The novel is told by Dr James Sheppard, who lives in a small village, called King’s Abbot, with his sister Caroline, who keeps house for him. At the very start of the novel, he has just returned from attending the death of Mrs Ferrars, a widow whom Caroline suspects of having murdered her unpleasant, drunken husband with arsenic a year previously. Later that morning, Roger Ackroyd (who, it was thought, would marry Mrs Ferrars) asks the doctor to dinner to discuss the tragedy, implying that he has some important information. The same day, all sorts of careful hints are made about the tensions existing between Ackroyd and his step-son, Ralph Paton, as well as the other actors in the drama to unfold – including “Mr Porrott”, who recently moved to the village and is cultivating vegetable marrows.
After dinner at his house, Fernly Park, Ackroyd reveals to Sheppard that, the day before she died, Mrs Ferrars had confessed to murdering her husband, and that, because Ackroyd could not forgive her for the cold-blooded murder, and because she was being blackmailed, she committed suicide. As they are speaking, a letter comes from Mrs Ferrars herself which she must have posted the previous evening, and where she is assumed to reveal the name of her blackmailer: however, Ackroyd refuses to read all the letter until the doctor leaves.
Just over an hour later, the doctor having returned home and about to retire for the night, a telephone call comes: Roger Ackroyd has been murdered!
Christie deals with this plot very cleverly, presenting the reader with several suspects in turn, many different motives for lying, and several deceptions uncovered as a result of the investigation. Mr Porrott is revealed (of course) as the celebrated detective Hercule Poirot, and Dr Sheppard is pleased to help act as Poirot’s assistant. The trick of the narrative, of course, is to get the reader to believe what Sheppard is telling us: Christie does this very cleverly, not by outright lies, but suppression of the truth, and – reading for the first time – one is completely led up the garden path. Re-reading the book once the trick has been revealed is also illuminating, because the reader can see what it is that Sheppard leaves out, and what he doesn’t say, which reveals the murderer.
The characterisation varies – for example, Sheppard’s sister Caroline is amusingly drawn, with her inquisitive nature and village intelligence system, and Flora and Ralph are believable, with real motivations and flaws, though the more minor characters are sketched only lightly.
It’s an entertaining book, and an ingenious one – the method of murder is also cleverly worked out – tightly plotted and carefully constructed. Christie doesn’t exactly play fair with the reader, but she leaves the pieces of the puzzle in place for us to pick up. A deserved classic of the genre.