Mystery novels employ misdirection by definition. Clues and evidence have to be carefully arranged within the story and revealed in such as way that they’re not too conspicuous— and planted among strategically placed red herrings. I think I just mixed a metaphor; my point is that mysteries feature a layer of casual, friendly dishonesty between the author and reader that, in other genres, would not be tolerated.
Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is the most shamelessly dishonest novel ever written.
Technically, it’s probably the greatest work of mystery fiction of all time. A few years ago, England’s Crime Writer’s Association named it the greatest crime novel ever, and it’s hard to argue against that. It’s also a great work of literary post-modern decadent recursive fiction, taking its place alongside Nabokov’s Pale Fire, Eco’s The Name of the Rose, Huysmans’s À Rebours, and Bushmiller’s Nancy. In many ways it’s better than any of those works because you really only have to read it one and a half times to “get it” (once you know the twist you really only need to go back and re-read a handful of chapters), but if you want to think of it as a literary puzzle on top of a crime puzzle, you can spend as many hours as you like dissecting away.
Very early in my reading the book I concluded that Caroline Sheppard was the murderer of Roger Ackroyd. And, despite what the infernal villain Hercule Poirot would have you believe, I’m more convinced than ever that I’m right, and that Poirot has perpetrated a horrible crime all in an effort to make himself appear lovable and brilliant.
Dr. Sheppard, Caroline’s brother, is the quintessential “unreliable narrator.” In fact, he’s even good enough to actually CALL ATTENTION TO HIS LIES. In the final chapter he says:
“I am rather pleased with myself as a writer. What could be neater, for instance, than, the following [here he recounts a passage from an earlier chapter]… All true, you see. But suppose I had put a row of stars after the first sentence! Would somebody have wondered what exactly happened in that blank ten minutes?”
He could be bragging. Then again, he could be protecting someone. Then again, maybe he didn’t even write the final chapter at all.
In the story, as allegedly recounted by Dr. Sheppard, Roger Ackroyd is murdered after confiding in Dr. Sheppard that Mrs. Ferrars, whom Ackroyd hoped to marry, was being blackmailed right before she died, apparently by suicide. Mrs. Ferrars confided this to Ackroyd but did not tell him the name of the blackmailer. This information she waited to reveal in a letter that Ackroyd received that day. Dr. Sheppard is with Ackroyd when he gets this letter, but Ackroyd asks Dr. Sheppard to leave the room before he will read the letter. Dr. Sheppard leaves, returns home, and about an hour later Dr. Sheppard receives a phone call, supposedly from Ackroyd’s butler Parker saying that Ackroyd has been murdered.
I won’t go over the entire plot of the novel. You can— and should!— read it yourself. Let’s talk about the killer— Caroline Sheppard. She is the busybody gossip queen of King’s Abbot. Early in the first chapter, the narrator says of her,
“Caroline can do any amount of finding out by sitting placidly at home. I don’t know how she manages it, but there it is. I suspect that the servants and the tradesmen constitute her Intelligence Corps.”
He then adds— as if to cover something:
“When she goes out, it is not to gather information, but to spread it. At that, too, she is amazingly expert.”
So we discover that Caroline has an almost supernatural ability to uncover secrets. Oh and by the way— she also spreads those secrets; she DOES NOT keep them to herself. So says the narrator. Then, in chapter sixteen, during a game of Mah Jong at which several characters are gathered (and gossiping), Caroline says this:
“I’ve got an idea of my own about Ralph Paton… But I’m keeping it to myself for the present.”
So she says she can keep a secret. Or at least a theory. But later in that same chapter, she reveals her “idea”:
“You know that big map of the county we have in the hall?… As M. Poirot was going out the other day, he stopped and looked at it, and he made some remark… Something about Cranchester being the only big town anywhere near us… But after he had gone it came to me suddenly… Of course Ralph is in Cranchester.”
Upon hearing his sister’s “theory” about the whereabouts of Ackroyd’s stepson Captain Ralph Paton, the narrator says,
“It was at that moment that I knocked down the rack that held my pieces.”
He was nervous— because his sister, by relaying this “theory” of hers, was in fact fishing for information. She was using her incredible information-extracting skills to find Paton, who represented a lose end in her master criminal plan. The one lose-end. Remember that she is one who overhears the conversation between Paton and parlormaid Ursula Bourne, so she knows that Paton has a motive for murder (she claims— or the narrator claims that she claims— not to have seen who Paton was speaking to at The Three Boars Inn).
Ralph Paton’s whereabouts are crucial in this. We learn in chapter twenty-four that after Ackroyd is killed, Dr. Sheppard uses his position as a doctor to send Paton— whose secret marriage to Ursula made his potential inheritance from Ackroyd doubtful— to stay in a nursing home.
Dr. Sheppard doesn’t kill Paton. He sends him to stay in “a home for the mentally unfit.”
Poirot, enamored of his “tiny grey cells,” spends much of the book straining to hear the applause of his audience. In fact, on two occasions in the book he calls suspects together so they can watch him work. This is a little man with a flair for the dramatic and confidence in his abilities. At the second gathering, he informs the suspects that he has received a telegram from a steamer on its way to the United States. This telegram contains information which allegedly points to the identity of the killer. He then says that he will give this information to Inspector Raglan, who is the official in charge of the investigation, UNLESS THE KILLER CONFESSES THEIR CRIME. In chapter twenty-four, Poirot phrases this strangely. First he says,
“You see what I mean? No? Just this— to save Captain Paton the real criminal must confess.”
That assumes that a blackmailer and murderer can have a conscience to which he could appeal. YOU WOULDN’T WANT THIS INNOCENT PERSON TO HANG FOR YOUR CRIMES, WOULD YOU?
Later, the narrator writes this:
‘He leaned forward, and suddenly his voice and his whole personality changed. He suddenly became dangerous.
“I who speak to you—I know the murderer of Mr. Ackroyd is in this room now. It is to the murderer I speak. Tomorrow the truth goes to Inspector Rgalan. You understand?”’
No doubt, the egomaniac Poirot would be flattered to be described as “dangerous,” but he’s probably too narcissistic to understand exactly what Dr. Sheppard meant. Which was why Poirot didn’t edit that sentence before publishing it. What Poirot has done is to directly threaten someone, while also, for some reason, making an appeal to conscience. This is a bizarre and contradictory tactic— unless you’ve got no offing idea what the hell you’re talking about.
Regardless, Dr. Sheppard apparently doesn’t want to take the chance.
Maybe he knows Caroline is guilty of the murder of Roger Ackroyd. Maybe he witnessed it himself. Maybe he saw her, covered in blood, and helped her to clean it off. Maybe when he left Ackroyd’s home he arranged for someone to call him from King’s Abbot Station, setting the whole thing in motion. We don’t know. We do know that Dr. Sheppard is pressured to confess to the crimes. We also know that everything that Dr. Sheppard knew could be known by his gossipy sister. He also knew that mad Poirot, renowned for his deductive skills and a friend to the Inspector, first became suspicious of Dr. Sheppard based on an incredibly flimsy piece of deduction, from chapter twenty-six (laughably titled “And Nothing But the Truth”):
“It was a chilly night— not an evening a man would be inclined to dawdle; why had you taken ten minutes to do a five minutes’ walk?”
From there, Poirot builds layers of terrifying suppositions and innuendo to impugn Dr. Sheppard. And then Poirot directly threatens Dr. Sheppard:
“Remember what I said— the truth goes to Inspector Raglan in the morning. But, for the sake of your good sister, I am willing to give you the chance of another way out. There might be, for instance, an overdose of sleeping draught. You comprehend me? But Captain Ralph Paton must be cleared… I should suggest that you finish that very interesting manuscript of yours— but abandoning your former reticence.”
Poirot tells Dr. Sheppard not to confess, but to KILL HIMSELF; otherwise his sister will be smeared and slandered. He then says that before he does that, he needs to finish the manuscript that he was working on— the manuscript in which Dr. Sheppard was chronicling his exploits as Poirot’s investigative partner. What a fantastically horrifying thing to do! Poirot wants no loose ends— no one who might survive to contradict his interpretation of events. Moreover, the egomaniac wants the condemned man to produce a monument to his killer, in the form of the manuscript that Poirot knows Dr. Sheppard has been working on.
In the final chapter, Dr. Sheppard gives in, apparently writing a confession that just happens to perfectly conform to Poirot’s theory, then killing himself with poison. He does this to spare Caroline, as Poirot himself has suggested. The narrator writes:
“My greatest fear all through has been Caroline. I have fancied she might guess. Curious the way she spoke that day of my ‘strain of weakness.’
Well, she will never know the truth. There is, as Poirot said, one way out…
I can trust him. He and Inspector Raglan will manage it between them. I should not like Caroline to know. She is fond of me, and then, too, she is proud… My death will be a grief to her, but grief passes…
When I have finished writing, I shall enclose this whole manuscript in an envelope and address it to Poirot.”
Poirot tricks Dr. Sheppard into killing himself— eliminating the one person who might contradict Poirot’s nutty theory. Dr. Sheppard, who went out of his way to protect Ralph Paton is supposedly a dastardly blackmailer and murderer, and it’s all wrapped up in a convenient manuscript. And to top it all off, Dr. Sheppard kills himself in part to ensure his sister never has to learn of his “crimes.” Yet the manuscript has been published! WE HAVE READ THE MANUSCRIPT! Not only that, but Dr. Sheppard says that he IS GOING TO SEND THE MANUSCRIPT TO POIROT AFTER HE KILLS HIMSELF. Meaning that Poirot had all the time he needed to “edit” the manuscript in whatever way he wanted— to ensure that he and his “tiny grey cells” were represented by the "narrator" in the most favorable light possible. And detailing exactly how he was able to trick an innocent man into confessing to and suiciding himself for crimes committed by another.
Hercule Poirot is the unreliable editor. He is infernal. He is a fantastically egotistical villain, and he’s guilty of the murder of Dr. James Sheppard.
Quick review: The Poirot Murder of Roger Ackroyd TV adaptation is laughably bad.
If you like Agatha Christie, you'll love my mystery novels, The Misadventure of Dreama and the Rednecks and The Misadventure of the Busted Reboot, both of which are available for Kindle and in trade paperback. They're just as good as anything Christie ever wrote!
I also wrote my own "unreliable editor" novel, Whimsical Doctor Shoe. You'll love it!
I also wrote my own "unreliable editor" novel, Whimsical Doctor Shoe. You'll love it!