Ordeal by Innocence (1958) by Agatha Christie

First re-read of the month and one that has been on the cards for a while. After all I thought it would be nice to go back to the genuine article after what occurred earlier this year.

Dr Arthur Calgary opens the story with the unpleasant task of going to Sunny Point to tell the Argyle family that Jack Argyle did not murder his adopted mother Rachel. Calgary was unable to provide his testimony at the time of the trial due to concussion, memory loss and a trip to the Antarctic as part of a scientific expedition. The case may well have all been done and dusted, Jack having died due to catching pneumonia in prison, but Calgary’s testimony abruptly opens the matter up again, leaving a darkening cloud of suspicion hanging over the other family members, who once more become suspects. This suspicion has a massive impact on the group who are a mixture of wanting to know who did it and wanting to avoid anything to do with it at all. The truth in this case would set them free but will it also put their own lives in danger?

Overall Thoughts

I appreciate that there are lots of reviews out there on this book. It is a Christie after all, so I have no aspirations for reinventing the wheel or coming up with some completely revolutionary take on this one. However I thought I would share some of the things I noticed this time round, as there were quite a few details I had completely forgotten. Yes I sure know how to sell a blog review…

One of the big things I took from this read is a theme that I think gets a little overlooked in comparison to the more overt issue of justice and innocence, yet it is one which affects so many of the characters. So what is this theme that everyone probably already knows about? Well it’s hard to encapsulate in 2-3 words, but it is the problem of when you set out to do something, even if that something is good and kind, yet never materialises, misfires or completely blows up in your face. Or maybe I can sum it up a little better: when fairy tales don’t come true. It happens to the killer, it happens to Hester and Mary two of the adopted children, it happens to Rachel’s husband Leo in how he thought his marriage was going to work out and most of all it happens to Rachel herself. Doctor Calgary at the start of the story on first seeing Sunny Point, thinks that they ‘should have built a castle here […] an impossible, ridiculous, fairy tale castle. The sort of castle that might be made of gingerbread or of frosted sugar. Instead there was good taste, restraint, moderation, plenty of money and absolutely no imagination.’ This passage really stuck with me as I think that Rachel Argyle had desperately tried to create and live out her own fairy tale, of being the perfect mother who can help children with a poor start in life. Yet as the story goes on we see that it was highly unsuccessful, breeding ingratitude, resentment and bitterness. A sense of over-managing her dream is suggested as part of this problem, which made the description of Sunny point as looking like ‘an expensive nursing home,’ quite apt.

Given Christie’s love of literary allusions it surprised me that she didn’t make reference to Robert Burns’ 1785 poem, ‘To a Mouse, on Turning Her Up in Her Nest, with the Plough’, which has the famous line of human plans going awry. Yet Christie does make use of a number of other allusions. The book of Job is the most dominant one, appearing in an opening quotation and in Calgary’s summing up. The former of these I felt was less straight forward than when I first read it. The opening quotation is: ‘If I justify myself, mine own mouth shall condemn me. I am afraid of all my sorrows. I know that Thou wilt not hold me innocent.’ Half way through my read I pondered whether this was in reference to the surviving suspects, who fear their innocence will not be believed, yet initially my thoughts went in a completely different direction, as I felt it had more to do with Jack. His glib alibi, his attempt to ‘justify’ or prove himself innocent badly goes wrong, very much condemning himself when the police can’t verify it. But at the same time it felt a little odd to paralleling Jack’s suffering and miscarriage of justice with the likes of Job, as Jack is no Job funnily enough. Although maybe that was the point Christie was trying to make, that justice can’t just be for those seem to deserve it. I could be wrong but it seems like Christie turned to the Old Testament a lot more in her later novels when it came to exploring the nature of justice, the Amos quote of Nemesis coming to mind.

One of the other themes I really enjoy in this book is the idea of goodness being made into a vice, with this invariably occurring due to the original less than golden motivations behind the act of kindness in the first place. So I feel this is a story which looks at motivation in a much wider sense than simply who had the motive for the murder. The motivation behind love and parenting are the two main areas this wider consideration is given to and I found it interesting that this tale was advocating parents provide a healthy dose of neglect to their children. I am left wondering how much of Christie’s own opinions on this issue are interwoven in to the novel, how much she may have been questioning or reviewing her own parenting.

But on to the characters. Well it was a breath of fresh air getting back to the original character of Doctor Calgary as Christie intended, as unfortunately in my opinion he was badly mangled earlier this year. When we first come across him he is a little unnerved and distressed, but then so would anyone be if they had to tell what he had to tell, yet he is not mentally unwell and his story is never in doubt. This makes a huge difference to the subsequent direction and tone of the plot. In case you’ve only seen this year’s TV adaptation no Doctor Calgary did not spend any time in an asylum.

Philip Durrant also caught my attention. He is not the nicest of people, there is a malicious edge to him, yet there is so much more to him than that. He weirdly reminded me of Miss Marple, as his paralysis forces him into people watching and analysing them. Yet where he goes wrong is the way he then tries to use the information he uncovers about people. His experiments and traps become another fairy tale that doesn’t quite work out. In the book Christie gives us a number of conversations he has with his wife, which open up the problems their marriage has. There are clashes, moments of pain, yet I think Christie likes to leave us with the idea that there is still some mutual love left underneath it all.

As the story shifts into focusing on the suspects we get to see the myriad of ways they cope or respond to the loss of their safe culprit, i.e. Jack and I really enjoyed this aspect of the plot. Michael, another of the adopted children particularly caught my eye in this respect, as the re-opening of the case sees him facing a number of uncomfortable home truths, especially the ingratitude he had felt. It is fitting that one of the other significant allusions of the story is from King Lear, ‘for sharper than a serpent’s tooth,’ which comes from the original line, ‘how sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child.’ In keeping with play, the child who was probably the most grateful, the most thankful, Tina, is the one which probably didn’t get all that much attention from Rachel.

Given the nature of the plot I think Christie provides an unusual yet mostly satisfying structure to this cold case. The story moves from outside views of the situation, such as those by Calgary, another local doctor and a solicitor looking in on the family to the inside view, of the suspects looking at the situation and each other. This transition works well and gets Christie around the issue of having to launch a full on conventional police or amateur sleuth investigation. There is a bit of such investigations here and there but the truth of the matter lies in the conversations the suspects have. I don’t think Christie pulls this off 100%, as the ending is a bit abrupt, but overall I think this is a really good read and definitely defies stereotypical views of Christie’s work.

Rating: 4.5/5

Just the Facts Ma’am (Gold Card): Historical Crime

6 comments

  1. Loved reading this revisitation as you notice some thematic choices that had passed me by when I read it. I do agree that it is interesting to see how the loss of certainty affects each of these characters. I don’t think it is entirely successful (particularly as a detective story) but it is interesting and thought-provoking. Much like this post!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks! It’s always tricky reviewing such a well known book, as you feel like what is there left to say? It’s no conventional detective novel, but I think Christie’s characters and concepts manage to outweigh its weaknesses.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Excellent and interesting review of the book, Kate. I think you uncovered some of the deeper themes in the book. I certainly enjoyed “Ordeal” when I read it earlier this year, and I think you helped me understand why I reacted to some of those themes as I did. Your reviews are always worth reading – thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Oh good, someone else likes this book. While I’m not as familiar with Christie’s work as I should be, this is one of the best I’ve read so far. Shame the central mystery is a tad weak and the romance is a bit forced. But I enjoy it.

    Liked by 1 person

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