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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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4 The Purloined Killer: the role of the reader

What, then, are the consequences of the denouement in the more serious game of cat-and-mouse eventually won by Poirot? The audience/reader emerges once more as the key context for understanding the detective novel. In Poe’s ‘The Purloined Letter’, Dupin’s famous switcheroo allows him to gain possession of the Queen’s letter unnoticed. Poirot’s deliberate positioning of Sheppard as a substitute for his ‘Watson’ (Captain Hastings) is also a switch of a kind which allows the detective to ‘possess’ or keep him in a custody of sorts while he gathers evidence to confirm his theory. Is Sheppard an unreliable narrator? While he is certainly not candid with us, does he actively lie to us at any point? Arguably at least, his dishonesty is based only on omission and not on concealment. His guilt was there in the text for us to discover, theoretically, as the rules of ‘fair play’ require. By his own admission, he is not writing his journal (our narrative) to deceive but, rather, assuming himself to be the victor in the game, to chronicle a defining failure of Hercule Poirot (Christie, 2012, p. 296).

Although there are interesting things to say about them, the cultural context and geographical setting of the detective novel are incidental. The readers themselves in fact provide the more interesting context here. Sheppard the sidekick is, in a sense, the reader’s representative and Christie uses that well-known formal trope as a Trojan Horse to smuggle the killer into the narrative undetected. The reader has in a sense been used as an unwitting ‘vessel’, concealing Sheppard’s true actions within the act of reading itself. Up until the reveal, the murderer and the act of murder were not to be found within the pages, as such. But both were, like Poe’s purloined letter on its filigree card-rack, hidden in plain sight the whole time, even if our own ‘little grey cells’ do not have the wit to detect the deception.

That said, the sidekick and the audience are not the same thing. Sheppard is certainly there for us to identify with, to some degree. But, as per Knox’s ‘rule’, every reader is meant to hope that they possess a measure of deductive acumen that the inductive reasoner does not, even if they would not claim to be the equal of Poirot. Few would be excited by a super-detective who could not delight them with superior gifts, after all. The reader therefore ideally assumes the position between sidekick and detective – slightly better than the former (we chuckle to ourselves when their shortcomings are exposed) but clearly inferior to the latter. In the case of Roger Ackroyd, we stand in between the murderer and detective protagonist. It is a strange and slightly uncomfortable position to find yourself in as a reader: in this case you were not aligned with the sidekick after all, but with the murderer. Sheppard’s failure to deceive Poirot is all his own because the reader was not aware of the deception. The absent Captain Hastings – the ‘Watson’ – was the intended disguise of the murderer, but he turns out instead to have been Poirot’s and Christie’s method of concealment. Poirot has allowed Sheppard to assume that shape partly in order to keep him close, and Christie uses it to ‘encrypt’ the killer’s identity. Both protagonist and author triumph by holding all the cards – by controlling the order of the mahjong tiles. When presented with the ‘perfect winning’, some readers will delight in both the game and Christie’s victory, while those disaffected in defeat are left to bemoan the variant of the rules played. Whatever the reaction, the game played in Roger Ackroyd is a feature of the democratisation of reading as an activity and to some extent of the aspiration to write: two core elements in the enduring popularity of detective fiction.