The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is one of those books where the ending was spoiled for me long before I ever picked it up, and in this case that pretty seriously affected my reading of the book. So my discussion will assume you know who murdered Roger Ackroyd, and if you don’t want to find out—well, read at your own peril.
The interesting thing about The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, and the reason I read it, is that the first-person narrator, Dr. James Sheppard, is the murderer. He tells the whole story of blackmail, murder, and Hercule Poirot’s investigation while covering up all traces of his own crime from the reader. Knowing that would be the case from the outset, I was struck with how elegantly Agatha Christie wrote such an unusual point of view. When Sheppard leaves Ackroyd on the night of his murder:
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.
A strange feeling, to know that right there Ackroyd was killed, and yet not be able to piece together how it had all been worked out until the end. In a certain type of detective story, it’s impossible for the reader to identify whodunnit because necessary clues are withheld; this is the really the ultimate example of that technique. Details are actually strategically withheld by the narrator himself because he is the criminal.
It leaves you hanging on the tiniest details; when Sheppard says “‘No,’ I said truthfully,” one little word gives the most tantalizing hint about the mystery.
Sheppard knows he has done a good job at writing his detective story. At the end, when all has come out, he boasts, “I am rather pleased with myself as a writer. What could be neater, for instance, than” the first passage quoted above?
All true, you see. But suppose I had put a row of stars after the first sentence! Would somebody then have wondered what exactly happened in that blank ten minutes?
For me the pleasure was all in little tidbits like this, very well done and very fun. The mystery itself is a good one too—even knowing the killer in advance, it’s not easy to guess what’s going on behind the scenes and how the deed was done. Another hole in the mystery canon I’m happy to have filled.