Who killed Roger Ackroyd?

A CRITIQUE OF PIERRE BAYARD

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.

Programme for 2020 Conference

We are delighted to unveil the stellar list of speakers and topics for our 2020 Conference. Appropriately for American Independence Day – the conference is taking place on 4th of July – we have a US theme to a number of our speakers’ subjects.

The programme in full is:

9:30 Registration begins
9.55 Welcome
10.00 Howdunit: How We Did It
Martin Edwards, Alison Joseph and Kate Ellis
10.30 Artist in Crime – The Life and Work of Ngaio Marsh
Tony Medawar
11.00 Partners in Crime: Hugh Wheeler & Richard Webb – Making of Patrick Quentin
Curtis Evans
11.30 COFFEE
12.00 The Great Gladys – How Great Is She?
Moira Redmond and Len Tyler
12.30 The Other Queen of Crime
John Curran
1:00 LUNCH
2.00 Radio Play
2.30 Identical Twins and Detection: Peter and Anthony Shaffer
Martin Edwards and Christine Poulson
3.00 ‘Straight Tripe and Savourless?’ – The Life and Work of Brian Flynn
Steve Barge and Kate Jackson
3.30 COFFEE
4.00 Three-a-Penny: Anthony Gilbert, Anne Meredith and Lucy Malleson
Jake Kerride
4.30 GAD Bless America
Jim Noy and Daniel Curtis
5.00 ‘Ask the Experts’
Moderator: Jake Kerridge
5:30 CLOSE

The organisers reserve the right to modify the programme and timings.

More details of the 2020 Conference

We can now confirm the following speakers will also be appearing at this year’s conference (in addition to those previously announced):

Kate Ellis – author of the best-selling Wesley Peterson series of mysteries

Moira Redmond – commentator on, amongst other things, Clothes in Books

Len Tyler – CWA Dagger winning author

Jake Kerridge – crime fiction critic for the Daily Telegraph

Christine Poulson – author of the Cassandra James and Katie Flanagan mystery series

Jim Noy – author of The Invisible Event blog on (frequently) impossible crime fiction

Daniel Curtis – author of The Reader is Warned blog

Kate Jackson – compiler of the The Pocket Detective puzzles published by The British Library

Steve Barge – the moving force behind the recent republication of Brian Flynn’s novels

The budding Hercule Poirots amongst you may deduce that Steve Barge will be talking on Brian Flynn – one of the topics already announced – but what of the other speakers? What will be their subjects? With less than 24 hours left before the Early Bird discount expires you can ensure you find out by booking for the conference today.

Topics for the 2020 Conference

We can now reveal some (but not all – we want to keep some surprises up our sleeve) of the topics that are going to be covered in this year’s conference.

There will be sessions on classic authors such as Ngaio Marsh and Gladys Mitchell.

And in a salute to our cousins across the Atlantic who will be celebrating their Independence on the day of the conference, there will be a focus on an American “Crime Queen” – the pseudonymous Ellery Queen.

We are also delighted to include a session on a hitherto overlooked author whose works are only now returning into print after a hiatus that, I’m sure our speakers will argue, has been too long: Brian Flynn.

These are just a taste of the goodies we have in store for you and we promise more treats to be revealed shortly.

The only way to be sure not to miss out is to book your place – and there are only a few days left before the Early Bird Discount period expires – so the time to act is now.

2020 Programme nearly finalised

The programme for this year’s conference is nearly finalised. We are just working on the details for the last couple of slots (who will appear with whom and take what aspects of the topic for discussion) before we go live with the planned programme.

I can’t resist mentioning though that we have sessions featuring Tony Medawar, Martin Edwards, Alison Joseph and our own John Curran (who has just been nominated for an Edgar for his book The Hooded Gunman – available at all good bookshops!). We are also thrilled to welcome a speaker new to our conferences but, we are sure, familiar to those of us who discuss Golden Age Detective Fiction online, Curtis Evans.

Topics for this year include Ellery Queen, S. S. Van Dine and Gladys Mitchell.

We will be announcing more speakers and topics very soon.

In the meantime, if you haven’t already booked your tickets, don’t miss out on the Early Bird Discount which applies for only a short while longer and saves you £5 on the ticket price.

A fine edition of Death on the Nile…and a competition

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US publisher of fine editions, Thornwillow Press, is bringing out a special edition of Death on the Nile. It is available in four different bindings – paper, half-cloth, half-leather and full leather.

In an intriguing promotion, Thornwillow is running a competition to win a unique prize – literally only a single copy of the prize edition will be made. To win, you will need to solve 21 separate clues and, from the answers, derive three words using either the first or last letter of each solution, then explain the link between the words. Sounds fiendishly complicated. To enter go to: Competition

For those who find the clues too challenging, or who wish to receive additional “goodies” related to Agatha Christie and her travels, you can subscribe to the project. To find out more about subscribing go to: Subscribe

And if all else fails, you can simply buy the fine edition. For more details go to: Death on the Nile

 

Get your copy of Bodies From The Library 2 before anyone else

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The only place to get your copy of Bodies From The Library 2, Tony Medawar’s second collection of lost classics from the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, before anyone else is at The Bodies From The Library Conference. Copies will be available for delegates at the conference to purchase before the book goes on sale officially the following month.

The publication of the first Bodies from the Library volume in 2018 was an unexpected treat for fans of some of the genre’s cleverest and most popular writers. With lost stories by authors including Georgette Heyer, A.A. Milne, Anthony Berkeley, Nicholas Blake, Cyril Hare and Roy Vickers, the book was a unique opportunity finally to fill the gaps in some of the greatest canons of detective and thriller fiction.

This follow-up volume is a showcase for fifteen more popular names from the Golden Age, including Margery Allingham, Helen Simpson, Ethel Lina White, John Rhode, Agatha Christie and S.S. Van Dine – plus a few big surprises  – with stories so rare that many don’t yet appear on their writers’ established bibliographies.

Selected and introduced by Tony Medawar, who also writes a short essay about each contributor, Bodies from the Library 2 is a genuine treasure-trove of missing episodes from the work of some of the world’s favourite classic crime writers.

Recommended Reading for Bodies From The Library 2019

We know that many of you like to prepare for the conference by reading books recommended by the speakers that are particularly relevant to their topics. Here are the speakers’ recommendations for the 2019 conference. There is only a little more than two months to go till the day so you will need to get your skates on to read all the titles.

The Hollow Man by John Dickson Carr
The Plague Court Murders by Carter Dickson
The Devil in Velvet by John Dickson Carr
She Died a Lady by Carter Dickson
The Burning Court by John Dickson Carr
The Department of Queer Complaints by Carter Dickson

Tenant for Death by Cyril Hare
Suicide Excepted by Cyril Hare
Tragedy at Law by Cyril Hare
With a Bare Bodkin by Cyril Hare
An English Murder by Cyril Hare
He Should Have Died Hereafter by Cyril Hare
Best Detective Stories of Cyril Hare

Dance of Death by Helen McCloy
The Deadly Truth by Helen McCloy
Who’s Calling? by Helen McCloy
Cue for Murder by Helen McCloy
Panic by Helen McCloy
Through a Glass, Darkly by Helen McCloy

Bats in the Belfry by E. C. R. Lorac
Murder by Matchlight by E. C. R. Lorac
Fire in the Thatch by E. C. R. Lorac
Murder in the Mill-Race by E. C. R. Lorac

Murder in the Telephone Exchange by June Wright
So Bad a Death by June Wright
Duck Season Death by June Wright
The Devil’s Caress by June Wright

The Max Carrados Mysteries by Ernest Bramah

Rim of the Pit by Hake Talbot
Hercule Poirot’s Christmas by Agatha Christie
Whistle up the Devil by Derek Smith
Death from a Top Hat by Clayton Rawson
The Case Of The Gilded Fly by Edmund Crispin
Sealed Room Murder by Rupert Penny

Agatha Christie: A Life in the Theatre by Julius Green

2019 Conference Programme Announced

The programme for the 2019 Bodies From The Library Conference has now been announced.

It offers a variety of panel sessions and lectures covering a cross-section of both the familiar and the less well-known authors of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction.

The full programme is:

9:55 Welcome

10.00 Is The Golden Age Humdrum?
Jake Kerridge, Moira Redmond and Richard Reynolds

10.30 The Puppet Master: John Dickson Carr (1906-1977)
Tony Medawar

11.00 City and Countryside in ECR Lorac’s crime novels
Sarah Ward

11.30 COFFEE

11.50 Two (Undeservedly) Forgotten Crime Club Authors
John Curran

12.20 The Max Carrados Tales of Ernest Bramah
Dolores Gordon-Smith

12.50 LUNCH

1.50 Radio Play

2.20 Murder in Mind: The Crime Novels of Helen McCloy
Christine Poulson

2.50 Agatha Christie: Playwright
Julius Green and John Curran

3.20 TBC

3.50 COFFEE

4.10 Cyril Hare: Master of the English Murder
Martin Edwards and Christine Poulson

4.40 The 10 Types of Impossible Crime
Jim Noy and Daniel Curtis

5.10 Ask The Experts

Sadly, the session featuring Simon Brett and Len Tyler which had been planned for the afternoon, as mentioned in our previous notification of conference speakers, has had to be cancelled (or should that be postponed to 2020?) due to family commitments. We will let you know as soon as a new speaker has been confirmed.