The detective fiction contains the story of the crime and the story of the investigation. – Tzvetan Todorov, The Typology of Detective Fiction, 1966
Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, published in 1926 propelled her to instant literary stardom. Here was a writer, writing in the golden age of detective fiction and still managing to pull a rabbit out of the hat in terms of a plot twist. The continuing success of the book is a testimony to its genre-defining legacy. The usual tropes of the British whodunit include a pastoral setting- a small village or vacation house- where a murder is committed in seemingly impossible circumstances. A group of people close to the victim are suspects of the crime. They bear secrets that obstruct the path of justice and truth until they are revealed one by one by the amateur detective. The horror of the murder is downplayed, the victim not exactly missed by anyone or grieved. There is just the thrill of unearthing clues and unlikely secrets and witty dialogue. It has all the intrigues, scandals and blood without the nasty bits or even a nasty setting. The story essentially retraces its steps back to reconstruct how and why a crime was committed and who committed it. It is usually told in first person by an associate of the amateur detective – in whodunit terms a “Watson”.
In The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Christie doesn’t change the foundation of the tropes. In fact, she does one better. She turns the trope of the genre on their head and reveals to the shocked readers that ‘Watson’ is the murderer. Ackroyd’s murder inside a locked room with an open window and a weapon from his own collection means that the household forms the bulk of likely suspects. A stranger asking for directions to the house, at around the time of the murder, adds to the intrigue. There are too many clues that instead of helping with the investigation, delay the process. Each of the suspects, hides a secret, which Poirot must uncover in order to straighten the tangled web of clues and use his intellect to deduce the sequence of events and reveal the murderer. Along the way, he plays matchmaker to Flora and Major Blunt.
Christie’s signature trope is the revelation of the murderer by the detective who gathers all the likely suspects into a room together and narrates the complete picture of the events leading up to the crime. This involves putting the secrets he uncovered from all the suspects into their appropriate places like in a jigsaw puzzle or a game of clue. While Christie stays true to her signature trope, there are slight changes in the execution. In The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Poirot gathers all the suspects together in his cottage and narrates the sequence of events that led to the murder. He establishes the estimated time of the murder which makes Ralph the only likely suspect. However, he announces that Ralph is innocent and the murderer must come forward to save Ralph. After they leave, he narrates how he discovered the murderer to a single audience, Dr Sheppard. Playing the role of Watson, Sheppard had accompanied Poirot on most of his investigations and is privy to all the secrets of the characters and is the narrator of the story.
In retrospect, one realises that the entire book is a red herring because naturally the reader suspects everyone except the narrator. Once one reaches the end of the book and lets the revelation of Sheppard as the blackmailer and murderer seep in; one is taken aback by the games the writer and the narrator have played. Sentences start to reveal their double meaning. When Sheppard writes, “Could I do anything with the boy? I thought I could” one realises it is not helping Ralph that he is considering but effectively framing him as the murderer. As he is leaving the study he wonders, “If there was anything I had left undone. I could think of nothing”. One realises that he is not thinking about doing his best to comfort Ackroyd before leaving but rather he is wondering if the murder has been well executed or not. Poirot too plays a game of cat and mouse with Sheppard. While Sheppard’s knowledge of the crime and his control over the narrative gives him the upper hand in his choice of words, Poirot’s suspicion of the doctor without his catching up, gives Poirot an edge. In fact, the infallible Poirot is way ahead of the game. Sheppard simply follows the track of an outline he has created without changing his tactics. The doctor uses white lies or a reserve in his narrative to selectively portray a picture that benefits him. The reader keeps running after the red herrings created by a misleading narrative, though Poirot repeatedly draws the reader’s attention to Sheppard’s ‘reticence’ and warns him not to keep secrets from him. Thus, the revelation of the murderer’s real identity is a genuine shock. Ironically, the narration of the investigation is also the confession of a murderer.
Christie has been accused of breaking a major rule of Knox’s commandment by making the narrator the murderer. However, one must consider that these commandments were not set in stone. In fact, its members took the limitations as a challenge to find a loophole in them and break them like an expert. She was a brilliant puzzle maker who kept the genre dynamic by always changing her tactic. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is a fine example.
Unlike popular judgement, the pastoral settings of whodunnits are not immune to the changing times. They are a commentary on the rural English life of the inter-war years with rapidly changing social dynamics. Ralph’s marriage to the handsome and dignified parlour maid, Ursula Bourne, is indicative of the weakening barrier between the social classes. Ursula is a woman of modern sensibilities. While Mrs Russell has the conspicuous bearing of a lady, Ursula’s dignity and self-possession come from a genuine sense of independence and a good education. Christie artfully mocks the frivolity of the gentile class when Caroline asks Ursula if she became a maid to win a wager. The dignified and self-respecting girl replies “for a living” without humour. The text also exposes the precarious position of dependents like Mrs Ackroyd, Flora and Ralph who have the bearings and the lifestyle of the rich but are poorer than the servants due to their total dependence on rich relatives. The pastoral of the whodunit has been befittingly called a microcosm of British society, in a limited range.
Detective fiction has been critiqued time and again for endorsing the belief that criminality is a genetic flaw, independent of social influence. Raymond Chandler comments on the “depressing way [it minds] its own business, solving its own problems and answering its own questions.” This text is no different. Sheppard’s crime is simply the crime of a weak man. Locating criminality in a single individual offers a convenient solution to root out evil. Because they are isolated cases of bad seeds which can be weeded out for the peace and security of society to be restored. This escapism, however, has not reduced the popularity of the genre; it remains the most popular genre, with a diverse readership. The popularity of detective fiction grew after the first world war when Europe was coming to terms with the trauma of war, the resulting economic decay, swift changing social dynamics and the modern condition. The detective fiction genre offered them escape. The plot has a concrete beginning – a murder is discovered- and a concrete end- the murderer is revealed and the status quo is restored. There are none of the ambiguities and complexities of real life. It is simply a clever puzzle with an interesting plot and a narrative set in a picturesque location. No wonder Christie’s whodunnits are called cozy crime.