In the spring of 1924, the young detective writer, Agatha Christie—whose third novel—The Murder on the Links—had been published six months earlier to favorable notices—and even the odd blush-inducing comparison to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle—received a letter from an unexpected source. Prince Louis of Battenberg was a fashionable Royal Navy officer and pal of the louche and stylish Prince of Wales (the one who’d abdicate the throne to marry Wallis Simpson). The future Earl Mountbatten, last British Viceroy of India, was a fan of Christie’s work, he explained in his note. He then went on to offer her what he thought was a unique and fun idea for a plot.
The novelist read the Prince’s flattering letter with a smile, because the idea suggested by the man who would in the 1960s become the “unofficial godfather” of Prince Charles was exactly the same as the one her brother-in-law, James Wattis, had come up with a few months earlier. But if there was a slightly condescending element of what we might now call “mansplaining” to both suggestions, Christie was not offended. Indeed, the more she thought about it, the more the two gentlemen’s cunning plot twist seemed to glow with possibility.
Literary ideas, of course, are easily come by—it’s executing them that is hard. Which is why neither Wattis, nor the Queen of England’s great-uncle, ever won an Edgar or a Gold Dagger. In the skillful hands of Agatha Christie, however, Mountbatten and Wattis’s notion would form the centrepiece of one of the greatest and most influential detective novels ever written, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
Christie’s sixth novel—originally serialised in 1925 in the London Evening News—was the third outing for her eccentric Belgian sleuth, Hercule Poirot. The small man in the bowler hat had, or so he thought, taken early retirement from crime-solving and moved to the quaint English village of King’s Abbot. Here he was focussing not on murder, but on the altogether less exciting pursuit of growing prize-winning vegetable marrows. Sadly for Poirot, but luckily for us, his time in the world of soil fertilization and aphid control, is to be short-lived. No sooner has one village resident, the wealthy widow, Mrs Ferrars committed suicide than her fiancé Roger Ackroyd—who has made a fortune manufacturing wagon wheels—is discovered stabbed to death in the study of his home, Fernly Park.
We know all this thanks to Poirot’s new assistant, Dr James Sheppard, who has temporarily replaced Captain Arthur Hastings as the Watsonian helpmate and chronicler of Poirot’s cases. Since Sheppard was also the last man to see Ackroyd alive, he appears to have more insight into the goings on in King’s Abbot than Conan Doyle’s MD ever does.
As ever, the Queen of Crime’s plot fairly whistles along, the characterizations are sharp and the dialogue filled with Roaring Twenties wit. As Poirot digs into the case, the polite, well-mannered English middle-class world of King’s Abbot is slowly revealed to be a façade behind which lurks a steamy morass of intrigue. As he wanders the corridors of Fernly Park, it seems the Belgian can barely open a cupboard without a skeleton falling out of it: corruption, debt, drugs, poison, blackmail, illegitimate children and secret marriages. In the end, it’s not so much a question of who had a motive to kill the unfortunate Ackroyd, as who didn’t. The trouble is all of the suspects—which are pretty much the entire village—have alibis that appear as cast-iron as the average wood-burning stove.
Poirot lacks Sherlock Holmes’ cold and logical mind (though he has flashes of the consulting detective’s theatrical arrogance), but he is intelligent, worldly, dogged, and shrewd. Soon, a combination of a visit from a Dictaphone salesman, a mysterious stranger, a goose quill and a scrap of fabric have brought him close to the truth. Not that the reader will have got there as quickly as Hercule, because Christie is like a master magician—she constantly hides the key evidence in plain sight while directing our gaze elsewhere with skilful sleight of hand and witty patter. Particularly effective in the latter department is the village busybody, Miss Gannett and her pal, Dr Sheppard’s gossipy, spinster sister, Caroline—a character Christie liked so much she’d soon reappear as Miss Marple.
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd has a plot that hinges on two pieces of what were then relatively new technology—the telephone and the tape recorder (the equivalent in our time might be a TikTok account and Fitbit), but it is the Mountbatten/Wattis plot twist that gives the novel its genuinely modern and innovative feel.
Not that the surprise ending was to everyone’s liking at the time. Some readers were baffled and others enraged by what they regarded as an underhand trick. For a long while the book would be described by a section of the literary public as “controversial” (though suffice to say it’s no Lady Chatterley’s Lover). Today, the novel is viewed as a pivotal moment in the development of the crime genre—as big a turning point in the history of literary detection as the invention of finger printing was in the real thing.
As to the nature of this once-divisive plot twist, well, we’re not going to indulge in any spoilers here. Suffice it to say that, encouraged by the Prince and the brother-in-law, Christie borrowed a literary device that had previously been used by Daniel Defoe, Edgar Allan Poe and Mark Twain—amongst others. Her decision to use it in a detective story was a first, however, and one that would transform crime fiction, opening up myriad paths for future novelists. Dozens of other writers have copied it since, yet such is Christie’s mastery of her craft that close to a century later, the ending of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd remains as sharp and unexpected as it ever did.