A provincial village in England (King’s Abbott), a lady suspected of poisoning her husband commits suicide. She leaves a letter for her friend, Roger Ackroyd – a prominent industrialist and self-made man. Things are sinister since he is murdered before he can share the secret.
Poirot has been seeking a retired life growing marrows and is a friend of the murdered man. He gets involved in investigating the crime – the red herrings are plentiful as the house is teeming with people who have their little secrets that they want to hide from the world.
The murder mystery featuring Poirot is Agatha Christie’s ‘top-of-the-pile’ book. Her play, ‘The Mousetrap’, might have earned more acclaim and indeed many other titles are far more popular including ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ and ‘Death on the Nile’. Yet the novel is gem and one-of-a-kind narrative. Without wanting to spoil the climax, I would like to say that it is a neat surprise and it derives its impact from the narrative style employed by the writer.
Agatha Christie recedes into the background, Poirot doesn’t even appear for a long time on the scene. Indeed you may even wonder on whether we are reading a murder mystery or not – the story unveils in the form of a diary being maintained by a local GP, Dr. Sheppard who is unmarried and stays with his sister who also happens to be a spinster. Things are slow and traditional in the village and the provincial spite & gossip seeps in from all sides reminding us of reading a classic by Jane Austen.
There isn’t much in terms of action and suspense. Poirot is without the assistance of his usual company be it Captain Hastings, Inspector Japp or even Ms. Lemon. Indeed Dr. Sheppard seems to fulfill the role of Captain Hastings in some ways but he is rather self-assured and manages to keep quite a few balls in the air. He ensures that his inquisitive sister doesn’t make a nuisance of herself and even helps protect Ralph Paton, the murdered man’s stepson and the most likely suspect.
Smart readers know a thing or two about murder mysteries so one is quite sure that Ralph Paton has been set up for the crime and is not likely to be the murder. That apart there are plentiful of suspects to consider and eliminate.Poirot also solves a few side-plots as we plod along – some money had been stolen, a mysterious wedding ring has been discovered, a lady has been posing as a parlour maid etc. etc. We are used to that style now since Poirot makes it his business to delve into everyone’s affairs.
And yet the final dénouement is likely to startle most readers. It seems bizarre but it is perfectly logical. The reason we admire Christie so much for the book is not so much to do with the plot (some of her other novels it has been done better), but it is the sense of integrity and fair play with which she engages the reader. If one were to re-read the novel or even watch its adaptation as a TV episode, one realizes that Christie played ‘fair and square’ with us.
We were given every opportunity to spot the game and it requires a mastery of craft and patience to plot with such intricacy. Imagine Christie having found a perfect formula does not rush in a haphazard manner to be done with the routine of writing the story around it. Instead she took the rough diamond and shaped it into a perfect gemstone by chipping away the rough edges and cuts it to perfection that reveals a dazzling finale.
Belatedly the workmanship was truly acknowledged when in 2013, 87 years after its release the British Crime Writers’ Association voted it the best crime novel ever. Christie – please take a bow for doing us the honours. It’s worth a re-run – be it the novel or the TV adaptation.