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Agatha Christie and the golden age of detective fiction
Agatha Christie and the golden age of detective fiction

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2.1 Rethinking detective fiction

On the surface, with its country house and village setting, Roger Ackroyd might have the appearance of a potboiler in an age where the whodunnit had become an immensely popular but largely disposable form (‘Potboilers’ capitalised on popular literary tastes and trends, with writers generally compromising artistic merit to allow greater speed of composition). The eponymous victim is a ‘new money’ industrialist but also a well-established community figure who is found murdered in a locked room. There is a closed circle of relations and associates with potential motives for the killing. Hercule Poirot, the series detective familiar to the reader, is necessarily on hand to assist the police and in the absence of his established sidekick (Captain Hastings), a local doctor – and our narrator – has stepped in as his confidant and assistant. But the unfolding of the narrative and, especially, the revelation of the killer, elevate the novel to a special status within the genre.

In the age of modernism, whodunnits are perhaps easy to categorise as popular and ‘middlebrow’ fiction. But Maurizio Ascari and others have argued for a ‘Detection of Modernism’ based on claims made by Sayers about the sophistication of the form (Ascari, 2007, p. 170). It is through formal innovation, in fact, that crime fiction is, on the one hand, able to remain popular and satisfying in execution, and, on the other, potentially able to serve and reflect deeper concerns in the years following the cataclysm of the First World War; this is a task often reserved (perhaps simplistically) for the domain of ‘highbrow’ modernist fiction in the 1920s.