comedy-of-manners tale that seems very reminiscent Austen’s work. In AC’s work, the plot generally turn on matters of property and murder, rather on matters of property and marriage, yet the “sense and sensibility” in each case are notably similar.

       

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