Dr. Sheppard lives in the village of King’s Abbot, miles away from the nearest big town. There’s a train station in the village, and an abundance of “unmarried ladies and retired military officers.” Everyone in town loves gossip. There are two “important houses” in town, one of which belonged to Mrs. Ferrars, and the other of which belongs to Roger Ackroyd.
As in so many mystery novels, Roger Ackroyd is set in a small, isolated community where everybody knows everybody else. The isolated, close-knit setting 1) suggests that the criminal is someone who everybody knows, and 2) creates a paranoid, suspenseful mood, since the criminal is hiding a big secret from their neighbors. It’s also telling that the owners of the two most “important houses” in town are also the two main victims of the novel.
Roger Ackroyd is a successful, middle-aged manufacturer of (Dr. Sheppard thinks) wagon wheels. He’s red-faced, genial, and very likeable. When Roger was younger, he married a woman named Ms. Paton, a widow with a child. Paton turned out to be a dipsomaniac (i.e., alcoholic), and she drank herself to death. Roger raised Paton’s biological child, Ralph, a handsome, “wild lad.”
These sections provide the necessary exposition for the murder mystery. Roger (who, readers already know from the title, will become the murder victim) is a wealthy man, creating an immediate financial motive for the crime.
Everyone in town has been gossiping about how Roger and Mrs. Ferrars were “getting on very well,” and for a while, people thought that they’d marry. Just before the Ferrars family moved to the village, however, Roger was rumored to be involved with a housekeeper named Miss Russell. Another recent arrival in the village was Mrs. Ackroyd, the widow of Roger’s “ne’er do-well younger brother” Cecil Ackroyd, and her daughter. Dr. Sheppard notes that it was to Mrs. Ackroyd’s advantage that Roger remain unmarried, since she depended on Roger for money.
The passage describes other important characters in the novel (and suspects in the murder), laying out some other potential motives for Roger’s killing. Again, Roger’s money would seem to be an important factor in other people’s relationships with him—Mrs. Ackroyd depends on his generosity, for example.
Dr. Sheppard tries to understand Mrs. Ferrars’ death. If she’d killed herself, he thinks, she would have left some note. When Sheppard last saw Mrs. Ferrars, he thinks, she seemed normal. Then he remembers that he saw her yesterday when she was walking with Ralph Paton. It was in this moment, Sheppard now recalls, that he began to feel a sense of foreboding.
As the first chapter suggested, Dr. Sheppard does secretly entertain Caroline’s theory that Mrs. Ferrars killed herself. By twice emphasizing Dr. Sheppard’s sense of foreboding, Christie further foreshadows Roger’s murder and draws readers’ attention to Ralph’s relationship with Mrs. Ferrars.
Dr. Sheppard crosses paths with Roger Ackroyd in the street. Roger seems “a … wreck of his usual jolly, healthy self.” He tells Sheppard that they need to talk, and invites him for dinner at 7:30. Sheppard blurts out, “Is it Ralph?” Roger claims that Ralph is in London, and—seeing that a busybody named Miss Gannett is walking by—says he’ll see Sheppard that evening. Mrs. Gannet catches up with Sheppard and begins telling him her theories about Mrs. Ferrars’ death: that she was a “drug-taker” and that Roger had broken off his engagement with her as a result.
Something is on Roger’s mind, clearly, but—as is the cliché in many detective stories—Roger doesn’t get a chance to tell the narrator what’s been going on. Miss Gannett’s theory about Mrs. Ferrars might seem ridiculous, and yet, considering that this is a mystery novel, it’s a hypothesis worth entertaining. You could even say that Caroline and Miss Gannett are the ideal readers of Agatha Christie novels—they know that they should be a little paranoid, suspect the worst, and construct elaborate theories based on minor details.
Dr. Sheppard proceeds to tend to his patients. At lunch, Miss Russell comes to see him. She’s a stern, handsome woman, and she asks him to examine her knee. Sheppard examines Russell, but finds nothing the matter. Nevertheless, he gives her a bottle of liniment. Russell asks Sheppard about being “a slave of the drug habit,” particularly cocaine, and if there’s a cure. Sheppard says he doesn’t know. Russell also asks if there are any untraceable poisons. Sheppard tells her that curare such a poison, though he doesn’t have any. Russell leaves, and Sheppard guesses that she has been reading detective stories.
Miss Russell’s comments about drugs and poisons illustrate two important concepts in mystery novels: Chekhov’s gun and the red herring. In works of fiction, a Chekhov’s gun is a small detail of the story that’s introduced early and in the end is revealed as crucial—mystery novels are full of them. A red herring, on the other hand, is a detail that’s designed to mislead or distract readers. Part of the challenge (and the fun) of reading a mystery novel is deciding whether unusual details—such as Miss Russell’s visit—are Chekhov’s guns or red herrings.