About The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
This is the second in our member-written series: My Favorite Golden Age Mystery.
Like many good stories, Dame Agatha Christie's novel The Murder of Roger Ackroyd developed from an idea tossed off playfully by two of her friends. The novel was published in 1926, early in her career, and was merely the third time Hercule Poirot, her Belgian private investigator, had been called upon to use his little grey cells. (To me that's a curiosity, because in this story he’d already retired to the country.)
The story's startling ending gained for her novel inclusion into Howard Haycraft's list of important and/or groundbreaking detective stories (from Murder for Pleasure: The Life and Times of the Detective Story).
In the rare case that the reader has not read this novel, I won't reveal the ending. But I advise writers to read the book twice, first without knowledge, and another time while knowing its secret. The pacing may feel slow compared to today's need for speed, but you'll find Ms. Christie's word choices were immaculately spare. Short story writers know and follow this habit of making each word able to work hard, because of low word count requirements. In this novel, she crafted her story with word choices that could fairly be read two ways, with the character both innocent, and then revealed as guilty. She succeeds masterfully.
Four years later, Ms. Christie and other famed crime-writers formed The Detection Club, which exists today. It served as a model and inspiration for Mystery Writers of America. The club members swore an oath to adhere to a code of ethics in their writing to grant the reader a fair-play chance to guess who did it before the end. Whether The Murder of Roger Ackroyd incited the formation of the fair-play oath is unknown, but the furor over her use of that particular literary device continues today.
Fast forward to a nation riveted to their black-and-white television screens wide-eyed with anticipation as Alfred Hitchcock unfolds yet another story with a surprise ending. The surprise was inevitable, yet he still fooled many of his audience. The Twilight Zone, presented by Rod Serling, again played with viewers’ expectations, mixing oddities with surprise. As Dame Agatha well knew, readers love surprises. The unexpected sells.
What writer has not spent valuable time twisting and weighing his words in a story? No matter the format: feature film to short story to seven volumes of an epic, the aim is to make the story good! Readers are eager to suspend their disbelief. Every word in a story should be crafted to achieve that suspension of disbelief. Readers love the tension, and by extension: twists. The twist at the end that fools us. Or not, which makes us feel clever. Whatever creates a good story . . . works!
Ms. Christie’s novel The Murder of Roger Ackroyd lives still in the minds of this reader . . . because of the twist!
Angela Zeman's writing spans cozy to suspense. She's the author of The Witch and the Borscht Pearl, and Tales of the Witch, both featuring Mrs. Risk. Her stories can be found in several anthologies. Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine featured “The First Tale of Roxanne” on their cover, the first in a new series.