In preparation for JJ, Moira and Brad’s discussion of this title on Saturday, (see The Invisible Event for details), I decided to give this book a re-read. This post is not a typical review, with a synopsis, and is a more a collection of my thoughts.
This is the sort of book you should know nothing about before reading, so I recommend reading it before you proceed any further with this post.
When I first read this book, I unfortunately already knew the ending going in, but I still enjoyed it nevertheless, giving it a 5/5 on Goodreads. This is one of Christie’s most famous books for that “thing” which we’re never supposed to talk about. But on this re-read I was hoping to see whether there was more to this book than that.
One of the first things I noticed about my re-read was how much I had forgotten. For instance, I had no recollection of Miss Russell’s subplot in the narrative, with her son who is a drug addict. Moreover, I think the ITV David Suchet adaptation gave me a number of false memories. I was quite surprised to be nearly at the end of the book, for example, and find the butler had not been runover. Then of course there is the change in ending, and in some ways, I can see why they did, as the denouement Christie provides is visually less dramatic, even though she drops a bombshell of a twist.
I think anyone re-reading this book is naturally going to be looking at the narrator and what he says and, importantly, does not say. It is also on a re-read that you can see the many clues Christie provides her readers with, which are not so easy to spot on a first read. Lee Horsley (2005) sums it up well that this is ‘a novel that would seem to be written to be re-read.’ I enjoyed and appreciated the intricacy of the plot more this time, seeing the relevance of the fake call much more prominently; even if part of me was thinking that the killer relied a lot on no one else entering or going near the study until 9:30pm. The murderer’s plan is definitely something I am interested to hear Brad, JJ and Moira’s thoughts on.
Dr Sheppard’s first-person narrative is wonderfully slippery, and it is deceptive and fair in equal measure. This book is an excellent example of how sentences or pieces of information can have more than one meaning. For example, on the first page when Dr Sheppard has just told of Mrs Ferrars’ death we are told:
‘To tell the truth, I was considerably upset and worried. I am not going to pretend that at the moment I foresaw the events of the next few weeks. I emphatically did not do so. But my instinct told me that there were stirring times ahead.’
Naturally as a blackmailer, who is now having to contemplate murder to cover up the former, such a time would be worrying. Nevertheless, this section is equally in keeping with a Watson narrator, including foreshadowing statements.
Then there is the fact that Poirot sets up comparisons between Dr Sheppard and Captain Hastings, (his usual Watson narrator, who was in Argentina), which on a perhaps subconscious level, reinforce the suggestion that Dr Sheppard is fulfilling Hasting’s role. However, on this re-read there are stylistic differences, I noted. There is not the same hero worship that Hastings can indulge in, when recording Poirot’s cases, and I also felt there was a different sort of intensity in Dr Sheppard’s questions to Poirot. After all he needs to know what Poirot is thinking, out of self-preservation and it is interesting to see how he oscillates between being worried that Poirot knows too much and being scornful of Poirot’s capabilities. Although I wonder whether at the end Dr Sheppard is in a degree of denial, about how close Poirot is to catching him out.
However, I now have a confession to make: I don’t dislike this classic, but I am less enamoured with it than I was. One of these reasons is the narrative voice. I enjoy what it is able to do and it is incredibly skilful, yet I feel this re-read made me see more the restrictions it also contains. Compared to other books by Christie I felt the writing style is more sparse than usual and whilst the narrative voice is very puzzle focused, it seemed to contain less, what I would call, thematic detail, and less character-making comments.
Although before anyone leaps in to prove the contrary, I do think there are some exceptions. We do get occasional descriptions which express a lot in a few words, such as with Mrs Ackroyd, who Dr Sheppard writes, ‘gave me a handful of assorted knuckles and rings to squeeze, and began talking volubly.’ There is also of course Caroline Sheppard, our narrator’s sister. I would say she is the best depicted character in the book, which is not surprising given that Christie said she was her ‘favourite character in the book – an acidulated spinster full of curiosity, knowing everything, hearing everything: the complete detective service in the home.’ Naturally, it has been said many times before that we can see a prototype for Miss Marple in Caroline, who her brother writes ‘can do any amount of finding out by sitting placidly at home. I don’t know how she manages it, but there it is.’ Dr Sheppard is at his most personal when describing his interactions with his sister and their conversations are some of my favourite from the book. I particularly love the way he introduces her into his account of the case: ‘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.’
The other great piece of comedy in the book comes through their speculations about their new neighbour, Poirot and I love how Dr Sheppard thinks he might be a retired hairdresser! Whilst we are talking about Poirot, I found it interesting to think about the fact we are told he has retired. I guess it seems ironic to us, given how many cases he was going to go on to do. Was Christie at this stage already wanting to pack him up and move on to something else? Or was the retirement angle merely an excuse for getting Poirot into the locale of the crime? It is interesting to note that at one point in the story Poirot tells the suspects: ‘I am much aged, my powers may not be what they were […] In all probability this is the last case I shall ever investigate. But Hercule Poirot does not end with a failure.’ Again, it seems very out of place for readers nowadays, or at least somewhat premature. Although the statement Poirot makes could very much apply to Curtain (1975).
Those who have been reading my blog for a while will know that I am fond of reading books which analyse crime fiction and today’s read is definitely a title which comes up a lot. So having re-read the book this got me thinking: Why are critics so keen to discuss this book? What theories do they think it supports? Looking at a handful of texts I found that discussion centred around a few key ideas:
Christie the Rule Breaker
The seemingly rule breaking aspect of the book unsurprisingly draws a lot of attention from critics and academics. Looking at this element of the novel, it makes me wonder how much the fame of Christie has eclipsed the works of other writers from the early 20th century. For example, Patricia Merivale (2010) incorrectly claims Christie ‘originated the “unreliable narrator” as a variant of the “least likely suspect.”’ Not only are there earlier examples of a narrator who also turns out to be killer, but there are many novels written before Christie’s which create a destabilising effect through their choice of murderer.
However, another key theme which stems out of Christie’s big twist is how it challenges the way readers read books and interpret information. For instance, Lee Horsley wrote in Twentieth-Century Crime Fiction (2005) that Christie and Sayers played ‘in various ways with readers’ expectations and generic conventions relating to the functions of different characters.’ Horsley goes on to write that The Murder of Roger Ackroyd:
‘really established her reputation, because it was here that she most flagrantly violated the expectations of her readers whilst at the same time demonstrating her technical brilliance in handling the clue-puzzle plot.’
Meanwhile Heta Pyrhonen in A Companion to Crime Fiction (2010) notes that this book makes us ‘less secure in our expectation of comfortable closure.’
I think this aspect of the book is seen more strongly at the start, and through Caroline’s role in the plot. Heta Pyrhonen (2010) wrote Christie’s choice of killer, as well as her setting, ‘enables her to sharpen her exposure of social pretence.’ Furthermore, George Grella in ‘Murder and Manners’ (1970) felt that this text ‘serves a number of purposes,’ including ‘satiris[ing] the tiny rural village of King’s Abbot.’ This is an idea which certainly has some milage and it makes me wonder whether Christie named her village after two respectable pillars of society, because her book was going to reveal such a personage as a murderer.
It’s one of Us
In Crime Fiction (2005) John Scaggs comments that:
‘Sheppard clearly demonstrates that the threat of social disorder comes from within society, and the reason for this is simple. By identifying the threat to the social order as coming from within, Golden Age fiction emphasises the necessity, embodied in the figure of Miss Marple, of a society that maintains the social order through self-surveillance.’
He goes on to add that:
‘In Christie’s fiction, this impulse to recover and reinstate the sort of order that existed in the past is a direct response to the disruption in the present caused by the crime of murder.’
Having re-read the book, I am not sure I can entirely agree with these statements. Looking at the first one, I am not sure the text entirely supports the idea of maintaining ‘social order through self-surveillance.’ That to me sounds like everyone watching each other in order to check for behaviours which are reportable to the police. Moreover, you could argue that whilst characters such as Caroline notice a lot of things, their interpretation of them is not always fully correct. If anything books such as this one, and The Murder at the Vicarage (1930), reinforce the need to give the correct interpretation to facts. Observation without this, instead becomes quite a negative thing. Furthermore, the first Miss Marple novel, actually shows a criminal plot which manipulates nosy neighbours into providing them with proof of innocence.
Moving on to the second idea, the ‘impulse to recover and reinstate the sort of order that existed in the past.’ Again, I am not particularly seeing it overly evidenced in the text. The ending does not particularly reinstate things to “how they were”. Ralph Paton has married the parlour maid instead of his cousin, who in turn becomes engaged to a famous game hunter. Moreover, although it is not said, one can imagine the loss of the well liked and respected village doctor, is going to cause quite a chasm, and not just for his sister. Then there is the fact that Poirot encourages Sheppard to commit suicide to spare his sister the scandal of a legal trial. Justice is restored but in something of a sly manner. If anything, my reading of Christie leads me to consider whether Christie is less likely to advocate everything reverting to how they used to be, and instead more likely to propose a combining of the old with the modern in order to create a new future. We can sort of see this with Flora’s engagement to Major Blunt. Although I appreciate I might be clutching at straws here.
All in all, I did enjoy reading this book, but I don’t feel it is a 5 out 5 read for me any longer. Perhaps my requirements for such a rating are different to what they were when I first read it. I don’t feel the ending in and of itself can justify such a rating. The book is a bit overlong in my opinion and I can see why the adaptation made the final third more active and dramatic.
Hopefully I have not scandalised anyone with these closing remarks. However, I do have a final question for you. George Grella (1970) states that The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is Christie’s best book. I don’t think I would agree with that, but do you?