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Book Review, © Copyright 2000, Jim Loy
This is Agatha Christie's most famous, and most controversial book. Some people accused her of cheating. You may have heard how she cheated, if she did cheat. But, for those of you who have not heard about it, I will let you find out by reading the book. It is a shock.
To some extent, she did cheat. She violated unwritten rules, but writers (good writers) do that all the time. Agatha Christie violated assumed rules often. In this story, once you have found out who the murderer is, you will probably kick yourself. You should have figured it out. It makes sense, and there were clues which you probably noticed but failed to appreciate. Compare any Agatha Christie story with Sherlock Holmes, and see who cheats. The Sherlock Holmes stories, as great as they are, are almost all unsolvable by the reader. Holmes always hides many of the clues. Agatha Christie gives us all of the clues. Some of them are disguised.
To order this book click Amazon.com (goes directly to that book).
There is a book called Who Killed Roger Ackroyd? by Pierre Bayard. It contains three major ideas: (1) The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is logically inconsistent, (2) virtually all detective fiction is logically inconsistent, and (3) pretending that The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is consistent, there is a more likely murderer than the one given in the book. Although this book brings up many interesting and valid points, I find it very unsatisfying on several levels. Here, I intend to comment on both books. If you have not read The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, then do not read further, as I will name the murderer, and give away some of the clues.
Flaws in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd: First of all, I would like to comment on some flaws that Mr. Bayard finds in the story. Mostly, he is right. This story, and indeed most books of all kinds, contain logical flaws and improbabilities. It would probably be amusing to subject all mystery fiction to detailed analysis like this. Some of these flaws are:
One of the flaws which Mr. Bayard mentions is that the timed Dictaphone is an impossibly complicated device to invent out of the blue. Although we never read a clue about it, Dr. Sheppard (an amateur inventor) may have already invented a timer for switching any electrical device on and off. If so, it would be simple to hook the Dictaphone's power source (wall outlet or batteries) to such a timer. Under favorable circumstances, it could be done in five minutes.
Another flaw repeatedly mentioned by Mr. Bayard is that Dr. Sheppard does not fit the psychological profile of this murderer, being weak in many ways. I don't know much about that, but Sheppard did graduate from medical school, and must have had great strength of purpose at one time. And Mr. Bayard also mentions Poirot's idea (in Sleeping Murder) that everyone is a potential murderer.
One of the flaws that I found is this: Dr. Sheppard was writing the book (The Murder of Roger Ackroyd). Late in the story, he gave the first 20 chapters to Poirot to read. In those 20 chapters is this apparent confession which claims future knowledge:
He [Poirot] and I lunched together at an hotel. I know now that the whole thing lay clearly unraveled before him. He had got the last thread he needed to lead him to the truth.
Clearly, Sheppard could have inserted that paragraph later, but it is inconsistent.
About Dr. Sheppard's missing five minutes, which Poirot thought was so important, are we to assume that everyone's watch keeps the same time, and that Sheppard's watch is synchronized with the church clock, or that everyone remembers what time things happened? If Sheppard had any brains, he would have lied about one of those times; all he had to do was be ambiguous about it.
The book has a map of the study, which does not show where the windows were. This suggests that the windows (with the shoe prints and the chair possibly blocking the view) were not particularly important.
At the end, Poirot said that only the real murderer's confession could save Ralph Paton. And yet, he then told Sheppard that if he doesn't confess, that he will give evidence to the police. He implies that he can't prove Sheppard's guilt and that he can prove it. So he lies?
The Liar Paradox: Mr. Bayard correctly points out that once we allow traditionally truthful characters (like the narrator) to lie, then we must be suspicious of every word in a book. He repeatedly says that we can never tell what is true and what is not true, for everything can be lies. I would say that that is true of every word written or spoken by everyone in the history of the human race. But it is unproductive to mistrust every single word. Instead, we assume that some things are true, until we find out otherwise, and then we reassess what we have heard and read. And we assume that other things are not true, until we find out otherwise, and again we reassess what we have heard and read. We say to ourselves, "He may not be telling the truth," and later we have to adjust our deductions because of new evidence. In order to read a detective book (or a scientific paper in Scientific American for that matter) we assume that most of it is truthful until we see internal (or external) contradictions. Then we reassess. We cannot automatically believe everything, and we cannot automatically disbelieve everything. We judge from the evidence. Sheppard says that he met Roger Ackroyd on the street. We never ever read any hint of evidence that contradicts that, and so we should be safe in believing it.
The liar paradox is this: The statement "I am lying" has no meaning. It is self-contradictory (if I say I am lying, that cannot be the truth or a lie). Mr. Bayard says that "I am a liar" is equivalent. But, "I am a liar" is very likely true, and is not contradictory in any way. Liars may tell the truth, especially when they say that they are liars. It merely means that I have told lies in the past and I will probably tell lies in the future. How true. Mr. Bayard uses this popular misstatement of the liar's paradox to buttress his idea that once a character admits to lying, that nothing he/she says or writes may ever be trusted again. In fact he devotes two chapters to the possibility that Poirot may be delusional.
Dr. Sheppard's Lies: Mr. Bayard says that Dr. Sheppard never actually lied (except by omitting the truth fairly often). Here are some of Dr. Sheppard's lies:
Some of these lies should stand out while reading the book. In particular, when the phone call is cleared up, it should be obvious that Sheppard was lying about it all along. We may forgive him for hiding Ralph Paton, and continually saying how bad things look for Paton, for we may want him to be innocent. But, when we find that he was lying about the phone call, all the way through the story, then we must suspect him, narrator or not. In the end, these are the most damning pieces of evidence against him:
There are more satisfying possible blackmailers in this story, but Sheppard (as a doctor) was likely to know that Mr. Ferrars was poisoned, and he did come into some mysterious money which might have come from blackmail.
Dr. Watson as Murderer: Dr. Sheppard is not the only narrator in fiction who tells falsehoods. Many others do, mostly unintentionally. In Sherlock Holmes stories, Dr. Watson often makes false deductions, and may even misidentify clues. In fact, we and Holmes have learned to believe the opposite when Dr. Watson makes a deduction.
So it is foolish to say that we cannot suspect a narrator of being the murderer because we must believe what he/she says. We probably do not suspect a narrator merely because the narrator is so seldom the criminal.
Ralph Paton as Murderer: Paton is missing throughout almost the entire book. So, from a literary point of view, he makes a very unsatisfying murderer and blackmailer. But Poirot seems to be correct when he says that only the real murderer's confession will save Paton.
Paton has more than one motive. He inherited most of the estate and money, he may have been the blackmailer (he did know Mrs. Ferrars), and he admitted to being in a scrape of some kind. Poirot said, "Three motives -- it is almost too much. I am inclined to believe that, after all, Ralph Paton is innocent." Surely he is joking about three motives being too much, as no one has made up these motives; at least two of them are real. And even more damning, once Roger Ackroyd found out that Ralph is already married to a servant, he was likely to disinherit Ralph.
Anyway, Paton was seen on the grounds that night, and had ample motive. Can we picture him knocking at the window, and entering that way, as his shoe prints suggest? If he was the blackmailer, surely Ackroyd knew that by then, and the overheard conversation wouldn't be the stilted: "The calls on my purse have been so frequent of late, that I fear it is impossible for me to accede to your request. . ."
When I first read the book, I was sure that Paton had been murdered, and that was why he was missing. That made more sense than what happened in the book.
Parker as Blackmailer: Isn't it an amazing coincidence that Parker (the butler) was also a blackmailer (he blackmailed his former employer)? He would be an ideal murderer and blackmailer, except that we never read any more evidence connecting him to those crimes. We may suspect that he had an accomplice who made the phone call, but Poirot shot that down by finding the sailor who made the call. But maybe the sailor was lying. Parker is the perfect blackmailer, but Poirot and the police ignore him, just because he didn't make the phone call. And I wonder why he mentioned blackmail.
Caroline Sheppard as Murderer: Bayard cleverly says that Caroline killed Ackroyd to protect Dr. Sheppard, her weak, blackmailing brother. He sees this as a more noble murder, although it seems disgusting to me, killing an innocent man to protect a blackmailer. Both Bayard and Poirot think very highly of Caroline, although her position as village gossip would seem to place her pretty far down the tree of life. As the village gossip, she makes the ideal blackmailer, in my opinion. Then maybe Dr. Sheppard faked the phone call, committed the murder, and later confessed, to protect her.
The major problem with Caroline as the murderer and/or blackmailer is that we never read any clues connecting her with these crimes. Also, how did she get the knife? No clues. What about the phone call? No clues. What about the Dictaphone? What about Paton's shoe prints?
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