The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is in fact a complicated trick, though not in quite the way the younger, baffled me thought. The book plays a complicated shell game with narrative and empathy, leveraging the first to misdirect the second, and vice versa. Published in June 1926, and finally entering the public domain this year, Christie’s novel deftly and presciently indicts, not just its murderer and its reader, but a disinformation age in which truth hinges less on facts and more on who you have decided is the hero of any given drama.
As every mystery fan knows (spoiler alert), the protagonist, the narrator, and the murderer in Ackroyd are one and the same: small-town doctor James Sheppard. The novel is his own manuscript, written in an excess of hubris as the chronicle of what he believed would be a tale of Poirot’s singular failure. Sheppard is one of the great unreliable narrators in literary history. He faithfully recounts the facts of the case: you learn from him that wealthy widow Mrs. Ferrars killed herself, that she was being blackmailed for the murder of her abusive husband, that she sent a letter to posthumously identify the blackmailer to her wealthy fiancé Roger Ackroyd — and that Ackroyd was himself murdered before he could read the letter.
But Sheppard leaves out or massages certain pesky details. For instance, he mentions to Poirot that he received and speculated away a recent bequest. He doesn’t tell Poirot that the bequest was the blackmail money. Other elisions are even more bald-faced. The paragraph in which Sheppard describes his last interview with Ackroyd in his study is perhaps the most famous in the novel, not least because Sheppard offers it as an example of his own authorial cleverness: “The letters were brought in at twenty minutes to nine. It was just on ten minutes to nine when I left him, the letter still unread. I hesitated with my hand on the door handle, looking back and wondering if there was anything I had left undone.”
What happens in the 10 minutes between the first sentence and the second? Well, Sheppard stabs Ackroyd with a silver display knife he picked up in the room. Ackroyd doesn’t read the letter because he’s dead. When Sheppard stops at the door and wonders if anything has been left undone, he’s checking the murder scene to make sure his complicated plans for getting away with it (involving a remote-controlled Dictaphone and a strategically positioned chair) are all in place.
It’s not just the narrator who cheats in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. It’s also the writer. Sheppard is deceitful, but Agatha Christie is arguably even more so. She’s not satisfied with having Sheppard lie to you. She also makes sure that you trust Sheppard’s lies by deliberate, obfuscatory use of the privilege narrators enjoy, which is also (as Christie is well aware) a form of social privilege.
Sheppard is not just the narrator, of course; he’s the narrator of a Hercule Poirot story. Usually, Poirot’s adventures are related by his old friend and retainer Arthur Hastings, who serves as the baffled Watson to the Belgian’s brilliant Sherlock. Christie repeatedly tells the reader that Sheppard is the new Hastings, a narrator who will presumably go on to author other tales as Poirot’s (unsuspectable, unimpeachable) sidekick. When Sheppard shows his manuscript to Poirot, admitting that he makes fun of the detective in a passage or two, Poirot assures him that it’s fine, noting that “Hastings, he also was not always polite.” Elsewhere, Poirot is even more explicit in linking the two men: “You must indeed have been sent from the good God to replace my friend Hastings,” he said, with a twinkle. “I observe that you do not quit my side.”
Christie does signal to the reader that Hastings and Sheppard are not exactly alike. Poirot notices that Sheppard is more “reticent” and that he tends to downplay his own role in events — which of course he has to since he’s the murderer! But the explicit textual, and indeed metatextual, linkage of Sheppard and Hastings has the effect of putting the narrator into a kind of genre lacuna. You never suspect the narrator, but even more than that, you don’t suspect the detective’s assistant. You might as well suspect the detective himself. (Cue an essay on Christie’s final Poirot novel, Curtain .)
Narrators are trustworthy. Investigators are trustworthy. And, Christie knows, men of some social standing are trustworthy. One way that Christie establishes Sheppard as insightful and sober is by contrasting him with his older sister, Caroline. In the very first chapter, Sheppard returns home from the deathbed of Mrs. Ferrars. He is nervous about telling his sister any details, claiming he doesn’t trust her because she is so nosy. “As a professional man, I naturally aim at discretion,” he pompously writes.
Christie is well aware that intelligent, curious women are considered to be interfering and trivial, while taciturn men are supposed to be wise and judicious. At the very opening of the narrative, Sheppard (and Christie through Sheppard) is leveraging misogynist tropes to make himself look sincere and responsible at the expense of his sister. But on rereading, it’s clear that Sheppard hesitates to speak about Mrs. Ferrars’s death out of guilt and calculation rather than professional ethics. He knows he’s responsible for her suicide and wants to control how information gets out, and to whom, in a way that doesn’t implicate him. He’s using gendered expectations to obscure his guilt, perhaps even, in this case, from himself.
The initial sexist framing persists, and it works for Sheppard throughout the novel. When Caroline says that her brother is “weak as water,” we’re primed to dismiss this judgment. When she says, “With a bad bringing up, Heaven knows what mischief you might have got into by now,” we assume it’s just Caroline gossiping idly, rather than Caroline providing an astute estimate of her brother’s (lack of) character. Caroline even tells us that her brother is “not honest,” but the reader doesn’t believe her because she’s (supposedly) a foolish woman who likes to chatter (though Poirot insists, repeatedly, that Caroline is smarter and of better character than her brother is willing to admit).
We side with Sheppard because he is the narrator. But we also side with him because he is in a position of privilege by virtue of his connections (he is friends with Poirot), his status (he is a professional), and his gender. He occupies a narrative space that prompts unconscious empathy, and this readerly empathy facilitates and solidifies his deceptions.
For anyone who was paying any attention at all to American politics over the last several years, this should all be starting to sound uncomfortably familiar. Remember when Donald Trump famously boasted, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters, okay?” Trump wasn’t precisely right — he was an extremely unpopular president outside his own base of supporters, and his blend of scandal and incompetence probably led him to lose a reelection campaign he could have won. He did lose many voters, but he also kept many of them, for precisely the reason that Sheppard’s iniquity is so difficult to see or to believe.
Trump, like Sheppard, is a white man of some standing who denigrates women to boost himself. He is a celebrity who appeared for years on a television show in which he was presented as the main actor and decider. People think they know him as a person; they think they know what he stands for. When he does things that contradict those presuppositions, his fans simply don’t believe it, just as I didn’t believe Sheppard could kill someone, even when presented with evidence that he had.
Usually, we think of empathy as a good thing. The value of novels, we’re often told, is that they teach us to understand other people’s perspectives. We put ourselves in their shoes — or, more precisely, in their stories. We feel, and narrate, along with them. That broadens our view and makes us better people.
Christie, though, is skeptical. In The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, empathy doesn’t make us wiser and more moral; it bamboozles us and leads us to root for an actual murderer. Christie cheats, it’s true. But bad actors like Sheppard and Trump often cheat to win our empathy, and our complicity. They lie outright, or they tell partial truths. They demand that we listen to their narrative and no one else’s. They affirm their status, as doctors or businessmen. They point to their endorsements and associations. They assert their gender. “I am you!” they say. “I am the best you! And would the best you commit blackmail or murder?”
Murder mysteries usually tell us that bad people exist and that good people have to ferret them out and bring them to justice. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd tells us that bad people exist and that, if we’re not careful, we may wind up empathizing with them, which is another way of saying that we may become them. Sheppard’s weakness is, or can be, the reader’s weakness, or anyone’s weakness. There are few people who can resist the temptation of empathy, of knowing who your (narrative) friends are, of proceeding as if innocence is predetermined. “That kind of business does not succeed against Hercule Poirot, you understand?” the detective admonishes Sheppard. But perhaps, in rereading The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, we should wonder whether even the great Hercule Poirot is fooling himself.
Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer based in Chicago. He is the author of Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941–1948, from Rutgers University Press.