"The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd" came highly recommended as an antidote to my fairly disappointing read of the 1966 Poirot novel, "Third Girl", I'd been told that the "Murder of Roger Ackroyd" written forty years earlier when both Poirot and Christie were in their prime, would give me a taste of the real thing. Nevertheless, I was unprepared for just how excellent this book is.
The writing is assured and confident. The murder mystery is a peculiar and ingenious variant of a locked room mystery with a wide variety of possible villains and some surprising plot twists.
What drew me into the book from the first page was Agatha Christie's decision to forego the authorial voice and tell the tale entirely through the eyes of James Sheppard, the village Doctor.
Sheppard is a keen but dispassionate observer of his fellow man. He lives with his sister, who is plugged into all the local gossip and he is the first person called to the scene of the murder around which the plot revolves. Sheppard's eye for detail and his amused and sometimes disdainful assessment of the rather odd little Belgian man who has recently come to live next door to him in gives a fresh view of Poirot. It also sets up Sheppard and Poirot as a rough analogue of Watson and Holmes, slipping me into a comfortable and familiar dynamic.
For most of the book, I was entertained by the story and impressed by the craft that went into setting up a series of surprising revelations and the gradual but inexorable netting of all the red herrings swimming through the plot. I was also surprised an pleased by the compassion that Poirot demonstrated for the people whose lives he was dissecting. The tone of this book was far more forgiving than I was used to from Agatha Christie.
Following convention faithfully, we moved on to the Great Reveal and I settled down to discover all the clues I'd missed that would lead me, through the application of method and the little grey cells, to the name of the killer.
The reveal Agatha Christie gave me was a surprise on every level. It transformed my understanding of the novel I had just read, not only in terms of who committed the dastardly deed but in terms of Christie's whole intent with the book.
What I had taken for an accomplished but conventional amateur sleuth locked-room murder mystery was something quite different and much more subversive. It managed, while respecting, and even excelling at using, the cosy conventions of the genre, to deliver something much darker and much more surprising.
I don't want to give the plot away so I'll just say that it had the same effect on my perceptions as the first time that I saw the Double Slit experiment and discovered, from a single set of observations, that light was both a wave and a particle. "The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd" is both a classic golden age locked room mystery and an early example of an exploration of the amoral mind of a murderous sociopath.
At this point, I wanted to applaud, but doing that when you're alone in your room seemed a step too far, so let me do it here instead. BRAVO, Agatha Christie.
If she had written no other book, I believe "The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd" would have secured her place as a gifted writer with a stunningly original mind and a deep understanding of the banality of evil.
I listened to the audiobook version, narrated by Hugh Fraser, who seemed to me to be the perfect fit for Doctor Sheppard. You can hear a sample of his work by clicking on the SoundCloud link below.