This is the first in a series of posts deconstructing a mystery novel. I choose The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (TMoRA) because it was sitting invitingly on my bookshelf and because it is by Agatha Christie. What makes Christie such a good writer is the re-readability of her books. In fact, I have read The Murder of Roger Ackroyd before, quite possibly many times, but I don’t remember who the killer is. When I started reading, I thought to myself “Oh I know who it is” but a few chapters in, I can’t quite fit the clues to the person I had in mind. With Christie, even when you know who it is (or you think you do) it is hard to fit everything into its place. Anyway, I wanted to look at this book so that I could do a better job of the mystery I’m writing. Specifically, my clues all seemed to be simple and straightforward (even after I took into account that since I had thought up the mystery in the first place, it would seem simple and clear in my mind), so I went searching through Christie. Since then, I’ve added a few more questions to be answered in my deconstruction and hopefully this will help another newbie writer like myself.
The questions I wanted answers to are the following – the number of characters/plot-lines, the pacing, dialogue construction and the number of clues. My goal is to talk about these as the novel goes along. I hope to be done with it in a three or so posts. This first part is concerned with Chapters 1-10. Before I proceed I have to declare a SPOILER ALERT. I will try to leave out as much of details as I can but there may be occasions where I use examples of clues and alternate plot lines. If you haven’t read the book and don’t want it spoiled, I suggest you do so before reading these posts.
Characters – One of the first things that surprised me was the number of major and minor characters. If you had asked me to estimate the number of characters, I would have thought of a few and been way off the mark. TMoRA has, by my count, at least 18 characters in the first 10 chapters. Of course, what’s important for the writer is the number of suspects and, again by my count, there are at least 7 main suspects and a number of minor ones (maids etc). Having a large enough pool of suspects was one of the main takeaways from my reading. I immediately went and added a bunch of suspects to my novel and that helped to muddy the waters somewhat. Once I had drawn in a bunch of suspects I didn’t feel nearly as bad about my novel being too simple and straightforward.
Clues – Christie is also liberal with throwing in all kinds of unexplained clues and headscratchers that are great at throwing you off the scent. TMoRA actually starts off with a death but it is not the main one. Christie builds up the uncertainty in the mind of Dr. Shepherd (Poirot’s sidekick in this novel) surrounding that death and has a few characters ask leading questions about it. So we are two chapters in, the main murder hasn’t happened yet and we are already trying to work out why X did something. I counted at least 3 major unexplained events/conundrums before the murder itself. After the murder there are many more such events – some found by Poirot (such as the chair having been dragged or the ring in the pond), some observed by both Poirot and Shepherd (such as the conversation between Flora and Blunt) and the others described by the various suspects (overhearing someone talk with Roger Ackroyd). What seems to work well is to have these appear in bits and pieces and at different times so that the reader cannot simply follow along adding up the clues. As I write this I feel that the point is so obvious but when I was writing my novel I had a tendency to stick to the main story/plotline since it was all lined up in my head. It requires a bit of conscious effort to interweave the various items into the story and confuse the reader just right.
On the personal writing front, I did a little bit more editing which made getting to a 1000 words difficult but I persevered and whaddaya know, I made it. In other news, I hit 15000 words. I believe that makes this book my longest piece of fiction yet.
Time: ~1 hr 20min
Word Count: 1017 (15789).