The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd in Relation to Auden’s “The Guilty Vicarage”
According to Auden’s essay “The Guilty Vicarage,” the typical formula for a detective story is the “occurrence of a murder; then, many are suspected, all but one suspect, who happens to be the murderer, are eliminated; finally the murderer is arrested or dies.” The narrative of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd follows most of this formula, but diverts in places. First, there is the peaceful state before the murder and thus, the antagonist’s false innocence. However, it could be argued that before the murder, there still isn’t quite a state of peace – the novel opens announcing the death of Mrs Ferrars, which is soon discovered to be a suicide before the murder. Dr Sheppard is also uneasy, which he shows when he states that seeing Mrs Ferrars and Ralph Paton talking gave him a “foreboding” and it struck him “disagreeably”. The ‘false innocence’ Auden writes about is likely the innocence the antagonist has before they commit the murder, but since they have the intent, it is false – however, Sheppard has already committed a crime, blackmailing Mrs Ferrars to suicide, and although it isn’t revealed, Sheppard is still in this state of false innocence, but only in the idea that no one but he knows of his guilt.
Then there is the murder – the revelation of presence of guilt. With the murder comes all the suspects, and there are several suspects in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. However, the person who ends up having the blackest case against them is Ralph Paton, and his case only gets “blacker” as the story progresses (and is also the reason Flora and Ursula hide information from Poirot as they know it could lessen Paton’s chance at innocence). Similarly, the innocence of the antagonist is undoubted until Poirot’s reveal at the end – the only thing that alludes to the guilt of the antagonist is Christie’s subtle foreshadowing throughout the narrative such as Sheppard feeling “uneasy” with Caroline’s involvement in the detection and how he claims to have “played rather cleverly” during a game of Mah Jong, although actually alluding to his attempt to cover up his crime.
Thirdly, there is the false location of guilt – in this case, it starts out as Charles Kent before Miss Russell reveals his true identity, but then it turns out to be Ralph Paton, in spite of Poirot’s disbelief of his guilt. He has three motives for killing his uncle: not wanting to be engaged to Flora, his want for money, and to be able to get out of a scrape he’s gotten himself into. With all the suspects stepping forward to admit their secrets to Poirot, Paton and Sheppard are the only two left, and Sheppard’s narration manipulates the reader into never doubting his innocence.
However, according to Auden, then is the solution – the murderer has been found. In the case of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Poirot reveals this all in chapter 26, but Sheppard only truly admits to his crimes in the final chapter of the novel, stating that he had meant the novel to be “published some day as the history of one of Poirot’s failures!” Sheppard’s guilt, the so-called ‘manifestation’, is only revealed after Ralph Paton’s appearance, as only then can he clear his name. Sheppard even states how “awkward” it is at Ralph’s appearance; the only one left whose name isn’t cleared is Sheppard’s. Auden states that the audience doesn’t know the truth of the crime at all, and only the murderer does, and eventually, the detective – however, when this is supposed to be all revealed, Poirot only reveals it to the murderer, Sheppard, and then to Inspector Raglan.
It becomes more complicated after the solution, as typically the arrest of the murderer should follow. However, Poirot doesn’t arrest Sheppard, he rather gives him a choice: either be arrested and executed or commit suicide. Sheppard choses the latter. Auden writes in The Guilty Vicarage that if the murderer commits suicide, they are unable to repent. However, at the beginning of the novel, this is set up as almost justice for criminal actions through Ackroyd’s explanation of Mrs Ferrars’ suicide. He states that “She’s paid the penalty,” by killing herself as justice for poisoning her husband. Christie even emphasises this fact in Mrs Ferrars’ own writing: “A life calls for a life.” As if it doesn’t matter how, but only if it’s done. Not only this, but Sheppard is expected to commit suicide in the same way that Mrs Ferrars had – by overdosing on veronal. So although he isn’t arrested, there’s still a sense of justice for Ackroyd’s murder, thus potential for catharsis.
Lastly, what is supposed to take place according to Auden is the peaceful state after the arrest. However, since the narrator of the story is the murderer, the reader never actually gets to see this state. However, in the last chapter, there is an implication that after his death there will be a sort of restoration of order, as there has been justice, as least for the major crimes of the novel. Even then, this is unknown, as throughout the novel the actual crimes of the suspects were revealed: Flora stole from Ackroyd, Parker blackmailed his ex-employer, and Miss Russell has an illegitimate son who is a drug addict. For these crimes, there is no justice, and to an extent, no restoration of peace.
The Disruption of the Peaceful Bucolic Life of Kings Abbot
Kings Abbot is described at the beginning of the novel as being “just like any other village”. However, as the plot develops and the reader learns more about the secrets and pasts of the characters who reside in Kings Abbot and, more importantly, Fernly Park, we soon realize that Kings Abbot is far from the ordinary and boring countryside village. When you reflect upon the entire storyline, the reader realizes that the murder that occurs at Fernly Park, of Roger Ackroyd, created a lot more disruption in the town than just scandalous rumors and gossip between the spinsters of the town. In fact, Dr. Sheppard was not the only villager who suffered as a result of the murder – he may have committed the crime but all the residents of Fernly Park had to reveal a secret to Poirot or have one found out without their wanting. The disruption even extends further than the immediate residents to their families, for example, Caroline or Charles Kent.
One person who suffers greatly as a result of Roger Ackroyd’s death is Flora Ackroyd. While she is an innocent young girl whom the townsfolk are fond of, she lives in a metaphorical bubble and is severely unexposed to real life situations – such as murder. Therefore, her peaceful life living in Kings Abbot is spoiled suddenly and drastically with the unexpected murder of her Uncle. However, not only does she “faint” at the horror of her uncle’s death and finds it difficult to come to terms with his death, she is also probably the most exposed character throughout the plot (aside from Dr. Sheppard himself). Flora Ackroyd begins with a peaceful and well-received engagement to Ralph Patton with the prospect of a large inheritance, which includes the large manor house. Throughout the novel she finds out that her fiancée is already married to one of the household staff, it is revealed that she stole money from her uncle and lied to the police and Poirot, sending the investigation backwards by giving false evidence as well as finding out the Hector Blunt cares deeply for her and getting engaged to him. Flora’s individually peaceful life is heavily disrupted by the murder at Fernly Park. However, it is not all for the worse as she does not have to waste time on a man that does not love her and she also shows dramatic character development, as she grows bolder throughout the storyline.
Another person who serves as evidence for a peaceful life that is greatly affected by the murder at Fernly Park is Caroline Sheppard. Caroline is thought to be interfering and nosy when it comes to gossip, she still plays a major part in the novel. Despite not being the sidekick to Poirot (like the narrator and murderer Dr. Sheppard) or a suspect in the crime, Caroline is still greatly affected by Roger Ackroyd’s murder at Fernly Park, somewhat more than some of the staff and residents of Fernly Park. Caroline is the spinster sister of Dr. Sheppard and as a result will be directly affected by the knowledge that her brother, whom she had lived and cared for, for several years, including the time during the murder investigation. While the reader does not get to read Caroline’s reaction to finding out that her own brother caused all this scandal around Kings Abbot, at the very end of the novel, Poirot turns to Sheppard and says “for the sake of your good sister, I am willing to give you the chance of another way out”. This suggests that Caroline would not only be grief stricken by the loss of her brother, who would have been hanged if reported to the police, but humiliated at the gossip of her own brother’s public hanging. Although the reader may not always consider Caroline as one of the most affected characters by the murder at Fernly Park, it is certain that her peace and quiet living in the countryside town has been vanquished without any fault of hers.
While many of the household staff were greatly affected by the murder at Fernly Park, such as Miss Rogers and the exposure of her illegitimate son Charles or Ursula Bourne and the revelation of her secret marriage to Ralph Patton, Parker seems to be the one who is most shaken up following the incident and during the investigation. The “secret” that Poirot prides himself on finding out about Parker is that her blackmailed his former boss. Parker listened at the door when he overheard conversation about blackmail between Dr. Sheppard and Ackroyd himself. He told Poirot that he was hoping to get something out of the situation for himself. While Parker originally portrays himself as the humble and loyal butler who wholeheartedly serves Roger Ackroyd, he has really retired to Fernly Park to hide from the accusations of blackmail at his former residence. The murder of Roger Ackroyd has unearthed Parker as an untrustworthy person and shines light on his manipulative personality. No longer is Parker able to portray himself as innocent and dedicated to his work, ruining his plans to either blackmail Ackroyd himself or live out the rest of his life as an ordinary member of the household. Therefore, the murder at Fernly Park has certainly disrupted Parker’s peaceful life as through the murder, he has been exposed as a blackmailer.
Ralph Paton is one of the characters that suffers most at the murder of Roger Ackroyd. Not only does the young character lose the stepfather who adopted him and took him in as his own, caring him throughout his life; despite him being a “wild boy” during his childhood, but he also is hidden away by Dr. Sheppard while constantly fearing that he will be framed for the murder or that his secret wife was the murderer. Ralph seems to have a lot of secrets, which could be to do with the fact he does not permanently live in Kings Abbot anymore (although the residents still consider him to be and he is very much a part of the community). However, Ralph is cleverly framed for the murder and is therefore under stress to hide in a mental asylum so that he does not get arrested. The other aspect of Ralph’s life that is suddenly revealed is that his engagement to Flora Ackroyd was a fake all along and he actually is secretly married to one of Fernly Park’s household staff – Ursula Bourne. Therefore, the murder has disrupted Ralph’s peaceful life while staying in Fernly Park because he will no longer be able to have a quiet marriage to Ursula and also, as the inheritor of Fernly Park, will have to spend a lot of time away from London dealing with his uncle’s unfinished business. This upheaval will not only affect Ralph but also his wife and the rest of the town as he may be forced to dismiss certain members of the house (such as Parker with his keen eye for a blackmail opportunity) and heavily disrupt the quiet countryside life.
In conclusion, while to an extent all the characters have had to suffer individually at the result of the murder at Fernly Park, their suffering as a community is much greater. It is obvious that after the novel finishes, the characters will not be able to resume their everyday lives. They will all treat each other differently and potentially respect each other more at the ordeal they have faced and the situation they have been through together. The reader is safely assured that the peaceful bucolic life that once epitomized Kings Abbot will not be the same ever again.