Monday, June 06, 2011

'Ackroyd' Was One of Christie's Best

It was 85 years ago this month that Agatha Christie published the book that made her famous — "The Murder of Roger Ackroyd."

It wasn't her first murder mystery — although it was one of her first books. It wasn't the debut of her most famous (and, arguably, most popular as well) character, Hercule Poirot. Yet, even to this day, it is regarded by many as her masterpiece. In July 1999, Le Monde ranked it #49 on its list of the Top 100 books of the 20th century.

It was somewhat controversial when it was published, too, because it featured an unexpected twist at the end. In an example of what is known as the "unreliable narrator," the narrator of the story (and assistant to Poirot in this book) turned out to be the murderer.

Now, unreliable narrators are nothing new. Probably the earliest example I can recall is the Wife of Bath's tale in Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales," which was written in the 14th century, and there have been others.

But they were not terribly common in 1926. Prior to that time, most detective fiction provided all the clues that were necessary for the reader to come to the correct conclusion about who done it.

That was considered the standard for detective fiction.

Murder mysteries have long been known for the "red herrings" that authors use to distract readers from more important, more relevant information. In a sense, I suppose an unreliable narrator is sort of a red herring — but not really.

Unreliable narrators are deceptive because they deliberately leave out details that make them look suspicious; thus, readers are misled by omission. A red herring is something that usually is factually accurate — it is just misinterpreted. The deception is the result of the readers' logic and assumptions.

Unreliable narrators really only work if they remain credible until their deception is revealed at the end. And, in that regard, country doctor James Sheppard serves the purpose admirably.

Some critics at the time thought it was not fair to deceive the readers — although "The Murder of Roger Ackroyd" and countless crime novels since have demonstrated how effective the device is.

The story opened with a murder — literally.

Its very first sentence was "Mrs. Ferrars died on the night of the 16th–17th September — a Thursday." Mrs. Ferrars was a well–to–do widow whose death was attributed to a drug overdose in an apparent suicide.

Although the book is 85 years old — and occasionally uses language that is unfamiliar to 21st century ears — it is a very reader–friendly book. One can easily read it in a single afternoon.

The book also displayed some humorous — if understated — writing.

Early on, for example, the narrator describes his conversation about the crime scene with his sister — who has her fingers on the pulse of everything that happens in their village.

The narrator discusses how his sister had already heard most of the details from other sources, but she didn't know everything.

She didn't know the cause of death, and she asked him about it.
"Didn't the milkman tell you that?" I inquired sarcastically.

But sarcasm is wasted on Caroline. She takes it seriously and answers accordingly. "He didn't know," she explained.

Agatha Christie
"The Murder of Roger Ackroyd" (1926)

To the readers of the time — and, I presume, it is the same for any first–time readers who may pick it up today — "The Murder of Roger Ackroyd" had the appearance of a conventional murder mystery.

It was set in a sleepy English village, a place "rich in unmarried ladies and retired military officers," and it had a rather typical assortment of potential suspects for a murder mystery. In that regard, the story must have seemed almost formulaic to readers in the 1920s.

But, since "The Murder of Roger Ackroyd" was only her sixth book, Christie's readers could not have known that she was always looking for new ways to trick her readers — or suspected that she might be about to pull the best trick of her still–young career.

Christie did a brilliant job of presenting each character, through the eyes of the seemingly reliable narrator — and, even if the narrator had not proven to be unreliable in the end, "The Murder of Roger Ackroyd" probably would be remembered as one of Christie's best works.

The fact that the narrator turned out to be guilty was legitimate, said fellow mystery writer Dorothy Sayers, who came to Christie's defense and scolded her critics — "[F]ooled you!" she said. "[I]t is the reader's business to suspect everybody."

That is what I find particularly delightful about reading that book today — assumptions were encouraged because it was normal then, as it is now, to make them, and it is intriguing to see how even the slightest manipulation of language can promote a radically different conclusion.

From the perspective of a writer, I appreciate the way Christie carefully selected certain phrases that were intended to deceive even though they were never absolutely false.

Was Christie's tale fair, as Sayers said? Read it for yourself.