Pierre Bayard, Qui a tué Roger Ackroyd (Who really killed Roger Ackroyd) (French, 1998)

Is it possible that I exchanged literary neurons for motherly neurons? I feel all rusty: it seems so hard to sit in front of the computer and write a review today after nearly 3 weeks away from books… Anyway, as the book was really one of a kind, I ought to push myself a little harder. By the way, if you haven’t read Christie’s Murder of Roger Ackroyd, first go and enjoy this classic mystery. Come back when you’re done. This essay is the ultimate spoiler… but also much more.

[So, for those who are still here after my stern warning:] How often have you read a suspenseful mystery and tried to second-guess the sleuth’s investigation? How often have you guessed the criminal right? But more importantly, how often have you disagreed with the sleuth’s conclusion and felt that the murderer was actually someone else? If you’re like me, your answers would sound like: a/ all the time; b/ sometimes; c/ never. Because we’re basically taught to trust the sleuth and follow him blindly. But maybe we shouldn’t.

Christie’s Murder of Roger Ackroyd is very famous because it uses the writing device of the unreliable narrator to its extreme: most of you remember that the murderer is actually the narrator, Dr. Sheppard, who has conveniently chosen to “forget” a few of his actions, and distort the meaning of his reactions. The traditional ending has Poirot gather all the suspects and unmask the doctor, who later confesses in a letter to Poirot. But how can we be so sure that Poirot got it right? After all, the scenario for the narrator’s involvement seems pretty convoluted… rather forced upon him. Sure, you can re-read the whole book to find out the parts that have cleverly been omitted by the narrator, but motive, plausibility, and personality are all wrong. Poirot seems obsessed by the narrator up to the point of lacking objectivity.

On the other hand, Bayard comes up with facts that Poirot apparently chose to ignore, facts that could point towards another culprit: the doctor’s sister, a nosy spinster that had ample time and knowledge to commit the crime. The narrator would be guilty of blackmail only, and his sister Caroline would have killed Roger Ackroyd because he threatened to expose him. The narrator’s confession would then sound like a desperate attempt to protect his sister. I must say that Bayard’s alternate reading of the novel is pretty convincing.

In a larger view, Bayard argues that Poirot is not as spotless a detective as he seems to be. Bayard even claims that Poirot might be delirious, paranoiac, in the psychiatric sense of the word, forcing truth into his devious view of the world and excluding everything that doesn’t fit. Poirot accuses the doctor and pushes him towards death without ever considering he might be wrong. In particular, he never investigates Dr. Sheppard’s sister and even doesn’t ask her about her alibi on the murder’s night: how extraordinary an omission, isn’t it? Christie wrote in her autobiography that she had so much fun writing about Caroline Sheppard that she later was an inspiration to create Miss Marple. So Bayard’s brilliant conclusion reads the whole novel as a hidden confrontation between Poirot and Miss Marple, where both would be cunning and possibly evil, and getting away with murder.

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4 thoughts on “Pierre Bayard, Qui a tué Roger Ackroyd (Who really killed Roger Ackroyd) (French, 1998)

  1. You’re not rusty at all! I tend to be lazy and assume the narrator/sleuth is indeed telling us the truth–pretty trust worthy of me, eh. It’s been a while since I’ve read this, so I may have to reread it with this in mind. You do have to wonder about Poirot and Miss Marple, though, don’t you.

  2. Pingback: Agatha Christie, Death in the Clouds (1935) « Smithereens

  3. Surely Caroline couldn’t be the murderer because if she had murdered Roger Ackroyd because there would have been a struggle if she had come in by the window and that would have been heard and she could not have come in through the door or Parker would definitly have known. It really has to be someone who was in the house.

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