Gossip and the English Village
In a tight-knit village like King’s Abbot, where everyone knows everyone, gossip is a major means of transmitting information within the community. Nothing seems to remain hidden for long. News of Mrs Ferrars’ suicide spreads like wild fire even before the doctor’s final diagnosis. Though a vice in ordinary times, Poirot recognises the usefulness of gossip at a time like this and uses it to serve his purpose; to extract the truth from rumours or to spread rumours to suit his purposes. In fact, more information is sourced from Caroline’s gossip than Sheppard’s selective (and manipulated) contribution of information. Poirot learns about Ralph seen talking to a woman and a lot of other things from her.
Nature vs. Nurture
Christie continues the age-old debate of what makes a criminal a criminal- an inherent genetic flaw(nature) or the environment he grew up in (nurture)? Whodunnits usually prefer the explanation that criminality is an individual trait, independent of the criminal’s life experiences or influences while growing up. In the book, the inherent weakness of character is a recurring theme. It doesn’t matter that Ralph Paton was provided a good education or a good childhood, the doctor claims his weakness is a character flaw inherited from his dipsomaniac mother. Talking about weaknesses, Caroline tells Poirot that Sheppard is weak as water and it is her influence that keeps him out of harm’s way. It is apparent that her nurture has failed to curb the excesses of his weak nature.
Secrets Can Be Dangerous
There is an abundance of secrets in the book. The story opens with a suicide committed in order to disclose a secret that has taken its toll on its bearer. Sheppard knew that Mrs Ferrars poisoned her husband. Instead of reporting it to the police, he chooses to blackmail her. Thus, the doctor becomes complicit in the murder. He murders Ackroyd in cold blood to prevent his disgraceful secret from being discovered. One secret breeds another, leads to a murder and a horde of lies that ultimately lead to his ruin. All the characters have secrets- some big, some small-that complicates the process of unearthing the identity of Ackroyd’s killer. These secrets manifest themselves in the characters’ behaviour, muddling evidence. Naturally everyone is a likely suspect. Secrets breed mistrust and misunderstandings that harm relationships and future prospects. Miss Russell’s secret leads to a strained relationship with her son. Secrets torture the soul and revelation sets it free. Flora feels relief and not shame when her lie and consequently her theft is discovered. Blunt gains a fiancé when he confesses his love to Flora. Ralph can finally be together with the one he truly loves- Ursula Bourne- when the secret of his marriage is finally revealed. However, sometimes a well-intentioned secret can save a person’s memory of someone. Poirot promises Sheppard that he will keep his crimes a secret from his beloved sister to save her from disgrace and a lifetime of pain.
Hercule Poirot’s Method
The importance of employing a logical explanation of one’s ideas/intuition is emphasised in the difference between Poirot and Caroline. Essentially, Caroline is a foil to Poirot’s character. From the very beginning of the story, she intuitively guesses the truth of a matter. For instance, she predicts the existence of Mrs Ferrars’ suicide letter. However, her “inspired guesswork” never evolves into anything more. Where Poirot bases his deductions on impeccable logic; she is satisfied with providing provocative suggestions. Her intuition tells her Miss Russell is “fishy” but she doesn’t try to reason why. Poirot’s intuition leads to a search for a logical explanation that reveals she is not as upright as she presents herself. While Caroline simply opines her intuitive abstracts, Poirot employs method, logic, the grey cells of his and psychoanalysis to substantiate his intuition. Poirot’s tactics to get at the truth of the matter seem ridiculous to the other characters and the readers, at times. His insistence on the position of the chair and his preoccupation with the colour of Ralph’s boots seems irrelevant at first but reveals an inner logic at the end. For instance, the association of Charles Kent’s last name to the city of Kent sounds like bad logic to both Sheppard and Inspector Raglan. They think Poirot has simply lost his mind. But he is proved right at the end. Neither the characters nor the readers fully know Poirot’s reason for doing something until he reveals it to them at the end. Christie firmly builds Poirot’s character around his ‘method’- found in every novel where Poirot appears. Unlike Caroline’s interest in scandal mongering and the pleasure of the shock of a revelation, he is genuinely interested in the study of humanity. Ultimately, what differentiates the two is Poirot’s superior intelligence and method.
Ethics vs State Sponsored Morality
Agatha Christie draws a sharp distinction between the motivations of Poirot and the police in their courses of investigation. The police pursue the case of Ackroyd’s killer in order to uphold the moral laws of the land. Poirot is more interested in the truth, follows his own path and answers only to his own set of ethics. He will go to any length to uncover the truth. He lies to unearth a truth when necessary. He doesn’t hesitate to publish an untruth in the newspaper to smoke out Ralph Paton’s wife. Poirot invents a mentally unbalanced nephew to locate the asylum where Sheppard could have hidden Ralph. It is this flexibility that makes people share their secrets with him, as he is more humane compared to the cold, impersonal dealings of the law. The truth is more important to him than the law, justice a greater priority than meeting the moral standards of the land. This is evident in the end, when he gives Sheppard the choice to kill himself to save his beloved sister from disgrace. Justice is meted out without compromising the dignity of the surviving relative. There is emotional logic to his justice that the state’s courthouses will never be able to replicate.