We have reached the first high-water mark in the Christie canon, and it is almost unbelievable that this was written by the same person as “The Secret of Chimneys” and “The Big Four” which sit either side of it.
In Hastings’ absence, narrative duties are taken up by Poirot’s neighbour, Dr James Sheppard, whose friend, Roger Ackroyd, is murdered shortly after the latter has received a letter naming the blackmailer of his recently deceased fiancée. Is that the reason for his death? Where has his step-son, Ralph Paton, gone? Who was in the summerhouse? Who is the mysterious stranger? Who notified Dr Sheppard of the murder?
As always Poirot cuts through the lies and misdirection until he identifies the guilty party in a dazzling denouement.
Recurring character development
Has retired and has been living in King’s Abbot for just under a year, where he has tried without much success to grow vegetable marrows.
Before the murder he has been living incognito and happy to be known as Mr Porrott. Dr Sheppard initially believes him to have been a hairdresser.
Caroline Sheppard believes he may have “one of those new vacuum cleaners”. With his propensity for tidiness, this seems likely.
Misses Hastings, who has carried out his plans mentioned at the end of “The Murder on the Links” and is living in the Argentine.
Knew Roger Ackroyd in London.
Practises sleight of hand as shown when he retrieves a ring from the pond.
Solved a murder mystery involving Prince Paul of Mauretania and his ex-dancer wife. Sheppard asks whether he received an emerald tie pin for this service, a reference to Sherlock Holmes who received such a gift from Queen Victoria for recovering the Bruce-Partington Plans.
Predicts that in all probability this will be his last case.
Has previously worked with Superintendent Hayes of Liverpool.
Signs of the Times
The story is set in 1926, the year of publication.
Sadly “The Mystery of the Seventh Death” – the type of book read by Mrs Russell – appears to be fictional.
Flora asks Raymond to send the announcement of her engagement to Ralph to The Morning Post and The Times. The former was a conservative daily newspaper published in London from 1772 to 1937, when it was acquired by, and then merged with, The Daily Telegraph.
Mrs Ackroyd said she was in the study to fetch Punch. Subtitled The London Charivari in homage to a French magazine of the same name, it was a weekly satirical magazine published from 1841 to 1992, with an unsuccessful revival from 1996 to 2002.
Caroline asks Sheppard to take Poirot some medlar jelly. This is made from a now obscure fruit which has to be ripened to excess – a process known as bletting – before it can be used. Apparently the taste is like sweet cider infused with cinnamon and a touch of allspice, so perhaps it should make a comeback.
Colonel Carter claims to have played mahjong at the Shanghai Club. This was founded in 1861 and was the main men’s club for British residents. At one time it had the world’s longest bar. It closed in 1941 following the Japanese occupation and the building was then expropriated in 1949 by the new Communist government.
Vintage Reading Challenge
Fulfils “What – Reference to a man or woman in the title”
In the style of the TV show Friends, this is “The One Where the Narrator Did It”; the first of this type of Christie, where due to a basic, justifiable, but ultimately flawed assumption, the murderer isn’t even considered a potential suspect.
It was one of the first Christie’s I read and when I got to the end I was blown away – I felt completely deceived, but in a good way. Even with my then very limited knowledge of detective fiction, I knew a special trick had been played on me, but in a completely fair manner.
I know that a number of people don’t believe it to be a fairplay novel, so here I will set out my case for the defence, items listed as they appear in Sheppard’s narrative:
- On arriving home from confirming Mrs Ferrars’ death, Sheppard (from hereon “he”) notes that he “was considerably upset and worried”. One of his patients has possibly committed suicide, which is the obvious cause of this, but when combined with other statements it becomes telling.
- He tells Caroline that Ashley Ferrars died of acute gastritis, but he does not confirm this directly to the reader. There is no statement such as “having treated Ferrars for some months, in my medical judgment there was no possibility of poisoning” – which would have been unfair.
- In reference to his last meeting with Mrs Ferrars he says “Her manner then had been normal enough considering – well – considering everything”. Considering what? The reader is not enlightened on this point.
- Why did he find the tête-à-tête between Ralph Paton and Mrs Ferrars disagreeable?
- He tells Poirot he received a legacy around a year ago. It is later revealed that Major Blunt received a legacy at a similar time, which is grounds to consider whether Blunt was the blackmailer. Why should the same suspicion not be attached to Sheppard?
- We know he takes his bag to Fernly on the night of the murder (the significance of which becomes apparent later) but he is able to give an explanation for this, the truthfulness of which is corroborated by Caroline as she expects the later phonecall to be from Mrs Bates – although if he was expecting an emergency call, why didn’t he take the car?
- He admits to have examined the contents of the silver table, just before Flora Ackroyd joins him. She later states that at this point the Tunisian dagger was no longer there.
- He tells Ackroyd that he has closed the window, but this is not confirmed by a statement of the action to the reader (equivalent to point 2 above).
- There is no concern as to his position as attending physician if it should be made public that Ashley Ferrars was poisoned. He has had a year to think about any suspicions and act upon them. Who better than a doctor to recognise a poisoning in a patient and, if dishonest, then become a blackmailer?
- He is again concerned with Ralph Paton’s meeting with Mrs Ferrars. Why would Ralph’s frankness with him be proof that Ralph was not the blackmailer? No, his frankness is only significant if Mrs Ferrars has not told him the identity of the blackmailer. That is the cause of Sheppard’s anxiety and then relief.
- Why is his reason for urging Ackroyd to reveal the name of the blackmailer “obscure to myself”. When writing this account he has had time to reflect, so should have been able to analyse this reason, but he chooses to hide this from the reader.
- One of the key passage that he refers to himself in his Apologia: “The letter had been brought in at twenty minutes to nine. It was just on ten minutes to nine when I left him, the letter still unread. I hesitated with my hand on the door handle, looking back and wondering if there was anything I had left undone. I could think of nothing.” What has happened in that ten minute gap? They only spoke for a couple of minutes before Ackroyd stopped reading. This does ask questions about how people read; if read properly, surely this is obvious that something funny is going on? But how many of us do read properly? I know I don’t, I’m very much a skimmer, focusing on dialogue. I can only assume that on my first reading my brain saw that passage and just interpreted it as “I left the room”, and coupled with the unconscious bias that the narrator couldn’t do it and so it doesn’t matter what Sheppard’s actions are, therefore didn’t give it a second thought.
- We don’t hear the other end of the phonecall that takes him back to Fernly as it happens – only his statement to Parker of what was said to him.
- “Ackroyd was sitting as I had left him in the armchair before the fire.” This is literally true, only we don’t read it in that way!
- After Parker leaves to telephone for the police “I did what little had to be done”. It sounds so innocuous, but when you think about it, what legitimately was there to be done?
- He twice tries to dissuade Flora from bringing Poirot into the case.
- We learn of his visit to Ralph at the Three Boars the previous night, which he had hoped would be unnoticed, so we now know that he isn’t giving us the whole truth.
- During his first examination of the study Poirot claims that Sheppard has something to hide, and this is reiterated when he later tells six people including Sheppard that they all have something to hide. The reader having met Poirot before should have greater trust in him than in this new narrator.
- The point is reiterated that he reached the gates at nine o’clock, but when asked how long it takes to walk to the house he says five minutes. As he left the study at ten minutes to nine, this leaves five minutes unaccounted for.
- He confesses to not having thought of who inherits from Ackroyd’s death before Poirot had mentioned it. Why has he not thought about the possible motives of other suspects? When responding to this point he says “No,” I said truthfully. “I wish I had.” Does the use of truthfully here imply that some of what he says is not the truth?
- He knocks over his mahjong rack when Caroline mentions that Ralph may be in Cranchester, and not further afield as was widely thought.
- Caroline mentions his weak character shortly before Poirot expounds on how a weak man may turn to blackmail and then murder.
- He invites Poirot into his workshop where he is tinkering with an alarm clock.
- He was not surprised by Flora’s admission that she had not seen her uncle in the study at 9.45pm.
- Poirot reads his account and notes that is very unlike those of Hastings and that he has been reticent in giving his thoughts and ideas. At the gathering Poirot says the account is “strictly truthful as far as it goes – but it does not go very far”. There are other differences to Hastings: in “The Mysterious Affair at Styles” he is an outsider in the house and unlikely to have a motive and he is the one who brings in Poirot. Sheppard on the other hand is an insider and initially opposes Poirot being brought in.
- Poirot says that Caroline cannot join the gathering at his house as “all these people tonight are suspects” but why then is Sheppard allowed to join them?
- Poirot starts to sketch out the murderer – someone on the scene who may not have been there if the murder had not been discovered until the morning, carrying a receptacle into which the dictaphone could be placed. The only person there who may not have been there in the morning is Sheppard.
Other points of interest are:
Flora’s statements about having been in the study – it makes sense when she says it to Parker. Parker is unlikely to mention it to Ackroyd, and so Ackroyd won’t contradict it. But when she says it to the Inspector and expands on it, it no longer makes sense – Ackroyd is bound to contradict it – or does she hope she’ll be able to talk to him before the Inspector does and get it hushed up? It serves the plot well by putting the time of death much later than it was, but are her actions plausible?
S. S. Van Dine in his “Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories” says that a servant should not be the culprit, and although that is followed here, three servants are credible suspects and play key roles in the story.
Why does Poirot allow Sheppard an easier way out? He says it is for Caroline’s sake and implies the truth can be hushed up, but given he has already announced to a room of people that he knows who the murderer is, and with one villager already having died of an “accidental” overdose, this seems impossible. Perhaps he has become genuinely fond of Sheppard and sympathises with his flawed character? We will see him allow others to cheat the hangman on at least two other occasions.