As part of the Swigatha project, there will be a website that considers each of Agatha Christie’s detective stories (www.swigatha.com). Each page will consider not just the story, but also other elements that might add to that story – for example, the background to its writing, the impact of the book on the reader, the reactions both when it was first published and since, adaptations for TV and cinema and so on. These elements all merge into what the story becomes.
Here is an example of a page I am working on concerning possibly her most famous story – The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, which has caused such a stir in the last 90 years that its entry will probably end up being the longest. For me, Ackroyd accentuates the idea that a good book is much more than just the sum of its words, and that, whatever she might think, an author’s work is not complete until her work has been read (and re-read).
Have a look and tell me what you think. I should say that the website will assume that people know the stories: there will be no long plot summaries. In certain cases (and this is one), the identity of the culprit is perforce revealed, so if you don’t want to know it, don’t read the page.
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926)
Poirot has retired to King’s Abbott to grow vegetable marrows. He makes friends with his neighbours by singular means and becomes involved with them in a murder investigation. The story is narrated by one of the neighbours (Dr Sheppard).
The village setting, the local cast of squire, doctor, big game hunter, retired colonel, servants and suspicious butler conjure up an image of a typical Agatha Christie story, but actually it is quite rare to find Poirot in such a setting, one in which “everyone knew their place”. He never did, thankfully.
Possibly because this time the narrator is somewhat shrewder than the vacuous Hastings, the supporting cast is drawn with more sharpness and humour than had been the case in earlier stories. Dr Sheppard’s sister Caroline is described with an obvious affection by him, but he is also speaking for Agatha Christie (Caroline became the template for Miss Marple later). This is one of the snags of having a narrator with intelligence: when Hastings warms to a character you know he or she is a wrong ‘un, with the good doctor it is not so clear. In spite of himself, his depiction of the man he is about to kill is far more sympathetic than that of the “young lovers” (Flora and Ralph) he professes to want to help.
Poirot is wonderfully and humorously drawn, starting with his inverted franglais (see below). For the first, but not the last, time Poirot uncovers the truth but keeps it from the authorities, instead pursuing his own version of justice. From then on during his career, Poirot’s attitude is frequently at odds with the received wisdom and justice system of the time, and certainly not one you would immediately associate with un bon catholique.
“I demand of you a thousand pardons, monsieur. I am without defence. For some months now I cultivate the marrows. This morning I suddenly enrage myself with these marrows. I send them to promenade themselves – alas, not only mentally but physically. I seize the biggest. I hurl him over the wall. Monsieur, I am ashamed. I prostrate myself“. Poirot introduces himself to his neighbour.
Blunt said nothing for a minute or two. Then he looked away from Flora into the middle distance and observed to an adjacent tree trunk that it was about time he got back to Africa.
SWIGATHA RATING 9/10
Like many of her novels, it is perhaps most famous for the ingenuity of its conclusion, but I think it is among the best-written and funniest of all of them (the mah jongg evening is a great read). It is not always appreciated how amusing Agatha Christie’s writing can be.
So, the book rates almost – as the mah jongg players might say in the Shanghai Club – “Tin Ho”, the Perfect Winning: it nearly got a 10 but, however brilliant the idea behind the plot is, I don’t think its timing works, especially when you re-read the book.
MY BOOK Fontana, 1963, 3/6d
A great Tom Adams cover, referencing the Tunisian dagger used in the murder and made memorable by the inclusion of the insect crawling up the dead man’s back. Insects would feature in many of his later covers.
There is a daft and irrelevant spiel on the back – for a start, the “letter” precipitated the murder rather than coming afterwards.
The “Also available …” section at the back of these books is often entertaining, and this one included a somewhat hysterical extract from A Question of Proof by Nicholas Blake. Blake was the pseudonym of Cecil Day Lewis, poet laureate, father of actor Daniel and an unlikely author for a paragraph such as this.
WHAT HAPPENED NEXT
This is the book with which Agatha Christie came of age as a crime novelist of moment. It was also the one current at the time that she disappeared for 11 days, sparking off a manhunt and a huge amount of publicity, something that aroused the (unfair) suspicions of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle among others as to her motives.
Within a couple of years, the character of Caroline Sheppard had been transformed by Agatha Christie into that of Miss Marple, with the publication of The Thirteen Problems.
For the rest of the literary world, Ackroyd‘s publication sparked a controversy about the “fairness” of the plot that rages to this day. Among those contributing to the debate have been Roland Barthes, Umberto Eco and Raymond Chandler, plus myriad psychoanalysts and literature professors. One such was Professeur Pierre Bayard, whose book Who killed Roger Ackroyd? (“Qui a tué Roger Ackroyd?”) argued that during the case Poirot was suffering from delusions, that Sheppard was innocent and that his confession was made to protect the real culprit, his beloved sister…
It might sound absurd that the minds of the great should be troubled by a whodunit plot twist, but a discussion about what readers can know, and what they fill in for themselves when reading a book for the first time, is interesting in the context of any novel, and especially one like this that is narrated by a liar (by omission, as Sheppard is)*.
It should also be said that the American writer Edmund Wilson wrote an article in the New Yorker in the 1940s entitled “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?”
* For an absolutely brilliant example of economical-with-the-truth narration, in various guises, Ian Pears’ An Instance of the Fingerpost is highly recommended.
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was the first swigatha to be turned into a play (“Alibi”). The original cast featured Charles Laughton as Hercule Poirot; he later appeared, memorably, as Counsel for the Defence in the film version of one of her own plays, The Witness for the Prosecution. Another version of this is currently (2016) being made.
There was a disappointing Granada TV adaptation in 2000 featuring the estimable David Suchet as Poirot. It reflected none of the charm or humour of the book, and changed the ending to involve Caroline Sheppard as a guilty party. Interestingly, Professeur Bayard’s book was published in the UK in 2000 – maybe the producers had read it…
Swigathas have sold as many copies in foreign languages as in English. There was a Russian film made in 2002: Neudatcha Poirot (“Poirot’s Failure”), of which I have only seen excerpts. The title refers to Dr Sheppard’s comment at the end of his accounts “…. A strange end to my manuscript. I meant it to be published one day as the history of one of Poirot’s failures!”*
In 2007 Gilbert Adair wrote The Act of Roger Murgatroyd, which takes the role of the narrator to yet another level. A good title if nothing else! And so it goes on, and so it will continue to do.
* I had not made this connection until I read Mark Aldridge: Agatha Christie on Screen