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Literature / The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

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A 1926 mystery novel by Agatha Christie, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was the book that propelled its author to fame, and is still widely regarded as one of her finest, and certainly among her most notable. Even today the Twist Ending remains controversial.

Mrs. Ferrars, a wealthy widow in a quiet English village, has apparently taken her own life. Local industrialist Roger Ackroyd, who was romantically involved with Mrs. Ferrars, confesses in private that his lover had admitted to him that she murdered her bullying, abusive, drunken husband with poison...and that someone had found this out, ruthlessly blackmailing her and driving her to suicide. Now, a letter in the post from Mrs. Ferrars is about to reveal all—but before Ackroyd can learn and expose the identity of the culprit, he is found dead in his study, stabbed viciously in the neck with his own ornamental dagger. An apparently open-and-shut case uncovers a likely suspect, but the village has by chance a new resident; Monsieur Hercule Poirot, the noted detective, who has retired to the countryside to grow vegetables. His legendary "little grey cells" intrigued by the case, Poirot soon discovers that all is not as it seems...

The story was adapted as an episode of Poirot in 2000; tropes concerning this adaptation can be found on the series page. The novel was also made into a Russian film in 2002, entitled Неудача Пуаро ("Neudacha Puaro" — "Poirot's Failure"), and a Japanese TV movie, Kuroido Goroshi.

And a quick note on spoilers: while every effort has been taken to avoid spoiling plot-crucial details regarding the novel on this page, the nature of the story (and the Twist Ending especially) means that it's hard to discuss without some kind of spoileriffic information slipping through. New readers should take that into account before proceeding on.

The novel went into the public domain in the US in 2022 and can be read here.

This detective mystery provides examples of:

  • Affably Evil: The killer has a genuinely friendly and polite personality.
  • Amateur Sleuth: Caroline Sheppard, the narrator's sister, makes a downplayed example. She's the town gossip, and her attempts to figure out the killer are Played for Laughs, particularly when she confides in her brother that she figured out the real murder weapon: poison! Cue Dr. Sheppard, baffled, pointing out that there was a knife found in Ackroyd's neck. Caroline confidently asserts "it was a false clue". Reportedly, Christie enjoyed writing Caroline and liked the idea that a nosy gossip might turn out to be a rather good detective so much that she ended up developing her into a main character in her own right...
  • Badass Boast: Hercule Poirot makes a point of warning the killer that the trick he pulled on Roger Ackroyd will be a lot more difficult to pull off on him.
  • Bad Guys Do the Dirty Work: Even though it was motivated by entirely selfish reasons, the titular murder ends up saving quite a few people from some very tight spots. To wit...
    • Ralph Paton becomes a fabulously wealthy man and is able to pay all his debts and start a new life with his wife Ursula.
    • Flora becomes financially independent and is able to marry Major Blunt.
    • Geoffrey Raymond, Ackroyd's secretary, was in considerable debt, but the £500 (As of 2020, a little over £31,000 adjusted for inflation) Ackroyd left him in his will cleared up that problem.
  • Be as Unhelpful as Possible: If it weren't for so many of the suspects' efforts to conceal their own secrets, the killer wouldn't have had so easy a time setting up an alibi, to say nothing of the fact that they needlessly waste Poirot's time. Lampshaded by the killer, as even they were surprised by how unhelpful everyone was.
  • Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: The killer. Leaving aside the obvious fact that he's revealed to be a blackmailer and murderer, re-reading the novel after the reveal suggests several hints that Dr. Sheppard isn't as nice as he likes to act, and indeed has a vein of arrogant, condescending superiority towards the people he's surrounded by.
  • Blackmail: What triggered the whole series of events — Dr. Sheppard figured out that Mrs. Ferrars poisoned her husband, and has been blackmailing her. Also, Poirot eventually finds out that Parker engaged in a bit of blackmail with his previous employer.
  • Blackmail Backfire: Agatha Christie always punishes blackmail with death, though here the trope plays out differently from her usual formula of the murder killing his/her blackmailer. Here, the blackmailer is the murderer, resorting to the latter crime to cover up the blackmail, being unmasked by Poirot, and finally committing suicide to escape legal justice.
  • Book Ends: Invoked In-Universe. The story opens with the town reacting to Mrs. Ferrars' death from an overdose of Veronal. The ending reveals that Sheppard will kill himself by Veronal overdose, as a Death by Irony.
  • Call to Agriculture: Poirot has retired from detective work at the beginning of the novel to grow marrows (a kind of squash).
  • Cannot Spit It Out: Major Blunt can't confess his feelings for Flora Ackroyd. Naturally, Poirot helps him.
  • Chekhov's Gun:
    • The Dictaphone Company salesman's visit. Ackroyd did buy a dictaphone, and Sheppard used it to set up his alibi.
    • Sheppard's wasted "legacy", mentioned early in the novel. In fact he received no legacy; he was blackmailing Mrs. Ferrars.
    • A seemingly random reference early on about Sheppard seeing an American sailor patient. This is the person who unknowingly placed the crucial phone call.
  • Chekhov's Hobby: Sheppard's hobby of fixing and inventing mechanics. This is how he rigged up the Dictaphone to play on a time delay.
  • Contrived Coincidence: Considering that the murder was committed with only limited fore-planning, the sheer number of other things going on at Fernly Park on that very same night that helped muddy the waters and create red herrings almost defies belief, from Flora choosing that very night to steal money, to Ursula giving her notice earlier in the day, to Russell's illegitimate son arriving at Fernly Park just as Dr. Sheppard was leaving the house. Even the killer could hardly believe it, and said as much.
  • Crazy-Prepared: Sheppard, on pretty short notice, manages to steal Ralph Paton's shoes, rig up a Dictaphone to play a message on a time delay, and arrange for a patient of his to place a crucial telephone call at a certain time — all that without being completely sure what Roger Ackroyd wanted to talk about. His confession in the last chapter even reveals he'd brought a murder weapon of his own... only to choose the dagger instead since such a weapon wouldn't be immediately traceable to him.
  • Crime After Crime: Ackroyd was murdered by Mrs. Ferrars' blackmailer in order to prevent the former from discovering and exposing this crime.
  • Crushing Handshake: Major Blunt delivers a handshake that makes Poirot wince in pain after Poirot gives a little assistance with Blunt's love affair with Flora.
  • Deadpan Snarker:
    • Dr. Sheppard, at least as far as his sister is concerned.
    • Poirot gets a few opportunities also:
      "Ah!" cried [Poirot]. "That, too, is my watchword. Method, order, and the little grey cells."
      "The cells?" said the inspector, staring.
      "The little grey cells of the brain," explained the Belgian.
      "Oh, of course; well, we all use them, I suppose."
      "In a greater or lesser degree," murmured Poirot.
  • Death by Irony: Sheppard's death, which occurs by the same method as Mrs. Ferrars' suicide. And what makes it unusual — it was deliberately planned so on the part of the killed one. "There would be a kind of poetic justice", as they put it.
  • The Dog Was the Mastermind: Helpful, modest Dr. Sheppard, who is never suggested to have had any problem with Ackroyd, is revealed as the murderer. He killed Ackroyd to prevent Ackroyd from exposing him as a blackmailer.
  • Dramatic Drop: Ackroyd drops all the other letters in the evening mail to the floor, and is left holding only the blue envelope—the one with Mrs. Ferrars' handwriting on it.
  • Driven to Suicide:
    • Mrs. Ferrars, by the blackmailer.
    • Dr. Sheppard, at the end. The final chapter is essentially his suicide note.
  • The Ending Changes Everything: The narrator and protagonist Dr. Sheppard is revealed as the murderer at the end, causing the reader to reassess everything they have read.
  • English Rose: Flora is described as being blonde and blue-eyed with a pale complexion, as beautiful, and as a typical English girl.
  • Everyone Is a Suspect: Almost every named character, including the narrator, is a suspect. And when Poirot brings six people to the table mid-novel, he declares, correctly, that everyone else there (including, yes, the narrator) had something to hide, all of which are revealed over the course of the next several chapters. While Dr. Sheppard's publicly revealed secret is that he'd helped Ralph Paton get into hiding, there's a second, much deeper secret that the good doctor is hiding, and is in fact revealed in the very next chapter—that Dr. Sheppard is the murderer.
  • Exactly What It Says on the Tin: It's about Roger Ackroyd. Who gets murdered.
  • Face–Heel Turn: Dr. Sheppard was originally a good-ish but weak character who is tired of his thankless job, gave in to the temptation of earning easy money via blackmail, and became evil as a result.
  • Fair-Play Whodunnit: The way Poirot ultimately solves the crime is by reading what Dr. Sheppard wrote down, which is exactly what the reader is reading. Which means that an acute reader could actually pick up most of the important clues before Poirot does. Well, except possibly the dictaphone issue, which is still revealed just a bit before the final denouement. And there's also a matter of Dr. Sheppard's legacy — but come on, you didn't even suspect he was capable of lying in the first place, did you?
  • First-Person Peripheral Narrator: Played straight, and then subverted. Dr. Sheppard is the helpful narrator, telling the story of Poirot's investigation to the reader. Just like the other Poirot stories that are mostly narrated by Poirot's usual Watson, Captain Hastings, this is done so that the reader doesn't know what Poirot is thinking. It's subverted at the end however when we find out that Sheppard isn't "peripheral" to the story at all; he is the murderer.
  • Foreshadowing: Beyond the Fair-Play Whodunnit clues, there are a couple of hints.
    • Caroline makes a comment about Dr. Sheppard's "weakness", and how she has to look after him. This is followed immediately by Poirot launching into a thoughtful hypothesis about how the killer first plunged into blackmail in a moment of weakness.
    • At the Summation Gathering Poirot reveals that Dr. Sheppard was concealing the whereabouts of Ralph Paton. Poirot specifically points out that Sheppard's manuscript, while truthful, only goes so far. This knowledge that Sheppard was withholding facts from his narrative prepares the reader for the much bigger secret that is revealed soon after.
  • Funny Foreigner: Indulged in with Poirot as usual in Christie stories. In this one, he says "All my excuses for having deranged you" when he means "disturbed you."
  • Girly Skirt Twirl: Flora is both a very girly-girl English Rose, and also pretty happy about getting £20,000 in Ackroyd's will. Both of these traits are demonstrated when Sheppard and Poirot see her taking a walk on the grounds:
    She gave a sudden pirouette on her toes, and her black draperies swung out.
  • Gossipy Hens: Caroline Sheppard, who loves to be in everybody's business.
  • Great White Hunter: Sheppard says of Major Blunt that "He has shot more wild animals in unlikely places than any man living, I suppose." A gigantic animal head mounted on the wall of Ackroyd's house was a present from Blunt.
  • Greedy Jew: When Mrs. Ackroyd complains about being hounded by creditors, Dr. Sheppard says "I suspect a Semitic strain in their ancestry." It could be just Christie indulging in anti-Semitism, or a hint that Sheppard isn't as nice as he seems.
  • Half-Truth: Everything Sheppard puts in his journal is absolutely true. He doesn't put everything in his journal, though...
  • He Knows Too Much: The reason Roger Ackroyd had to die. Though technically, he had been murdered before he had the chance to learn anything.
  • Hidden Depths: Major Blunt claims that he hates going to the theatre (particularly opera), but some of his theatre-going experiences seem to have profoundly resonated with him; he's familiar with Faust and Pelléas et Mélisande, and he compares a conversation he's in to "one of those Danish plays", presumably a reference to Scandinavian authors such as Henrik Ibsen (Norwegian who wrote in Danish).
  • Hidden Heart of Gold: Caroline is a nag, a nosy gossip, and more than a little self-righteous, but at the sight of Ursula in tears she forgets everything in an attempt to comfort her. Lampshaded by Dr. Sheppard.
  • Impoverished Patrician: Ursula is the daughter of an impoverished Irish noble, and most of her sisters, bar her, went to become Private Tutor.
  • Indy Ploy: The titular murder was committed almost entirely on the fly, as the murderer had hardly any time to plan it. It is testament to the killer's intelligence that what plan there was, was highly effective, and would've worked if Poirot hadn't become involved.
  • Inheritance Murder: Considered as a motive, as most of the cast stood to inherit something from the Ackroyd estate, and some of them really needed the money. Ultimately averted, the inheritance is a red herring.
  • The Killer in Me: The "Secretive Killer" variety, as Dr. Sheppard, who is narrating his and Poirot's investigation of the murder, is revealed at the end to be the murderer.
  • Leave Behind a Pistol: Poirot gives the murderer the opportunity to settle accounts himself rather than wait for arrest the next day, in order to spare those close to him grief. It's not literally a pistol, though.
  • The Magic Poker Equation: Dr. Sheppard gets "The Perfect Winning", that is, he wins a game of Mahjong on the first draw of the tiles. The odds of this are about 330,000 to 1.
  • May–December Romance: Major Blunt and Flora Ackroyd.
  • Names to Trust Immediately: Dr. Sheppard is a subversion.
  • No Full Name Given: Mrs. Ackroyd, widow of Roger's brother Cecil, is only referred to as "Mrs. Cecil Ackroyd".
  • Nosy Neighbor: Caroline Sheppard, who is addicted to gossip and must know everything about everyone, like when Poirot moves in next door and she hounds her brother to find out about the new neighbour.
  • Oddball in the Series: While most early novels and stories in the Hercule Poirot series are narrated by Poirot's friendly Watson, Captain Hastings, this one has a different narrator, helpful Dr. Sheppard. There's a perfectly logical Watsonian reason for this, as Hastings had already departed for Argentina by the time the events of the story occurred. But there's also a Doylist reason...
  • Phoney Call: Part of Sheppard's alibi consists of arranging for a patient of his to call Sheppard on his way out of town. Sheppard pretends that this is notification of the murder, and then goes to Ackroyd's house to finish setting up his alibi.
  • Realistic Diction Is Unrealistic: A plot point. Ackroyd was heard to be speaking in his study at 9:30, leading everyone to believe the murder must have happened after that. But what he was heard to say ("...the demands on my purse have been so frequent of late that I fear I cannot accede to your request...") strikes Poirot as something that nobody would have actually spoken in conversation with another person; it sounds far more as though Ackroyd were dictating a letter. This leads Poirot to deduce that Ackroyd was already dead by 9:30 and the words he was heard to speak were a Dictaphone recording.
  • Recorded Audio Alibi: A variation. After killing Ackroyd Dr Sheppard jury-rigs a Dictaphone to an alarm clock to loudly play Ackroyd's voice later to make it seem like Ackroyd is still alive. He then uses a Phoney Call to get summoned to the scene, "discover" the body, and walk out with the Dictaphone in his doctor's bag.
  • Rewatch Bonus: Many incidents in the book take on a completely different meaning once the reader knows that Dr. Sheppard is the murderer. For example: Ackroyd tells Sheppard that someone was blackmailing Mrs. Ferrars. In his narration Sheppard says "Suddenly before my eyes the there arose the picture of Ralph Paton and Mrs. Ferrars side by side." The reader assumes that Sheppard suspects Paton of being the blackmailer. In reality Sheppard is wondering if Mrs. Ferrars told Paton that Sheppard was blackmailing her. And then the entire penultimate chapter is read not as Sheppard trying to match Poirot in figuring out who the murderer is, but as his last desperate attempt to throw Poirot off the track.
  • Sarcasm-Blind: Most of the considerable sarcasm that Dr. Sheppard directs at his sister Caroline is taken literally by her.
  • Secret Other Family: It turns out that the cause of Ralph's argument with Roger is that Ralph has married in secret, which puts a crimp in Roger's plans for an Arranged Marriage with Flora. Specifically, he's married Ursula, the parlourmaid.
  • Sequencing Deception: As Sheppard admits in the final chapter, while everything he writes in the story is true, he left stuff out. For example, he writes that Roger received the letter at 8:40 and Sheppard left at 8:50, but doesn't mention that he killed Ackroyd in the interim.
  • Slowly Slipping Into Evil: Dr. Sheppard, upon discovering a murder, gives into the temptation to commit blackmail — and then kills to protect themself.
  • Starts with a Suicide: Mrs. Ferrars's suicide from a Veronal overdose.
  • Summation Gathering: Subverted. Poirot gets everyone together, airs out many of the secrets they were keeping, and explains some puzzling aspects of the murder like Ackroyd's "the demands of my purse" message heard at 9:30. However, he does not identify the murderer in front of everyone. The assembled parties leave without hearing whodunnit — that is left to the private exchange between Poirot and the murderer that immediately follows.
  • Terse Talker: Major Blunt.
    "What I like about you," said Flora, with a touch of malice, "is your cheery conversation."
    I fancy that at that Blunt reddened under his tan. His voice, when he spoke, sounded different—it had a curious sort of humility in it.
    "Never was much of a fellow for talking. Not even when I was young."
  • Tomato Surprise: By necessity, as Sheppard (the narrator) doesn't reveal that he is the murderer until Poirot confronts him.
  • Twist Ending: Dr. Sheppard, the polite Watson of this story and also the narrator, is revealed to be the murderer.
  • Unreliable Narrator:
    • A doozy of an example. Dr. Sheppard, who has been narrating the story in classic Watson-style, is the murderer. Sheppard NEVER tells a single lie (to us readers, that is; he only lies to Poirot and the others), nor does he even resort to truthful but misleading statements. He simply leaves something out. It should also be noted the number of times the narrator writes about being puzzled and confused about aspects of the case; he's being completely honest each time. Every suspect has something to hide, from the embarrassing to the outright criminal, and has lied to cover it up. A great example is Ackroyd's niece, who claims she spoke to Ackroyd around a quarter to 10 on the night of the murder, something Sheppard knows is impossible. It turns out she had stolen some cash from Ackroyd's upstairs bedroom, saw the butler approaching as she was heading down the stairs, and rushed down the stairs, pretending she'd come from the study, and claimed to have just spoken to her uncle.
    • It may not be a lie, but it's certainly deceptive on Sheppard's part when he spots the other letters on the floor, where Ackroyd had dropped. He notes that the blue envelope with the letter from Mrs. Ferrars had "disappeared". It didn't disappear, of course; Sheppard burned it in the fire after he killed Ackroyd, though that is technically making it 'disappear'.
  • The Watson: Dr. Sheppard, filling in for Captain Hastings. The role of Sheppard as Watson is lampshaded: "I played Watson to his Sherlock."
  • Wham Line: "In fact — Dr. Sheppard!"
  • Writing About Your Crime: Dr. Sheppard writes an account of the murder and Poirot's subsequent investigation, leaving out the fact that he himself is the murderer. He is careful to never actually lie in his manuscript, but to just leave out pertinent facts in order to mislead the reader.
  • You Meddling Kids: The last line of the book.
    "But I wish Hercule Poirot had never retired from work and come here to grow vegetable marrows."