Ordeal by Innocence by Agatha Christie

Old Author October continues with one of the oldest authors, for me, namely Dame Agatha Christie, the author who may not have introduced me to the detective novel, but certainly the author who convinced me to stay. And one of the nicest things to come out of this blog is the reminder that I never actually completed her back catalogue. There are even some Poirot novels (three – Sad Cypress, The Mystery Of The Blue Train and The Big Four) that I never got round to, but the majority of the unread books are the non-series ones, such as this one.

The Argyle clan was a strange one – the sort found only in classic detective fiction. Leo and Rachael Argyle had adopted a bevy of waifs and strays, only for the most disturbed of the family, Jacko, to apparently smash his adoptive mother’s head in with a poker. He insisted he had an alibi – namely a stranger was giving him a lift in his car – but that stranger could never be found, and Jacko died in his prison cell.

Jump forward two years, and enter Dr Arthur Calgary. A combination of amnesia and a trip to the Arctic meant that only now does he come to the house to reveal that he was that stranger – Jacko was innocent. But now each member of the family views the rest with suspicion – because if it wasn’t Jacko, then which of them is a murderer?

Interesting one, this. Given the rather constrained set-up of the novel, there’s not much Christie can do to make the solution clever. We see most of the action from one of the characters’ point of view and this character changes with every chapter. It’s a style that has been repeated – most recently for me with The Murder Quadrille by Fidelis Morgan and The Tolls of Death by Michael Jecks – and it has its problems. The first and foremost is, if you get inside the murderer’s head, then surely they must be thinking “Gosh, hope no-one finds out it was me” all of the time. All three authors have different solutions to this problem – Morgan’s book is more of a “what’s going on” mystery and as such, dodges the issue. Jecks addresses it by what I still consider a massive cheat by giving an unconvincing reason why the character doesn’t think that way. Christie picks the third choice by, while visiting all of her characters at least once, being selective with what some of them are thinking about. Needless to say, the characters that you spend more time with become less and less likely to be the killer.

Having said that, Christie does pull something extra out with part of the solution, but even then, it’s pretty guessable and one does have to question why one character (at least) would have kept quiet for so long. Add in a couple of unconvincing romances, and it’s not Christie’s strongest book by any means.

But… I can’t deny for a book where not a lot happens, this was an enjoyable read, despite its flaws. Indeed, it’s certainly better than Endless Night and doesn’t cheat like The Sittaford Mystery, so I rather think that this one is recommended. Just read the good Poirots and Marples first.

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About Puzzle Doctor

I'm a mathematician by nature and as such have always been drawn to the logical side of things. Hence my two main hobbies being classic mysteries and logical puzzling. Oh, and cats. No logic there, I'm afraid.
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8 Responses to Ordeal by Innocence by Agatha Christie

  1. This one was one of her personal favourites, for whatever that is worth (the ‘trust the book, not the author’ maxim is pretty sound most of the time I find). I quite like this one but I agree really, it’s not her best (though I still mantain that ENDLESS NIGHT is superior late Christie).

    • Not sure why she should like it so much – it’s fine, but it full of some of her cliches – the unconvincing romance for example, and some very odd characters. The trick is played well with limited resources so maybe that’s it?

      And the less said about Endless Night, the better. Let’s not start up that again…

  2. Sarah says:

    Gosh, I haven’t read ‘Ordeal by Innocence’ for years. But I remember enjoying the book as a teenager. Not wishing to inflame what is clearly a long running debate, I don’t like Endless Night either ;-)

  3. Pingback: The Puzzly – The ISOTCMN Book of the Month – October 2012 | In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel

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