Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?: The Mystery Behind the Agatha Christie Mystery

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9781565846777: Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?: The Mystery Behind the Agatha Christie Mystery

A "charming piece of literary detective work" (Booklist) that reexamines Agatha Christie's classic whodunit. Her classic novel The Murder of Roger Ackroyd has sparked great debate in the years since its publication in 1926, inspiring cultural critics from Roland Barthes to Umberto Eco to explore its unique construction: a murder mystery in which the murderer appears to be the narrator. Now, in a thrilling twist on the conventional solution, Pierre Bayard's Who Killed Roger Ackroyd? reopens the Ackroyd file with unexpected results: Is the killer still at large? Bayard's in-depth investigation of this well-loved classic will change forever the way mysteries are read.

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Review:

Penzler Pick, August 2000: Edmund Wilson, the famous literary critic, once inquired disdainfully (in an essay explaining his inability to develop the mystery-reading habit), "Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?" In a single sentence, with its reference to the notorious plot of Agatha Christie's sixth novel, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, he struck deep at the collective spirit of a community of like-minded souls: the detective fiction readers of the world. Ever since 1926, when the novel in question was first published, helping to insure its author's reputation as the ruling queen of crafty crime, mystery fans have indeed cared. Passionately.

But until the arrival of this provocative rereading of the case, written by a psychoanalyst and translated from the French, it is likely that not one of them ever doubted the validity of the solution as worked out by the redoubtable Hercule Poirot. After all, if the author's own detective had incorrectly followed the clues laid down for him, what kind of unsteady ground was the reader left standing on?

Although Bayard makes it clear that those picking up his book don't necessarily have to return to the original text--he does give a very concise summary of the principal characters and actions of Christie's story--it is an exercise, really a pleasure, that I urge you toward. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is such a landmark of the genre that it is not just a bit of nostalgia, a form of genial time travel, but also a reminder of what the Golden Age of the mystery novel was all about: the matching of wits between writer and reader, with puzzles that truly puzzled and were made all the more satisfying by the operative credo of fair play.

To address the actual plot of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is to risk spoiling the fun. Let's just say there is an English village, King's Abbott, in which a bluff country squire, the much-mentioned Ackroyd, resides until his untimely death, [stabbed] by an unknown assailant. Unfortunately for the murderer--or so one used to think, pre-Pierre Bayard--there is also in the village a retired Belgian police inspector, the unparalleled M. Hercule Poirot. Poirot's celebrated "little grey cells," those he uses to form his theories of a case, steadily power the investigation to its startling conclusion, one that has always been as magnificent for its shock value as for its apparently irrefutable logic. That Professor Bayard's delicate probing of the book's structure manages to turn it convincingly in a fresh direction, toward an actual murderer never even suspected, is a triumph of scholarship that is at once playful and serious.

How we approach classic texts should never be as static an experience as we generally allow it to be, a truth proved anew by Who Killed Roger Ackroyd? It now joins a list of other similarly clever literary treats, among which I include Rex Stout's "Watson Was a Woman" and Frederick Crews's The Pooh Perplex. --Otto Penzler

About the Author:

Pierre Bayard is a psychoanalyst and professor of French literature in Paris. Carol Cosman's most recent translations are Simone de Beauvoir's America Day by Day and Honoré de Balzac's The Girl with the Golden Eyes. She lives in Berkeley, California.

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