roger ackroyd“Mrs Ferrars died on the night of the 16th-17th September – a Thursday.”

Pop culture osmosis is a funny old thing. I was reminded of it earlier this week when I went to see a production of West Side Story. Despite having never seen it either on stage or film before, it turned out that I knew pretty much every single song to some degree or another, simply because it has become so ingrained in the cultural psyche. I bring this up because this book, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, is another one of those things that seems to be well known the world over. It’s a whodunnit, of course, but I think most people (or at least, those with a vested interest in mystery fiction) know who the murderer is before they even read the book. I did.

Like Murder on the Orient Express, it is one of the most well-known of the Christie canon, so much so that the mystery has entirely been removed for many readers. In case you’re thinking of stopping reading this, know that in this review I will not be revealing the novel’s solution, as I’d imagine there are still people who don’t know how it ends, but rest assured that it’s a good one.

The story takes places in King’s Abbot, a small village full of neighbours who love nothing more than to gossip with one another. Hercule Poirot, famous detective, has taken up retirement in the village and is doing his best to remain inconspicuous, although the villagefolk are curious about who he is. Hastings has gone from this book, and in his place we find a narrator in Dr James Sheppard, the local GP, who lives with his omniscient spinster sister, next door to Poirot.

One night, after a genial dinner at his large house of Fernly Park, one Roger Ackroyd is found dead, a dagger through his neck. He had been worried; his close friend Mrs Ferrars had just died and it’s possible she was being blackmailed before her death. Ackroyd recieves a letter from her, but its contents remain a mystery as when Ackroyd’s body is found, the letter is missing. Suspicion falls over the house. Ackroyd’s stepson Ralph has vanished, suggesting he’s guilty, but his bride-to-be Flora steps forward to say that it couldn’t have been him. There are plenty of other suspects – fusty old big game hunter Major Blunt, the highly efficient but debt-ridden secretary Geoffrey Raymond, the faithful butler John Parker, or perhaps dedicated housekeeper Elizabeth Russell, who according to village gossip may have had more than a strictly professional relationship with the dead man.

Flora calls on Poirot to solve the case and take Ralph out of the frame. Poirot makes it clear that he will not stop until he has solved the puzzle, and may dig up some other things that people may not want unearthed along the way. Nonetheless Flora is insistent and, with the help of Dr Sheppard taking the place of Poirot’s faithful Captain Hastings, he sets about working out who killed Roger Ackroyd.

The book is one of Christie’s best known, indeed the one that had the greatest impact in catapulting her to stardom, and there’s a very good reason for that. It is held up as one of the great novels of the genre, not only heavily impacting it, but turning it on its head, shaking it about, and making everyone go, “Now hold on a minute!” I’ve said before that Christie played wonderfully with the “rules” of the mystery genre and probably nowhere else does she do it as well as here. It is one of the most influential crime novels of all time (according to Howard Haycraft).

Christie, as usual, uses just the right number of clues and red herrings to spur you along. The answers are all there if you choose to look for them and, for once, I knew what I was looking for. Whether I would have got it right without knowing the answer, I can’t say. Probably not, given my track record, but nonetheless the novel is incredibly smart, and an absolute must not just for Christie fans, or even crime fans, but anyone who enjoys tracing the history of the novel. This was a game changer, and remains one of the sharpest novels of the last one hundred years. Sheer brilliance.

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