Robyn Vinter 1st May 2019
The world’s bestselling author is a British woman. And it’s probably not any of the people you might think. It’s not Rowling or Austen or Blyton or a Bronte. It’s master of the whodunit, Agatha Christie.
For all the right reasons, characters like Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple are household names — the plots are clever and entertaining, and the characters just the right level of quirky.
Not all Christie novels are created equal though and, of her 85 published books, there are many forgettable ones, alongside stories everyone’s heard of like Murder on the Orient Express and And Then There Were None.
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, the third book to feature Belgian private detective Poirot — this time retired to tend to vegetable marrows and living incognito in an English village — falls somewhere in between. Though arguably less well-known than its contemporaries, it’s still one of Christie’s bestselling novels, and among those in the know, it’s one of the most popular and most loved stories.
In fact, in 2013 the British Crime Writers’ Association voted The Murder of Roger Ackroyd the best crime novel ever, nearly 90 years after it was published, calling it “the finest example of the genre ever penned”. It beat books like Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs and Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series to the title, which was voted for by more than 600 professional crime writers.
And you can see why crime writers in particular love it. It’s got all the things we adore about Poirot — when assessing the murder scene the detective enquires as to whether there was a fire burning at the time the body was found, something that seems arbitrary but obviously reveals a vital clue.
It’s also fiendishly deceptive and one of those novels that benefits from a second read once you know the solution. Critics at the time accused Christie of cheating, as there’s an element of deceiving the reader which makes the mystery possible, but that’s unfair. Like every good detective story, the clues are there all along, as long as you work out who to trust.
The ending of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, which I won’t reveal for obvious reasons, is particularly notable, given that it’s the perfect whodunit finale — in fact, its twist is considered genuinely genre-defining.
And, unlike other Christie plots, the ending of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is unlikely to have been spoiled for you, making it a genuine mystery.
The story hasn’t dated half as much as novels like The Moving Finger, in which a poison pen letter writer is deemed to be a middle-aged woman (because a man would not possibly trouble himself to do something as petty as write mean letters) or Murder in Mesopotamia which features multiple lines we’d now consider racist, including describing Iraqis as having “dirty dark-yellow colour” skin.
The combination of ageing well and being a great self-contained novel makes The Murder of Roger Ackroyd the perfect foray into Christie for a first-timer. This edition from the Folio Society is particularly delightful, with illustrations by British artist Andrew Davidson. Davidson, no stranger to Christie’s works having illustrated other Folio Society editions of her books, uses gouache paint — a common opaque poster paint from the 18th and early 19th century — which makes the illustrations feel like they’re a real part of the original novel.
When the book was first published in June 1926, it was Christie’s first novel with a new publisher and there really is the sense that she wanted to make an impact. It’s almost like a second debut novel, comments Sophie Hannah, an award-winning crime writer who wrote the introduction for this edition.
On Poirot’s investigation, in which he uncovers theft, blackmail and illicit love affairs, Hannah writes: “He finally comes up with a solution so brilliantly fresh and shocking for a work of that time that I can’t help wondering if, while dutifully producing those last few books for The Bodley Head [Christie’s previous publisher], Christie was not merely hurrying to the end of her contract with her first publisher but also saving up this extra-special idea she’s had for her first outing with her new publisher — who, incidentally, was to remain her publisher for the rest of her life.”
Hannah, with permission from the Christie family, has written three Poirot novels in the last five years; The Monogram Murders, Closed Casket and The Mystery of Three Quarters, which all became bestsellers.
While British millennials might only be familiar with David Suchet’s Sunday evening television version of Poirot, which perhaps has done a bit of harm in terms of consigning them to the appeal of older generations, it does seem Christie is gathering a fandom among this generation, too. Notably, there are a number of podcasts focusing on this genre, including All About Agatha and Shedunnit, which are hosted by people in their thirties.
Though it’s not the first appearance of the moustachioed detective, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is the perfect entry point for anyone wanting to give the genre a go, and this edition, in particular, would make a fabulous gift for Christie fans and beginners alike.
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie, introduced by Sophie Hannah and illustrated by Andrew Davidson is available at foliosociety.com.
Main image: Illustration ©2019 Andrew Davidson from The Folio Society edition of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
Robyn Vinter 1st May 2019