Over the course of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Agatha Christie draws an important distinction between the law—symbolized by Inspector Raglan, who is duty-bound to investigate Roger Ackroyd’s murder and prosecute the killer in court—and ethics, symbolized by Hercule Poirot.
From the beginning, Christie shows that Poirot marches to the beat of his own drum. He’s motivated by a personal, philosophical interest in the case of Roger’s murder (see Detection theme), and answers to his own personal code of right and wrong. At various points in the book, Poirot is shown to be willing to lie, manipulate suspects, and engage in other behavior that many people would consider “wrong.” He deceives suspects into giving away important information about themselves, and in the middle of the book, Poirot takes matters into his own hands by posting a fictitious story in the local newspaper, explaining that the police have arrested Ralph Paton, the prime suspect in Roger’s murder. For Poirot, these deceptions are justified by the “greater good” of solving the case, and indeed, his lies are often quite useful in gathering new information. After he arranges for the fake news story to be published, for instance, Ursula Bourne comes forward and admits that she was married to Ralph Paton—a crucial piece of evidence that she would never have revealed otherwise. Although Poirot engages in plenty of questionable behavior, he clearly has a strong ethical code. Rather than being strongly committed to any particular rule or law, however, Poirot is committed above all to learning the truth, no matter how painful it might be. In this sense, he seems very different from the police, who are motivated by their desire to obey and enforce the law more than their abstract love for truth and enlightenment.
Christie further complicates themes of law and ethics at the end of the book, when Poirot, having discovered that Dr. Sheppard is the murderer, allows Sheppard to kill himself instead of turning him over to the police. The ending strongly implies that Sheppard will kill himself, and Poirot will convince Inspector Raglan to refrain from broadcasting the news of Sheppard’s guilt, thereby protecting Sheppard’s sister Caroline from the pain of learning that her brother was a murderer. Poirot’s behavior suggests that, although he’s committed to truth—in the sense that he feels a desire, and even a duty, to learn the truth about Roger’s murder—he also takes into account other factors, such as Sheppard’s dignity and, more importantly, the effect that his arrest will have on Caroline and the community in general. Where a police inspector would be legally bound to arrest Sheppard and put him on public trial for his crimes, Poirot opts for a more intimate, ethically holistic form of justice. Furthermore, it appears that Inspector Raglan is going to cooperate with Poirot and keep news of Sheppard’s guilt quiet. This might suggest that, ultimately, Roger Ackroyd sides with Poirot’s personal, idiosyncratic ethical code, rather than the strictly “by the book” approach favored by the police: detectives should bring the truth to light, but they should also take into account the effect the truth will have on other people.
Law vs. Ethics ThemeTracker
Law vs. Ethics Quotes in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
“It says that Ralph has been arrested. So everything is useless. I need not pretend any longer.”
“Newspaper paragraphs are not always true, mademoiselle,” murmured Poirot, having the grace to look ashamed of himself, “All the same, I think you will do well to make a clean breast of things. The truth is what we need now.”
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.