Agatha Christie - Ordeal by Innocence

Another Unshakable Alibi...

Ordeal by Innocence was published in 1958 and was Agatha Christie's 59th novel. It's one of her few books not to feature any of her recurring characters such as Poirot or Colonel Race.

It's 1958, and Jacko Argyle is arrested for brutally bludgeoning his mother to death at home with a poker. Shortly after being sentenced to life imprisonment, he dies of pneumonia. The family, who were also at home at the time of the murder, are shaken, but don't doubt his guilt. Jacko's claims of an alibi at the time were never corrobated. Until, two years later, the man who claims to have picked him up on an empty road and given him a lift, comes forward...

The plot used in this book, that of someone investigating a murder that happened years before, is a common theme in Christie's books. She used it most effectively in Five Little Pigs (1943) when Poirot investigates the death of a painter sixteen years previously. Each chapter is devoted to interviewing a witness or person connected with the case, followed by each of their written statements and finally Poirot's revealing of the solution. The theme cropped up again in one of her last novels, Elephants can Remember (1972) but with less success, as Poirot and Mrs Oliver (a novelist) spend far too long discussing how useful are people's remembrances from the time of the murder, and not enough on the actual plot.

Ordeal by Innocence falls somewhere in between these two. It doesn't have the well thought out rigid structure of Five little Pigs, but certainly isn't as rambling as Elephants can Remember. The story begins with Doctor Calgary (Jacko's alibi) arriving at Jacko's family home to inform them of his innocence. His announcement is greeted with an air of hostility - they had accepted Jacko's guilt in their minds and were finally moving on, and here was someone raking it up again. And of course, if he didn't do it, perhaps another family member did. So each person becomes more suspicious of the others. Each chapter drifts between the the family interactions and Dr Calgary's investigations. It would have been much more interesting for a chapter to be devoted to Dr Calgary interviewing each of the family members to learn more about them and their thoughts on Jacko Argyle; Calgary starts interviewing some of the peripheral figures of the case, but then disappears for a large chunk of the book.

Dr Calgary isn't the only person investigating the murder. Various other family members do their own detective work. This works against the book - one person never really has all the information they need to work out how it was done, unless everyone gathers to share, and it's a wonder that someone manages to reveal all at the climax.

Each family member is given a possible motive for committing the crime. For example, the husband of the victim was in love with his secretary; the adopted son hated her for taking him away from his real mother; etc etc. Despite the plethora of suspects, a lot of the motives are weak, and it's hard to believe
that they would have committed murder for any of the reasons stated. Because of this, a reader familiar with her work will enjoy it far less than her other novels, where the motives are more clearly defined and believable. If you're a casual reader it might be hard to stick with the book right through to the end.

It's also probably one of the most disappointing denouements that Christie ever wrote. Usually at the end of her novels, the reader is surprised by the identity of the murderer and the method they used to carry it out. The best example of this is in Hercule Poirot's Christmas (1938) where each suspect had an extremely strong motive for killing the victim, only for the book to take a completely unexpected turn at the climax which leaves you totally surprised. Here, that just isn't the case. Although the motive is fine, the identity of the murderer is a letdown, probably because this character doesn't get much depth in the book and seems too much of an obvious suspect throughout. By the end of the book you'll be expecting further revelations that don't come, and you're left with a feeling of 'So what?', which doesn't happen very often with this author's books.

I can't really recommend this - it's not one of Christie's best novels, and she'd done it much better with Five Little Pigs. Buy that one instead.

Advantages: Competent story telling

Disadvantages: Done better before, disappointing denouement

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Agatha Christie - Ordeal by Innocence
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