This classic Poirot murder mystery always hovers near the top whenever a discussion of Christie’s greatest novels arises, rightly so. Along with a handful of later books, it made her name and displayed her particular genius for a simple yet daring concept, and an ending that yanks the carpet from under the unsuspecting reader’s feet.
Christie dedication at the beginning of the book (to her older sister, nicknamed Punkie) playfully refers to it as orthodox detective story, murder, inquest, and suspicion falling on everyone in turn! True enough, until its startling conclusion the novel runs as a straightforward and seemingly conventional murder mystery, taking place in a small village of King’s Abbot.
Our narrator is Dr James Sheppard, who in a space of one day comes face to face with two deaths. One is of Mrs Ferrars, a widow whose passing looks a lot like a suicide. Another is the violent death of Roger Ackroyd, a wealthy man who the local gossips assumed was going to marry Mrs Ferrars, and who is found stabbed in his locked study after an evening of explosive revelations. Dr Sheppard also discovers, to his surprise, that his new next-door neighbour, a strange little man with an egg-shaped head, is not in fact a retired hairdresser as he’d assumed, but the famed detective Hercule Poirot.
Poirot, it seems, has retired to grow vegetable marrows* in the countryside, but he takes up this one last case (hah!) at the request of Ackroyd’s niece, Flora, who wants him to get to the bottom of it all, whatever the truth. He also greatly misses the company of his loyal friend Captain Hastings, so Dr Sheppard becomes a kind of Hastings surrogate, following Poirot around on the case as he exercises his little grey cells and alternately stumps and annoys the local police.
Though the book is famous for its ingenious twist ending, the best thing about The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is going through it again, admiring the novel’s elegant construction, narrative drive, and the way certain passages take on a completely different meaning on a re-read. Even knowing the identity of the murderer, reading through the last few chapters as they head towards the climax – four words of dialogue – still had my heart racing.
The book is also home to one of my favourite Christie side characters, Dr Sheppard’s nosy sister Caroline, who Christie identified as the forerunner to Miss Marple. Like Miss Marple, Caroline has a complicated gossip system that keeps her in the know of everything going on in the village, and is capable of shrewd and knowing insights. Though of course not as shrewd as Poirot. He is as endearing and engaging as ever, and his introduction into the story is especially hilarious.
* I had to google “vegetable marrows” since I had no idea what the heck they were. Apparently they’re related to zucchini.
P.S. I wonder if Dame Agatha received fan letters begging her to write an uber-crossover event with the battle of the brains between Miss Marple and Poirot.