Chapter 3 Summary
Dr. Sheppard tells his sister that he will be dining with Roger Ackroyd that night, which she encourages, hoping that he’ll bring home more gossip. They discuss Ralph Paton and the fact that Roger Ackroyd did not know his stepson was back in town. Caroline speculates on what Ralph might have been doing in King’s Abbot without telling her uncle, and guesses that he might be there to see his stepcousin, Flora Ackroyd (Mrs. Cecil Ackroyd’s daughter). Caroline believes Ralph and Flora are secretly engaged.
Caroline and Sheppard also discuss their new neighbor, a mysterious man who Caroline could not find any information about, despite her numerous sources of gossip among the servants and tradespeople. Dr. Sheppard goes outside to garden, and is disturbed by a flying squash that their neighbor (who he believes is named “Porrot”) has thrown from his garden.
Sheppard and “Porrot” (actually, the reader will later learn, Hercule Poirot) have a brief conversation during which Poirot explains that he has retired to King’s Abbott, but will not reveal his job. Sheppard, meanwhile, admits to losing an inheritance a few years back after speculating poorly. Sheppard initially believes that Poirot is a retired hairdresser, but reconsiders when Poirot reveals his friendship with Roger Ackroyd. Sheppard does not believe Ackroyd would confide in a member of the lower class like a hairdresser. Poirot also reveals that Ackroyd has told him that Flora and Ralph Paton are indeed engaged, but it is not a secret. Rather, Roger Ackroyd is pleased by and encouraged the engagement.
Later, Sheppard meets Caroline who has just come home. He tells her he met “Porrot”, while she tells him that she was sneaking through the woods and overheard Ralph Paton having a conversation with a woman she couldn’t identify. In the conversation, Ralph hinted at the inheritance he will get from his estranged stepfather when Roger Ackroyd dies. The two wonder who Ralph could have been talking to – whether Flora Ackroyd or someone totally different.
Sheppard decides to visit Ralph Paton at the inn. He and Ralph talk, and Ralph hints that he’s in a lot of trouble, specifically with regards to his stepfather, but he does not explain further. Sheppard offers to help, but Ralph responds mysteriously that he must proceed alone.
Chapter 3 Analysis
Chapter 3 finally introduces the novel’s most famous character – the detective Hercule Poirot. Even so, in his first introduction he is referred to by the wrong name (“Porrott”), and he will not correct that error for a few more chapters. This adds a level of mystery to Hercule Poirot that deepens the interest that Dr. Sheppard (and, of course, nosy Caroline) as well as the reader all have towards Poirot.
Poirot is initially introduced not as a famous detective, but as a retiree struggling with garden squashes. This is characteristic of Christie, whose other major detective, Miss Marple, is characterized as a doddering old lady rather than a suave and impressive figure.
Throughout the novel, Sheppard remains unconvinced of Poirot’s genius, even as he repeatedly demonstrates brilliant and thorough observations and deductions. Sheppard takes great pain to point out Poirot’s less impressive characteristics, such as his slightly pompous nature and small build. Ultimately, Poirot's genius undermines Sheppard’s unimpressed attitude, another way that Sheppard proves an “unreliable narrator”. Poirot’s accomplishments, on the other hand, will prove more remarkable for these apparent shortcomings.
Once again, in this chapter, Dr. Sheppard repeatedly emphasizes his sister’s attempts at duplicity (in trying to find out more about Poirot, for example), which distracts the reader from any suspicions they may form towards Sheppard himself.
Despite his ambivalent opinion of his neighbor, Poirot’s skill is apparent in his first encounter with Dr. Sheppard. Sheppard describes Poirot as “an understanding little man” (p. 20), and within moments of meeting the detective, Sheppard confesses the very motive which will prove so damning and critical by the novel’s end. In the course of a benign conversation, Sheppard admits that he came into money a few years before, but speculated poorly and used it up. Although it seems like no more than extraneous conversation at the time (and indeed, Christie includes much extraneous conversation in her novel to keep the reader distracted – such as Sheppard’s conversation with Caroline earlier in the chapter about whether Poirot is a hairdresser), this small kernel of information will prove the crux of the novel’s more sinister turns.
The novel proceeds at a quick pace. As clues emerge one after another, it is easy to miss small details that condemn or cast suspicion on the guilty party – exactly what Christie intends with her mystery. Before the reader can linger on Sheppard’s conversation with Poirot (and the clear motive Christie gives Sheppard to pursue money and financial freedom), two more major plot events are introduced: the conversation that Caroline overhears between Ralph and the mystery woman in the forest, and Sheppard’s visit to Ralph at the inn.
At the end of Chapter 3, Christie employs one of the major ways she (and Sheppard) mislead the reader – not by doling out false information, but rather by withholding information. The scene between Sheppard and Ralph appears to end when the chapter ends, with Ralph’s ominous assertion that he must “play a lone hand…”, but the ellipsis at the end of this chapter cannot be considered too lightly. As the reader will ultimately discover, there is much more to this scene than the chapter revealed, plenty of conversation that occurred after this ellipsis, where Ralph told Sheppard much more about what was going on with him.