Friday, April 30, 2010

The Murder of Roger Akroyd by Agatha Christie

Christie, Agatha. The Murder of Roger Akroyd. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co, 1985. (The book was orginally published in 1929.)

(I couldn't find a cover image for the edition of this book I read, so I chose this one. Isn't it fantastic?)

Somehow, the Connecticut detective book club had managed to go this long (over 2 years. Hard to believe we've been together that long, huh?) without reading any Christie. You knew we'd get around to her soooner or later, though right? I mean, you can't really be a detective book club and ignore The Dame.

I hadn't read any Christie since I was in my twenties, and most of what I've read of hers, I'd read long before that. As far as detective fiction goes, though (if you don't count things like The Hardy Boys and -- eleven-year-old-me's very favorite -- Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators), you could say I cut my teeth on Christie. In fact, you could say as far as contemporary adult fiction goes, I cut my teeth on Christie. I started reading "my first grownup book" when I was twelve. My sister had pulled an Agatha Christie from our shelves (sorry, but I don't remember exactly which one. I am pretty sure it was a Tommy and Tuppence, though) and told me to start with it. I was sure this adult book was going to be too hard for me, but I was determined (because my 13-year-old cousin had recently mocked me for still going to the children's room of the main, downtown branch of our county library). There we were, both lying on my sister's bed, reading, when I, all on about page 2 or so, came to the word "unshed" describing "snow."

"What's 'unshed'?" I asked my sister, pronouncing the word with one syllable, like "bunched."

"Huh? Unshed?" See? These books were so hard, even my sister didn't know all the words.

"Yeah. It says 'unshed snow.'"

"Let me see." I handed her the book.

"Un-shed. Un-shed," she said, laughing. I joined in, and thus, yet another family joke was born.

Once I got over that mysterious unshed snow, I went on to devour the book and then every other Christie we had in the house, as well as at the local branch of our county library, except the Miss Marple mysteries. To this day, I have yet to read a Miss Marple, because neither of my sisters liked her, and they convinced me not to read the books that feature her (and now you see what sort of sway two older sisters can have over a third daughter).

Now that I've read so many other mystery writers, I was curious to see how Agatha Christie would hold up. I was afraid this book might be as boring as The Yellow Room or that forgettable Ngaio Marsh we read, that my sophisticated palate would find her stultifying. Would Hercule Poirot seem like nothing but a pompous ass now that I've met the likes of Father Brown (who can be a bit pompous himself, but the stories are so much fun and so funny that you easily forgive him), Lew Archer, John Rebus, and (most recently) John Connolly's Charlie Parker?

I needn't have feared. Agatha Christie held up marvelously, and Poirot is no more pompous than he has a right to be. He's actually rather self-effacing and endearing, if judging him by this book. We first come across him throwing squashes over the garden wall in anger and frustration, because he had imagined himself capable of enjoying a nice, quiet retirement in the village of King's Abbott, and instead (reading between the lines), is finding it as boring as I thought this book might be.

The Murder of Roger Akroyd is definitely what, by today's mystery classifications, would be described as a "cozy" (a description I've always found amusing. I understand when you tell me that Miss Read is "cozy," even though I've never read her. I can just tell. I don't understand, however, how anything that involves murder can be considered "cozy." A "neat," perhaps, because it follows a formula and all is explained, with no loose ends, in the end. Or maybe a "no-blood-and-guts," but not a "cozy." I mean, if you had just discovered that your next-door-neighbor had been found with a dagger in his back, I don't think you'd respond, "Oh, how nice. Let's pour ourselves some tea and sit in front of the fire wrapped in blankets and play a game of Scrabble." At least I wouldn't. I'd be double-and-triple checking the locks on all my doors and calling up some of the biggest, toughest people I know to ask if they'd like to come over and hang out all night with a bottle of bourbon). We only have one body (not counting the obvious suicide on the very first page). The suspects are all known to each other. And the detective just happens to have moved into this village.

It could have been extremely dull, yet another chapter-after-chapter of questioning until you just want to throw the book across the room, because you care so little about any of it and are angry that it doesn't just end. Finally, something comes to light, and the detective manages to get someone to confess. By then, you've practically forgotten who's been killed and can't be bothered to decide whether or not the pulling together of all the clues, resulting in this conclusion, makes sense. The murderer confesses, and you just decide, "well, it must make sense. She confessed."

But here's where Christie's genius lay: the book is not the least bit dull. First of all, I am green with envy over her powers of description. She observes everything wisely and keenly, and nothing gets past her (I'm not sure I would have wanted to be her neighbor or a regular guest at her house, but these are just the sorts of qualities you want in a mystery writer), and she's just that little bit snarky enough to add fun without too much discomfort. As such, we really know her characters. She also knows her English villages. I loved this description of King's Abbot we got:

Able-bodied men are apt to leave the place early in life, but we are rich in
unmarried ladies and retired military officers. Our hobbies and recreations can
be summed up in one word, "gossip." (p. 7)

And she knows how to make a house that's full of secrets completely believable. Sometimes, when reading mysteries, I'm amused by all the secrets and all the odd things an author will have going on in, say, an English country house like this one, on any given night. Usually, I find myself thinking, "Oh, come on! Wasn't there a single person in the house who just ate dinner and went to bed? They can't all have had something to hide that might make them murderers." Here, I just found myself thinking, "Boy, she's so clever in the way she's managed to get me to believe all this."

Finally, she's got a great sense of humor that I just love. There's this fabulous scene in which some of the characters are all playing Mah Jong while gossiping and puzzling through the murder. The scene is beautifully executed, each character epitomizing different styles of play that suit their personalities perfectly. She certainly had me giggling.

I will say that I did figure out whodunit, but only for two reasons: a. I had a very vague memory of the surprising ending, despite the fact I hadn't read this in probably over 30 years. It's definitely an ending that ought to stick and b. the jacket copy, as well as friends, had gone on about the clever twist at the end. That put me on my toes and had me looking for the sorts of things authors throw in as clues that readers like I so often miss while being wrapped up in more exciting details of the plot (the old magician distracting the audience routine). I wasn't disappointed, though, just gratified to have been right, and I still found myself thinking, "Well done" at the end.

I imagine critics might say that she copped out at the end. To some degree, she did, but, really, I can't see what else she could have done. She'd done a brilliant job of setting up this whole thing, and I, for one, would have been quite disappointed if she hadn't ended it the way she did. Besides, when the death penalty is a guarantee, which it was in those days, my guess is that it wasn't quite so unrealistic for a case to end this way.

I wish I were going to be at the discussion this weekend, because I'm dying to talk about why this was such a great book to follow The Talented Mr. Ripley, and I'd like to make comparisons to The Moonstone. I won't do so here, though, because I am so loathe to include spoilers in blog posts about books I've enjoyed (and hope I didn't say too much in the previous paragraph). You're on your own to read all three books and to figure it out yourself.


Anonymous said...

Hercule Poirot is my favourite and the early ones the best. I must have read this one--but I am going to read it again because I'm not 100% I did. And maybe my older d will have a go at it. Thanks!

litlove said...

I did exactly the same as a teenager and read my way through all 88 Christie novels (I kept a tally). And I still love her today. She is a brilliantly concise author, never wasting a word, and her dialogue is fantastic. I often find other crime writers mimsy and twee or needlessly dark in comparison.

Rebecca H. said...

I really enjoyed the book too, and most of the book group did (one exception). You're right that the comparisons to Ripley and The Moonstone are really interesting (I wouldn't have thought of the Moonstone comparison, so thanks for pointing that out). I thought the writing was really good too, but it was the ending that made it great for me. I don't think book jackets should make a big deal out of the ending, though, because that makes it easier to figure out. I had no idea about the book at all, and the ending really surprised me.

mandarine said...

I have had the opportunity to verify how Agatha Christie's books were holding up, as I have read them twice: once in French in my teens, and again in English in my twenties.

I have not reread Roger Akroyd, though, as it is the one novel in which I have never forgotten who the murderer was: rereading it would feel more like a writing class assignment (does the author cleverly circumnavigate all pitfalls, or does she just hope we will not do any sort of backtracking once we know the culprit and catch her actually writing inaccuracies or even lies to deceive us?) But now my curiosity is piqued and maybe I will.