The joy of exploring Agatha Christie's intent

May 28, 2000|By Laura M. Lippman | Laura M. Lippman,Sun Staff

"Who Killed Roger Ackroyd? The Mystery Behind the Agatha Christie Mystery," by Pierre Bayard. The New Press. 176 pages. $22.95.

James M. Cain once groused that critics were a naive lot, who didn't really understand the workings of a writer's mind. No such complaint can be made about Pierre Bayard, the French psychoanalyst and literature professor who has decided to apply his formidable analytical skills toward one of the most famous detective novels of all time.

First, what we call a spoiler warning in the trade: If you haven't read "Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?" and you think you might one day, stop reading right now. If you, like Edmund Wilson, don't care who killed Roger Ackroyd, you may continue reading, but why would you bother? Check yourself into a rehab center, my friend, for you have a sad case of literary snobbery.

It is the conceit of "Roger Ackroyd" that the killer is the narrator himself, James Sheppard, a doctor in a small village. Alas for the doctor, retired detective Hercule Poirot has moved in next door and, when Roger Ackroyd is murdered, Poirot cannot help investigating the crime. He eventually unmasks Sheppard as the killer. The doctor, while maintaining his innocence, apparently commits suicide. The novel is, in effect, his very long suicide note.

Is the very structure of the novel in and of itself a cheat? Bayard thinks not, and he sets up a persuasive case that the "lie by omission" -- a key tool in the mystery writer's bag of tricks -- sets the stage for allowing us to consider other solutions.

Why, Bayard then asks, should we accept Christie's/Poirot's solution? One is initially tempted to answer facetiously: "Well, duh -- because she wrote it." But in posing this question, Bayard reveals that he, unlike the critics who so maddened Cain, really does get it.

The dirty little secret of mystery-writing is that it's a largely intuitive process, and the writers themselves are often baffled by the things their characters do and the events they set in motion. As Raymond Chandler's fans know, Howard Hawkes and William Faulkner couldn't figure out who had killed the chauffeur in "The Big Sleep" when they began adapting it for film. When they queried Chandler, he admitted he had no idea.

So Bayard's inquiry is a fair one and his alternative solution is sound. Is it right? Of course not; only Christie could decide who the killer is in her novels. Bayard is offering a psychological reading of "Roger Ackroyd" that is fascinating and satisfying in its own right.

But Bayard's argument is most notable because it reveals true affection and respect for Christie's work. Bayard's book can be read as a spirited defense of a sometimes-maligned genre, whose best practioners -- Lawrence Block, P.D. James, Elmore Leonard, Margaret Maron, Donald Westlake, to name but a few -- are superior to some of the so-called literary writers working today.

A reporter for The Sun, Laura M. Lippman won an "Agatha" -- a teapot awarded for the best traditional mystery at the annual Malice Domestic conference -- for her fourth Tess Monaghan mystery, "In Big Trouble." The series also has won the Edgar (as in Poe), the Anthony (as in Boucher) and the Shamus (as in private eye). The fifth, "The Sugar House," will be published this fall by Morrow.

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