The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Agatha Christie. New York: HarperCollins, 2002 (originally published 1926).
Summary: Poirot comes out of retirement to solve the murder of Roger Ackroyd, who is killed after learning that the woman he loved, who has taken her life, had poisoned her first husband and was being blackmailed to cover up the fact.
There are some who consider this among the very best of Agatha Christie’s mysteries. It is the only one appearing in the list of 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. I am inclined to agree that it is one of the best I have read, particularly for the unusual surprise at the end.
Mrs. Ferrars has committed suicide. Her husband had died the previous year under somewhat suspicious circumstances. Dr. James Settles is the physician consulted on the case and it turns out that he is with wealthy Roger Ackroyd when Ackroyd, who had fallen in love with Ferrars, receives a suicide note confessing she had poisoned her husband and was being blackmailed by someone she named in the letter who knew the fact. Ackroyd refuses to reveal the contents of the letter. Later that evening Settles receives a call informing him that Ackroyd has been murdered in his study. He goes to the house and discovers it is so, in the neck with a knife from a collection of curios.
Flora Ackroyd, a niece who stands to inherit a tidy fortune, having agreed to marry Roger Ackroyd’s choice of spouse, Ralph Paton, enlists the help of Hercule Poirot, who has retired and lives nearby. Dr. Settles, who saw the crime scene, becomes Poirot’s aid in the investigation and is the narrating voice in the story. Flora is particularly concerned because Ralph has gone missing and is the prime suspect, because of his financial straits. But others in the household are also suspicious. Parker the butler appears to have been listening at the door of Ackroyd’s study during the meeting between Ackroyd and Settles, and then again later in the evening as well. Others seems to be hiding things as well: Flora’s mother Mrs. Ackroyd, Hector Blunt, a friend staying with the family, Geoffrey Raymond, the secretary, Mrs. Russell and Ursula Bourne on the staff. There is a strange American-sounding figure who gets directions from Settles to the house shortly before the murder took place.
Working alongside Inspector Raglan, Poirot with the help of Settles and his sister Caroline seek to get to the truth these different characters are hiding. There is also the puzzle of who it was Ackroyd was speaking with shortly before his death and why one of the chairs in the study was moved out of place. Eventually there is the traditional “gathering of suspects” at which Poirot reveals the killer. I can say no more because this is where the plot takes a surprising turn.
What I enjoyed was the character of Poirot. One sees why he is one of the most celebrated figures in detective mysteries. He is thorough, thoughtful, relentless in the pursuit of truth, intolerant of deception, and gentle when people confess the truth. He takes truth seriously but himself not at all. He can be both droll, and infinitely sad as he ponders the evil people do. I’ve read or watched other Poirot stories but found his character especially well drawn here.
Likewise, the plot seems to move at just the right pace, unraveling each thread of the mystery until all is prepared for the final revelation of the murder. The perfect book for a summer read, or any time you need a few hours of rich diversion.