Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

My second Agatha Christie novel is apparently one of the best.

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was first published in 1926 - six years after Christie's debut (you might wish to read my thoughts on The Mysterious Affair at Styles). Ackroyd feels quite familiar: a gruesome death in a posh house full of characters almost from Wodehouse, any one of whom might be the culprit. This time, the story is narrated not by the woosterish detective Captain Hastings, but the local doctor.

James Sheppard is keen to stay ahead of his gossipy sister in puzzling out the case. But, like Hastings, he's also caught between bafflement and awe at the antics of the professional sleuth, and is at pains to detail Poirot's methods and theories. Once again, this layering effect - where each piece of new evidence is judged from more than one perspective - encourages us to play along and make our own deductions. Again, there are several dark secrets involved, not all of them leading to murder. Again, the text includes maps of the scene of the crime to make it that much more tangible and real.

Poirot is again a striking, peculiar hero. His fussy, fastidious manner ought to grate, but Christie makes him a figure of curiosity to the other players. The more they comment on his strangeness, the more we come to accept it. Plus there's fun to be had in the way he speaks of himself (in the third person) and what we really might think:
“Hercule Poirot does not run the risk of disarranging his costume without being sure of attaining his object. To do so would be ridiculous and absurd. I am never ridiculous.”
Agatha Christie, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, p. 95.
His first appearance is characteristically odd: he throws a marrow at Sheppard (p. 21). It's a nicely unassuming entrance. If we already know his name and reputation, that puts us one step ahead of the narrator who underestimates him.

Just as with Styles, Poirot is in the vicinity by chance, having moved into the house next door to the doctor just in time for the murder. In fact, it's surprising that Poirot is never a suspect himself.

I've noticed that Christie likes playing with the "rules" of the detective story - in other whodunnits I know of, she reveals the detective committed the murder, or that all the suspects did it together, or... But I don't wish to spoil things if you don't already know...

Once more in Ackroyd we're given insights into how the great man cracks a case. As he tells us himself, it's all down to:
“Method, order and the little grey cells ... Then there is the psychology of the crime. One must study that.”
Ibid., pp. 81-2.
Psychology is important. I was impressed by what seemed a very modern understanding of post-traumatic shock when Mrs Ackroyd speaks of reckless young Ralph:
“But, of course, one must remember that Ralph was in several air raids as a young boy. The results are apparent long after, sometimes, they say.”
Ibid., p. 122.
(Though, if this is set in 1926, I'm a bit confused by how old Ralph is meant to be if he was a "young boy" during air-raids that started in 1915.)

The Dr - who is much more versed in murder than I am - says the psychological element is what most strikes her about Christie: not merely the whodunnit, but the understanding of people, and why someone might be driven to kill.

It's interesting, then, that we never get inside Poirot's head. He contends that everyone has something to hide and it's just a question of rooting out the whole tangle of secrets to work out who is the murderer. But if that's true, I found myself thinking, then Poirot himself must have something wicked to hide. So what's Poirot's secret? Not the nephew with mental health issues that he mentions a couple of times: that's a lie concocted to get other people to speak.

In fact, we know very little about him - just that he was a famous as a detective. Note that past tense. Given Christie would publish Poirot stories for another 50 years, it's odd to find that he's just retired in this one.
“They say he's done the most wonderful things – just like detectives do in books. A year ago he retired and came to live down here. Uncle knew who he was, but he promised not to tell anyone, because M. Poirot wanted to live quietly without being bothered by people.”
Ibid., p. 65.
Note, too, the off-hand use of “like in books”, to suggest reality. Later, Poirot himself says,
“In all probability this is the last case I shall ever investigate”
Ibid., p. 124.
Last time, I compared Poirot to Sherlock Holmes - and it's interesting that Conan-Doyle also had Holmes retire decades before he stopped writing new stories for him. Why? What does retirement confer on the detective? I suppose there's an advantage to being no longer professional, and less involved in the formal inquiry. That spares the author the heavy lifting of a police procedural.

More than that, an emeritus detective can take a step back from the case and make moral judgments as a private citizen rather than as a public servant. That makes it somehow less objectionable if they then give a sympathetic culprit a chance to escape or to kill themselves before the ignominy of trial.

Whatever the case, it's not to make Poirot a reluctant hero, forced to come back for one final job. The first time we see him in the book, he's hankering after the old days:
“But you can figure to yourself, monsieur, that a man may work towards a certain object, may labour and toil to attain a certain kind of leisure and occupation, and then find that, after all, he yearns for the old busy days, and the old occupations that he thought himself so glad to leave?”
Ibid., p. 21.
A lot of the book is taken up with conversations as different characters give their evidence or share their latest theories. That could get wearing, but Christie skillfully keeps these scenes short and sets them in different locations. I especially liked a sequence set during a game of Mah-Jong, the mechanics of play breaking up all the exposition. The book is itself a game, but again the tone is jarring: at once its comic and light, and then there's a blunt description of a corpse or the ruination of someone's whole life.

If the characters are largely archetypes and ciphers - playing pieces in the game - they can seem a bit glib and inconsequential. That's most telling in the casual racism, such as when a character receives a note from a creditor with a Scottish name.
“They [creditors] are usually Scotch gentlemen, but I suspect a Semitic strain in their ancestry.”
Ibid., p. 136.
One character, Charles Kent - perhaps because he has spent time in America and picked up peculiar phrasing - even refers to Poirot as a “foreign cock duck” (p. 172).

Speaking of foreigners, we learn that Captain Hastings is not merely indisposed for this adventure but now lives in “the Argentine” (p. 22). That seems rather drastic. Like in a soap opera, it's as if a major character can't just leave the series by moving to another part of town but must go to the ends of earth. In a soap, that strategy explains why that character never appears in the soap again and is barely ever mentioned. In Ackroyd, it establishes that Hastings won't make a sudden appearance or contribute to the solution. Or am I reading too much into it?

It's difficult to say much more about the story without spoiling the ingenious mystery. Unfortunately, I already knew the ending but the reveal is still brilliantly done. Without spoiling things, the ending is bleak and haunting, and I found myself picking over it for days. But for what is set-up as a fun parlour game, this is a cold and cruel story. And, for all his eccentricities, I've not yet warmed to Poirot.

Next on my list: Miss Marple's debut in The Thirteen Problems.

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