As a genre, crime fiction is perhaps one of the most divisive. For those who relegate their murder mystery volumes – likely acquired through the generous condescension of an ancient relative – to the darkest and least-visited corners of the bookshelf, understanding a love for the genre is problematic. I avoided crime fiction with an astonishing diligence until about two years ago, when, through the wonderful medium of my parents’ Netflix account, I fell in love with the little known British Drama, Midsomer Murders. From there, I worked my way through entire televised seasons of Inspector Morse and Lewis, barely pausing for the intermittent cup of tea and dip into the outside world. Aside from proving that you do not, in fact, get square eyes from watching too much television, my newly developed fanaticism forced me to reconsider my previous avoidance of crime literature. Fortunately, being British (and having had a memorable run-in with David Suchet while he was filming Poirot at my place of work), it was relatively easy to know where to start. I speak, of course, of Queen of Crime Fiction, Agatha Christie.
My obsession with Agatha Christie (or Dame Christie, as the noble and high-class among you might have it) is akin to a short but intense romance. Shortly after my introduction to her work, it was with a certain desperation that I made my way through a seemingly endless number of volumes (Agatha Christie authored 80 detective novels in total). Today, I stand before you all, ready to declare myself a crime fiction convert. Yes, it is true. And now I share this passion with you, on the understanding that you will likely fall into one of four categories:
- A lover of the crime novel and passionate advocate of Poirot’s infamous moustaches. To you, I say welcome and enjoy.
- A detester of the crime novel, believing them to be superficial tripe with little to offer the serious reader. You cling to the hope that one day you may get the opportunity to rip Poirot’s moustaches from his very face. To you, I can only apologise and suggest that a cup of tea might help.
- A dabbler – someone who is happy to dip into crime fiction with little attachment to the genre as a whole. For you, I hope that this post might provoke a new bout of exploration.
- Someone who has no idea what I am talking about and/or has no experience of crime fiction. To you, I can only say that I hope you will keep reading and that this post might open up a new literary realm.
Whichever of these four categories you feel you best fit into, I hope that this post might offer some revelation. I believe that crime fiction is one of the most underrated genres, traditionally assigned to the category of ‘easy reading’. And this is, to a certain extent, absolutely true. But to reduce the entire crime genre to this label is rather missing the point. Crime fiction is not, perhaps, intellectually demanding in the way that many fictional classics are believed to be. It typically adheres to a relatively standardised plot line, centring on a fictional detective, a crime (usually murder), a list of suspects, a progressive revelation of clues, and the inevitable twist at the end. Despite the predictability of the narrative, however, I still maintain that crime fiction throws up some of the most unpredictable insights into human nature. Because it is fundamentally through the extreme lens of a crime like murder, that facades are shed and real motivations revealed. For me, Agatha Christie spotlights this problematic side of humanity better than any other crime author.
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is perhaps one of her best-known novels and is part of her series following the exploits and investigations of the Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot. Poirot is truly larger than life. Sherlockean in his understanding of his own abilities, Poirot’s vanity finds expression in excruciating attention to his personal style. Constantly combing his perfect moustaches, Poirot holds himself with an affectation that bemuses those around him. Yet his brilliance is obvious. Moving away from the, at times abstract, deductive style of Sherlock Holmes, Poirot relies upon observation and logic to derive his conclusions. The stated simplicity of his investigative methods, combined with his apparent personal flaws, undoubtedly make Poirot more relatable than do the supernatural abilities of Arthur Conan Doyle’s main man. As Poirot details to his companion, Captain Hastings: “You gave too much rein to your imagination. Imagination is a good servant, and a bad master. The simplest explanation is always the most likely.”
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is Poirot at his best. Set in the small English village of Kings Abbott, the novel follows the murder of the wealthy widower Roger Ackroyd. With the help of the local doctor, James Sheppard, Poirot takes up the case. Involving the typical collision of greed and illicit love affairs, there are few who escape the shade of suspicion. As Poirot unravels the clues – clues that seemingly implicate Ackroyd’s stepson, Ralph Paton, as the culprit – questions are raised regarding the culpability of this secluded community. Agatha Christie’s skill in weaving this particular plot undoubtedly lies in the contrast that she creates between Poirot’s cool reliance on reason and observation – those “little grey cells,” as Poirot puts it – and the fluid and unreliable nature of local gossip. What makes this novel such a masterpiece of the genre, however, is its conclusion. Without giving away Poirot’s final exonerations and allocation of guilt, I will say that this is one of the most intelligently crafted mystery plot lines conceived to-date.
Authoring crime fiction is, I believe, one of the greatest genre-specific challenges that a writer can take on. To construct a mystery of realistic circumstance and gradual revelation is a true challenge. And to do this while simultaneously offering insights into the nature of humanity in extremity, as well as the life of English communities, takes a particular skill. There is a reason why Agatha Christie is deemed the Queen of Crime Fiction and it is, I think, a title that she truly deserves. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is the best example of her skill and of the merits of the crime genre more generally. While I do not believe that reading this book will turn the detesters into avid fans, I do think it would assist in understanding why so many people choose to give crime fiction pride of place on their bookshelves.