If you were to ask me which Agatha Christie novel is my favourite, I would give you one of two answers. The first answer, and the real one, would be And Then There Were None. It’s an obvious choice but it’s the right one. It is the best book she ever wrote and is one of the best-crafted thrillers ever written. The twist has to be one of the best in literary history. It still gets me no matter how many times I reread it. Not in the sense that I forget but in the sense that I can’t see it coming. Her red herrings are perfect. It makes so much sense but it almost comes out of nowhere. So, yeah, that’s my real answer. However, I might also tell you that it’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Partly because the Indie Kid in me likes to be different and pretty much everyone says And Then There Were None. The other reason? Roger Ackroyd was iconic. It was groundbreaking. It was the first novel to do what it did. The twist might be a cliche now but you have to respect the book that started the trend.
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd starts with a death. Not the titular murder but a suicide. The suicide of the rich widow Mrs Ferrars. The mystery surrounding her death rocks her village and sets a lot of tongues wagging. What with it being so close to her husband’s death and all. When Roger Ackroyd is later found murdered in his study it becomes clear that the two deaths are linked. Especially when it is revealed that Mrs Ferrars had sent word to Ackroyd that contained the name of the person who had been blackmailing her. Thankfully, retired detective, Hercule Poirot, is living in the village. He is persuaded by Ackroyd’s niece to come out of retirement and solve the case. But will she like what he finds out?
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd features one of the greatest twists in literary history. It was groundbreaking when it first came out. Of course, it’s commonplace these days but Agatha Christie made history. And the book is so well constructed. No matter how many times I read this, there is always something new that comes to me. Little things that are said or done that take on new meaning. Throwaway comments that you never noticed before. This is the kind of novel that demands a reread because you really get to see how she put it all together.
Agatha Christie is so often described as “cosy crime” which has given many people the impression that it’s not worth their time. Yes, compared to contemporary crime thrillers, these books are a little tame but that’s not to say there isn’t darkness there. Agatha Christie understands people and why they act in certain ways. She gets to the heart of evil and tells stories that make sense. She understands the importance of the little details that are vital to solving a crime. These stories work so well because she plots everything out so carefully.
And these plots only serve the greater purpose of revealing who these people are. The plot serves the characters and not the other way round. We need to solve the crime to find out who everybody is. This is what makes Christie so different from other crime writers. She focuses on the important thing and works from there. The reason so many of her critics describe her characters as being underdeveloped is that they are. At least for most of the novel. But that’s how it should work. We’re taking part in a narrative that has set out to investigate people. If we learn everything about them at once we’d have no mystery to solve. This is a criminal investigation. Of course, people are going to hide parts of their identity.
The real people at the heart of these novels become exposed as time goes on and more clues are found. The more insignificant details we find the more we know them. Nowhere is that more clear than in Roger Ackroyd. This is a novel that hinges on the fact that people are so good at hiding their true self. We get glimpses of the person underneath but they are sneaky and easy to miss. Far from being something simple, easy to read, and cosy, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd exemplifies everything that makes Agatha Christie one of the greatest crime writers of all time.
The fact that her novels are also easy to read and cosy are the reason they have stood the test of time. These aren’t negatives to be used as pejoratives but as explanations for why the books have sold so well. They are the reason that her novels can delight readers both young and old. And Roger Ackroyd is one of the greatest of all. With its tight plotting, fantastic attention to detail, and truly unexpected plot twist, this is the kind of novel that changes the way you see other books. It’s a masterpiece.