Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Adventure classics -- The doctor did it. Or did he?


The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

by Agatha Christie

#

It’s one of the most famous of Agatha Christie’s mysteries. Certainly the most controversial, for pulling a twist many readers found unfair. At this point, I’m going to do something book reviewers should never do, reveal the ending. If you truly hate spoilers, stop reading right now, get the book and read it. Then reread it for those clues  that somebody’s not telling everything he knows.

For those of you still reading this post, the twist Christie pulled off, the one that broke a major rule of the mystery genre but had readers panting for more was this: the book is narrated by the murderer, Dr. Sheppard.

Sheppard lives with his older unmarried sister Caroline in the tiny English village of King’s Abbott, a place “rich in unmarried ladies and retired military officers,” Dr. Sheppard writes. “Our hobbies and recreations can be summed up in the one word, ‘gossip.’”  And among the gossips, the greatest is Caroline Sheppard. “The motto of the mongoose family, so Mr. Kipling tells us, is: ‘Go and find out.’ If Caroline ever adopts a crest, I should certainly suggest a mongoose rampant.”

Aside from the twist, the story is a classic of the locked room class. Village squire Roger Ackroyd believes his fiancĂ©e, Mrs. Ferrars, committed suicide to escape a blackmailer's clutches. While Ackroyd discusses the situation with his friend, Dr. Sheppard, the mail arrives, including a letter addressed in what Ackroyd recognizes as Mrs. Ferrars’ handwriting. Overcome with emotion, Ackroyd sends Sheppard away in order to read the letter privately, believing it will reveal the name of the blackmailer. Sheppard leaves Ackroyd at ten minutes till 9.  When the study door is forced open later that night, Ackroyd is dead, stabbed in the back with a silver dagger, as in this post’s illustration, via Flickr, from Tom Adams’ cover for a 1974 edition. About three-quarters of an hour after Sheppard leaves, members of Ackroyd’s household hear him speaking behind the locked door of his study, proving he was still alive at 9:30.  Or was he?  

Red herrings swim in schools through the book, baffling everyone except Hercule Poirot, lured out of retirement to investigate the case.  Poirot insists that the mechanically-talented Dr. Sheppard gave himself an alibi by leaving a Dictaphone recording of Ackroyd’s voice, which he removed when he was called to the crime scene. After confronting Sheppard privately, Poirot leaves him alone to write his ambiguously-worded confession and swallow a fatal dose of poison.

Leaving us to wonder, why? The Dictaphone Poirot pins his case on is never found. The incriminating letter has disappeared. There are neither witnesses nor physical evidence tying Sheppard to the murder. Why doesn’t he just stand pat and defy Poirot?

Pierre Bayard’s psychological reconstruction, Who Killed Roger Ackroyd, builds a case for Caroline as the murderer, the person Ackroyd is heard talking to on his final night. 
And Sheppard killed himself, Bayard says, to protect Caroline. Just as Caroline killed Ackroyd (and presumably destroyed the letter) to protect her brother from a charge of blackmail, Sheppard kills himself to protect his sister from being charged with murder.

“My greatest fear all through this has been Caroline,” Sheppard writes.

Poirot seems to have joined him in this league to protect Caroline. Poirot checks and double checks the alibis of every other person with access to Ackroyd’s house, but he never checks Caroline’s. He shares his findings with her, accepts her tidbits of gossip at face value. If he weren’t Hercule Poirot, I’d have to think he was in love with her.

The root of the dilemma probably lies in Christie’s own infatuation with Caroline. Christie would later admit that Dr. Sheppard’s devoted sister was her favorite character in the book, and the precursor of Christie’s amateur detective Miss Marple. Did she love Caroline enough to let her get away with murder?

(Next Wednesday, Adventure classics concludes an April of mysteries with Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles, about which Pierre Bayard also has a few things to say.)