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. A 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.]