The problem with blogging about mystery books, of course, is that it’s too easy to spoil them. So I’ll try and use the handy “jump” here to make it less likely that I’ll spoil absolutely everything. That being said, I can already guess why “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd” is the highest-ranked Agatha Christie novel of the 100 (it comes in at #5; the next closest is #19). It’s not just a mystery, but an experiment in literary form.
The book is a first-person tale told by Dr. Sheppard, no relation to McDreamy of Grey’s Anatomy, I’m sure. This Dr. Sheppard is old and discontent, living with his gossipy sister in a small house in a small town where nothing too much happens. That all changes, as it’s wont to do in a mystery town, when the town’s richest woman commits suicide, and then her wealthy, secret fiancé – Roger Ackroyd – is found murdered only a few days later. Suddenly the quiet town is teeming with secrets. Lucky for them, famed detective (and Christie veteran) Hercule Poirot has just moved in next door, seeking relaxation; instead he finds himself drawn into the mystery, and takes Dr. Sheppard along as his assistant.
Sheppard dutifully records their every meeting, with particular attention to Poirot’s observations. In fact, Sheppard is writing a book within a book – as we learn near the end, when Poirot sits down to read it, hoping to organize his thoughts. He compliments Sheppard on his modesty, noting the man has left himself almost completely out of the story – and that’s when we get our answer. Dr. Sheppard, who all along has seemed Poirot’s assistant and help, is actually the killer. The final chapter of the book is an “Apologia,” from Sheppard to his readers, really, and to the world.
In a way, it’s the dirtiest trick Christie could play, the same as the final moments of “St. Elsewhere” existing only in a child’s mind. But in reality, it’s a splendid use of the form to subvert expectation. We, like nearly everyone in the book, consider Sheppard beyond suspicion. After all, he’s telling the story, so we believe we’re with him all the time. We believe him when he casts suspicion upon one character after another. We cease to think of him as an actor in his own right, and instead sink into the trustworthiness of the “I.”
It’s nicely executed. The book actually includes three mysteries – who killed Ackroyd, who blackmailed his widow fiancée, and what the devil is up with Ackroyd’s missing step-son – so there’s plenty to see and deal with as time goes on, plenty of action and character time to fill the pages. And still, the ending is a surprise.
That makes a good mystery to me.
I bought The Murder of Roger Ackroyd from Borders Books during their Buy 2, Get One Free paperback sale, and finished reading it on June 10, 2009.