“Our hobbies and recreations can be summed up in the one word: ‘gossip’."
At the beginning of the novel, Dr. Sheppard uses this quote to set the tone for the garrulous, loose-lipped nature of King’s Abbott. The gossip-loving town is the ideal setting for Christie’s murder of manners, as nearly every citizen enjoys speculating and hypothesizing over who killed Roger Ackroyd and why. King’s Abbott is a small town and its citizens lack more worldly entertainment options – instead, it enjoys an extraordinary amount of intrigue. For the citizens of King’s Abbott, Ackroyd’s murder and the surrounding speculation are much less a major tragedy than they are a source of intriguing news and scandal. This helps ensure that the tone of the novel stays light and the reader doesn’t get lost in a lengthy exploration of violence, murder, and grief. Instead, the reader can enjoy the humor of King’s Abbott's many amateur detectives, and is encourage to play along himself, as well.
“But you can figure to yourself, monsieur, that a man may work towards a certain object, may labour and toil to attain a certain kind of leisure and occupation, and then find that, after all, he yearns for the old busy days, and the old occupations that he thought himself so glad to leave?”
When Dr. Sheppard first meets Hercule Poirot, Poirot is officially in retirement in King’s Abbott and has taken up gardening. However, within moments of the meeting Poirot declares the above – officially condemning his retirement as a goal long sought but ultimately unwanted. There is, then, never a question that the Belgian detective will be willing to end his retirement and return to those "occupations… he thought himself so glad to leave" (which Dr. Sheppard then knows, making his warnings to Flora not to bother Poirot with the case, another clue to Sheppard’s guilt). This brilliant insight into human nature is one of the reader’s first tastes of Poirot’s genius, and his clear explanation as well as ability to accurately recognize this weakness in himself establishes him as a powerfully self-aware individual. Additionally, his willingness to admit this own fault in his personality demonstrates that he is not afraid to be critical of himself, which suggests that his many declarations of his own brilliance later on in the novel are not self-aggrandizement, but accurate depictions of fact.
“One must always proceed with method. I made an error in judgment in asking you that question. To each man his own knowledge. You could tell me the details of the patient’s appearance – nothing there would escape you. If I wanted information about the papers on that desk, Mr. Raymond would have noticed anything there was to see. To find out about the fire, I must ask the man whose business it is to observe such things.”
Observing Poirot’s investigative techniques even his first day on the job is enough to establish for the reader that the detective is truly capable. He makes reference throughout the novel to the importance of his “method”; in this case, he is referring to his ability and goal of recognizing that each witness involved with a crime can contribute something different but essential to the understanding of what happened. He quickly recognizes his mistake in asking Dr. Sheppard about the fire – as a physician, Sheppard would have been focused on the dead body in the chair, nothing more. It is the butler who has been trained to recognize things like fire levels and furniture placement (Parker’s reveal that the grandfather chair had been moved later proves a critical clue). Although Poirot is merely asking his witnesses what they know, his genius is in knowing which questions to ask which witnesses – from this, he can build the most accurate picture of the murder and surrounding events.
“It is completely unimportant. That’s why it’s so interesting.”
As soon as he learns that the grandfather chair had been moved between when Ackroyd’s body was discovered and when the police arrived, Poirot’s interest is piqued. Although the other characters counter that a detail so insignificant must be unimportant, Poirot insists that it is its insignificance that makes the moved chair so interesting. Why should it have been positioned so awkwardly in the room at the time of the murder? And why did someone bother to move it back? Poirot’s ability to recognize the importance of such a small detail is all part of his genius: to him, everything is a potential clue. What the investigators dismiss as unimportant Poirot knows could be the key to solving the murder – small inconsistencies indicate a larger attempt at concealment. This puts Poirot in almost direct contrast to the police investigators, who are much more focused on the more obvious (and in many cases, staged) clues.
“I felt he were looking at the case from some peculiar angle of his own, and what he saw I could not tell.”
Unlike other detective fiction, where the reader (and the narrator) is privy to the detective’s process, Poirot is famously tight-lipped about his investigations. Dr. Sheppard here is commenting on Poirot’s unique access to the case. Sheppard is aware of Poirot making connections and forming hypotheses, but he has no idea how Poirot arrives at those hypotheses, nor even the details of those hypotheses. It is not until the end of the novel when Poirot is certain of his convictions that he will share them with Sheppard (and the reader). Until then, Dr. Sheppard remains confined to guessing Poirot’s ideas. The detective’s ideas are so brilliant that none of the other characters could possibly understand what he’s thinking unless he decides to explain himself.
“Understand this, I mean to arrive at the truth. The truth, however ugly in itself, is always curious and beautiful to the seeker after it…Messieurs et mesdames, I tell you, I mean to know. And I shall know – in spite of you all.”
Unlike the rest of the characters in the novel, Poirot is a relative outsider, having just moved to King’s Abbott. He is not close with any of the characters and can thus maintain a level of objectivity that frees him from distraction from his personal opinions or desires about the other characters. To Poirot, as he explains here, the truth of the case is “curious and beautiful” – something he wants to figure out for its own sake, for the pure satisfaction of solving the riddle of Ackroyd’s murder. To Poirot, the mystery is a puzzle that he will use his brilliance to solve. The subjectivity of the rest of the characters involved merely acts as a stumbling block that he must overcome in order to determine the coveted, objective truth.
“Every one of you in this room is concealing something from me. Yes, yes, I know what I am saying. It may be something unimportant – trivial – which is supposed to have no bearing on the case, but there it is. Each one of you has something to hide. Come now, am I right?”
Part of what makes Poirot such a brilliant detective is his ability to interpret human behavior so effectively. He understands almost instantly, from a combination of characters’ inconsistent statements and the actual clues of the case, that almost everyone connected to Ackroyd’s murder conceals something from him. Here, he accuses them of hiding these secrets. Although they might believe their secrets are unimportant and unrelated to the murder, Poirot can see the bigger picture and knows that there is much more to the case than meets the eye. It is only by getting everyone to confess their secrets that Poirot can start to piece the whole case together. As Dr. Sheppard later notes, Poirot’s strategy of accusing everyone in this way effectively motivates many of them to confess by provoking such acute guilt.
“Everyone had a hand in the elucidation of the mystery. It was rather like a jig-saw puzzle to which everyone contributed their own little piece of knowledge or discovery. But their task ended there. To Poirot alone belongs the renown of fitting those pieces into their correct place.”
Once again, here, Dr. Sheppard acknowledges Poirot’s unique ability to process the facts surrounding Ackroyd’s murder into a comprehensive picture of what happened that night. As later revealed, many different characters engaged in many different activities the night of the murder, all of which added to the confusing series of clues that the investigators had to parse through. Indeed, as is characteristic of the detective genre, almost every character had a secret he or she was concealing from the world, and, coincidentally, all of those characters actively engaged in their own secret behaviors at Fernly Park on the night of the murder. This extraordinary confluence of events made for a complicated mystery to solve, which makes it all the more impressive when Poirot pieces it all together. The sheer amount of different secrets involved in the plot is an artificial construct on the part of Agatha Christie, designed to make for an interesting case and a complex puzzle for her famous detective to solve.
“Let us take a man – a very ordinary man. A man with no idea of murder in his heart. There is in him somewhere a strain of weakness – deep down. It has so far never been called into play. Perhaps it never will be – and if so he will go to his grave honored and respected by everyone. But let us suppose that something occurs.”
At the end of the novel, Poirot stuns everyone by solving almost all of the mysteries surrounding Ackroyd’s murder. By the time he says this quote in Chapter 17, however, it is clear he already has an idea that Dr. Sheppard is the killer – indeed, he tells an eerie story about a hypothetical man who is prompted to commit murder because of a weakness of character and the perfect confluence of events. Here, in beginning the story, he describes Dr. Sheppard perfectly – an ordinary, seemingly decent man, but with a strain of weakness in his heart. In the right circumstances, this man can be motivated to criminal acts to satisfy his weak character. This is one of the main themes of the novel: how a combination of "nature" and "nurture" transforms a man into a criminal.
“My friend Hastings, he of whom I told you, used to say of me that I was a human oyster. But he was unjust. Of facts, I keep nothing to myself. But to everyone his own interpretations of them.”
In this quote, Poirot explains his basic investigating strategy in his own words. Although he knows that many accuse him of not sharing his theories, he also knows that everyone has their own interpretation of the facts. As such, he thinks his best strategy is to freely share facts with others (which cannot in themselves be disputed), while keeping his opinions to himself until he is sure they can be validated.
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.