Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Roger Ackroyd is dead. At least we can agree on that, right?

When I was in middle school, I went through a period where I read little but Agatha Christie novels. (For those of you keeping score at home, that period followed the one wherein I read little but Doc Savage novels and preceded the one wherein I read little but Star Trek novels.) They offered exactly what I was looking for in a mystery: a setting vaguely exotic, both in its Englishness and its era; minimal violence, occurring offscreen and with virtually no gore; and, most important, a battle of wits--one which, because Christie always played straight with her readers, I was invited to join. I blazed through book after book, preferring Poirot to Marple but ultimately willing to read whatever my local library held.

For nearly twenty years after that, however, I didn't read a single Christie novel. I had moved on: I preferred straight novels, in general, and when I did read mysteries, I was much more interested in the brooding and violence of noir than Christie's decorum. But then a couple of months ago circumstances, like criminals, began to conspire . . .

First, Spinster Aunt supplied a very convincing post about reading Murder on the Orient Express, in the midst of which she pointed out that "You can read Christie's books, drunk, in a day," and that, "They're very good around Christmas time, when [one does] virtually everything in a pleasant alcoholic haze." Marketers take note: those are undeniable selling points!

Then Michael Dirda weighed in. In his Classics for Pleasure (2007), after acknowledging that Christie is not a good writer "if we look to her for the more obvious literary qualities [such as] distinctive prose style, rich characterization, a picture of society and contemporary life," he succinctly explained--thus making me remember--just what is so much fun about her:
Where Christie excels is in her plotting, that most essential of the elements of fiction. (As E. M. Forster emphatically insisted, "Oh yes, the novel tells a story.") Like a poet who writes only sonnets or a composer working out a set of variations, Christie accepts the conventions of the mystery and then seeks to surprise us with her originality. A creative-writing student could usefully study her novels just to learn the art of narrative construction.
In that sense, Christie stands as the anti-Chandler: her characterizations and atmosphere are nil, but her plots are fiendishly clever, her red herrings sprinkled with well-camouflaged abandon, and her mastery of manipulation and misdirection are second to none. No less a mind than Edmund Wilson wrote, after reading Death Comes at the End, that
I confess that I have been had by Mrs. Christie. I did not guess who the murderer was, I was incited to keep on and find out, and when I did finally find out, I was surprised.
--though fairness dictates that I point out that he continued by writing, "I did not care for Agatha Christie, and I hope never to read another of her books."

When I discovered that, despite Christie's reputation as a seamless plotter, Pierre Bayard had, in his book Who Killed Roger Ackroyd? The Mystery Behind the Agatha Christie Mystery (1998), had the gall to argue that Hercule Poirot had gotten the answer to the question posed by his title wrong, it was obvious: the fates (as represented by my Google Reader and my library) were conspiring to tell me that it was time to give Dame Agatha another try.

Fortunately, I'd somehow never read The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926), despite its having been the book that made Christie's name, so I was in the fortunate position of being able to read it and Bayard's refutation back to back. And it turns out that . . . everyone was right! Spinster Aunt's recommendation of a drink or two to ease the reading was much appreciated, Dirda's assessment of Christie's characters--
[S]he uses the same stock company in book after book--the retired colonel, the village gossip, the local doctor, the independent young woman, the shrewd governess. They, and the victim, are no more real to us than the characters in a game of Clue.
--was dead on, and Christie's plot was ingenious--yet at the same time Bayard homed in on so many surprisingly weak points as to make a reader wonder if she, too, might have been in on the deception. Reading the two books back to back is a treat I'd recommend to any mystery fan.

Bayard's book consists of two roughly even parts: a section of general reflections on the conditions and rules of the mystery genre, and a section specifically deconstructing Christie's explanation of Roger Ackroyd's untimely demise. Much of the fun of the book rests on Bayard's utter seriousness: though he doesn't make the Sherlockian move of pretending that The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is anything more than a novel, within the context of the novel itself he treats every fact presented as a true description of the characters and events of the book--and he insists on devising an alternate solution that fits those facts. "Our first concern, then, is with rigor," he writes early in the book, and he does not waver; I think not even Christie herself could argue for long against his solution. It is, like Christie's, ingenious and satisfying--the more so because it teases out a possibility that, before Bayard's work, the novel itself had foreclosed. The very act of reopening the question serves to animate and enliven The Murder of Roger Ackroyd in a way that surely hasn't obtained since soon after its first publication.

I can't be the only person who, on reading Bayard's book, wished Borges had been alive to enjoy it, can I? Who Killed Roger Ackroyd? is almost like a bizarre refraction of a story like Pierre Menard, an enactment of the idea that every text is perpetually alive and available for rewriting, for injecting with a new meaning. Bayard has, in a sense, modernized this eighty-year-old story, by giving us that most post-modern of things: a choice. We now have two answers, two interpretations, each with its own strengths and weaknesses, which give rise, between them, to a third choice: we can decide for ourselves which of the proposed murderers killed Roger Ackroyd--or we can decide to revel in ambiguity itself, enjoying the pleasures of close reading and the stimulation of uncertainty.

And if that's what we choose, we can wholeheartedly look forward to Bayard's next book, on . . . get ready for it . . . The Hound of the Baskervilles.


  1. As is Generalissimo Francisco Franco.

    I seem to have missed that Agatha Christie window in my reading life – somehow I've just skipped her entirely. What would you recommend to a Christie virgin (and not a big mystery reader, so not jaded in that regard at all)?

  2. Levi asked me, his librarian pal, to weigh in on this. I would prescribe a dabble in her short stories to get the flavor, esp. "Witness for the Prosecution" from the story collection bearing its name, or possibly The Labors of Hercules or Poirot Investigates.

    Of her novels, And Then There Were None, Murder on The Orient Express, and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd are unquestionably among her most highly regarded, while I remember especially enjoying The ABC Murders and Pale Horse. Funny that none of my recommendations include a Miss Marple mystery, considering that she was my favorite from 5th through 8th grades. As compelling as she may be as a character, it may simply be that none of the mysteries she solves are especially good.

    My own personal experience with Christie is closely tied to a formative library experience. I was one of those kids who was more or less left to his own devices in the public library for hours on end. Visits were frequent because I was almost constantly reading from kindergarten through 7th grade. At some point about 5th grade I had read every book on the kids' side of the library, but I had tremendous anxiety about helping myself to "adult" books. I remember asking the librarian how old you needed to be to read the adult books, and she delicately impressed upon my young mind the first principles of intellectual freedom. As liberating as her words must have been, I still faced the problem of not knowing what books I might like - except that I had read one or two Agatha Christies from my grandma's attic, and the librarian showed me where I could find more. Besides the annual foray into Middle Earth, I more or less stuck by the Old Familiar until almost high school, when recommended reading lists finally caught up to my reading level.

  3. Thanks, Bob--that was exactly what I was hoping you could supply.

    I'll join Bob in recommending Murder on the Orient Express, And Then There Were None, and The ABC Murders--I remember all being ingenious and fun.


  4. Thank you both very much. Another few weeks and it'll be warm enough for the used booksellers to reappear on the street where I work, and I look forward to picking up a few of these. Somehow I can't imagine buying them new -- I think the gently loved editions are what I want. Much obliged.