Last week I started reading for my PhD and one of the books mentioned and explored Agatha Christie’s classic The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Now, I have to confess I am not a big Golden Age fan regarding crime fiction, so, no, I had never read Roger Ackroyd, but I knew I had to. It is usually referred to as Christie’s most surprising work. I have to say, not so much. The following review contains spoilers.
In the village of King’s Abbot, a widow’s sudden suicide sparks rumors that she murdered her first husband, was being blackmailed, and was carrying on a secret affair with the wealthy Roger Ackroyd. The following evening, Ackroyd is murdered in his locked study–but not before receiving a letter identifying the widow’s blackmailer. King’s Abbot is crawling with suspects, including a nervous butler, Ackroyd’s wayward stepson, and his sister-in-law, Mrs. Cecil Ackroyd, who has taken up residence in the victim’s home. It’s now up to the famous detective Hercule Poirot, who has retired to King’s Abbot to garden, to solve the case of who killed Roger Ackroyd–a task in which he is aided by the village doctor and narrator, James Sheppard, and by Sheppard’s ingenious sister, Caroline.
There are two things that keep me from reading Golden Age detective stories: one is the clear division between good and evil (and how endings are always correct, so that there is no room for negotiation of moral values) and another one is women’s representation. While reading The Murder of Roger Ackroyd I encountered both: the narrator – James Sheppard – is a petulant and self-centered middle age man who thinks himself better than his sister, Caroline. All throughout the novel there are constant references to Caroline’s gossip and constant domestic worries, because she is a middle aged woman who has never married and, as a consequence, a ‘spinster’. Her brother, however, is a doctor, a ‘man of science’ whose life and everything that he says, are more valid just because he is both a man and of science. However, Caroline was proved to be a much better detective and have much better intuition and social skills than the narrator. I wonder why Christie planned the story this way, but taking into account the ending, I also wonder whether Caroline’s lifestyle is eventually preferred and considered better than James’. There are also social class and racial issues, but these are not as directly targeted as women’s representation. For example, when talking about a poison, it is suggested to come from South America, so that it is something exotic, something secret and hidden that modern, Western science cannot detect because it is foreign. The servants are also presented as rough people, mere tools for their masters. I have learned, however, that this is typical of Golden Age detectives and one has to leave modern concerns behind to enjoy the story.
Regarding the crime, I still believe the line separating good and evil is too clear for my taste, but I was really happy to see that Christie played with something that would not come into literature studies until the second half of the 20th century as part of the postmodern movement: silences. While Poirot investigates, he questions everyone’s alibis and motives except the narrator. Why is that? Why do readers do not stop and ask themselves about it? It is because we are used to reliable narrators. This silence, however, becomes more and more obvious and it is very easy to figure out who the killer is in the last 60 pages or so. I was shocked at the ending taking into account how suicide is constructed as something illegal and immoral, but it was ‘the right’ and politically correct ending for James after everything blackmailing and killing Roger Ackroyd.
So, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is a classic in detective fiction and I am happy that I read it. However, it was not the kind of story that appeals to me. The day I finished it I started Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers – another classic – and that I did enjoy. There is still hope this reader will become a Golden Age fan.