Most detective fiction involves the satisfying restoration of order by a brilliant detective or team of detectives after a cunning and malicious evil-doer has committed some crime. In a Sherlock Holmes novel, for example, the reader has no doubt that Holmes will solve the case even before finishing the first chapter – it is simply the pattern of the genre. Christie leans even more into this pattern in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. The reader has no doubt that Poirot will solve the case because Dr. Sheppard, writing after the fact, repeatedly reminds the reader that Poirot has already done so. The question is not if order will be restored and good will triumph, simply how. The predictability of this theme within the novel is something the reader can count on with certainty.
"Murder of Manners"
Unlike other, more gruesome detective stories, Christie’s novel is firmly set in the polite, “civilized” upper- and middle-class world of Britain in the first half of the 20th century. She often eschews violent crimes and macabre descriptions of violence - instead, her characters retain their manners and civility throughout. There are no scenes of violence or gore; instead, the novel primarily features characters having civilized discussions and attending social gatherings. The rules of middle- and upper-class England are rigidly applied to all characters, who behave with restraint and courtesy throughout. Even when he has been formally accused by Poirot of being the murderer, Dr. Sheppard doesn’t respond with anger or violence, but instead politely disagrees and returns home. Despite this civility, murder is still the central intrigue of the novel, and blackmail, lies, and secrets abound.
Nature vs. Nurture in Creating a Criminal
A major human question is one of “nature” vs. “nurture” - does a person’s environment determine their behavior, or is their behavior determined by their innate character. At the end of Chapter 17, Poirot’s allegorical story about a weak man who, when desperate enough or provoked in just the right way, is moved to commit a crime, articulates the novel’s stance on this debate. It is the precise combination of a weak character and the right circumstances (both nature and nurture) that create a criminal. In the case of Dr. Sheppard, it was his “streak of weakness” combined with the opportunity to make easy money, and then the desperate need to hide his behavior, that provoked him to commit murder. Sheppard is not a sociopath or a hardened criminal, merely a weak man who was put in a tempting, and then challenging, situation. There are other characters in the novel who embody this theme. Flora declares herself a weak character, and it is this weakness combined with a desperation for money that caused her to steal from her uncle. Ralph, also described as weak, was moved to break his marriage vows and become engaged to his step-cousin when he recognized the opportunity to get out of the crippling debt he found himself in.
The Danger of Secrets
Nearly every character in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd has a secret, and the danger of keeping these secrets to themselves is demonstrated again and again. For example, Flora keeps the secret that she never actually said goodnight to her uncle before he was murdered, which prevents the investigators from determining an accurate time of death for Ackroyd, and thus throws suspicion onto innocent characters.
Even secrets unrelated to the murder can be dangerous. Major Blunt is desperately in love with Flora, but he keeps the secret to himself, which prevents him from finding the happiness that he could find if he shared his love with her. When Poirot convinces him that the secret is not one he should keep to himself, he finally opens up to her, and they quickly become engaged.
The Power of Method and Logic
Although many characters in the novel act on impulse and are motivated entirely by emotion, Poirot’s brilliance lies in his ability to distance himself from his emotions and consider every fact objectively. He constantly references the importance of his “method” – the way he systematically considers the facts, taking nothing for granted and no one at his word, until he can painstakingly build the truth from the facts he has collected. Unlike Flora or Colonel Melrose, for example, both of whom are convinced but unable to prove that Ralph is innocent because of their emotional connection to him, Poirot maintains objectivity with regards to Ralph. Poirot is able to prove Ralph's innocence through thorough investigation of the facts. It is only with this “method” that Poirot ultimately triumphs over the seemingly impossible case that manages to baffle every other character in the novel.
The Danger of Assumptions
As much as the novel promotes the power of method and logic, it similarly points out the danger of assumptions. Characters in the novel are constantly making assumptions about each other and about the murder. Nearly every time a character makes an assumption without having used method and logic to back it up, they are proven wrong. The most powerful example of this theme, however, is demonstrated with the reader himself. Most people on their first read of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd assume a certain level of trust in the narrator. Simply by virtue of his position as the novel’s chronicler, Dr. Sheppard is unconsciously deemed trustworthy by the reader, and consequently the reader may miss the many clues Christie includes as to his guilt throughout the novel. When Sheppard is ultimately revealed to be the murderer, it is a stunning revelation, and a powerful lesson for the reader in the danger of assumptions.
The Power of Class Distinctions
Most of Christie’s novels focus on upper-class characters but feature members of the serving class in supporting roles. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is no exception, and indeed, the power of the divisions between members of the two classes is palpable. This is most clearly illustrated in the character of Ursula Bourne, whose romance with and marriage to Ralph Paton has to be kept a secret because of her position as a member of the serving class. Paton is worried that if his uncle were to find out that he married a servant with no money, he would be furious, and thus, he persuades Ursula to keep the marriage a secret. This secret winds up causing much trouble and adding much confusion to the mystery of Ackroyd’s death, a nod to the incredible power of class divisions within the world of the novel.
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.