Summary: Chapter 1: Dr. Sheppard at the Breakfast Table

On the morning of September 17, Dr. James Sheppard arrives home in a state of agitation from an early morning emergency police call to King’s Paddock, the home of Mrs. Ferrars, where he was summoned to give the time and manner of her death. He puts the time of death in the overnight hours of September 16–17 and the cause as an overdose of veronal, a barbiturate sleep aid. Dr. Sheppard’s sister, Caroline, with whom he lives, has already gotten the news of the death from the milkman, who heard the news from Mrs. Ferrars’s cook and parlormaid, Annie. Caroline theorizes that Mrs. Ferrars committed suicide out of remorse for having poisoned her husband Ashley Ferrars a year prior. Dr. Sheppard tries to discourage his sister’s speculations while secretly sharing her suspicions.

Summary: Chapter 2: Who’s Who in King’s Abbot

Dr. Sheppard introduces his fellow residents of the town of King’s Abbot. Its most prominent citizen, the wealthy widower Roger Ackroyd, lives at the house named Fernly Park with his late brother Cecil’s widow, Mrs. Ackroyd, and her daughter, Flora Ackroyd. Twenty-five years prior, Roger had married a widow by the name of Paton, who had a son, Ralph Paton. Roger’s wife died of alcoholism four years later, leaving Roger to raise Ralph, who is now twenty-five years old. 

The Ferrars had only lived in the King’s Paddock house a few months when Ashley Ferrars, a notorious drunkard, died. Caroline asserts that Mrs. Ferrars poisoned him, but Dr. Sheppard reminds her that he ruled the cause of death as acute gastritis while privately reflecting that Ashley’s symptoms were similar to arsenic poisoning. Roger Ackroyd and Mrs. Ferrars developed a relationship that the town expected was heading toward marriage despite Roger’s housekeeper, Miss Russell, having made herself indispensable for the past five years. 

Dr. Sheppard ponders the official ruling he must make on Mrs. Ferrars’s cause of death—suicide or murder. He last recollects seeing her in an intense conversation with Ralph Paton. Roger tells Dr. Sheppard he has an urgent need to speak with him, but it’s not about Ralph, whom he believes is in London. A local busybody, Miss Gannett, claims to have proof that Roger and Mrs. Ferrars were engaged. Miss Russell visits Dr. Sheppard’s office and asks him questions about cures for a cocaine habit as well as poisons that are indetectable.

Summary: Chapter 3: The Man Who Grew Vegetable Marrows

At lunchtime on September 17, Caroline tells Dr. Sheppard that Ralph Paton arrived in King’s Abbot the morning of September 16 and is staying at the Three Boars inn rather than at Fernly Park with his stepfather, Roger. Dr. Sheppard meets their next-door neighbor, a Mr. Porrott, who apologizes for throwing a marrow squash over the fence in a fit of frustration. In the course of their conversation, Mr. Porrott reveals a friendship with Roger Ackroyd dating back to Mr. Porrott’s former work, a profession that he prefers remain unknown. Mr. Porrott passes on Roger’s news that Ralph and Flora Ackroyd are engaged. 

Later, Caroline arrives home from town, where she had run into Roger and told him Ralph was staying at the Three Boars. She also recounts having overheard Ralph and a woman discussing Ralph’s inheritance and Ralph expressing concern that his stepfather, Roger, is considering cutting him out of his will. Dr. Sheppard goes to the Three Boars to visit Ralph, who confides that he’s in a dilemma that no one but he can resolve.

Analysis: Chapters 1–3

The conversation between Dr. Sheppard and Caroline in Chapter 1 introduces a central theme of the novel: the value of raw information and the ability to interpret it correctly. Caroline understands how valuable—and powerful—information can be. She makes it her business to collect and spread information in King’s Abbot, and though this proclivity annoys Dr. Sheppard to no end he nonetheless marvels at her ability. When Caroline states her theory about the demise of Mr. and Mrs. Ferrars, Dr. Sheppard calls it “nonsense.” Privately he reveals that he is inclined to believe Caroline’s theory but disapproves of how she has arrived at it, calling it “inspired guesswork.” Dr. Sheppard’s narration here implies a distinction between information and truth: these are not the same, and to find the truth, a person must gather information and correctly interpret it.

Dr. Sheppard jokes that the main recreational activity in King’s Abbot can be summed up as “gossip,” and despite his professed distaste for it, he nevertheless goes on to describe the “halo of gossip” surrounding King Abbot’s most important resident, Roger Ackroyd. The novel’s title foreshadows that Ackroyd will be murdered, which casts an ominous light on the gossip surrounding Ackroyd’s family and acquaintances. The talk of poisons, secret conversations, and the implication that there are any number of people who might be glad to see the last of Roger Ackroyd is not subtle. At the same time, Sheppard states that Ackroyd is “the life and soul” of King’s Abbot, which adds poignancy to the intrigue.

The information comes thick and fast in these early chapters, creating an increasing need for interpretation. It’s a dizzying narrative, highlighted by Dr. Sheppard and Caroline’s discussion of the latest gossip in Chapter 3. It is therefore the perfect time to be introduced to the man whose business it is to gather information and find the truth through interpretation, Mr. Hercule Poirot. Very little is known about Mr. Poirot, exemplified by the villagers even getting his name wrong (“Mr. Porrot”). But Mr. Poirot is happy to “remain incognito,” hinting that he is the type of person who, like Caroline, understands the value and power of information. At the same time, Mr. Poirot is curious about the local gossip, and it is perhaps no coincidence that he has decided to live next door to the town’s most prolific purveyor of information about the goings on in King’s Abbot. This theme of the power of information surfaces throughout the novel as Poirot attempts to root out deliberate misinformation (lies) as well as the deliberate withholding of key pieces of information by various suspects.