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The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is a work of detective fiction by Agatha Christie and first published in the UK by William Collins & Sons in June 1926 and in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company on the 19th of the same month. It features Hercule Poirot as the lead detective. The UK edition retailed at seven shillings and sixpence (7/6) and the US edition at $2.00.

It is one of Christie's best known and most controversial novels, its innovative twist ending having a significant impact on the genre. The short biography of Christie which is included in the present UK printings of all of her books states that this novel is her masterpiece. Howard Haycraft, in his seminal 1941 work Murder for Pleasure, included the novel in his "cornerstones" list of the most influential crime novels ever written. The character Caroline Sheppard was later acknowledged by Christie as a possible precursor to her famous detective Miss Marple.

Plot summary

The book is set in the fictional village of King's Abbott in England. It is narrated by Dr. James Sheppard, who becomes Poirot's assistant (a role filled by Captain Hastings in several other Poirot novels). The story begins with the death of Mrs. Ferrars, a wealthy widow who is rumoured to have murdered her husband. Her death is initially believed to be suicide until Roger Ackroyd, a widower who had been expected to marry Mrs. Ferrars, is found murdered. The suspects include Mrs. Cecil Ackroyd, Roger's neurotic hypochondriac sister-in-law who has accumulated personal debts through extravagant spending; her daughter Flora; Major Blunt, a big-game hunter; Geoffrey Raymond, Ackroyd's personal secretary; Ralph Paton, Ackroyd's stepson and another person with heavy debts; Parker, a snooping butler; and Ursula Bourne, a parlourmaid with an uncertain history who resigned her post the afternoon of the murder.

The initial suspect is Ralph, who is engaged to Flora and stands to inherit his stepfather's fortune. Several critical pieces of evidence seem to point to Ralph. Poirot, who has just moved to the town, begins to investigate at Flora's behest.

The book ends with a then-unprecedented plot twist: Poirot, having exonerated all of the original suspects, lays out a completely reasoned case that the murderer is in fact Dr. Sheppard, who has not only been Poirot's assistant but the story's narrator. The story is then shown to be an attempt by Dr. Sheppard to write about the failure to catch the criminal by Poirot, but he appends a confession and suicide note written after Poirot's exposition.

Characters in "The Murder of Roger Ackroyd"

  • Roger Ackroyd - country gentleman, distressed about the recent death of his mistress
  • Mrs. Cecil Ackroyd - his widowed sister-in-law
  • Flora Ackroyd - Mr. Ackroyd's niece and Mrs. Cecil Ackroyd's daughter
  • Ralph Paton - Mr. Ackroyd's ne'er-do-well stepson
  • Ursula Bourne - Mr. Ackroyd's parlourmaid, recently quit
  • Major Hector Blunt - big game hunter and Roger Ackroyd's friend
  • Geoffrey Raymond - Mr. Ackroyd's secretary
  • Parker - Mr. Ackroyd's butler
  • Elizabeth Russell - Mr. Ackroyd's housekeeper
  • Charles Kent - Elizabeth Russell's son and marginal drug addict
  • Dr. James Sheppard - the doctor (and the story's narrator)
  • Caroline Sheppard - Dr. Sheppard's spinster sister
  • Hercule Poirot - the leading detective of the murder
  • Mrs. Ferrars - who dies at the very beginning of the book

Literary significance and reception

The most notable aspect of the book, which led to considerable controversy on its publication, is its use of an unreliable narrator, who in fact confesses at the end to being the murderer. In this confession, Dr. Sheppard attempts to exculpate himself from having been at all untruthful as a narrator:

I am rather pleased with myself as a writer. What could be neater, for instance, than the following:-
"The letters were brought in at twenty minutes to nine. It was just ten minutes to nine when I left him, the letter still unread. I hesitated with my hand on the door handle, looking back and wondering if there was anything I had left undone.

Dr. Sheppard's (and Christie's) contention was that everything he had written had been the truth; he simply had not written the whole truth. In particular, he did not mention what happened between twenty and ten minutes to nine, during which he was in fact murdering Roger Ackroyd.

The story also brings attention to the recurrent mystery-novel trend of having a good deal of the facts and evidence having nothing to do with the actual crime (e.g. Ralph's disappearance). Though common enough in crime novels, it takes on new meaning here since we are seeing it through the eyes of the killer. Sheppard himself is amazed at the level of duplicity that occurs in the novel, and in the end admits that for most of the story he was baffled as to why his crime had turned out to be so complex and multi-layered.

At the time, there was some level of outcry as to whether or not the ending was fair to the reader, even though Christie had left clues in the rest of the novel. There is a story that the book nearly got Christie kicked out of the Detection Club for violating the rules of "fair play", but since the Club was not formed until after the book was published, this cannot be true. In 1945, Edmund Wilson alluded to this novel in the title of his article attacking detective fiction, Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?

History has been much kinder to Christie, crediting her for an original idea. From that point on, the detective fiction mantra that "it is the reader's duty to suspect everyone" took on a new meaning.

Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?: The Mystery Behind the Agatha Christie Mystery (2000) (ISBN 1-56584-677-X) (first published as Qui a tué Roger Ackroyd in 1998), a reappraisal of the case by Pierre Bayard, Professor of Literature at the University of Paris VIII, argues that Poirot actually got the solution wrong and proposes an alternative ending that the murderer was actually Caroline Sheppard and Dr. Sheppard took blame because he did not want suspicion to fall on her.

The Times Literary Supplement's review of June 10, 1926 began with "This is a well-written detective story of which the only criticism might perhaps be that there are too many curious incidents not really connected with the crime which have to be elucidated before the true criminal can be discovered". The review then gave a brief synopsis before concluding with "It is all very puzzling, but the great Hercule Poirot, a retired Belgian detective, solves the mystery. It may safely be asserted that very few readers will do so".

A long review in The New York Times Book Review of July 18, 1926 began, "There are doubtless many detective stories more exciting and blood-curdling than The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, but this reviewer has recently read very few which provide greater analytical stimulation. This story, though it is inferior to them at their best, is in the tradition of Poe's analytical tales and the Sherlock Holmes stories. The author does not devote her talents to the creation of thrills and shocks, but to the orderly solution of a single murder, conventional at that, instead." After setting up the setting and the basics of the plot, the review continued, "In conventional detective story style, seemingly trivial and extraneous details become clarifying evidence to him [Poirot] while they baffle the reader only the more. It is really Poirot's method which holds the reader's interest. Matters become more and more complicated, till one surprising fact after another begins to reveal itself. It would most certainly not be fair in the present case to reveal the outcome of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, and it would consequently be pointless to give a detailed synopsis of it and tantalizingly stop at the denouement. Miss Christie is not only an expert technician and a remarkably good story-teller, but she knows, as well, just the right number of hints to offer as to the real murderer. In the present case his identity is made all the more baffling through the author's technical cleverness in selecting the part he is to play in the story; and yet her non-committal characterization of him makes it a perfectly fair procedure. The experienced reader will probably spot him, but it is safe to say that he will often have his doubts as the story unfolds itself." The review concluded, "The Murder of Roger Ackroyd cannot be too highly praised for its clean-cut construction, its unusually plausible explanation at the end, and its ability to stimulate the analytical faculties of the reader. It soars far above the crude, standardized mystery stories which have become customary merchandise.

The Observer of May 30, 1926 said, "No one is more adroit than Miss Christie in the manipulation of false clues and irrelevances and red herrings; and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd makes breathless reading from first to the unexpected last. It is unfortunate that in two important points – the nature of the solution and the use of the telephone – Miss Christie has been anticipated by another recent novel: the truth is that this particular field is getting so well ploughed that it is hard to find a virgin patch anywhere. But Miss Christie's story is distinguished from most of its class by its coherence, its reasonableness, and the fact that the characters live and move and have their being: the gossip-loving Caroline would be an acquisition to any novel.

The Scotsman of July 22, 1926 said, "When in the last dozen pages of Miss Christie's detective novel, the answer comes to the question, 'Who killed Roger Ackroyd?' the reader will feel that he has been fairly, or unfairly, sold up. Up till then he has been kept balancing in his mind from chapter to chapter the probabilities for or against the eight or nine persons at whom suspicion points. With each new development the design of the problem seems to shift, as with movement of a kaleidoscope; and we are kept guessing without coming much nearer to the solution, not withstanding that we have the privilege of perusing the notes of Dr Sheppard, the medical man who is on the spot almost immediately after the crime has been committed, and of listening to the conversations between him and M. Poiret (sic), that almost uncanny genius in tracking the guilty, with whom he seeks to play the part of Watson with Sherlock Holmes. Everybody in the story appears to have a secret of his or her own hidden up the sleeve, the production of which is imperative in fitting into place the pieces in the jigsaw puzzle; and in the end it turns out that the Doctor himself is responsible for the largest bit of reticence. The tale may be recommended as one of the cleverest and most original of its kind.

Robert Barnard wrote many years after the book's release, "Apart – and it is an enormous 'apart' – from the sensational solution, this is a fairly conventional Christie. The tone is light, at times almost 'comedy of manners'; the setting is English village, with the emphasis on the big house; the characterization is standard, with the first and best of her strong-minded spinsters, noses a-quiver for scandal. A classic, but there are some better Christies.

Film, TV or theatrical adaptations

Alibi (Play)

The book formed the basis of the earliest adaptation of any work of Christie's when the play Alibi, adapted by Michael Morton, opened at the Prince of Wales Theatre in London on May 15, 1928. It ran for 250 performances with Charles Laughton in the role of Poirot. Laughton also starred in the Broadway run of the play which was retitled The Fatal Alibi and opened at the Booth Theatre on February 8, 1932. This was not such a success and closed after just 24 performances.

Alibi (Film)

The play was turned into the first sound film to be based on a Christie work. Running to 75 minutes, it was released on April 28, 1931 by Twickenham Film Studios and produced by Julius S. Hagan. Austin Trevor played the role of Poirot, a role he reprised later in the year in the film adaptation of Christie's 1930 play Black Coffee.

Adapter: H. Fowler Mear
Director: Leslie Hiscott

Austin Trevor as Hercule Poirot
Franklin Dyall as Sir Roger Ackroyd
Elizabeth Allan as Ursula Browne
J.H. Roberts as Dr. Sheppard
John Deverell as Lord Halliford
Ronald Ward as Ralph Ackroyd
Mary Jerrold as Mrs. Ackroyd
Mercia Swinburne as Caryll Sheppard
Harvey Braban as Inspector Davis
With Clare Greet, Diana Beaumont and Earl Grey

"Campbell Playhouse" radio adaptation

Orson Welles adapted the novel as a one-hour radio play for the November 12, 1939 episode of the Campbell Playhouse. Welles himself played both Dr. Sheppard and Hercule Poirot.

Adapter: Howard Koch and Wyllis Cooper
Producer: John Houseman Director: Orson Welles

Cast:
Orson Welles as Hercule Poirot and Dr. Sheppard
Edna May Oliver as Caroline Sheppard
Alan Napier as Roger Ackroyd
Brenda Forbes as Mrs. Ackroyd
Mary Taylor as Flora
George Coulouris as Inspector Hamstead
Ray Collins as Mr. Raymond
''Everett Sloane as Parker

BBC Radio 4 adaptation

The novel was adapted as a one-hour, thirty-minute radio play for BBC Radio 4 first broadcast on December 24, 1987. John Moffatt made the first of his many performances as Poirot. The adaptation was broadcast at 7.45pm and was recorded on November 2 of the same year.

Adapator: Michael Bakewell
Producer: Enyd Williams

Cast:
John Moffatt as Hercule Poirot
John Woodvine as Doctor Sheppard
Laurence Payne as Roger Ackroyd
Diana Olsson as Caroline Sheppard
Eva Stuart as Miss Russell
Peter Gilmore as Raymond
Zelah Clarke as Flora
Simon Cuff as Inspector Davis
Derek Guyler as Parker
With Richard Tate, Alan Dudley, Joan Matheson, David Goodland, Peter Craze, Karen Archer and Paul Sirr

Agatha Christie's Poirot

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was adapted as a 103 minute drama and transmitted on ITV in the UK on Sunday January 2, 2000 as a special episode in their series Agatha Christie's Poirot. In this adaptation Japp - not Sheppard - is Poirot's assistant, leaving Sheppard as just another suspect, however the device of Dr. Sheppard's journal is retained as the supposed source of Poirot's voice-over narration and forms an integral part of the denoument.

Adapator: Clive Exton
Director: Andrew Grieve

Cast:
David Suchet as Hercule Poirot
Philip Jackson as Chief Inspector Japp
Oliver Ford Davies as Dr. Sheppard
Selina Cadell as Caroline Sheppard
Roger Frost as Parker
Malcolm Terris as Roger Ackroyd
Nigel Cooke as Geoffrey Raymond
Daisy Beaumont as Ursula Bourne
Flora Montgomery as Flora Ackroyd
Vivien Heilbron as Mrs. Ackroyd
Gregor Truter as Inspector Davis
Jamie Bamber as Ralph Paton
Charles Early as Constable Jones
Rosalind Bailey as Mrs. Ferrars
Charles Simon as Hammond
Graham Chinn as Landlord
Clive Brunt as Naval petty officer
Alice Hart as Mary
Philip Wrigley as Postman
Phil Atkinson as Ted
Elizabeth Kettle as Mrs. Folliott

Graphic novel adaptation

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was released by HarperCollins as a graphic novel adaptation on August 20, 2007, adapted and illustrated by Bruno Lachard (ISBN 0-00-725061-4). This was translated from the edition first published in France by Emmanuel Proust éditions in 2004 under the title of Le Meutre de Roger Ackroyd.

Publication history

  • 1926, William Collins and Sons (London), June 1926, Hardback, 312 pp
  • 1926, Dodd Mead and Company (New York), June 19, 1926, Hardback, 306 pp
  • 1927, William Collins and Sons (Popular Edition), March 1927, Hardback, (Three Shillings and sixpence)
  • 1928, William Collins and Sons (Cheap Edition), February 1928 (One shilling)
  • 1932, William Collins and Sons, February 1932 (As part of the Agatha Christie Omnibus of Crime along with The Mystery of the Blue Train, The Seven Dials Mystery and The Sittaford Mystery), Hardback (Priced at seven shillings and sixpence)
  • 1939, Canterbury Classics (William Collins and Sons), Illustrated hardback, 336 pp
  • 1939, Pocket Books (New York), Paperback (Pocket number 5), 212 pp
  • 1948, Penguin Books, Paperback (Penguin 684), 250 pp
  • 1957, Fontana Books (Imprint of HarperCollins), Paperback, 254 pp
  • 1964, Modern Author series (William Collins and Sons), Hardback, 254 pp
  • 1967, Greenway edition of collected works (William Collins and Sons/Dodd Mead), Hardback, 288 pp
  • 1972, Ulvercroft Large-print Edition, Hardback, 414pp ISBN 0-85-456144-7
  • 2006, Poirot Facsimile Edition (Facsimile of 1926 UK First Edition), HarperCollins, September 4, 2006, Hardback ISBN 0-00-723437-6

Christie revealed in her 1977 autobiography that the basic idea of the novel was first given to her by her brother-in-law, James Watts of Abney Hall, who in a conversation one day suggested a novel in which the criminal would be a Dr. Watson character, i.e. the narrator of the story. Christie considered it to be a "remarkably original thought".

In March 1924, Christie also received an unsolicited letter from Lord Mountbatten who had been impressed with her previous works and had written to her, courtesy of The Sketch magazine, publishers of many of her short stories at that time, with an idea and notes for a story whose basic premise mirrored that of Watts' suggestion. Christie acknowledged the letter and after some thought and planning began to write the book but kept firmly to a plotline of her invention.

In December 1969 Mountbatten wrote to Christie for a second time after having seen a performance of The Mousetrap. He mentioned his letter of the 1920's and Christie sent a reply in which she acknowledged the part he played in the conception of the book.

The novel received its first true publication as a fifty-four part serialisation in the London Evening News from Thursday, July 16 to Wednesday, September 16, 1925 under the title Who Killed Ackroyd?. Like the same paper's serialisation of The Man in the Brown Suit, there were minor amendments to the text, mostly to make sense of the openings of an instalment (e.g. changing "He then..." to "Poirot then..."). The main change was in the chapter division; the published book has twenty-seven chapters whereas the serialisation has only twenty-four. Chapter seven of the serialisation is named The Secrets of the Study whereas in the book it is chapter eight and named Inspector Raglan is confident.

In the US, the novel was serialised in four parts in Flynn's Detective Weekly from June 19 (Volume 16, Number 2) to July 10, 1926 (Volume 16, Number 5). The text was heavily abridged and each instalment carried an uncredited illustration.

The Collins first edition of 1926 marked the first Christie book to be issued by this publishing house who, under their present guise of HarperCollins, remain the UK publishers of her work to this day.

The novel became one of the very first talking books for the blind as reported in The Times on January 27, 1936, when it was stated as being one of eight books available through the Royal National Institute for the Blind.

Book dedication

Christie's dedication in the book reads: "To Punkie, who likes an orthodox detective story, murder, inquest, and suspicion falling on every one in turn!" ‘Punkie’ is the family nickname of Christie’s sister and eldest sibling, Margaret (‘Madge’) Frary Watts (1879–1950). There was an eleven-year age gap between the two sisters but they remained close throughout their lives. Although Christie’s mother can be credited with first suggesting to her that she should alleviate the boredom of an illness by writing a story, it was soon after when Agatha and Madge had been discussing the recently-published classic detective story by Gaston Leroux, The Mystery of the Yellow Room (1908), that Christie stated she would like to try her hand at writing such a story and her sister made a challenge to her that she wouldn’t be able to. Some eight years later, Christie remembered this conversation and, using her recent pharmaceutical training, in 1916 wrote her first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles.

In 1924, two years before the book publication of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Watts had written a play, The Claimant, based on the Tichborne Case which had enjoyed a short run in the West End at the Queen's Theatre from September 11 to October 18.

Dustjacket blurb

The blurb on the inside front flap of the dustjacket of the first edition reads:
“M. Poirot, the hero of The Mysterious Affair at Stiles (sic) and other brilliant pieces of detective deduction, comes out of his temporary retirement like a giant refreshed, to undertake the investigation of a peculiarly brutal and mysterious murder. Geniuses like Sherlock Holmes often find a use for faithful mediocrities like Dr. Watson, and by a coincidence it is the local doctor who follows Poirot around, and himself tells the story. Furthermore, as seldom happens in these cases, he is instrumental in giving Poirot one of the most valuable clues to the mystery.”

Collins rarely gave any mention to Christie’s first six books, published by her previous publishers, the Bodley Head. Indeed this book and the final Poirot novel, Curtain (1975), are the only two instances of such a mention to be made in Christie’s lifetime.

The inside rear flap of the jacket advertised Inspector French and the Cheyne Mystery by Freeman Wills Crofts whilst the back cover listed various detective fiction titles published by Collins.

References

External links

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