Creator: Edmund Wilson, influential twentieth-century American critic
Context: This quotation is the title of an article by Edmund Wilson published in “The New Yorker” magazine in 1945. 1
In 1926 the famous mystery writer Agatha Christie published the landmark novel “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd”. The remarkable twist ending has been surprising and delighting readers for more than ninety years. Yet, some arbiters of literary taste are supremely indifferent to the questions posed by tales of this type.
The acerbic critic Edmund Wilson found little value in the entire genre of detective fiction. He wrote a series of three pieces in “The New Yorker” magazine lambasting popular practitioners such as Rex Stout and Dorothy L. Sayers. The second article of the group published in January 1945 was titled “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?” This title clearly referenced Agatha Christie’s story, yet Wilson did not discuss the acclaimed originator of sleuths Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple within the second article.
Wilson did harshly examine the mystery “Death Comes as the End” by Christie in the first “New Yorker” article titled “Why Do People Read Detective Stories?” in October 1944: 2
I did not guess who the murderer was, I was incited to keep on and find out, and when I did finally find out, I was surprised. Yet I did not care for Agatha Christie and I never expect to read another of her books.
. . . her writing is of a mawkishness and banality which seem to me literally impossible to read.
Wilson’s controversial assessment has been embraced by some readers, but it is largely ignored by the vast audience attracted to Christie and other mystery writers.
Acknowledgement: Thanks to the mystery aficionado who asked about this topic.
Image Notes: Reduced-size low-resolution image of book cover for “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd” used for identification. Illustration of fingerprints from OpenClipart-Vectors at Pixabay. Portrait of Edmund Wilson from the NYPL Digital Gallery.
- 1945 January 20, The New Yorker, Books: Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?: A Second Report on Detective Fiction by Edmund Wilson, Start Page 59, Quote Page 59, F. R. Publishing Corporation, New York. (Online New Yorker archive of digital scans) ↩
- 1944 October 14, The New Yorker, Books: Why Do People Read Detective Stories? by Edmund Wilson, Start Page 78, Quote Page 81, Column 2, F. R. Publishing Corporation, New York. (Online New Yorker archive of digital scans) ↩