Read from May 5th to 10th 2016
My rating :
If you are looking disconcertedly at the title of my review, don’t worry, I have got ready my explanation: while reading Umberto Eco’s Lector in Fabula, I came across an Agatha Christie’s title that, because of the Italian translation (Dalle nove alle dieci – that is, From nine to ten o’clock) I thought it referred to one book of her I had never read. So I looked for it, only to discover it was actually The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Then I thought: how about re-reading it to practice a little, just for fun, what Eco taught me about the Model Reader?
But before beginning my somehow empirical semiotic analysis, I will only add that this lecture was also a good opportunity to learn some interesting information that I am naturally happy to share with you. First, that this early novel, written in 1926, was voted in 2013, according to The Independent, as the best crime novel ever. Then, that one of its best-developed characters, Caroline Sheppard, will be the model for Miss Marple. Finally, and rather off-topic, given that it concerns another character of the book but not the book itself, I learned that Curtain, the novel in which Hercule Poirot dies, was written during War World II by a frightened Agatha Christie who willed it to be published if she died during the London bombing. Of course she did not die then, so the novel was published only in 1975, and as Gradesaver informs us, “Hercule Poirot was the first ever fictional character to get a front page obituary in the New York Times. On August 6, 1975, a headline ran announcing, ‘Poirot is Dead; Famed Belgian Detective; Hercule Poirot, the Detective, Dies’.”
Now, let’s go back to that point announced by the title of my review and try to roughly recreate a little that Model Reader Agatha Christie had in mind while writing her book, on the principle that, as Umberto Eco reminds us, “You cannot use the text as you want but only as the text wants you to use it.” (The Role of the Reader)
Before going any further, I strongly recommend to those who have not read the book and intend to do it to stop right here since my review will be, inevitably, full of spoilers.
In Lector in Fabula, Eco observes that in a narrative the author and the reader are more than the transmitter and the receiver of a message and become, in the form of a Model Author and a Model Reader, textual strategies – that is, a set of conditions to be met in order to fully actualize a text. So, what set of conditions does our empirical author Agatha Christie (for I don’t think I can genuinely re-enact her as my Model Author since I don’t remember well my reactions and expectations during the first lecture, which was many years ago) requires from her Model Reader?
The first obvious one, announced by the title of the book itself, is to be a lover of mystery novels, of course. In other words, she relies on the encyclopaedic competence of such a reader, which would include different such scenarios, implying a crime, a suspect (or more) and a detective, following a standard and most appreciated scheme of the discovery of the criminal through a chain of deductions, scheme so successful, as Eco says, “that the most famous authors have founded their fortune on its very immutability”. And as expected, she delivers it all right: here we have four or five persons suspected, at one time or the other, of having murdered Roger Ackroyd, and here we have the famous detective Hercule Poirot, whom the Model Reader will joyfully greet like an old acquaintance, while promptly rising to the challenge of making his own suppositions and predictions, of finding the relevant foreshadowing and the hidden clues in order to outshine, at least this time, his favourite character.
Of course, these predictions, called by Eco “possible worlds” are made not only by the readers, but also by the characters: Caroline, the narrator’s sister, Poirot, police and many other characters with the noticeable exception of Dr. Sheppard, make various assumptions, building worlds that will collapse one by one because they invariably violate the rule of respecting what Eco calls “the S-necessary properties”: for example, the belief that Ackroyd was murdered at a certain time was based on Flora’s lie (which violated the S-necessary property of her not being with her uncle at 9:30). On the other hand, the reader not only makes his own assumptions regarding the events but also regarding the other characters’ assumptions, and the consistency of his own worlds will depend on the same rule.
However, the surprise element lies this time elsewhere: in introducing the unreliable narrator, a narrative trick that Agatha Christie confessed it was inspired by a remark of her brother (who jokingly wished to read a book in which Watson was the killer). By doing this, she broke the rather inflexible, although unwritten canon imposed by the whodunit genre, baffling her Model Reader, who, used to an objective, truthful narrative voice, had looked everywhere but there; maybe this is why she was bitterly accused of the mutilation of the genre in an essay written by Willard Huntington Wright in 1927: “The trick played on the reader in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is hardly a legitimate device of the detective-story writer; and while Poirot's work in this book is at times capable, the effect is nullified by the dénouement.” Reaction that Umberto Eco could label, with another phrase of his, “the hunger for redundancy”, since it seems the fans of the genre are more interested in following the gestures of the “topical” characters than in the suspense.
In all other respects, the text provides the reader with enough clues, and allusions, and foreshadowing phrases to suspect the truth, but which of course will reveal themselves obvious too late. One of them is ironically pointed out by the narrator himself, at the end of the story, when he stresses quite proudly, the subtlety of the sentence “I did what little had to be done” he had written in the first pages of his manuscript:
…when the body was discovered, and I sent Parker to telephone for the police, what a judicious use of words: 'I did what little had to be done!' It was quite little just to shove the Dictaphone into my bag and push back the chair against the wall in its proper place.
Others are his apparent irritation with the statement he has to give to the police concerning the state of drawer from which the dagger disappeared (“a long, tedious explanation which I would infinitely rather not have had to make”), the effort to convince Flora not to go to Poirot to ask him to investigate the murder (which the reader candidly interprets at the time as concern for his friend Ralph), his inner comment when his sister accuses him of stupidity (“I was not really being stupid. Caroline does not always understand what I am driving at”), the knocking down of the mah-jong pieces when he hears his sister’s statement that “Ralph is in Cranchester”, and so on.
As usual, Agatha Christie’s narrative is impeccable not only in the development of the fabula, but also in creating vivid portraits through the biased eyes of her narrator, effortlessly accomplishing a double characterization – of the portraitist and the portraitee:
I am sorry to say I detest Mrs Ackroyd. She is all chains and teeth and bones. A most unpleasant woman. She has small pale flinty blue eyes, and however gushing her words may be, those eyes others always remain coldly speculative.
This quality, together with the fine irony of the appearance-essence game regarding not only the characters but also the society and the events, and together with the coup de theatre of the manuscript intended to mock Poirot and converted into a confession, all these make of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd one of the most memorable books of the genre, although it remains, to finish with the same Eco’s terminology, a closed, not an open work. But, to joke a little, it is so open until it closes!
I will finish here, stressing once again that I only played with Eco’s concepts (whose names, by the way, I had to constantly verify because I haven’t read an English translation of his work yet) leaving aside the too “technical” phrases, for my purpose was not to do a semiotic analysis, only to find another way of interpretation of Agatha Christie. And this is the scarce result.