The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie

Last week I started reading for my PhD and one of the books mentioned and explored Agatha Christie’s classic The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Now, I have to confess I am not a big Golden Age fan regarding crime fiction, so, no, I had never read Roger Ackroyd, but I knew I had to. It is usually referred to as Christie’s most surprising work. I have to say, not so much. The following review contains spoilers.

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In the village of King’s Abbot, a widow’s sudden suicide sparks rumors that she murdered her first husband, was being blackmailed, and was carrying on a secret affair with the wealthy Roger Ackroyd. The following evening, Ackroyd is murdered in his locked study–but not before receiving a letter identifying the widow’s blackmailer. King’s Abbot is crawling with suspects, including a nervous butler, Ackroyd’s wayward stepson, and his sister-in-law, Mrs. Cecil Ackroyd, who has taken up residence in the victim’s home. It’s now up to the famous detective Hercule Poirot, who has retired to King’s Abbot to garden, to solve the case of who killed Roger Ackroyd–a task in which he is aided by the village doctor and narrator, James Sheppard, and by Sheppard’s ingenious sister, Caroline.

There are two things that keep me from reading Golden Age detective stories: one is the clear division between good and evil (and how endings are always correct, so that there is no room for negotiation of moral values) and another one is women’s representation. While reading The Murder of Roger Ackroyd I encountered both: the narrator – James Sheppard – is a petulant and self-centered middle age man who thinks himself better than his sister, Caroline. All throughout the novel there are constant references to Caroline’s gossip and constant domestic worries, because she is a middle aged woman who has never married and, as a consequence, a ‘spinster’. Her brother, however, is a doctor, a ‘man of science’ whose life and everything that he says, are more valid just because he is both a man and of science. However, Caroline was proved to be a much better detective and have much better intuition and social skills than the narrator. I wonder why Christie planned the story this way, but taking into account the ending, I also wonder whether Caroline’s lifestyle is eventually preferred and considered better than James’. There are also social class and racial issues, but these are not as directly targeted as women’s representation. For example, when talking about a poison, it is suggested to come from South America, so that it is something exotic, something secret and hidden that modern, Western science cannot detect because it is foreign. The servants are also presented as rough people, mere tools for their masters. I have learned, however, that this is typical of Golden Age detectives and one has to leave modern concerns behind to enjoy the story.

Regarding the crime, I still believe the line separating good and evil is too clear for my taste, but I was really happy to see that Christie played with something that would not come into literature studies until the second half of the 20th century as part of the postmodern movement: silences. While Poirot investigates, he questions everyone’s alibis and motives except the narrator. Why is that? Why do readers do not stop and ask themselves about it? It is because we are used to reliable narrators. This silence, however, becomes more and more obvious and it is very easy to figure out who the killer is in the last 60 pages or so. I was shocked at the ending taking into account how suicide is constructed as something illegal and immoral, but it was ‘the right’ and politically correct ending for James after everything blackmailing and killing Roger Ackroyd.

So, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is a classic in detective fiction and I am happy that I read it. However, it was not the kind of story that appeals to me. The day I finished it I started Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers – another classic – and that I did enjoy. There is still hope this reader will become a Golden Age fan.

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20 thoughts on “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie

  1. FictionFan says:

    I’m a huge Christie fan but have never thought this was her best. The twist is great, of course, and for its time totally original but otherwise I felt it was fairly average. I actually prefer the Miss Marples to the Poirots on the whole – I wonder if I could tempt you into Murder at the Vicarage or The Moving Finger… 😉

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    • Elena says:

      That’s one thing that I thought while reading it. All the Christie that I have read are the Poirots and I wondered about Mrs. Marple. Ok, so, are those two the best Mrs. Marple? I’m in 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Rikki says:

    I’ll be interested to see what you think of Strong Poison. I prefer Sayers to Christie, but never liked that one particularly. My favourite by far by Sayers is actually one without a detective per se, The documents in the case. Maybe that is because I like epistolary novels.
    I always thought The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was a cheat and unrealistic, :).

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    • Elena says:

      Hi, Rikki! Good to hear from you again 😀

      You know, the boyfriend said the exact same thing: Roger Ackroyd is a cheat and the worst detective novel ever. I am glad to hear you agree.

      I actually really liked Strong Poison, and I do think I prefer Sayers to Christie as well.

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  3. Keishon says:

    I just got started on Christie. I was always told by a Christie fan to start with Miss Marple. Are you reviewing Strong Poison? Can’t wait to read it.

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  4. amanda says:

    I only kind of skimmed this post because I have The Murder of Roger Ackroyd on my to-read list. I always enjoyed Christie when I read her books back in high school, but it’s been that long since I’ve read any of them. I wonder if I would change my mind today? A clear line between good and evil doesn’t really bother me (sometimes I think it’s a bit of a refreshing change from a worldview in which nothing seems clear cut), so I’d probably still enjoy them… I’ll be interested to hear what you think of Sayers. She’s on my list to try, but I haven’t gotten to her yet.

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    • Elena says:

      Oh, don’t worry, I really appreciate that you comment even though you couldn’t read the post 🙂

      I am much more into modern philosphy and ethics, so a line that clearly devides good and evil does not appeal to me. But, as you said about high school, it did back when I was 14 or 15. I mean, the book that got me hooked on crime fiction was The Hound of the Baskervilles, which is one great classic.

      I will review Sayers’ Strong Poison later this week. I will only tell you that I loved it and I think you’d love it was well.

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  5. cleopatralovesbooks says:

    I have recently picked up a few Agatha Christie novels which I enjoy as much for the fact they hold up a mirror to the society that she lived in. I was quite shocked by the racial inferences in Hickory Dickory Dock! I want a copy of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd but the only one I found at a book sale was held together by tape so I’m still searching for a better looking copy.

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    • Elena says:

      Oh I read about the Roger Ackroyd copy you found held together by tape on Twitter. How sad! I think abebooks must have some good-priced second-had copies, just in case.

      And yes, I was shocked at classism as well. All servants are portrayed as rough and uncultured. Don’t get me wrong, I know that most servants were not educated, but – as a non-native English speaker – I think their dialogues are quite childish. Did you notice that as well as a native speaker?

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  6. thenovelprojectchronicles says:

    I thought it was interesting that you find golden age crime fiction off-putting due to the representation of women. I think that you definitely need to suspend some of your own thoughts and feelings on subjects when reading certain texts. I especially appreciate this having read some Hemingway recently – is he sexist, homophobic and anti-semitic? possibly but does it take away from the artistry of the work? I don’t know. This gets at those uncomfortable questions of separating the art from the artist and even from the time period.

    That said I have read Ackroyd (and saw the Mousetrap last year) and I do think that Christie is pretty skillful at getting a mood and a sense of place across. In that respect I can understand her appeal.

    Also, congratulations on embarking on your PhD. Good Luck.

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    • Elena says:

      Thanks! I am very happy about my PhD.

      I can hold my views on women’s representation, class, race and sexuality when I am reading, but that is not the kind of reading experience that I like or that I think I should be having right now. Having studied English and American literature, I understand that there are works that are representative of the times they were written in, but that does not mean that I like them. Of course, art is never void of discourse and discourse is always political, so I have to take old works with a pintch of salt. Having said that, I adore 19th century literature and I do enjoy a good, Romantic and/or Gothic novel.

      I did not argue anywhere in my post that this Roger Ackroyd is not art, nor would I ever do. I do not review books to catalogue them as art or not. I analyze discourse, women’s representation and ethics using the knowledge aquired in my degree and M.A, and it is clearly announced in my banner “Crime fiction, women’s representation and feminism”. Nothing less, nothing more.

      So, I can hold back my views on crime fiction, women’s representation and feminism, but I actively choose not to. My focus is postmodern literature, crime fiction and feminism and there is a reason why I chose that. Of course, that reason is political as well as social and geographically informed and it clearly casts me out as ‘something’ for many people. But I have learned not to pay attention to how others label me. Otherwise, my PhD would not exist!

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      • thenovelprojectchronicles says:

        Hi,

        Thanks for your thoughtful and detailed reply. I think however, that you may have misinterpreted my comment.

        I wasn’t suggesting that a persons viewpoints and thoughts should be suppressed in order to read or explore certain texts in the sense that we should not be free to discuss their merits/flaws within certain contexts.

        Certainly the context within which women are represented within the novel is a worthy subject of debate – especially given that the author is a women, writing female characters in this light. This is important both historically and from the perspective of feminist discourse. (as an aside, as part of my day job I am currently researching women’s political representation, or lack thereof and so I find this an interesting topic in general.)

        Moreover, I’m not convinced that we can come to any work of art in a ‘value free’ manner since we are, necessarily, a product of our time/geography/politics/society.

        That said, I don’t think we can solely read any text without some recourse to its own time and place and that, in order to do that justice, we might have to mute our own perspective and try to view it from another. I know from my own experience that when I read through the Sun Also Rises, I had to look past my own perspectives to try and appreciate the novel itself. Otherwise, I was likely to not have read it at all and I feel that would have been a mistake on my part.

        My argument – poorly phrased as it was – was that people can be turned off reading texts that, through history, politics or whatever, present a point of view counter to their own. In order to persevere with reading the work and in order to see what others may see in the work can necessitate muting their own perspective for a while (at least I know that it does for me).

        I find that the advantage of this is that a clearer picture emerges from these multiple perspectives and, and when I return to my own views, I end up with a richer understanding of the work itself. This is not a question of trying to get myself to like a novel more, but a question of trying to understand its appeal and my own responses with a greater sense of clarity.

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        • Elena says:

          Oh, sorry to have misread your comment! I totally agree with you regarding not being value-free. But I am doing research on contemporary (meaning being published now, not on the 20th century) detective fiction and I’m so angry to see some women’s representation – or, as you say, lack of – that I feel like I have enough. Obviously, when it comes to Christie, what I hate the most is the clearly drawn line between good and evil. And having said that, I cheered for Caroline Shepard the whole novel, I loved that she stayed at home but had a net of support that kept her well-informed and connected to the outside world.

          THANK YOU for these comments and for the healthy dicussion. This is why I started blogging for .D

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        • thenovelprojectchronicles says:

          Haha. I totally get what you mean about the way there is clearly good and evil in her work. I liked that about Caroline Shepard too.

          I’m also starting to wonder if works like this laid a ground work from which modern fiction has struggled to move away from. Much like as with contemporary cinema, or with graphic novels (although I don’t really read these tbh) where – even now – women often remain the object of the ‘male gaze’.

          I’m sure you know a lot more of this than I do and I’ll be interested to hear more of your research in the future.

          Good luck 🙂

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        • Elena says:

          Thank you!!! And I totally such at media studies analyzing movies. I am such a discourse-oriented person… I hope you come back, by the way 🙂

          Like

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