Magazine article World Literature Today

Playing by the Rules

Magazine article World Literature Today

Playing by the Rules

Article excerpt

In 1926, when Agatha Christie published The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, she ignited a huge controversy that in many quarters continues until today. The long history of the question, "Does Agatha Christie play fair with the reader?" began with her pulling offone of the most famous-or, if you prefer, notorious-tricks ever perpetuated on readers. In the nearly four decades since the first Sherlock Holmes story had appeared, the narrative pattern Arthur Conan Doyle borrowed from Edgar Allan Poe had become the common way to construct the detective mystery. The point of view of Poe's genius detective, the Chevalier Auguste Dupin, would reveal too much of the significance of clues. It would deracinate the tension derived from challenging the reader to match Dupin's thinking process. By using an anonymous narrator to describe Dupin's enigmatic behavior, Poe avoided this. Doyle improved the strategy by adding personality to the narrator's role, creating Watson, who stands in for the reader in trying to decipher the clues and in reacting to Holmes's insights. A great detective and his admiring narrator became the standard way of setting up the mystery game. Baroness Orczy's irascible Old Man in the Corner elucidates crimes to journalist Polly Burton; Lord Peter Wimsey has his Harriet Vane. There are dozens of others. Some authors varied the pattern a bit, but by the publication of Roger Ackroyd, such a narrative strategy was a standard modus operandi.

Christie, however, pulled a fast one. Hercule Poirot, a standardly oddball Holmes with a waxed mustache, frequently had a Watson in the character of Arthur Hastings, a Great War veteran who is the narrator of Christie's first published novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920), seven later novels, and many of her Poirot short stories. Perhaps chafing at the tradition of setting out to distinguish herself, she experimented with the conventional strategy and in Roger Ackroyd introduced a narrator, Dr. James Sheppard, a resident of the village who is revealed in the next-to-last chapter to be the murderer. In the last chapter, Sheppard leaves a suicide note explaining how he carried out his deceptions. Readers were stunned. Yes, the narrator was the murderer. Can you believe it? Watson had done it!

The kerfuffle that resulted from this trick-not to mention her mysterious disappearance that same year- helped make Christie one of the most famous writers in the world and, ultimately, the best-selling novelist of all time. Christie was never averse to manipulating readers' expectations. In Murder on the Orient Express, she dispensed with the single murderer after taxing the reader through a list of suspects who, as expected, all have a good motive for wanting Mr. Ratchett dead. She certainly was not the first or only writer to play with the pattern. Doyle himself had written his 1917 Holmes story, "His Last Bow," in third person with no narrator, but it is one of his least memorable efforts and had no impact compared to Christie's novel. Many writers credit Roger Ackroyd with opening up the artistic possibilities in crime fiction, preventing the Holmes-narrated-by-Watson pattern from stultifying and degrading the genre, even though it carries on to this day in the many popular cop and sidekick stories in all media. In 2013 the Crime Writers Association of the UK voted Roger Ackroyd the best crime novel of all time. I certainly would not agree, but it is yet another testimony to its influence.

That there is a controversy at all, however, implies that a mutual conspiracy of publishers, authors, and readers has created a set of rules that crime novels are obligated to obey. The existence of a genre implies a set of expectations in readers. Writers, by inclination or with an eye toward economic well-being, are usually happy to accommodate it. "If you have any comments," Erle Stanley Gardner once told an editor, "write them on the back of a check." And, of course, publishers, like many movie companies, are quite happy to repeat past successes and pleased to hand out a list of required and forbidden ingredients. …

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