Dr. James Sheppard, the narrator, notes that a woman named Mrs. Ferrars has died. In the morning he is sent to tend to her, but he’s too late—she’s already dead. He returns to his home, where he and his sister Caroline live. At that moment, his instincts tell him, “there were stirring times ahead.”
The novel is narrated by Dr. Sheppard, and usually in mystery novels of the era, the narrator is the most trustworthy character. Sheppard’s sense of “stirring times” foreshadows the dangerous, exciting events of the novel (events which readers already expect, given the genre, author, and title of the book).
Caroline is a talkative woman, and Dr. Sheppard knows that whatever he tells her about Mrs. Ferrars’ death will soon be common knowledge in their village. Caroline has told Sheppard that Mr. Ashley Ferrars, who died a year ago, was poisoned by his wife, Mrs. Ferrars.
Caroline, a major gossip and busybody, is the main comic relief in the novel, but she’s also one of the most insightful, well-informed characters. In a mystery novel, the paranoid, gossipy character is often the most realistic about what’s happening.
Caroline informs Dr. Sheppard that she already knows Mrs. Ferrars is dead—Annie the parlormaid told her. Dr. Sheppard explains that Mrs. Ferrars must have accidentally overdosed on Veranol, a sleeping drug. Caroline insists that Mrs. Ferrars took the drug on purpose, out of remorse for having murdered her husband. Sheppard finds this ridiculous: surely, he says, Mrs. Ferrars would be able to live without remorse if she were capable of killing her husband. He also informs Caroline that there will be no inquest—unless he expresses uncertainty to the police about the cause of Mrs. Ferrars’s death. Caroline asks Sheppard if he’s “satisfied” that Mrs. Ferrars died of an accidental overdose, but Sheppard doesn’t answer.
Caroline can be hyperbolic in her theories about her neighbors, but the novel also suggests that she’s remarkably well informed. Sheppard’s silence suggests that he might share some of Caroline’s suspicions about the Ferrars family, even if he doesn’t voice these suspicions. Notice, also, that Dr. Sheppard has a lot of authority in the village; he single-handedly controls whether the police make an inquest about Mrs. Ferrars’ death.