Like many mystery novels, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is set in a small, isolated community—the English village of King’s Abbot—where everybody knows everybody else, and where the whole community knows when there’s someone new in town. One of the most important features of small-town English life, as Christie depicts it, is the powerful force of gossip—the information (sometimes true, sometimes not) that gets passed from person to person in a small town. And it is in part by learning to harness the power of gossip that Poirot solves the case of Roger Ackroyd’s murder.
Dr. Sheppard, the narrator, constantly complains about how irritating, inaccurate, and pointless gossip can be. And yet, over the course of the book, Christie shows how gossip can be a potentially important tool of detection. Counterintuitively, gossip can be more reliable than regular, face-to-face testimony. At the very beginning of the book, Sheppard’s sister Caroline learns about the death of Mrs. Ferrars almost as soon as it happens, thanks to the power of gossip: Mrs. Ferrars’s parlormaid passes the message on to other people, who alert Caroline. This shouldn’t suggest that gossip is always one hundred percent accurate, and indeed, there are several times when Caroline and the other gossips in King’s Abbot spread completely false rumors about Poirot and Roger Ackroyd. And yet, throughout Roger Ackroyd, Caroline’s ideas about the case—which she proceeds to share with anyone who’ll listen—prove to be more accurate than the police inspector’s theories and even, at times, Hercule Poirot’s theories. One reason for the reliability of gossip is that, unlike with the testimony of the murder suspects, the people communicating the information have no strong incentive to lie. Gossips sometimes lie or distort the truth in order to tell a good story, but—at least as Christie presents it in the book, if not in real life—they still want to be right. On the other hand, each one of the murder suspects has a very strong incentive to lie (their reputations or their lives hinge on their ability to conceal the truth). On a typical day in a small English town, Christie suggests, gossip might not be the best source of information. But in the midst of a murder case, when everybody is hiding something, gossip can be one of the best ways of learning the truth.
Hercule Poirot solves the case of Roger’s murder because he recognizes the power of gossip and learns how to use it to his advantage. At various point in the novel, Poirot makes important deductions based on what the town gossips, especially Caroline, tell him. Poirot uses Caroline’s network of gossips to determine whether Ralph Paton owns boots, and he learns from Caroline that Ralph had met with a mysterious woman in the woods, paving the way for his conclusion that Ralph was married to Ursula Bourne, and couldn’t have committed the murder. The knowledge that Ralph was walking through the woods is a particularly strong example of why gossip is so important to the art of detection. Previously, Dr. Sheppard concealed Ralph’s behavior from Poirot for fear that it would lead Poirot to deduce that Sheppard was the killer. Gossip, on the other hand, doesn’t discriminate based on guilt or innocence. By learning about the customs of a small English town, Poirot—an idiosyncratic Belgian outsider—learns to use gossip to his advantage, and solves his case.
Gossip and Small Town Life ThemeTracker
Gossip and Small Town Life Quotes in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
Our village, King's Abbot, is, I imagine, very much like any other village. Our big town is Cranchester, nine miles away. We have a large railway station, a small post office, and two rival “General Stores.” Able-bodied men are apt to leave the place early in life, but we are rich in unmarried ladies and retired military officers. Our hobbies and recreations can be summed up in the one word, “gossip.”
"It is Fate," he said at last.
"What is Fate?" I asked irritably.
"That I should live next to a man who seriously considers Porcupine Oilfields, and also West Australian Gold Mines. Tell me, have you also a penchant for auburn hair?"
"Parker!" said my sister. "Fiddlesticks! That inspector must be a perfect fool. Parker indeed! Don't tell me."
"I’m not too flush just now, as a matter of fact. Came into a legacy a year ago, and like a fool let myself be persuaded into putting it into some wild-cat scheme."
I sympathized, and narrated my own similar trouble.
"He wants to know whether Ralph Paton's boots were black or brown," said Caroline with tremendous solemnity.
It was then that I went on, goaded by Caroline's gibes, and rendered reckless by my triumph.
“And as to anything interesting,” I said. “What about a gold wedding ring with a date and ‘From R.’ inside.”
Blunt ignored my well-meant offers. He spoke to Poirot. “D’you really think—” he began, and stopped.
He is one of those inarticulate men who find it hard to put things into words.
Poirot knows no such disability. “If you doubt me, ask her yourself, monsieur.”
I invent a nephew with mental trouble. I consult Mademoiselle Sheppard as to suitable homes. She gives me the names of two near Cranchester to which her brother has sent patients. I make inquiries. Yes, at one of them a patient was brought there by the doctor himself early on Saturday morning.
Remember what I said—the truth goes to Inspector Raglan in the morning. But, for the sake of your good sister, I am willing to give you the chance of another way out. There might be, for instance, an overdose of a sleeping draught.