First Books: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926)

I discovered Agatha Christie relatively late in my game: my sophomore year in high school. By that time, my science fiction and fantasy phase was sputtering out — Stephen R. Donaldson’s too-long Chronicles of Thomas Covenant was pretty much the last straw for me — and I turned almost on a whim to mysteries.

I started with a few Sherlock Homes novels, but while I respected Doyle as the innovator, Holmes himself quickly annoyed me. He always seemed to have these conveniently wacky expertises, most of which we as readers never knew about until they were suddenly needed to solve the case, at which point we learned Holmes had written the definitive treatise on earlobe shapes or candle wax or mustaches or whatever. Watson may have been left by Jove!-ing about what a genius Holmes was, but it never seemed fair to me.

Agatha Christie was different. While she generally used the same Holmes-Watson dynamic to tell her Hercule Poirot stories, Poirot’s sidekick, Captain Hastings, always had the same information that Poirot, and readers, needed to solve the mystery. Hastings, of course, never did, and with one exception (The Patriotic Murders), neither did I.

Which brings me to The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. It wasn’t the first Agatha Christie book I ever read (that would be The ABC Murders), but it was the First Book That Ever Left Me With My Mouth Hanging Open in Amazement — and started my love affair with Agatha Christie novels.

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926) brings Hercule Poirot to a small English village following not just one death, but two: the first is the wealthy widow Ferrars, who is rumored to have killed her first husband, is likely being blackmailed, and is thought to be a suicide victim . . . until Ferrar’s secret lover, the equally wealthy widower Roger Ackroyd, is also found dead. Nearly everyone stands to gain from the deaths, and Poirot — this time sidekicked by Dr. Sheppard — unravels an unexpected motive with an equally surprising killer.

This is the book — only her seventh — that made Agatha Christie famous, and which very nearly got her kicked out of the British mystery writers’ Detection Club on charges that she had violated the rules of fair play. Only the dissenting vote of Dorothy L. Sayers (who allegedly said “Fair! And fooled you!”) kept Christie in the organization.

Remarkably, for a book that’s now more than eighty years old, mystery readers have done their part to keep the ending a surprise (consider it The Sixth Sense of mystery novels), but not everyone has been so accommodating. Years ago, TIME magazine casually gave away the ending, and Christie fans never let them hear the end of it.

If you’ve never read it, go find it, read it, and marvel at the expertise of a master storyteller at her craft. But if you tell me you figured out who the killer was, I won’t believe you. And if you continue to insist that you did, I’ll punch you on the arm. Hard. Because you didn’t.

One response to “First Books: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926)

  1. Josephine Damian

    But if you tell me you figured out who the killer was, I won’t believe you. And if you continue to insist that you did, I’ll punch you on the arm. Hard. Because you didn’t.

    Is that a dare, mister?! You know I’m a real-life sleuth in training, don’t you?! It’s hard to fool me! OK. Since I haven’t read Agatha since I was a kid, I’ll check out this book and let you know.