Who killed Roger Ackroyd?


French academic and literary critic Pierre Bayard thinks Agatha got it wrong. Or Hercule did, which comes to the same thing. And in his playful 1998 book he sets out to demonstrate why and how. He goes on to propose an alternative solution which, with intellectual hubris, he entitles The Truth. Along the way he gives away the solutions to not just The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, but also Endless Night and Curtain. My purpose is to playfully do unto Bayard as he has done unto Christie but, with the crucial additional self-imposed handicap, to do this without giving away either Christie’s solution or Bayard’s.

It is perhaps as well to begin by acknowledging that many Golden Age plots could be capable of different solutions depending on which facts the author selected as salient for the deduction of the murderer. Anthony Berkeley went so far as to propose six different solutions to his 1929 novel The Poisoned Chocolates Case, each put forward by a different detective in a round table discussion of the known facts. The correct solution, apparently arbitrarily determined to be such by Berkeley, is, to add further complications, not the one that was used in his separate short story The Avenging Chance (though that solution is one of those proposed in the novel’s debate) which uses the same basic facts.
Bayard may, therefore, be justified in his playful re-writing of Christie’s famous solution. My purpose is not to call this possibility into question, but to apply the same stress-testing of Bayard’s solution that he applied to Christie’s.

Being a French academic, Bayard’s approach is naturally intellectual and draws on a theoretical basis that is taken from Freudian psychoanalysis. Poirot, he insists, takes selected facts and constructs a theory which accounts for all of those facts. Poirot then imposes this theory onto the facts of the case without regard for the possibility that other theories might also fit those facts. This is, in psychoanalytical terms, the approach of a delusional character and is to be distinguished from that of a neurotic character. A deluded person fits facts to the narrative they have chosen to account for events – and incidentally ignores or discounts uncomfortable facts which might contradict the narrative they have chosen. A neurotic person simply suppresses uncomfortable facts so that their life is not disturbed by unpleasant narratives. A neurotic Poirot might simply pretend that there was no neighbour Roger Ackroyd who died in sudden and mysterious circumstances. A deluded Poirot might concoct a theory to account for the sudden, mysterious death of his neighbour and retro-actively fit the facts that emerge about that death to the pre-conceived “delusion”. Bayard concludes that Poirot is deluded.

Bayard goes on to explain that the reader is swept along by Poirot’s exposition of his delusional solution to the crime, pointing out that in this case, like so many others, Poirot expounds his theory to a gathered group of suspects in the classic denouement scene, moving swiftly from point to point without giving the reader adequate chance to test the strength of each link in the chain of evidence by which he reaches his conclusion. Crucially, Bayard says on more than one occasion in his arguments that this is effective as an approach – sweeping readers along to a rapid conclusion that is at best only sketchily outlined – which relies on the fact that detective fiction is intended to be read only once.

Here is where I begin my unpicking of Bayard’s case against Christie and Poirot. For, it is the intellectual conceit of literary criticism that genre fiction is produced as a disposable commodity unlike true, great literature which is written for posterity and which the author intends to be read and re-read with depths of meaning only revealed to the reader who repeatedly engages with the magnum opus. I contend that far from being written as disposable, one-time only reads, classics of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction were written by authors in the expectation that they would be re-read. The authors knew that their fans would not be content with a single read but would return to favourites and re-read them. Nor is this re-reading like that of children who constantly return to favourite books till they practically know them by heart. Second and subsequent readings are done, in the full knowledge of the solutions and so are quite different experiences from the first puzzle-solving attempt. Instead they are read in a more “knowing” way, identifying at each step where the author has planted clues to the solution and, noting, often with pleasure and admiration, how those fair-play clues have been disguised and attention to them has been diverted with clever mis-direction by the author.

The effect of these re-readings, which may well be slower and more careful than the initial dash through to get to the solution on the first time of reading, is to expose the solution to greater scrutiny and to reveal potential gaps in the logic.

My research, conducted through a survey of Golden Age aficionados found that 89% of readers will re-read classic Golden Age novels, such as The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. (Sample size 100 readers which makes it a robust conclusion).

I think, it is reasonable to conclude that Bayard over-states his case that Christie and a delusional Poirot might expect to get away with a less than water-tight solution through anxious readers skimming quickly to reach the climax of the novel if nine out of every ten of the readers who are most interested in the genre (and who might therefore be those who will conduct such a re-reading most closely) do in fact re-read the books.

Bayard goes on to contend that the motive which Poirot attributes to the murderer for the crime is too weak to sustain Poirot’s delusion of that party’s guilt. The motive Poirot proposes is that the murder is committed by a blackmailer to avoid exposure as a blackmailer. Bayard states that the accused person has only to respond with a flat denial of a posthumous accusation by a person who has committed suicide and, in effect, brazen it out without needing to resort to murder.

However, Bayard’s argument indicates a failure of understanding of the culture in which the murder takes place. An English village in the aftermath of the First World War is a very small and insular place. It has strong social and class hierarchies. All the suspects come from a middle-class milieu. Social reputation, professional standing, acceptance within the community are vitally important to all of those in the circle of which Roger Ackroyd was a key figure. To be accused of being a blackmailer and to have no proof (in the form of another person found to have been the blackmailer) that one was not such a social pariah, beyond bluster and outraged denial of the sort Bayard envisages, would present a high risk of social death. Gossip and the principle of no smoke without fire would see to it that the accused person’s standing in the village was destroyed forever. Any chance of social rehabilitation would be slim to non-existent and any professional reputation would be in ruins – with all the financial consequences that entails.

I therefore argue that this plank of Bayard’s case against Christie and Poirot is shaky at best.

This line of thought also calls into question Bayard’s second argument against Christie and Poirot’s suspect, that the person accused is too ineffectual to concoct and execute a daring, high-risk strategy within 24 hours of finding they are at risk of exposure as a blackmailer. To this line of thinking, I would argue that it is impossible to judge to what lengths a frightened individual might go to protect themselves in the face of the risk of exposure (the magnitude of which Bayard has already underestimated through his lack of cultural insight into what, to him, is a foreign society) to what is, in effect, social and/or professional and/or potentially financial ruin.

Bayard next turns his attention to the murder’s need to improvise at short notice what he, with heavy irony dubs, the world’s first “clock radio”. He also uses such humour to call into question other aspects of the murderer’s methodology and its requirements. This invitation to join him in poking fun at these aspects is a gambit to align his audience with his thinking and fall in line with his criticism of Christie and Poirot. However, this sarcasm quietly ignores that there was ample precedent for clockwork timing devices which would be well-known to any person of mechanical aptitude in that period since bombs with timers were a feature of the First World War which would have been a very recent memory for all of the protagonists in the novel.

So again, I find that Bayard’s case against Christie and Poirot is weak.

We should now turn to consideration of the alternative murderer whom Bayard proposes. In putting this suspect forward, Bayard must not only account for the confession of the murderer in Christie’s novel but also ensure that the suspect could have acted as he suggests consistent with the known facts revealed in the book.

Certainly, Bayard puts forward a convincing psychological case for his alternative suspect being the murderer. Yes, the person had a motive which would be as strong (or almost so) as Christie’s suspect.

Bayard also puts forward a convincing argument that the murderer’s confession in Christie’s solution is ambiguous. Here Bayard draws on literary theory to describe the confession as an example of “double-edged discourse”. The words used are capable of interpretation as an admission of guilt but are equally susceptible to a reading as the writings of a person who wishes to obfuscate for reasons of their own and not tell the whole truth. In short, Christie’s murderer never writes “Yes, I did it.” but only uses phrases which a reader might infer to mean as much without saying so in so many words.

This provides an ingenious way to account for an apparent confession which is not a confession in Bayard’s solution.

However, a crucial flaw I see in Bayard’s argument for the alternative murderer is that there is no evidence to point to them being the murderer. If Poirot is delusional and constructs an elaborate but deluded theory which fits selected facts to accuse one person of the murder (and the theory is not inconsistent with other facts which are, it turns out, irrelevant to the identification of the murderer), then the same applies with even greater force in respect of Bayard and his theory. He has only one item of evidence that his suspect could have done the crime (Major Blunt has seen an unidentified figure in the grounds – though Poirot identifies this person in his investigations and the person confirms that it was them during the “denouement”). Thus, the only evidence that the person Bayard accused could have been seen by Major Blunt is accounted for. This leaves only the possibility that the Major did not see the person who says they were at the relevant place at the time stated but saw a second person, Bayard’s proposed murderer, in very much the same place at the same time but that second person was not seen by the person who admitted to being there. This is not only implausible but also Bayard presents no evidence for why the person who admits they were there did not notice someone who must have been close by and who was sufficiently visible that the Major spotted them from a considerably greater distance.

Indeed, Bayard’s alternative murderer is somewhat peripheral to the storyline and is never seriously suspected or questioned by Poirot. Bayard notes this and questions it – Christie not usually treating a character who could have done it so lightly for no reason. However, this solution does clash with one of S. S. Van Dine’s Twenty Cardinal Rules for the Golden Age Detective Novel – rule 10 requires that the murderer “must turn out to be a person who has played a more or less prominent part in the story”. Quite frankly, Bayard’s alternative murderer, though an ingenious solution, does rather fail this test.

Of course, Christie, like all the best writers of the Golden Age, felt perfectly free to disregard Van Dine’s rules when it suited her, but it would be pushing this laxity to an extreme to build this fresh twist onto a plot which already, and arguably more than any other before or since, shattered what must be regarded as one of the most sacrosanct of the Van Dine rules.

Indeed, in so doing, Christie made her reputation with The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. She may have written better puzzles later, with stronger plots, with classic denouements revealing ingenious new twists and surprises for the reader, but in this novel, so early in her career, she sent a seismic shock through the Golden Age world, changing irrevocably what was possible in the genre.

I contend, therefore, that in his proposal that this solution is all a dreadful mistake on Christie’s, and Poirot’s part, Bayard is merely mis-directing himself, albeit in an amusing and erudite fashion.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s