Halfway through Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Hercule Poirot—the Belgian detective who’s been convinced to investigate the titular crime—tells the suspects, “Every one of you in this room is concealing something from me.” Poirot’s claim is arguably the single most important sentence in the book, summing up Christie’s belief that everyone—even nice, ordinary-seeming people—has a dark secret, and, furthermore, that everyone, under the right circumstances, is capable of committing a crime.
Over the course of Poirot’s investigation, the book reveals that almost all of the characters had some motive for murdering Roger Ackroyd, a wealthy businessman living in the small village of King’s Abbot. This could be considered a convention of the mystery genre (since, after all, it wouldn’t be much of a murder mystery unless multiple people could be the murderer). But Christie also makes the deeper point that all people have secrets that can compel them to kill.
Some of the murder suspects are revealed to have a secret need for money. For example, Flora Ackroyd, Roger’s niece, and Mrs. Ackroyd, Roger’s sister-in-law, are shown to be desperate for cash, which the stingy, stubborn Roger was reluctant to give them upfront. Other suspects are motivated by a more abstract but no less intense desire for freedom; both Flora Ackroyd and Ralph Paton (Roger’s adopted son) are shown to be secretly sick and tired of Roger’s domineering behavior, and want to be rid of his influence forever. Other characters are shown to have committed various kinds of crimes in the past: Parker, a seemingly “proper” English butler, turns out to be a seasoned blackmailer, and Miss Russell, an equally proper-seeming housemaid, is revealed to have had an illegitimate child (which would have been considered shocking by many of Christie’s readers in the 1920s). In all, the characters’ questionable behavior and dark secrets confirm Poirot’s observation, suggesting that no person is completely free of secrets.
Christie further emphasizes her point in the novel’s famous ending, in which it’s revealed that Dr. Sheppard, the calm, reliable narrator of the novel, is Roger Ackroyd’s killer. After falling deep into debt, Sheppard began blackmailing Roger’s lover, Mrs. Ferrars, and, after she killed herself and revealed Sheppard’s name to Roger, Sheppard killed Roger to protect himself. It might be hard for 21st-century readers to understand how surprising—even shocking—Roger Ackroyd’s “twist ending” was in the 1920s. Traditionally, the narrator of a mystery novel is (along with the detective) the only person whom readers can safely assume to be innocent of the crime. (In the early 20th century, there was even an unofficial set of “commandments” for mystery writers, the first of which is that the narrator of a mystery novel should never be the killer.) By making Dr. Sheppard the killer, then, Christie goes further than her fellow mystery novelists in showing that everyone has secrets, and that even ordinary-seeming people can, under the right circumstances, be compelled to kill. In her later novels, Christie arguably took things even further, penning a novel in which Poirot himself turns out to be the killer!
Secrecy and the Universal Capacity for Violence ThemeTracker
Secrecy and the Universal Capacity for Violence Quotes in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
One cannot answer a question like that off-hand. I gave her a short lecture on the subject, and she listened with close attention. I still suspected her of seeking information about Mrs. Ferrars.
"Now, Veronal, for instance—" I proceeded.
But, strangely enough, she didn't seem interested in Veronal. Instead she changed the subject, and asked me if it was true that there were certain poisons so rare as to baffle detection.
"Make certain that window's closed, will you," he asked. Somewhat surprised, I got up and went to it. It was not a french window, but one of the ordinary sash type. The heavy blue velvet curtains were drawn in front of it, but the window itself was open at the top.
Parker reentered the room with my bag while I was still at the window.
"That's all right," I said, emerging again into the room.
"You've put the latch across?"
"Yes, yes … What's the matter with you, Ackroyd?"
The letter had been brought in at twenty minutes to nine. It was just on ten minutes to nine when I left him, the letter still unread. I hesitated with my hand on the door handle, looking back and wondering if there was anything I had left undone. I could think of nothing. With a shake of the head I passed out and closed the door behind me.
"You don't think that Parker himself might be the man we're after?" I suggested.
"It looks very like it. He was obviously listening at the door when you came out. Then Miss Ackroyd came across him later bent on entering the study. Say he tried again when she was safely out of the way. He stabbed Ackroyd, locked the door on the inside, opened the window, and got out that way, and went round to a side door which he had previously left open. How's that?"
"Look inside," commanded Poirot.
I did so. Inside was an inscription in fine writing:
From R., March 13th.
"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.
“Every one of you in this room is concealing something from me.” He raised his hand as a faint murmur of protest arose. “Yes, yes, I know what I am saying. It may be something unimportant—trivial—which is supposed to have no bearing on the case, but there it is. Each one of you has something to hide.”
"'What was the point of that question about the glasses?" I asked curiously.
Poirot shrugged his shoulders. "One must say something," he remarked. "That particular question did as well as any other."
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.”
Let us take a man—a very ordinary man. A man with no idea of murder in his heart. There is in him somewhere a strain of weakness—deep down. It has so far never been called into play. Perhaps it never will be—and if so he will go to his grave honored and respected by everyone. But let us suppose that something occurs. He is in difficulties—or perhaps not that even. He may stumble by accident on a secret—a secret involving life or death to someone. And his first impulse will be to speak out—to do his duty as an honest citizen. And then the strain of weakness tells.
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.”
“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.”
“I congratulate you—on your modesty!”
“Oh!” I said, rather taken aback.
“And on your reticence,” he added.
I said “Oh!” again.
“Not so did Hastings write,” continued my friend. “On every page, many, many times was the word ‘I’. What he thought—what he did. But you—you have kept your personality in the background; only once or twice does it obtrude—in scenes of home life, shall we say?”
“A person who was at the Three Boars earlier that day, a person who knew Ackroyd well enough to know that he had purchased a dictaphone, a person who was of a mechanical turn of mind, who had the opportunity to take the dagger from the silver table before Miss Flora arrived, who had with him a receptacle suitable for hiding the dictaphone—such as a black bag—and who had the study to himself for a few minutes after the crime was discovered while Parker was telephoning for the police. In fact—Dr. Sheppard!”
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.