Oh my god, an Agatha Christie novel I’ve never read before! I can’t claim to have equally strong recollections of all the Christie books I read as a teenager, but Ordeal by Innocence was a genuine blank spot, since somehow it avoided my collecting zeal. Of course, I couldn’t resist trying to figure out the mystery; while I did guess the identity of the murderer before the final reveal, it was probably too late into the book to feel smug about.
This one is yet another Christie novel revolving around a large dysfunctional family. It begins with the perspective of an outsider, Dr Arthur Calgary, who travels to the home of Argyle family to deliver some startling news. Two years before, Jack “Jacko” Argyle was convicted for the murder of his mother and sent to prison despite protesting his innocence, where he died of pneumonia only six months into serving a life sentence. It turns out that Dr Calgary was the missing iron-clad alibi for Jacko, but tragically couldn’t provide it at the time because of a rather complicated story involving concussion, amnesia and a research trip to Antarctica (not the most elegant of Christie’s setups, but nevermind). Now, driven by a guilty conscience and strong sense of justice, he wants to clear the young man’s name, and personally reassure Jacko’s family of his innocence.
To Dr Calgary’s surprise and dismay, the cold reaction of the Argyle family is nothing like he’s expected, and it takes him a few chapters to understand why. He learns that the circumstances of the murder made it almost impossible for anyone but close family to commit the crime, and it secretly suited everyone that it should be the obvious, no-good black sheep who did it. Now that he’s absolved and the police are re-opening the case, the family is engulfed by tensions, mistrust and paranoia. It also becomes clear that the late Mrs Argyle was resented by her family more deeply than her do-gooder reputation would have one believe, and that there are some deep, dark undercurrents in the family dynamics.
As I mentioned, I did figure out the real murderer and their motive after some crucial information was revealed close to the end, but until then I was hopelessly outmaneuvered by Dame Agatha’s clever red herrings. As is often the case with cold case stories, there’s little actual investigation and greater emphasis on the characters’ psychology and memories. Despite the strong introduction for Dr Calgary, there’s no clear protagonist, with the book shifting between various points of view, and another member of the family taking up an investigation of their own. The novel does a good job with characterisation, and touches on themes of adoption, nature vs nurture, blood ties and what it means to be a good parent. Ordeal by Innocence won’t bother my top Christie novels list, but I’m still glad that I finally caught up with it.