Sunday, August 26, 2012

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

It is completely unimportant. That is why it is so interesting.

 Mention the words "detective fiction" and the vast majority of people will automatically translate that to "Agatha Christie".  The undisputed "queen of crime", Agatha Christie would write 66 detective novels in her career and create two of literature's most famous detectives.  One of these is the fussy Belgian named Hercule Poirot.  Though at first his eccentricity leads people to believe that he is not all there, Poirot always reveals his true intelligence in the end and pulls the murderer from out of the shadows.

The Plot:

The story is is set in the small village of King's Abbot and is narrated by the local physician, Dr. Sheppard.  A local woman named Mrs. Ferrars dies under seemingly normal circumstances.  But when local landowner Roger Ackroyd reveals that she killed her husband and then committed suicide, he is then murdered himself and Hercule Poirot is brought in to solve the crime.

The suspects range from Ackroyd's personal secretary to the butler to the parlormaid.  Most of the suspicion lands on Ackroyd's stepson, Ralph, who stands to inherit from his stepfather's death and has disappeared from the neighborhood.  It is up to Poirot to sort through the various motives, alibis, and clues to discover who the real murderer is.

My Review (Caution - Spoilers):
There is no way to really review this book without giving away the ending.  So if you have not read this particular Christie novel, stop reading now and go out and find yourself a copy. 

The strength of Christie's work is found in her solid storytelling.  The crime itself is not as gruesome as a Poe mystery, nor as intricate as a Sherlock Holmes story.  It is a rather plain, almost ordinary crime with little of the fantastic about it.  But Christie's writing still manages to keep us engrossed and guessing.  We, like Poirot, are picking up the clues and trying to piece them together to reveal the identity of the murderer.

And it is the murderer's identity that makes The Murder of Roger Ackroyd pack such a punch.  In fact, this particular ending turns conventional detective fiction on it's head.  We have spent the whole novel trying to analyze the characters and their secrets to suss out who committed the crime.  But sub-consciously we are ruling out two characters: the detective and the narrator.  And when we realize that our trusted narrator has left us in the dark on some important facts (and is indeed the murderer), there is this sense of shock and hurt at being so duped.  It is a twist that must be very difficult to pull off, but Christie does it with a flourish.  After many unimportant clues and red herrings, only Poirot is able to recognize the true murderer and bring resolution to King's Abbot.

This is the first Christie novel that I have actually read and I thoroughly enjoyed it.  There's is nothing like being left guessing to the very end, and it was definitely an ending that I did not see coming.  Do yourself a favor a pick up this classic Christie novel today.

The Movie:     

The main adaptation is the 2000 version starring David Suchet as Poirot.  I haven't seen this particular episode, but I have heard that there are some significant plot and character changes.        

Friday, August 24, 2012

The Dupin Tales

I seemed to be upon the verge of comprehension, without the power to comprehend as men, at time, find themselves upon the brink of remembrance, without being able, in the end, to remember.

Though some might dispute this point, most people believe the birth of detective fiction as we know it to have come about with the 1841 publication of Edgar Allan Poe's short story "The Murders in the Rue Morgue".  His creation of C. Auguste Dupin, the intelligent amateur detective who solves crimes by deduction, was to become the model for almost every fictional detective to follow.  Dupin would appear in a total of 3 stories, and the literary world would never be the same.

The Plot:

The stories are told to us by an unnamed narrator who befriends and then lives with C. Auguste Dupin, a Parisienne from a wealthy family who is now living in relatively reduced circumstances.  Dupin is an analytical machine, focused purely on logic and its application in life.  He solves crimes merely for fun (and to prove his own intelligence) and rarely accepts compensation or fame for it.  Whether it involves the horrific murder of a mother and daughter, the mysterious death of a pretty young woman, or the blackmail of a person in the highest level of French society, Dupin sets about untangling the many theories to discover the truth.

My Review (Caution - Spoilers):

Though I do think it is important to read these tales as a history of detective fiction, I must admit that they have a fairly dated feel.  Our society is very familiar with this genre, not just in books but also in films and television.  So when we read these stories that are nowhere near as intricate and developed as the ones that would come later, then we can't help but stifle a yawn now then.  There are, however, some good points to the stories that make them worth your time.

"The Murders in the Rue Morgue" is our introduction to the work of Dupin.  Neither Dupin nor the unnamed narrator are fleshed out too much as characters.  It is mainly the crime and Dupin's method of solving it that we are most concerned about.  I have to say, the murders themselves are done in true Poe style.  I mean, one body thrown out the window and another stuffed up the chimney should please any CSI fan.  We are given all of the details of the crime and most of the clues.  We then get to sit back and watch as Dupin logically puts them together to discover who the true murderer is.  This is probably the 2nd best story of the three.

Ever heard of "The Mystery of Marie Roget"?  There's a reason for that.  It is based on a true story in Manhattan, and though it starts out interesting it does not continue that way.  The bulk of the story involves us reading accounts from various newspapers and then sitting through extremely long monologues of Dupin describing why those accounts are wrong.  We get it Dupin.  You're smart.  But do we seriously have to listen to you drone on and on and on?  Plus, the truth of the crime does not live up to expectation.  Skip this one.

The final Dupin story is, in my opinion, the best.  In "The Purloined Letter", the French queen is being blackmailed by a powerful diplomat over a compromising letter that has fallen into his possession.  The police tear the diplomat's apartments apart but find nothing.  It is Dupin that discovers the letter hidden in the most obvious, and yet the most overlooked of places.  Crimes are always more fun when there is an intelligent villain for the detective to match wits with.  And Dupin's method of resolving the matter is both interesting and fun.  This story lacks a murder, but nevertheless is the most developed and enjoyable of the three.

Though uneven in places, these stories form an important part in both Poe's body of work and the history of detective fiction.  They are important for understanding the development of the genre and for that reason I do recommend that you read at least one of them.

The Movie:

There are 2 film versions of the Dupin tales.  One is the 1932 version of Murders in the Rue Morgue starring Bela Lugosi.  This shares some names and plot devices with the original but little else.  There is also a 1942 version of The Mystery of Marie Roget starring Joseph Cotten.