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Monday, October 3, 2016

The Clues to The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

Agatha Christie’s tour de force The Murder of Roger Ackroyd has been acclaimed since its 1926 publication for its ingenious way of concealing the criminal while laying every single obvious clue out on the table for the reader to consider, and if as ingenious as the author, to interpret rightly to identify the killer. That most readers fail to do so is a testament to her skill.

If you have not read the book, you might not want to spoil it by reading this essay. The book really is a gauntlet thrown down to all readers who think they are clever, to ask them to behave with honesty and read without peeking, without looking anything up, without doing anything but considering the clues in the text of the novel as the author meant them to be seen, and to figure everything out before the end of the novel.

I did not figure it out until nearly the end, but in rereading the novel lately, I discovered to my chagrin that everything I needed to know was given me as early as chapter 4, when the murder actually occurs. Here’s what I thought were the telling clues.

In chapter 1, Dr. Sheppard and his sister Caroline discuss the death of Mrs. Ferrars. Caroline is introduced disparagingly as an unregenerate snoop, in terms that immediately seek to engage the sympathy of the reader against her as a reliable witness. The doctor is given the sympathetic treatment, narrating in the first person, but a curious pattern emerges from their interchange. Dr. Sheppard says, “I have got into the habit of continually withholding all information possible from my sister,” a statement we should immediately consider carefully as we should notice when they have finished their conversation that he has told us nothing but what Caroline has forced him to tell. He tries to convince us that Caroline is wrong about Mrs. Ferrars poisoning her husband before he reveals to us that Mrs. Ferrars died of an overdose of veronel, which she possibly took on purpose. He either counters or disparages all of Caroline’s statements of fact or deductions from the facts. The first four pages of the novel consist of one narrative being denied credibility by the second narrative, and astonishingly the narrator admits at the end of the chapter that the unreliable witness is likely telling the truth, but he has done his work so well that we don’t even notice his concession by that point. We feel that Caroline’s words are questionable at best. If we had read more carefully, we would know at the end of chapter 1 that the doctor is an unreliable narrator who seeks to withhold the truth from everyone, not just Caroline. But we are flattered into thinking we are in the doctor’s confidence.

During chapter 2 the doctor reveals something that will be very important shortly: “I had no cases of special interest to attend, which was, perhaps, as well . . . .” This means he was free to come and go as he chose, and that’s an important consideration when he uses the excuse of a tricky confinement coming up to explain why in chapter 4 he took his black bag to the dinner at the Ackroyd’s. From those two little statements we learn that the doctor is not above lying, perhaps telling the little white lies, but lying to cover up his true motives. We ought to be very much on our guard and suspicious of everything he says. In chapter 7 he again reiterates that he had no pressing cases—so we learn that the confinement was definitely a lie.

Also in chapter 2, there’s an important syntactical clue. In discussing Mrs. Ferrars, he says, “When had I last seen her? Not for over a week. Her manner then had been normal enough considering—well considering everything.” That dash. The repetition of “considering.” The vague and tantalizing word “everything.” This is a huge clue that the doctor is hiding very significant pieces of information from us as well as from Caroline. As the doctor of the woman who just died, he is the one person who could have been expected to know for certain what the woman died of, how she possibly took the drug, and should have been able to guess why if he didn’t actually know already.

Chapter 3 introduces Hercule Poirot to the cast of characters of this novel. It’s a comic presentation, with Poirot angrily throwing a vegetable marrow [a zucchini squash to those in the U.S.] over the fence and nearly hitting the doctor, and the subsequent scene highlighting Poirot’s comic idiosyncrasies. It has the effect of mitigating the mass of important information we should have been analyzing in the first two chapters. It’s a masterful distraction in the hands of a master at sleight-of-hand. And it includes a very important clue to the doctor’s motivation. He says he received a legacy about a year ago and that he lost it in financial speculation of a type that Poirot associates with his gullible friend Hastings. We don’t see any other evidence of the doctor’s character flaw except this—his confession that he is greedy. The reference to Captain Hastings is another distraction from the point. We think fondly of Hastings and fail to consider that this Dr. Sheppard could be badly greedy, not comically gullible.

Had we not been so easily distracted, when in chapter 4 Roger Ackroyd reveals to Dr. Sheppard that Mrs. Ferrars was being blackmailed by someone close by, we might have wondered about Dr. Sheppard’s “legacy” and greed. We might have wondered about his grudging admission that Caroline was right about most things, including that Mrs. Ferrars poisoned her husband and then committed suicide because of it. We might have realized that if he had been holding back vital information from us, why wouldn’t he hold it back from Roger Ackroyd? We might have realized that the most logical person to be in the position to blackmail Mrs. Ferrars was the doctor himself.

And then we might have wondered about the clever omission the doctor practices in chapter 4: “The letter had been brought in at twenty minutes to nine. It was just on 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. I could think of nothing. With a shake of the head I passed out and closed the door behind me.” Not only does he pass over how he left Roger Ackroyd, he provides a subtle clue by changing from active voice to passive and back to active again when the dangerous part has been described in vague terms. In addition, he should have been using the subjunctive mood for his wonder, but he uses the indicative instead. Is this another clue that what happened was something not in the realms of the subjunctive, but of deadly reality? I think we can take it as fact.

The next number of chapters expand all the red herrings to full size and obscure our views of what occurred.

In case we have been confused, in chapter 17 Agatha Christie clearly has Poirot answer Caroline Sheppard’s assertion that her brother James is fundamentally a weak person with a complete summary of the case for James being the murderer. Most readers have by this time been blinded by the Ralph Paton red herring and think that Poirot is talking about Ralph. But here is what Poirot proposes to the siblings:
“Let us take a man—a very ordinary man. A man with no idea of murder in his heart. There is in him somewhere a strain of weakness—deep down. It has so far never been called into play. Perhaps it never will be—and if so he will go to his grave honored and respected by every one. But let us suppose that something occurs. He is in difficulties—or perhaps not that even. He may stumble by accident on a secret—a secret involving life or death to some one. And his first impulse will be to speak out—to do his duty as an honest citizen. And then the strain of weakness tells. Here is a chance of money—a great amount of money. He wants money—he desires it—and it is so easy. He has to do nothing for it—just keep silence. That is the beginning. The desire for money grows. He must have more—and more! He is intoxicated by the gold mine which has opened at his feet. He becomes greedy. And in his greed he overreaches himself. One can press a man as far as one likes—but with a woman one must not press too far. . . . . And so there came your proverb, the death of the goose that laid the golden eggs. But that is not the end. Exposure faced the man of whom we are speaking. And he is not the same man he was—say, a year ago. His moral fiber is blunted. He is desperate. He is fighting a losing battle, and he is prepared to take any means that come to his hand, for exposure means ruin to him. And so—the dagger strikes!”
Finally, if we still have been blinded by all the subterfuge in the masterful organization and power of language of the great mystery author, she gives us a conclusive clue before Poirot convenes all the suspects. In chapter 23 when he tells Caroline and James that he knows who did the deed, he refuses to allow Caroline to come to his house to see him unmask the killer. He gives the clumsy excuse that the killer will be there, and he does not want her to see—but he allows many other innocent people to come too. The only possible reason for excluding Caroline is that Poirot mercifully does not want her to have to find out about her brother that way. Meanwhile, in James Sheppard’s cruel style, he compares his sister standing on the doorstep watching them go to a dog that has been denied a walk. If we ever felt sympathy for him, we should have stopped at last at that sentence.

These clues presented to us by the novelist create a much different line of logical deduction than that presented by Hercule Poirot in chapters 25 and 26 when he explains how he figured things out. He targets the time difference in James Sheppard’s narrative as being his first solid clue. Dr. Sheppard said that he left the Ackroyd house at exactly 9, hearing the church clock strike. But then he took a full ten minutes to walk a distance that could be covered in two or three minutes easily. From that discrepancy, Poirot notes that two facts contain the key to the identity of the murderer: the fact that there was a telephone call to the doctor to tell him of the death of Roger Ackroyd, and the fact that the high-backed grandfather chair had been pulled out from the wall to obscure the table by the window in the study where Roger Ackroyd died, and nobody confessed to moving it out or moving it back in place.

Putting those facts together with the knowledge that Dr. Sheppard visited Ralph Paton twice, that Ralph Paton turned out to be married to the parlor maid Ursula Bourne, that Flora Ackroyd never entered the study, and that a salesman offered a dictaphone to Roger Ackroyd recently, Poirot puts together the complete puzzle.

But did we readers get it before he presents it to us? We might have “got it” within the final three chapters. But I wonder how many readers honestly saw the light long before poor Caroline was left on that doorstep.

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