So after watching something of a murder mystery in The Singing Detective, I thought I might put what I was reading aside for a bit and pick up a real old-fashioned murder mystery. And what better than a classic from the queen of mysteries – The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie? That’s Dame Agatha Christie to you Brits!
According to Christie The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is her masterpiece (not having read all of her oeuvre I can’t offer an opinion on that). I have to say it certainly has all of the elements of a satisfying mystery of its type. A quiet English village, a stately manor home, a wealthy country gentleman whose death a number of characters might profit from, a host of colorful characters, and an unconventional detective – in this case Hercule Poirot and his “little grey cells.” It’s pure entertainment literature, which when well done, certainly isn’t a bad thing. I have no problem when a work of fiction does what it intends and does it well; it’s when it pretends to be more that it is that I start getting antsy.
It’s a fun read for sure, but it does have it’s drawbacks. Christie’s prose are a bit flat for my taste and at times she seems to end a chapter rather abruptly giving the whole thing a bit of an issue with regard to flow. But what’s interesting and different here is the narrative form and that was what drew me to it in the first place. IF YOU HAVEN’T READ THIS BOOK AND PLAN TO, PLEASE STOP HERE BECAUSE I’M GOING TO HAVE TO REVEAL THE KILLER IN ORDER TO CONTINUE.
What Christie does, and from what I understand this unsettled a number of her early readers, is use a first person narrator who, in the end, is revealed as the murderer. A lot of people, including Roland Barthes, have accused Christie of cheating. Their main idea seems to be that we expect the spectator to report, not take a part of the action, so it feels unfair to have the narrator be the culprit. I don’t mind that so much, in fact, upending expectations seems to be rather important in a mystery. What bothers me is that the setup is a bit sloppy. When I finished I couldn’t help but think that if the narrator is telling us this story as a type of confession from some point in the future of the narrative, why does he spend so much time trying to convince us that someone else is the killer? A reason for this is alluded to, but it rings a bit false and doesn’t quite make sense in the end. I love an untrustworthy narrator, but why lie to us for 200 pages only to recant the story in the last five pages? Christie doesn’t quite pull it off and rather than it being a cheat it just feels like she has a great idea that doesn’t quite work out. I love that idea that she wants to upset expectations and surprise her reader, which is a wonderful thing. But it left me with that big question. Let me tell you, when I steal her idea and rewrite it, I’ll certainly do my best to give the narrator a better reason to lie to us.
My suggestion, if you want a mystery of this sort that turns things on its head, is to read Christie’s And Then There Were None. It’s darker, twistier, and much more morally ambiguous.
But the really good part is that, in reading about this online, I’ve found two new works of literary criticism that I’m looking forward to reading – The Simple Art of Murder by Raymond Chandler and Who Killed Roger Ackroyd? by Pierre Bayard.