Chapters 23 & 24 Summary
After she has told her tale, Caroline ushers Ursula upstairs to rest, while Poirot insists she attend his meeting that night. Poirot then muses on his friend Hastings, who he misses – it was often Hastings who would unknowingly provide a clue to a case by saying something foolish, and Hastings also kept a written record of his cases.
Dr. Sheppard mentions that he has, up until this point, also been keeping a written record of the case, and Poirot excitedly asks to see it. While Dr. Sheppard leaves to attend to a case, Poirot reads the manuscript, and as he finishes up Sheppard returns home. Poirot remarks that Sheppard has left himself out of the narration almost entirely, and accuses the doctor of having been too reticent in that sense.
The pair goes to Poirot’s home for the 9:00 pm meeting. Mrs. Cecil Ackroyd, Ursula Bourne, Flora Ackroyd, Geoffrey Raymond, Major Blunt and Dr. Sheppard are all in attendance. Poirot starts by introducing Ursula as Ralph’s wife. Although Mrs. Cecil Ackroyd is incredulous, Flora congratulates Ursula, explaining that although she wishes Ralph had told her about their secret wedding, she is not angry about the news.
Miss Russell and Parker enter, and Poirot declares the group complete. He announces that everyone present is a potential suspect, and then begins explaining how he approached investigating the murder. He re-hashes his initial discoveries – how he determined that there were two separate meetings at the summerhouse the night of Ackroyd’s murder, how he realized the goose quill indicated someone who did drugs had been there, probably to visit Miss Russell given her discussion with Dr. Sheppard.
The cambric made him think of a maid’s uniform, and after realizing that Ursula Bourne had no real alibi, he guessed she had gone to the summerhouse too. He wasn’t sure who she had gone to meet until he found the wedding ring in the goldfish pond, and learned that Ralph Paton had been seen entering Fernly Park. After Caroline told him about the conversation she overheard in the woods, he realized that Ralph and Ursula must have met there, and must have married secretly some time before.
After recognizing that Ursula and Ralph met in the summerhouse around 9:30 pm, Poirot realized that Ralph could not have been the person talking to Ackroyd in his study at 9:30. He was struck by Major Blunt’s comment that he assumed Ackroyd was talking to his secretary, Geoffrey Raymond. Further, Poirot was struck by the odd phrase Raymond overheard from the study – specifically, the formal language Ackroyd used.
Raymond counters that Ackroyd often used that kind of language when dictating letters, which Poirot responds is exactly what’s so strange. A man is unlikely to use such formal language in a real conversation. Poirot remembered the visitor Ackroyd had had the week before – the man from the Dictaphone company. So, Poirot inquired with the company to find out if Ackroyd purchased a Dictaphone from them that week, and had been told he had. This fact suggested that no one was with Ackroyd in his study; he was talking to his Dictaphone. Major Blunt subconsciously assumed he was talking to Raymond because Ackroyd so frequently used that kind of “dictation” language in his dealings with Raymond. Blunt wasn’t focusing too intensely on the voices from Ackroyd’s study because he was distracted by the woman in white going to the summerhouse – Ursula Bourne, off to meet Ralph Paton.
Raymond counters that, despite these revelations, the case is unchanged and things still point to Ralph Paton as the murderer. He muses that if Ralph could come forward, he would clear up a lot of the mystery and suspicion about himself. Poirot then dramatically announces he knows where Ralph is and points to the door – where Ralph Paton is revealed, standing.
Poirot explains that everyone he initially accused of lying to him that day at Fernly Park has come forward – except Dr. Sheppard. Sheppard responds that he might as well come clean, and explains that on the afternoon of the murder, Ralph had told him the story of his wedding, the trouble he was in now that his uncle planned to announce his engagement to Flora as well as the debts he owed.
After the murder was committed, Dr. Sheppard ran into Ralph on the street and convinced him to hide for his own good. He was afraid that once the murder was discovered, Ralph or his wife Ursula would be blamed. Knowing that Ursula went back to the house after their meeting in the summerhouse, Ralph was worried that Ursula had, out of anger towards Ackroyd, perhaps committed the murder, and so he resolved to hide so that he would not be forced to give evidence against his wife.
Poirot explains that once he began to suspect that Dr. Sheppard was hiding Ralph Paton, he started to think of the possible hiding places. Since Sheppard is a doctor, Poirot speculated that he might have tried to hide Paton in a mental hospital. To test his theory, he invented a nephew with mental issues and asked Caroline Sheppard for recommendations for suitable homes for him. He checked out the homes and at one of them learned that the doctor had brought in a patient matching Ralph’s description early Saturday morning. Eventually, Poirot was able to get Ralph out of the mental institution and bring him to his own home. He was the stranger Caroline saw entering Poirot’s home early in the morning a few days before.
Ralph defends Dr. Sheppard’s actions, explaining that Sheppard did what he thought best. However, he realizes now that it was not for the best. In the mental institution he didn’t have access to the newspaper, so he didn’t know what was going on in the outside world or how grave things were looking for him.
Ralph explains his side of the story: he left the summerhouse around 9:45 after his fight with Ursula and wandered around, trying to decide what to do next. He admits he has no alibi for the time after his meeting with Ursula.
Poirot cheerfully announces that Ralph’s lack of alibi makes things very simple: to save Ralph, the real criminal must confess. He admits that he didn’t invite Inspector Raglan to this meeting because he didn’t want to tell him the story that night. Poirot leans forward and announces he is speaking “to the murderer”, explaining the next morning he will bring the truth to the inspector.
At that point, a telegram arrives for Poirot. He reads it, explains it is from a steamer boat on its way to the United States, and then announces to the room that he is now sure of the identity of the murderer. He again reiterates that the truth goes to Inspector Raglan in the morning, then dismisses the room.
Chapters 23 & 24 Analysis
Once again in Chapter 23, Dr. Sheppard is brought into direct comparison with Hastings when he offers Poirot the written record of the case thus far. Of course, Dr. Sheppard will ultimately prove to be an anti-Hastings when his true involvement in the crime is revealed. Poirot’s excitement over Sheppard’s written record is, at this point, less because he is trying to find a Hastings substitute in Dr. Sheppard, and more because he is trying to manipulate Sheppard and get more of his story out of him.
Later, when Poirot has read the manuscript, his insistence that Dr. Sheppard has left himself out of the story and downplayed his involvement in it, although initially perceived as flattery, is actually an accusation. Poirot by this point knows that Sheppard has had a much bigger part in the story than he’s recorded.
This chapter also provides context for the novel itself. The reader now understands that the pages of the novel are the same that Dr. Sheppard shared with Poirot that day. As he himself explains, he gives Poirot the novel up through Chapter 20. This justifies Dr. Sheppard’s narration, and helps the reader understand that, ultimately, Poirot finds fault with that narration. Sheppard has not been entirely truthful.
The brilliance of Chapter 24 is how it appears to exonerate Dr. Sheppard. If the reader had any suspicions of him (as, perhaps, the reader should have, given the various references to Sheppard’s guilt throughout the novel – e.g., the lowering of his eyes in Chapter 12), they seem to be explained by the truth revealed in this chapter: it is Sheppard who hid Ralph Paton. If this is the “secret” Sheppard has been hiding the whole novel, he is “guilty”, but certainly not a criminal. The implication is that Sheppard hid Ralph out of concern for the man because they were such good friends. Indeed, Poirot himself appears to acknowledge that this is Sheppard’s true deception. “Have I not told you at least thirty six times that it is useless to conceal things from Hercule Poirot?” (p. 266) he asks Dr. Sheppard. Poirot’s accusation at the end of Chapter 24 that the real murderer remains at large, appears to be directed at all the other characters gathered in the room, not Sheppard. This will make the final revelation of the novel even more shocking.