Sunday 3 March 2019

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie

This is one of the greatest mysteries of all time, one of Agatha Christie's finest, a 24 karat classic. 

And it was ruined for me before I had a chance to read it by some wonderful genius on a radio program who thought it would be a grand idea to blithely reveal the identity of the killer to thousands of listeners...

But I overcame my fury (eventually) and decided to read it all the same.

Published in 1926, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is the fourth adventure of Hercule Poirot and as it begins we find he has supposedly retired to the country to grow marrows and that Arthur Hastings, the Watson to his Holmes, has moved to the Argentine.

So in this story the local GP, Dr James Sheppard, neatly steps into Hastings' role. 

The story is told from Sheppard's point of view, in a first person voice, again like Watson and Holmes.

Sheppard's gossipy sister Caroline, who lives to recount tidbits of local scandal, may well be the best character in the story, memorably and amusingly described throughout. 

Christie has fun with her and is inspired to some of her best descriptions. 

When she is caught between two choice pieces of gossip, "Caroline visibly wavered for a second or two, much as a roulette ball might coyly hover between two numbers."
Caroline also has some caustic things to say about the male of the species: "Never worry about what you say to a man. They're so conceited that they never believe you mean it if it's unflattering."  

And when Poirot and Sheppard have to leave her behind as they set off to stage the final confrontation and revelation of the murder mystery, she is rather touchingly disappointed, left "like a dog who has been refused a walk, standing on the front door step gazing after us." 

The other character Christie seems to have really had fun writing is Mrs Ackroyd, the  sister in law of the victim, who is pretentious, selfish, hypocritical and generally just won't shut up. She is "all chains and teeth and bones. A most unpleasant woman." 

Mrs Ackroyd's handshake is "a handful of assorted knuckles and rings." She is also a deadly snob who complains about "those peculiar gurgling noises inside which so many parlourmaids seem to have when they wait at the table."
There are parlourmaids aplenty here; it's a classic English country house murder story.

I do have to mention one thing that bothered me about it, though. Christie, who otherwise seems to have been scrupulous in her research, does appear a little confused about the use of recreational drugs...

I wonder what Dashiell Hammett would have had to say about her suggestion that it's a common practice (or even a very rare one) in America (or indeed anywhere else) to use a goose quill to either store or snort (she's not entirely clear) heroin, or is it cocaine? (She's not entirely clear about that, either.)

But perhaps it's ungallant of me to harp on about one small solecism in such a neatly and seamlessly plotted story.

And I was surprised at how funny Agatha Christie can be. I've only read one other novel by her so far, and I'd always imagined her to be rather humourless. 

But here she is playfully describing how the boring big game hunter Major Blunt "stood squarely in front of the fireplace looking over our heads as though he saw something very interesting happening in Timbuktu."

Of course, Poirot is allegedly a comic figure. But he has been described by Ian Ousby, cruelly but accurately as an "embarrassingly crude cartoon." 

However, it's just as well to remember that he only pretends to be a clown. Occasionally the real Poirot shows through, as when Sheppard observes that the detective "was looking at the case from some peculiar angle of his own."

And at the end of the book Poirot "suddenly became dangerous" with "real menace in his words."

This ending involves everything being wrapped up with a gathering of the suspects and the detective revealing the truth.

It's a relief that this takes place in Poirot's sitting room, not his library, but otherwise it's a classic, not to say clichéd, example of the murder mystery denouement.

Actually, it avoids cliché through the doctor's rather chilling description of it as being like "a trap — a trap that had closed."

The revelation of the identity of the murderer is brilliant. And I can only imagine the impact if that joker on the radio hadn't spoiled it for me.

If you're a fan of whodunits, especially in the classic style, I urge you to read The Murder of Roger Ackroyd before someone gives away the brilliant ending.

(Image credits: The lovely vintage Pocket Book cover, which is the main illustration, is from Ah Sweet Mystery. The equally lovely vintage Portuguese edition with a similar vibe — the Coleccao Vampiro edition — is from Capas & Companhia. The beautiful early Tom Adams painting for Fontana — with the dagger in the tweed jacket (Adams stuck a dagger through his own jacket and put red dye on it, then painted the result) and that beautiful sinister detail of the fly, is from Flickr. The rest are from Good Reads, including the gorgeous white and red Indonesian edition. And the other Adams cover of the maid's apron floating in a ghostly fashion in front of a window.)

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