Chapters 1 & 2 Summary
It is the morning of September 17th, and Dr. James Sheppard returns home after being called to the house of Mrs. Ferrars, a woman found dead in the night. Dr. Sheppard is worried by her death, and his nosy sister, Caroline, immediately calls him in to breakfast to prod him for details.
Mrs. Ferrars’ husband, Ashley Ferrars, died the year before, and Caroline is convinced that Mrs. Ferrars poisoned him. Dr. Sheppard tells Caroline that Mrs. Ferrars died of an overdose of Veronal, a sleeping medication, which cements Caroline’s belief that Mrs. Ferrars committed suicide out of guilt over her husband’s murder.
Although Dr. Sheppard argues that Caroline’s assertions are nonsense, he secretly believes she could be right. Caroline further states that Mrs. Ferrars must have left a note of some kind, which Dr. Sheppard sharply rebukes. He reminds her that if he can declare Mrs. Ferrars’ death as nothing more than an accidental overdose, there may not have to be an investigation into the event at all.
In Chapter 2, Dr. Sheppard pauses the narrative momentarily to give an account of the major characters in his town, King’s Abbot. He explains that the two wealthiest homes belong to the late Mrs. Ferrars and Roger Ackroyd, a wealthy, genial man who is an esteemed member of the town. Many years before, a short marriage to an alcoholic woman left Ackroyd with a stepson, Ralph Paton, who he raised as his own.
Although Ackroyd has been single for many years, the gossip around town was that he and Mrs. Ferrars would probably marry as soon as her period of mourning for her late husband ended.
Dr. Sheppard also introduces Miss Russell, the housekeeper at Fernly Park (Ackroyd’s home), and Ackroyd’s sister-in-law, Mrs. Cecil Ackroyd, who came to live at Fernly Park with her daughter when her husband died. There is some tension between the two, particularly because the town suspected Miss Russell of aiming to marry Roger Ackroyd before Mrs. Cecil Ackroyd showed up and worked to prevent such a marriage.
Dr. Sheppard then picks up his narrative again. That day, he explains, he went about his day seeing patients, all the while worried about Mrs. Ferrars’ death. He suddenly remembers seeing her the day before, walking, in conversation with Ralph Paton, who he hadn’t known was in town. (The many issues between Ralph and his stepfather had kept Ralph from King’s Abbott for a while.)
In the meantime, Dr. Sheppard runs into Roger Ackroyd, who appears nervous and deeply upset by Mrs. Ferrars’ death. He asks Dr. Sheppard to come see him as soon as possible. Dr. Sheppard agrees to come for dinner that evening.
After avoiding Miss Gannett, a local town gossip, Dr. Sheppard returns home to see the rest of his patients, and is surprised to find Roger Ackroyd’s housekeeper Miss Russell among them. Although she claims to be there for a sore knee, she detains him to talk about drug addiction – specifically cocaine, and whether someone with an addition to cocaine could ever recover. Dr. Sheppard brings up Veronal, the drug that killed Mrs. Ferrars, but she is uninterested and finishes the conversation by discussing the kind of deadly poisons one encounters in mystery novels.
Chapters 1 & 2 Analysis
The first sentence of the novel begins with the announcement of a death – firmly signaling the detective genre and establishing the event that will set the novel’s plot in motion. As the reader knows from the novel’s title, it is Roger Ackroyd whose death the novel will mostly center around – Mrs. Ferrars’ death is merely a vehicle to allow the novel to begin working towards this end.
The first chapter of the novel also establishes the novel’s narrator (Dr. Sheppard), as well as the point of view he narrates from (first person). Although Dr. Sheppard appears to be fairly forthcoming with the facts of the plot, as the reader will ultimately discover, one cannot entirely trust his narration.
The first chapter contains a great deal of foreshadowing. Dr. Sheppard’s simple statement that he was “considerably upset and worried” (p.1) contains significant meaning, and actually suggests his profound involvement in the plot. He is not just upset by Mrs. Ferrars’ death, but by the implications that it will have on him.
Later on, he suggests that “as a professional man, I naturally aim at discretion” (p. 2), which on the surface seems innocuous, but gains deeper significance given Dr. Sheppard’s actual involvement in the murder. Finally, Caroline’s accusation to her brother that he is a “precious old humbug” (p. 6) is a truer statement than even she knows. His utter duplicity throughout the novel will ultimately prove that this insignificant comment elucidates the novel’s greatest secret.
If the first chapter immediately establishes the drama to pique the reader’s interest, the second chapter takes a step back to provide the reader with the necessary backstory to understand the plot. Chapter 2 is literally titled “Who’s Who In King’s Abbot” and describes the characters who inhabit the town as well as the important events leading up to Mrs. Ferrars’ death.
Indeed, most of the characters who will become major suspects in Roger Ackroyd’s murder – as well as Ackroyd himself – are introduced in Chapter 2: Ralph Paton, Miss Russell, Mrs. Cecil Ackroyd and a brief reference to Flora.
Christie includes many additional details in Chapter 2 that are easy to miss as hints of James Sheppards’ guilt. His displeasure at seeing Mrs. Ferrars and Ralph Paton together, his explanation that when he last saw Mrs. Ferrars her manner had been “normal enough considering – well – considering everything” (p. 10), as well as the “sundry other matters” (p. 10) he contemplates as he completes his rounds “mechanically” (p. 10), all point to a deeper level of guilt. However, Christie references these hints so subtly that it is almost impossible, on a first read of the novel, to recognize them as hints.
Instead, Christie immediately draws attention to more overtly suspicious behavior among her other characters – specifically, Ralph Paton being in King’s Abbott without Roger Ackroyd knowing, and Miss Russells’ visit to Dr. Sheppard and her inquiry about drugs. Both of these actions suggest such clear duplicity on the part of Ralph Paton and Miss Russell that the reader is easily distracted from the more mild suspicion around the novel’s narrator.
Additionally, the narration’s clarity and seemingly detailed nature appears to have left no stone unturned, so it is easy for the reader to immediately trust Dr. Sheppard and subconsciously cast him as an innocent witness to the events around him. In this way, Christie plays with the idea of a “reliable narrator” – given the general pattern of detective novels in which the narrator is usually an innocent third party, it is almost impossible not to assume Dr. Sheppard will play this same role in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. We assume Dr. Sheppard is a reliable narrator from the outset because the form of the genre requires it.