Friday, October 31, 2008

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie

I came to this novel with somewhat of a handicap, namely the vague memory of having read that Christie did something remarkable and startling with the set-up of this, her first (so I had thought) published mystery. So I was on the alert for a twist, for the orchestration of a twist, beginning perhaps rather early in the story. You might say I had read the spoiler.

And as I got about halfway through, my memory jelled, I remembered the brilliant twist, and I could spot the murderer. Nevertheless Christie's work was very adroitly done. And what did surprise me was the appearance in this novel of her famed detective Hercule Poirot. If I knew about his arrival, I had forgotten it. He is introduced as already retired and famous, and only persuaded out of his garden by the propinquity of the murdered body in question, and the pleadings of a pretty girl in love.

Some people adore Hercule Poirot. I find him uninspiring. He is not nearly as simply delightful as Miss Marple, though he is a sight better than the utterly annoying Tommy and Tuppence, who do nothing but talk excitedly at each other, for chapter after chapter, about the mystery they are solving. Poirot's magician-like abilities render him more adding machine than even putatively human character. He lurks about as it were off-stage, seeming to come on only occasionally to make revelations in a silly, sing-song, French-flavored English which is meant to be adorable but rings hollow considering that Christie herself claimed in her biography to have been trained to French fluency in girlhood. Surely, bilingual herself, she would have no reason to depict another bilingual person as carrying on like a dance-hall comic.

Anyway. We will leave Poirot alone. What is wonderfully entertaining about The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is the setting, so cozy and familiar through a hundred (mostly British) television series and movies that we forget it was probably Christie, in her books, who largely invented it. The little English town. The fine house of the local rich family. Terse, grim parlormaids in sensible shoes. The giddy daughter of the family, engaged to an unsuitable young man. The secretary or companion, unaccountably interested in poisons. English mists wafting over damp English gardens; prying spinster ladies; surreptitious meetings in the summerhouse, at nine-forty-five under a full moon -- but there was no moon. The butler distinctly said he had closed the window because it looked so like rain.

Agatha Christie must have enjoyed life tremendously, writing these delightful stories. If memory serves, she said she set about writing Roger Ackroyd after having read some other author's mystery, and being so disappointed in it that she told herself in amazement and some disgust that she could do better than that. And so she did, I am sure. I don't think I would be equal to all the weavings, thinkings, and tweakings she had to do to make the case come out right -- to get the murder done, the suspects in place, the clues both revealed and disguised, and all motivations, backgrounds, and timeframes made plausible and correct. This is not to speak of all of the foregoing being presented as a puzzle to the detective, who has to plausibly see what others do not see, but not so fast and so perfectly that the reader sees, too, and thus has nothing to chew on. When I realized that Christie had to actually figure out a way to make the murderer show an avuncular concern for a framed suspect's shoes, and more than one pair, well then -- I took off my figurative hat to her (no doubt a smart 1920s cloche).

I am not one of these people who sits down with a mystery with pencil and paper in hand, to try to solve it as I read. I simply meander along, enjoying the tale and the atmosphere as a bystander. What it means is that I can then re-read Christie later, because I've forgotten whodunit. Genuine mystery fans seem to be far more serious. Old reviews of Roger Ackroyd quoted in Wikipedia attest that, in 1926, professionals complained about it. Too many superfluous clues. A disappearance that did not matter (what! surely it did). The reader "sold up" by the ending. Her "most controversial" book, and to some "her masterpiece."

Goodness! Such passions. I hope in her long life she found time to plot a murder mystery at a mystery writers' awards banquet, or a conference of some kind. If she did, and I've already read it, I've forgotten it. Just think what I have to look forward to.

1 comment:

  1. Just linked to your review on mine which you can read HERE if you want.