Foundation by Isaac Asimov


Isaac Asimov

First published 1951.  I read a Bantam Spectra Books edition published 1991 on my older version Kindle, so not sure how many pages. Goodreads says 256 pgs.

Guardian 1000 novels: Science Fiction.

With trying American Gods, and loving Riddley Walker, I decided to stay with the Science Fiction Guardian titles for one more for now.  This was a good idea — once again the Guardian list led me to a book I probably never would have read but am now very glad I did.

Foundation is actually only one part of a complex series of books conceived by Asimov to describe the rise and fall of the Galactic Empire — a concept that he attributed to his reading of Gibbons’ famous work, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.  The action in Foundation occurs after two prequel novels — and there are four subsequent works that continue the story.  I have no idea how soon I will get back to any of them, and while I liked Foundation, I have so many other reads coming up and I’m not compelled to put those aside in favor of more Asimov right now.

Foundation begins with the trial of scientist Hari Seldon, who has discovered he can predict the future through a system of mathematical formulas.  He predicts the fall of the current Galactic Empire into a dark age lasting 30,000 years.  Naturally, the powers that be are not too excited about this.  Seldon is able to convince the government that if he is allowed to gather the most brilliant minds together to work on a compendium of human knowledge, the Encyclopedia Galactica, he will be able to reduce this period of dark ages substantially.   The government powers agree and send the “Encyclopedists” and their leader to a far-away planet at the end of the Galaxy, Terminus.   This group of exiles establishes the Foundation which is the heart of all the stories — a group dedicated to create the Encyclopedia, and more — to protect and enhance knowledge in the face of the impending dark ages.

The remainder of Foundation jumps us through a series of novelettes — Hari Seldon has passed away (kind of….) — but his Foundation lives on and morphs in the way all societies grow and change.  Space pirates, aristocrats and finally, traders, take their turns at guiding the Foundation in the face of the eventual crumbling of the Empire.

A funny side-note on this book; I shouldn’t have tried to read it on a Kindle.  Because the various episodes jumped forward in hunks of 50, 80 years at a time, I would have liked to flip back into the beginning pages to remind myself of various minor characters and events — but it wasn’t really that easy with the Kindle.

I liked Foundation, I liked the big ideas it presented about the gradual fall of empire when respect for science and truth fade.  I hope I do get time to return to this Galaxy soon.

A little time for self-improvement…

4secondsFour Seconds:  All the Time You Need to Stop Counter-Productive Habits and Get the Results You Want.

Peter Bregman

2015.  HarperOne.  258 pgs with acknowledgements, notes and index.  More resources to accompany the book can be found at:

Other books I’ve read by Bregman:  18 Minutes:  Find Your Focus, Master Distraction and Get the Right Things Done.  Bregman is also the author of a popular blog on the Harvard Business Review website.

I’ve been a fan of Bregman’s thoughtful, emotionally honest writing about improvement in business for some time.  When his new book, Four Seconds came out, I knew I had to get it and read it.  Who knows, maybe his advice will help me carve out more time for reading Guardian 1,000 titles!

One of Bregman’s constant themes is trying to answer the question of how can we be effective as leaders when we are crushed by mounting deadlines, avalanches of information and constant distraction?  The answer in his latest book is to pause for as few as four seconds and replace negative reactions with positive and productive actions.  This simple premise is the heart of the whole book — and while it sounds too basic to be helpful — Bregman fleshes it out with a multitude of rich, specific advice and examples.  The book is organized into three broad areas of focus:

  • changing your mental defaults,
  • strengthening relationships, and
  • optimizing work habits.

Each of the three sections is chunked into further small sections which explore a specific sub-theme.  Further, each sub-section is summarized in a box at the end of the sub-section, delivering that idea in a summary of about three-four sentences.  Talk about efficiency in writing!  I know I’m going to be browsing through these summaries on a regular basis.  Some of the advice is as specific as:  check your email only three times a day, or stop venting to co-workers, while other is broad-based:

Setting goals isn’t always a beneficial habit.  Identify and spend your time on areas of focus instead and you’ll get where you want to go more effectively.

By the way, if you are interested in more books about productivity, check out Productivity Porn! a list I curate over on GoodReads.

Best-sellers for the blizzard: two great Snowzilla reads

Like the rest of the inhabitants of the Washington, DC area I just spent several days cooped up in the house — trapped by about 25 inches of snow and no snow plow in sight.  Besides time spent teleworking (power stayed on, THANK YOU ) what else was there to do?  Read of course!


My front door– snowed in!

So while the storm was howling I curled up with two fantastic reads — it’s a distraction from the Guardian list, I know, but really enjoyable.

The first was Erik Larson’s Dead Wake:  the Final Crossing of the Lusitania (Crown Publishers, 2015, 430 pages).  Other books I’ve read by Larson:  none completed, I got about half way through his Devil in the White City — which I now vow to make time to go back and try again.

Larson writes of this human disaster in a compelling and skillful way, weaving the substories of pre-WWI isolationist America, President Wilson’s emergence from the grief of his wife’s recent loss to the hope of a new love, the competitive personality of one particular German submarine captain, the top-secret code breakers of the British government, the politics and plots of Winston Churchill’s Admiralty, and finally, the pride and technical competence of a Cunard line captain.  All these complex threads converge on a sunny day 10 miles off the southern coast of Ireland to end in a tragic event proving that in 1915, as now, human lives become mere fodder in the face of geo-politics, stupidity, and shocking chance.  The story of the actual sinking (the ship went down in 18 minutes!!!) was so horrific that I found myself racing through the book to finish it.  What masterful, powerful writing.

dead wakeThe second book was Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk (Grove Press, 2014, 300 pages).  This was a book I wasn’t particularly interested in until a dear friend insisted — knowing my love of animals.

Macdonald writes about her overwhelming grief at the sudden loss of a beloved father — and how she addressed that grief by absorbing herself in training a wild hawk — a “gos” or goshawk — one of the fiercest of the hawks.  This doesn’t sound so strange once you learn that Macdonald is an experienced falconer, obsessed with the birds since childhood.  Once Macdonald gets her bird, Mabel  (falconers enjoy assigning the fiercer birds sweet and docile-sounding names) she sets out on a life-altering journey to tame and train the animal.  Interestingly, Macdonald parallels her own story with the story of T. H. White’s experiences with hawk training.  I found Macdonald’s own story more satisfying than White’s, who did not treat his animal well through ignorance and lack of experience.  hawk

During the taming of Mabel, Macdonald becomes a hawk, as she seeks to completely bond with her bird.  This almost spiritual experience — complete with hours spent sleeping next to the baby bird, exercising incredible self-discipline and excruciating patience  — was almost overwhelming to read about.  I also found the language of falconers, apparently there is a special word for about everything — to be very interesting, as well as the rich history of this discipline.   Macdonald mixes stories of her father’s life with the growing tameness of Mabel — and we realize that the taming of Mabel is metaphor for the taming of wild grief.  This was a great story, one for anyone who has loved completely and lost — but found their way back through love and work.


Riddley Walker

RiddleyRiddley Walker

Russell Hoban

1980.  Summit Books.  220 pgs.

Guardian 1000 Novels: Science Fiction.

Other books I’ve read by Hoban:  none.    After the disaster of American Gods, I knew I had to get right back into the Guardian 1000 novels, and try to choose another science fiction or fantasy title — a category that I will admit I’m not that fond of.  What was the result?  A random selection of Riddley Walker and I could not have been happier with it.  In fact, reading Riddley restored my confidence in the Guardian reading challenge’s main premise:  to expose me to books that I would not have chosen to read.  This was certainly the case with Riddley, which I had never heard of.

This is a dystopian novel, set several thousand years after a nuclear war, or nuclear event of some kind–an event that through clues we conclude must have occurred sometime in the 1990’s.  The surviving society is a mix of hunter-gatherers, farmers (or “formers”), and folks engaged with simple-industry activities:  charcoal burners, dyers,  and work gangs who dig up pre-nuclear event iron and metal items to melt down.  Many folks live in simple settlements surrounded by fences.  Life is rough, crude and dangerous.  Being “dog et” is a common fate as dogs have reestablished their previous antagonistic or at least uneasy, relationship with people as wild scavengers or predators.  Some characters in the book, including its main character, have the gift of being “dog frendy” which sets them apart as special.  There is some sort of central government that seeks to control and communicate by sending out official — get this — puppet shows.  “Connection men” are allowed to interpret the shows for the common folks.  The message is a confused mix of spiritual, superstition and ignorance, as well as the garbled mix of the legend of an old Catholic saint, Eustace, (known as “Eusa” throughout the novel) and events of the nuclear war.

Riddley Walker, twelve years old and now considered a man in his world, is chosen to become the new “connection man” after the death of his father in an accident involving digging up old iron.  Riddley’s dad had been a connection man and while Riddley is ready to take up the challenge, he doesn’t have the knack of his father’s cryptic but telling interpretations of the traveling “Eusa” shows.  What Riddley does have is a thirst for knowledge, the ability to read and write, and the willingness to connect with others who can help him understand his violent and confused world.  Eventually Riddley becomes aware of a plot among several factions to obtain the ingredients and recipe for gunpowder — a path that Riddley wisely concludes to reject realizing that it only leads to the same deadly path that brings his world full circle to the nuclear option:

“The onlyes power is no power.”

One of the amazing things about this book is Hoban’s use of his own made-up dialect.  It’s supposed to depict an evolution of English 2,000 years into the future — a language now used by a simple, dark-age like society — but still with echoes of a former technologically complex world.  So Riddley will refer to “programming” something if he means that it came to his mind, or it was expected.  “Blipful”, like “blips” on a screen means something exciting.  My edition lacked a full glossary, but I found this website really helpful in deciphering all of this and trying to understand some of the references Hoban makes:  Riddley Walker Annotations.   Some editions of the book (like this one in the picture from Goodreads) actually have a glossary.  It’s not that the language is too difficult, you get used to it, but passages such as this — from a critical point in the novel when Riddley and a government “hevvy,” Goodparley, have a difference of opinion about the use of “yellerboy” (sulfur) do take some deciphering:

“Goodparley said, ‘Watch how he does it Riddley,’

I said, ‘I don’t want to know.’

He said, ‘Eusas sake be you simpl or what?  The way thingsre going it looks like every 1 in Inlands after the yellerboy and the knowing of what to do with it.  Somewl have 1 and somewl have the other and somewl have the boath.  And them what dont have nothing theywl be out of it.'”

Goodparley’s insistence on using the sulfur leads to an explosive climax for the novel.  I was left haunted by Riddley Walker and I wanted to know more about what happened to him, and his world.  Hoban’s message, that the only power is no power is as relevant now in 2016 as it was in 1980.  It is also as ignored.


American Gods

amgodsAmerican Gods

Neil Gaiman

2011.  I attempted to read:  the author’s “preferred text” or Tenth Anniversary Edition, comprising 541 pages — complete with postscripts, acknowledgements, and appendix.

Guardian 1,000 Novels: Science Fiction.

Okay, I made it to page 285.

I will freely admit I have no idea of what this book was about or what Gaiman was trying to tell us.  Can I change the focus of this blog to be Guardian 1,000 novels I attempt to read?  If I give them an honest try?

Because I will state that I certainly tried with this book.  I slogged through it.  I thought about it when I wasn’t trying to read it.  It haunted me a bit when I dropped asleep after plodding through a couple of pages at bed time.

What I got out of it was this:  the people who came to America — or were forced to come to America — brought their gods with them.  Or perhaps, the gods followed the people.  So, Odin (Mr. Wednesday, get it?), Thunderbird, the Easter bunny, Anansi, and all their ilk are still with us and they are sad and unhappy that they are no longer worshiped as is their due.  A human being, Shadow, who just got out of prison is hired by Wednesday to be a kind of body guard and bouncer.  Shadow has his own troubles seeing that his beloved wife, Laura, died just as he was released from prison.  Unfortunately, Laura keeps coming back from the dead to communicate with and try to help Shadow.  For there is a war of some kind brewing between the gods, or the forces of whatever.  And somehow this is about America…..

And that’s it for me.  I found this book unpleasant, unsettling and worse of all — boring.  I also know by now that a spot on the Guardian list is no assurance that I will enjoy it.  But life is too short, and the Guardian list too long for me to stay stuck on one book — no matter the accolades it has received.  Did anyone else out there love this one?  What did it say to you?


Northline by Willy Vlautin


Willy Vlautin

2008.  Harper Perennial.  Paperback edition includes Insights, Interview with author and limited edition CD soundtrack written and performed by Willy Vlautin and Paul Brainard.  192 pgs.

Other titles I’ve read by Vlautin:  The Free and Lean on Pete.  These two books are completely awesome; I may blog about them someday.  After reading them I’ve been keeping an eye out for another opportunity to read something else by Vlautin and Northline ended up being it.

It’s hard to describe Vlautin’s work — his spare, clean prose is one element that is distinctive.  Vlautin doesn’t create a world for you as much as he actually drops you in the middle of one.  And what a world — the dingy and sometimes dangerous world inhabited by the lower class and working poor of the American West.   Skinheads, alcoholic waitresses, disabled vets — these are the detritus blown in by the desert winds.

In Northline, Allison Johnson is an unlikely hero who trades Las Vegas and an abusive relationship for Reno and a long stumbling struggle towards something close to redemption.  Along the way she meets with danger, much darkness — and  the random kindnesses of strangers.  Allison draws strength and stability from her imaginary friendship with Paul Newman — whose good counsel often springs from the story lines of the characters he has portrayed.  It’s not as strange a mentorship as it sounds — as Allison has a desperate need for any strength and guidance she can find — and who’s to say that a make-believe conversation with an American film icon isn’t as worthy a devotion as that made before any saint or guru?  Gradually, Allison’s life re-directs — sometimes in steps as simple as taking one less drink, struggling to get up in the morning, and taking a tentative chance on love.

I loved this book.

This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license

Nick Ares from Auburn, CA, United States. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license


Lots of reading; not much blogging….2014/2015 update

Hey, dear readers!  Yes, I just thought I would step away for a few minutes and then, wow!  It has turned into a four month hiatus.

But Livritome was never far from my thoughts.  I love my blog home and I’m now dashing around, opening the windows and brushing off the cobwebs.

I’ll admit that I’ve been struggling through a dry spell in my Guardian list reading.  I was doing well, spending the last part of October and early November finishing up the E.M Forster titles with A Passage to Indiapassagetoindia.  I enjoyed it, but didn’t find it as accessible as a some of his others, especially, Howards End.  I didn’t like many of the characters, and the brutality of the racism and hatred was so oppressive that I couldn’t work out a message I could walk away with.  The point seemed to be the complete random tragedy of stupid people who are careless with others’ lives.  I was lost by the spiritual aspects of the book as well.  So, not really a book for me, though I thought about it for quite a while afterwards.

I immediately jumped into another Guardian title, Riddle of the Sands.  I chose this one randomly from the list and was excited by the possibility of another book I would love that I didn’t know about before following the Guardian list.

mysteryUnfortunately, this didn’t work out.  I’ve been struggling with this book for weeks and have repeatedly crept away to read other, more interesting things….and I think I am about to hoist the white flag and declare surrender and not finish this book.

I know this is supposed to be the first spy novel, and I know this book inspired a young Winston Churchill to do everything he could to build up the English navy, and I’ve even read up on the author, Erskine Childers, who was a pretty fascinating and complex guy.  But every time I open this novel I feel like I am as fogged in as the two main characters out there, snooping-around in their yacht on the German coast.

Sad.  My first DNF for a Guardian title.

So, what else have I been reading?  Tons.

redqueenI lapped up Phillipa Gregory’s the Red Queen.  Phillipa’s always got some sort of trilogy or series or something going on with English royalty — goodness this lady is inexhaustible.  The Red Queen was about Margaret Beaufort, a true nut-case if this book is at all factual and the mother of the Tudor dynasty.  Guilty pleasure stuff — break out the chocolates.


I’ve also been feeding my love of medical history with two books, one a relative light weight and the other a superb book —

InfluenzaInfluenza 1918 was a quick read that could have used a better editor — had some repetitions throughout.  Because the 1918 epidemic is a personal obsession, I know that this book was written to accompany the PBS documentary on the same subject.  So, some illusions to individuals that seem strange in a stand alone book work when you know they were highlighted as “personal interest” stories in the documentary.  But if you hadn’t seen the documentary I don’t know how this would work for you.

GhostRegarding another epidemic, this one a cholera outbreak that decimated a London neighborhood in the mid-1800’s was Steven Johnson’s Ghost Map.  This is simply one of the finest books I’ve read in some time.  It’s about a brilliant doctor, John Snow, who makes a connection between cholera and contaminated water — well before germ theory.  Snow was a fantastic, original thinker and maybe the first person who used data and visualization to convince policy makers that action was needed.  His famous “ghost map” (I’ve actually seen a copy at the Walters Gallery in Baltimore Md!!!!) was a depiction of the deaths at each address and their relationship to a local pump.  But this book is about much more — it focuses on cities and what makes them livable or not.  It is also about social networks and what makes one person drink from a pump here (or live here, or have these friends but not others….) or not.  Fascinating stuff.

DissolutionI’ve discovered two mystery writers I’ve enjoyed — one is C. J. Sansom, who writes about Tudor England and whose protagonist is a hunchbacked lawyer who works for Thomas Cromwell.  The first one is about the dissolution of the abbeys and religious houses during Henry VIII’s reign and is called, appropriately, Dissolution.  A bit lengthy but good enough for me to want to check out the next title in the series.

WoodsA good friend turned me onto Tana French and her police procedurals set in present day Dublin.   The first one, In the Woods centers around the killing of a young girl in the same vicinity where two young children disappeared about 15 years earlier.  The investigative team that sets out to solve the murder have as many secrets and mysteries themselves as the murder they are trying to solve.  Very well written, with compelling characters and some dark twists.  Yes, I’ll be back for more.

Ok, that’s it for now.  Thanks for sticking with Livritome!

Murky Moonlight: Moonlight Palace by Liz Rosenberg

moonlightMoonlight Palace

Liz Rosenberg

2014.  I read a Kindle edition.  176 pgs.

Other books I’ve read by Rosenberg:  none.  According to Goodreads, Rosenberg is a poet and author of childrens’ books.  I think this latter occupation is demonstrated in Moonlight; I was not quite sure if this was supposed to be a YA book, or adult historical fiction.  The conflict between the two genres results in a bit of discomfort, for me at least.

I wanted a quick break from my Guardian list reading and thought Moonlight Palace looked awesome.  Who could resist:  “a coming of age tale rich with historical detail … set against the backdrop of dazzling 1920s Singapore“?  Except Moonlight Palace doesn’t pull it off.

Moonlight Palace focuses on young Agnes Hussein, a descendent of the sultan who sold Singapore to the British in 1819.  It is now 1920s-something and Agnes lives in the Kampong Glam palace with a colorful crew of family members, boarders and servants.  But the glory days of the sultanate are long over and the little group lives in genteel poverty with the decrepit palace crumbling over their heads.  Agnes’ parents died in the 1918 flu pandemic and she is being brought up by her grandparents and uncle.  One of her relatives, Uncle Chachi, is the last living male heir of the sultanate.  To make matters worse, the whole legal premise behind the Hussein family’s residence in the palace is tenuous — and will certainly be more so when Uncle Chachi passes away.  The palace is actually owned by the British government.

The palace in the book is quite real.  Here is the restored building:  Malay Heritage Centre, Istana Kampong Glam 3, Dec 05CC BY-SA 3.0

The palace in the book is quite real. Here is the restored building: Malay Heritage Centre, Istana Kampong Glam 3, Dec 05 CC BY-SA 3.0 Source:

Emerging from childhood, plucky Agnes’ goal is to preserve her palace and keep her little band of misfits, aunties and grandpas together.  Picture A Tree Grows in Brooklyn set in Singapore.  To this end, Agnes forges ahead as a modern woman, taking on various odd jobs to make money, and encountering dark forces that want to take the palace away, political upheavals and other challenges.

The problem is, so much of the plot is murky and confused.  The book touches on the ramifications of the Chinese revolution, but in just a glancing way.  Conflict between Muslims and Hindus are referred to, but I didn’t understand the significance.  The forces that seemed gathering to take the palace away from the Hussein family weren’t explained — was it the British friend of the family?  Unfortunately, I didn’t see much of the “dazzling 1920s Singapore” in the book, at all.  Major characters, such as one of Agnes’ interesting employers, appear and then disappear.  Some characters are very thinly drawn, indeed.  In all, the moonlight obscures, rather than illuminates.

One bright point, I love adorable elderly characters — spunky aunties, lovable uncles and noble grandpas — and Moonlight Palace is stocked full of them.  I wish that Rosenberg had focused more on their interesting histories rather than on Agnes’.  I think that could have made the entire book stronger.

In sum, a murky moonlight palace I’ll soon forget, unfortunately.


Mon ami, Poirot: The Mysterious Affair at Styles

StylesThe Mysterious Affair at Styles

Agatha Christie

Originally published, 1920.  I read a Bantam Books paperback, printed around 1976 (cost $1.75 at that time!).  182 pgs.

Guardian 1,000 novels.  Crime Titles.

Other books I’ve read by Christie:  And Then There Were None, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.

It’s hard to imagine a world without Hercule Poirot, especially now that I feel I know him a little better.  His rationality, little gray cells, and famous “method” all provide a feeling of safety in the face of the most convoluted, red-herring-ed murder tale.

But Poirot had to be born sometime, and it was in this short novel that Christie introduced him to the world.

It was also Christie’s first published novel.  She wrote it during WWI, while volunteering in a hospital pharmacy.  The novel was supposedly written as the result of a bet to see if she could compose a mystery where the reader would be unable to spot the murderer.  It took Christie five years to find a publisher, and proved to be one of her greatest triumphs; it has never been out of print since 1920.

The novel is set in a great country house, Styles Court, inhabited by the wealthy Cavendish family, their guests and servants.  The domineering, widowed matriarch, Emily, has recently married a much younger man who is beneath her social class.  The misalliance has created a rift in the Cavendish family, many of whom fear the loss of their inheritances.  Then, Emily is poisoned with strychnine — either in her coffee, her evening cocoa, or perhaps in her bedtime tonic.  It’s all incredibly complicated, with dozens of clues, everyone a possible suspect, several medical men with conflicting ideas, lawyers and Scotland Yard on board.

Poirot to the rescue.  Evidently Emily had been responsible for Poirot’s presence in the village:

“…it is by the charity of that good Mrs. Inglethorp that I am here…she had kindly extended hospitality to seven of my countrypeople who, alas, are refugees from their native land.  We Belgians will always remember her gratitude.”

But Poirot is no mere refugee — he is “one of the most celebrated members of the Belgian police” — readily identified by young Mr. Hastings, who is recovering from war wounds at Styles Court.  Out of loyalty and gratitude to Emily, Poirot sets out to find her killer.  In his turn, Hastings becomes a kind of factotum and companion to Poirot, and is basically our stand in.  Whenever the mystery becomes incredibly complex and confusing, Hastings voices the readers’ frustration to Poirot:

“I was hardly as clear as I could wish.  I repeated myself several times, and occasionally had to go back to some detail that I had forgotten.  Poirot smiled kindly on me.

“The mind is confused? Is it not so?  Take time, mon ami.  You are agitated, you are excited–it is but natural.  Presently, when we are calmer, we will arrange the facts, neatly, each in his proper place…..”

I have to confess that at times I appreciated, rather than enjoyed, The Mysterious Affair at Styles.  I found many of the characters thinly drawn, almost chess pieces moved around on a huge board by a master hand.  Or sometimes I felt like I was inside a puzzle square — the kind you try to move tiles around in a particular order, but are thwarted because you can only move them in particular directions.  If Miss Cavendish was in the library with the cocoa cup at 9:30 then she couldn’t have been the person to burn the incriminating letter in the billiard room at that time, and so forth.

But the characters of Poirot and Hastings are endearing and real.  Poirot is the meticulous detector of truth and lies and Hastings is us, stumbling behind and trying to understand what is going on.  I wonder if Christie came up with these characters and formula in response to the Great War.  Did she feel a need to bring order and meaning to the destruction of a genteel, ordered way of life enjoyed by the English upper class before WWI?  For Poirot soothes the confused, horrified Hastings who represents that class and is reeling from a horrific crime — not necessarily the death of Emily Cavendish-Inglethrop — but a much larger horror.

And no, I wasn’t able to spot the murderer.  Of course we have to leave that to Poirot.


Christie’s Best: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

RogerThe Murder of Roger Ackroyd

Agatha Christie

Originally published in 1926.  I read a Pocket Books Mystery edition printed around 1986.  255 pgs including list of characters.

Guardian 1,000 Novels:  Crime Titles

Other books I’ve read by Christie:  And Then There Were None, one of the creepiest books I’ve ever read.

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was named the “best crime novel ever written” in 2013 by the members of the Crime Writers Association — a group of professional crime authors.

Christie published the story in 1926.  It features one of her most famous characters, Belgian detective Hercule Poirot.  Christie had introduced Poirot only six years earlier, in another Guardian 1,000 title:  The Mysterious Affair at Styles.

The story seems almost formulaic:  the picturesque English village stocked with  characters we all know by now:  the village doctor, the wealthy land owner, butlers, maids, the playboy and the ingenue.  A wealthy widow, Mrs. Ferrars, is tormented by rumors that she poisoned her husband.  She commits suicide, but not before sending an important letter to her fiance, Roger Ackroyd.  Ackroyd calls his friend, village doctor, James Sheppard, and asks him to come over to Ackroyd’s estate near the village to discuss the matter.  Once Sheppard arrives, Ackroyd admits that Mrs. Ferrars was being blackmailed by someone, but doesn’t say who.   Sheppard returns to his own home, uneasy at his friend’s revelation, and discusses the situation with his gossipy spinster sister, Caroline.  The phone rings and Sheppard answers it, then dashes away — telling his sister that Ackroyd’s butler had just discovered him murdered.

Strangely, when Sheppard get to the house, the butler says he had not telephoned.  Sheppard and the butler run to Ackroyd’s study and have to bash the locked door to get in.  Indeed, inside is Ackroyd, stabbed to death with a curio-handled, but razor sharp dagger.  A window is open and foot prints are outside in the dirt.  A chair has been pulled forward in a strange way.

Detail after detail is revealed in this strange tale, including the descriptions and motivations of all of Ackroyd’s family and guests — many of whom have a reason for killing him.  Most suspect is Ackroyd’s heir, young, broke, and feckless Ralph Paton, who looks even guiltier when he goes into hiding.  It is Paton’s footprints that are found outside the window.

The case seems clear-cut.  But this is a murder mystery so you know the most obvious suspect can’t have done it.  Compounding this fact is a whole catalog of mysterious clues:  a discarded wedding ring with the initial “R”, a strange man spotted near the estate gates the night of the murder, a parlor maid who seems to have ideas above her station, the mysterious call to Dr. Sheppard and the convoluted stories concerning all the people who would have benefited by Roger Ackroyd’s death.

Luckily, Hercule Poirot has happened to retire to the village, and his reputation as a master detective in the Belgian police force prompts Ackroyd’s niece to enlist his help.  This ruffles the bumbling English police on the case, but they relax somewhat when Poirot reveals he wants none of the credit for solving the case.  With this framework established, Poirot begins to investigate, assisted by Dr. Sheppard, who begins writing a diary of all developments in the case.  In addition to getting to the bottom of his friend’s murder, Sheppard has another motivation for helping Poirot with the case:

“I felt the pressure of his hand on my arm, and he added in a low tone:  ‘Do you really wish to aid me?  To take part in this investigation?’

“Yes indeed,” I said eagerly.  ‘There’s nothing I should like better.  You don’t know what a dull old fogey’s life I lead.  Never anything out of the ordinary.”

In assisting Poirot, Sheppard not only narrates the story, but continues his extensive documentation of the case as the two of them dig further into the facts and the hearts of everyone who knew Roger Ackroyd.  Poirot’s famous “method” of using his “little gray cells,” is put through its paces as facts are sifted, organized,  saved or discarded.  And Dr. Sheppard, as it turns out, is certainly saved from his fate of living a dull old fogey’s life.


Today’s readers enjoy twisted, shocking endings.  But when Christie published this story in 1926, crime novelists hadn’t fully adopted this technique and her masterful, but chilling ending to the story took many by surprise and sparked  controversy and criticism.  Because as methodical Poirot pulls the threads of the story together, the reader realizes that it is the narrator, gentle and low-keyed Dr. Sheppard who is the brutal murderer.  Having lived in the company of the murderer through the entire book without realizing it feels as shocking today as it must have been to the 1926 audiences who read it for the first time.

In the final interview, Poirot gives Sheppard the choice:  confess or find another way out, perhaps similar to the one Mrs. Ferrars — whom the doctor had been blackmailing — had chosen.  The book concludes with a final chapter where Sheppard finishes his book, and speaks directly to the reader to clear up all the final questions we’ve had.  We also learn that when his tale is finished, the good doctor will take the same poison his blackmailing victim chose.  We realize that the story Dr. Sheppard has been writing will become the narrative of Poirot’s greatest triumph, and not the story of a failed investigation, as Sheppard had hoped.

As it turns out, the story is one of Agatha Christie’s greatest triumphs, too.

‘Understand this, I mean to arrive at the truth.  The truth, however ugly in itself, is always curious and beautiful to the seeker after it.’ — Hercule Poirot.”