Chapter 4 Summary
Dr. Sheppard arrives at Fernly Park for dinner and is greeted by Roger Ackroyd’s butler, Parker. He runs into Ackroyd’s young secretary, Raymond, who remarks on the big black bag Sheppard has brought. The doctor explains that although he is there socially, he expects to be called at any moment to another case and has thus brought his doctor’s instruments with him.
Dr. Sheppard goes to Ackroyd’s drawing room to wait for the rest of the dinner guests – on entering, he hears a noise that he later identifies as the lid to a silver display table being closed. He runs into Ackroyd’s secretary, Miss Russell, who seems shaken and displeased to have run into Dr. Sheppard as she leaves the room.
Flora Ackroyd, Roger Ackroyd’s niece, enters, and greets Dr. Sheppard. She announces to Dr. Sheppard that she and Ralph Paton are to be married, which her uncle is very pleased by. Then, Mrs. Cecil Ackroyd enters. Although Dr. Sheppard does not like Mrs. Ackroyd for her speculative nature and insincerity, he converses with her for a little.
Major Blunt, a big game hunter and friend of Roger Ackroyd who is staying with him for a few weeks, enters. He greets the doctor and joins Flora Ackroyd. Finally, Ackroyd and his secretary Raymond join them, and they all go to dinner, where Ackroyd, preoccupied and upset, barely eats.
After dinner, Roger Ackroyd pulls Dr. Sheppard into his study. He pretends to ask for pills to distract his butler, Parker, but once Parker is gone Ackroyd begins explaining what’s truly going on.
He admits to Dr. Sheppard that before she died, Mrs. Ferrars confessed to him that she’d poisoned her husband. In the intervening year, someone who knew what she’d done had been blackmailing her, and the stress, fear, and financial strain of it had finally caused her to break. Sullied as she was, she could never marry Roger Ackroyd – instead, Ackroyd believes, she killed herself to escape the blackmailer.
Although Mrs. Ferrars never told him the blackmailer’s name, Roger Ackroyd is convinced that she has left some kind of message for him. Indeed, immediately after he says that, Parker arrives with the evening mail, which contains a letter from the late Mrs. Ferrars. Roger Ackroyd begins to read: in it, Mrs. Ferrars asks him to punish her blackmailer, who she will name in the letter. Before he gets to the name, however, Ackroyd stops, telling Sheppard he must finish the letter alone.
Sheppard cannot convince Ackroyd to finish reading the letter while he’s there. Some time later, he leaves, running into Parker at the door. He tells Parker not to disturb Ackroyd, and begins his walk. At the gates of Ackroyd’s estate, he meets a mysterious stranger who asks for directions to Fenly Park. Finally, Sheppard arrives home and is just heading off to bed when the phone rings. He tells Caroline that it is Parker, informing him that Roger Ackroyd has been found murdered.
Chapter 4 Analysis
The division of Chapter 4 into two parts (the only time the novel does this) serves to build the tension around Sheppard’s dinner with Ackroyd. Part 1 describes Dr. Sheppard’s actions leading up to and during dinner and Part 2 picks up afterwords with the events following dinner. In this way, Christie paints a clear portrait of the events of the evening without tiring the reader with tedious details. Additionally, the literary structure helps lend significance to the evening. Sheppard’s focus on retelling the events of the night with such absolute clarity suggests the importance of the night, and the major event that will soon occur.
Dr. Sheppard’s subsequent introduction of the rest of Ackroyd’s dinner guests clearly indicates the characters that will be the major suspects for the crime to come. Besides Ralph Paton and Miss Russell, who he has already introduced, he carefully describes Flora, Mrs. Ackroyd, Raymond and Major Blunt – a more detailed description of Parker, the butler, and Ursula Bourne, the parlormaid, will come later. Sheppard (and Christie) are clear to indicate not just the appearance of the characters, but also their perceived emotional states and backgrounds, as though painting as thorough a picture as possible of all the potential murderers.
When Sheppard finally does speak to Roger Ackroyd, his anxiety and fearfulness, as well as his reluctance to speak truthfully about what is going on, helps to add to the suspense already established by the chapter’s division. Sheppard describes not just the events that follow, but the times of these events – ten to 9 pm when he leaves Ackroyd, 9 pm when he reaches the gate, 10 pm when he arrives home, etc. These relatively precise inclusions add a further level of ominousness to the chapter – as though a key witness precisely records the events of the night. Additionally, they can be read as Sheppard providing his own alibi to the crime that is to come.
Once again Christie brilliantly gives the reader clues to Sheppard’s true intentions. After Roger Ackroyd tells him that Mrs. Ferrars’ had been blackmailed, he immediately asks by who. A paragraph follows which, on first reading, seems to imply that Sheppard is afraid Ralph Paton is the blackmailer. “Suddenly before my eyes there arose the picture of Ralph Paton and Mrs. Ferrars side by side…. Supposing—oh! But surely that was impossible. I remembered the frankness of Ralph’s greeting that very afternoon. Absurd!” (p. 39).
On a first read, this sentence seems to suggest Dr. Sheppard’s fear that Ralph Patton could be Mrs. Ferrars blackmailer. However, a closer read demonstrates that it just as clearly establishes Sheppard’s fear that Mrs. Ferrars told Ralph Paton that Sheppard himself was her blackmailer. The ambiguity of the sentence, its subtlety within the context of Sheppard’s guilt, helps deepen the mystery around the novel’s true villain.
So, too, does Sheppard’s quick introduction of two more suspects. Immediately after he leaves Roger Ackroyd, he runs into Parker, the butler, who until this point he has described neutrally. Now, suddenly, he sees Parker as having a “fat, smug, oily face…there was something decidedly shifty in his eye” (p. 44) – the marks of a shady and unappealing character. Then, walking from Fernly Hall, he meets a stranger with a hoarse voice, who is consciously guarding his face. The presentation of these two suspicious characters, suddenly, provides the reader with immediate suspects for the crime that is to come, potentially distracting from any holes or questions in Sheppard’s own story.