Almost everyone in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd has something to hide. What does the novel say about deceit by having so many “guilty” characters?
The novel suggests deception is a universal truth. By having every character be guilty of some offense, committed for love, money, greed, anger or revenge, the novel implies that people are by nature deceitful. Sometimes, as in the case of Ursula Bourne or Major Blunt, that deceit is born out of love, and other times, as in the case of Parker, that deceit is born out of greed. Regardless of the cause, deceit, the novel argues, is a natural human impulse. The question is less whether or not someone has secrets, but more the extent of those secrets and the lengths they will go to to guard them. While all the characters of the novel have secrets, they are not all criminal – rather, they are human. Only some are true criminals, and even those criminals are not sociopaths, but rather desperate people, or simply regular people with a “strain of weakness” in them (as Dr. Sheppard describes himself (p. 285)).
Although the novel contains murder, blackmail, drug abuse and suicide, there is nevertheless a lightness to its tone. How does Christie achieve this lightness, and what purpose does it serve?
Christie forgoes detailed descriptions of the murder victim and lengthy explanations of characters’ grief in order to focus instead on clues about the murderer and details about all the suspects. This makes the murder a fascinating and interesting mystery, rather than a tragedy, which serves the genre Christie is writing in. In a murder mystery, the genre Christie perfected, the object is for the reader to have fun attempting to solve the murder along with the detective – too lengthy a diversion into the reality of murder would detract from this fun.
How does Christie challenge or subvert her typical format with The Murder of Roger Ackroyd? In what ways does the novel diverge from the expected Poirot mystery?
The main way the novel diverges from a typical Poirot mystery is with the character of Dr. Sheppard. Lacking his good friend Hastings, Poirot quickly “adopts” Sheppard as a companion/chronicler, but ultimately Sheppard proves to be the anti-Hastings when revealed as the murderer in the end. In a mystery novel, the reader knows to expect that any character could be the murderer, but there is nonetheless an implicit trust in the narrator, who one assumes is objective simply by playing this role. This assumption, however, proves very dangerous – and fortunately for Poirot, is not one that he makes. His open-mindedness allows him to logically follow the clues to the murderer, who turns out to be the man he hoped would be a loyal companion. Otherwise, the novel follows the typical patterns of a mystery novel – with an unexplained death, cast of suspects and the brilliant detective who solves the crime.
Poirot says that it’s important, when investigating, to “always bear in mind that the person who speaks may be lying” (p. 149). Why is this an important attitude, and why does it help Poirot solve the murder?
Poirot’s logical approach to solving crimes is entirely objective – he treats everyone as a stranger and a suspect. He does not allow himself to get distracted by his subjective feelings, and in this way, he is not mislead by emotion. By assuming that everyone he speaks to may be lying, he forces himself to verify all statements with fact, which allows him to get at the objective truth more than any other investigator. Indeed, were he to take everyone at their word, he never would have discovered the deception that Dr. Sheppard (and all the other characters!) employed in order to save themselves. As a relative stranger to this world, he can remain impartial and trust only the facts and logic to arrive at the truth.
Poirot uses many techniques and strategies with suspects and allies when he investigates his crimes. What are some of the strategies he employs towards other people, and why are they successful?
As Dr. Sheppard explains, Poirot’s “knowledge of human nature” (p. 167) informs most of his investigative strategies. His flattery of the investigators as well as Caroline proves exactly the right technique to use with those more self-important characters to ensure they cooperate with him. The fear and guilt he inspires in his suspects when he accuses them of hiding something from him forces them to come to him of their own volition and confess their secrets. Additionally, Poirot is an expert at distraction and diversion. The “experiment” he sets up between Flora and Parker, ostensibly to determine Parker’s guilt, enlists Flora to help him with this task and thus allows him t obtain the actual truth that he wants. That is, of whether she was actually observed leaving Ackroyd’s study, or simply standing outside of it. Poirot is also an expert at concealing his deductions from others, which is extremely useful, as ihe can then formulate his theories without arousing the suspicions of any of the guilty parties.
Many of the characters in the novel profess to use “logic” in their deductions, but Poirot claims he is the only one who actually does. What is the difference between the “logic” that Poirot uses and the “logic” of other characters, like the inspectors or Dr. Sheppard?
“Logic” is a term tossed around a lot throughout the novel, but only Poirot uses pure, objective logic in his deductions. Most of the other characters who profess to use logic begin their explorations from a subjective or biased place, which ensures they will never arrive at the truth. Inspector Raglan, for example, assumes that the fingerprints he finds on the murder weapon must come from a stranger after he compares them to the fingerprints of everyone else in the house, but Poirot realizes that they could have come from Ackroyd himself. The inspector never would have considered this because it doesn’t appear to “make sense” or “be logical” when put in context of what he expects of a murder weapon. To Poirot, though, logic would dictate that if fingerprints are found, they be tested against everyone in the house, living or dead. By not allowing his preconceived notions to bias the steps he takes in his investigation, Poirot ensures that he can investigate with the purest logic, step by step.
The murderer in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is ultimately not a bloodthirsty killer or a sociopath, but an otherwise upstanding member of society. What is Christie saying about what makes a murderer by this characterization?
Poirot himself outlines the idea of "what makes a murderer" in his story on page 201. As he explains, one starts with “a very ordinary man” who happens to have a strain of weakness. Although in most cases, that weakness might never be called into play, the right confluence of events could activate it – perhaps when a weak man gets put in a difficult situation or accidentally stumbles on a secret. In this way, Christie implies that the right combination of personality and environment (nature and nurture) can create in man the impulse to kill. It is not necessarily simply a weak man, or a man put in a difficult situation, who might be moved to commit murder, but rather when a weak man is himself put in a difficult situation that the crime becomes more likely. In this same way, Flora’s weakness and need for money led her to steal, as did Ralph’s.
Discuss the power and importance of class in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, specifically with regards to the characters’ behaviors and choices.
Class plays an extremely important part of the characters’ society in the novel; indeed, it rigidly influences everyone’s behavior. The upper-class characters are restricted to “proper” and “appropriate” behavior at all times. Even when discussing and investigating murder, a level of civility dominates because of the rules of decorum of polite society that characterizes the upper class. The lower-class characters are severely restricted, and most of their decisions are based on their class. Miss Russell’s decision to hide her relationship with her son is made, in part, because she wants to keep her job, so much of which depends on her reputation. As a lower-class housekeeper, she must keep her job or face an impossible economic situation. Ralph Paton and Ursula Bourne’s relationship is kept a secret purely because of the differences in their class – Ralph knows that his upper-class stepfather would never approve of his marriage to a parlormaid.
Poirot accuses Dr. Sheppard of “keeping his personality in the background” throughout his narration. In what ways does Dr. Sheppard do this? When and how does the reader get to understand his true personality?
Throughout the novel, Dr. Sheppard appears to be a relatively neutral narrator. He recounts conversations exactly as they went, records the physical specificities of rooms, bodies and items with great detail and recounts events with precision. When he does volunteer opinions, they are about others’ personalities – his frustration with Mrs. Cecil Ackroyd’s loquaciousness or how humorous he finds Poirot’s pomposity. It is not until the final chapter that the reader gets a true taste for Sheppard’s personality when he finally explains his actions. He comes across somewhat defeatist, smugly proud of the crime he committed, and remorseless. He expresses no fear of death, and only the vaguest sympathy for what his death will do to his sister. Indeed, he is a much less likable character when his personality comes out than during his more restrained, calculated narration.
Although the novel is famous for its shocking and unexpected conclusion, Christie actually leaves clues throughout as to the identity of the real murderer. Discuss some of these clues, and the way Christie employs them.
Christie leaves many clues as to the true identity of the murderer throughout the novel. Dr. Sheppard regularly makes reference to his own discomfort and worry, but always in a way that, on a quick read, appears to refer to something else. The anxiety of seeing Ralph and Mrs. Ferrars walking together produced in him, for example, appears to be an anxiety that Ralph might be the guilty party, but is actually the anxiety that Mrs. Ferrars was telling Ralph that he was the blackmailer. Poirot’s regular statements that he will “always find the truth” and that nothing can be hidden from him is another way Christie leaves clues about Sheppard’s guilt. Although Poirot appears to make these statements to others, he always does so in Sheppard’s presence, and thus he is always talking to Sheppard as well. Dr. Sheppard’s omissions throughout the novel – the way he ends key scenes without clarifying that the parties involved left or stopped talking, and skips over long stretches of time within his narrative - implies that there’s much that occurred that he does not tell us. Caroline Sheppard is another major clue to Dr. Sheppard’s guilt – it is she who accuses Dr. Sheppard of having a weak nature. Later, Poirot’s speech about the things weak men will do when pushed by circumstance refers directly to this statement.