The Agatha Christie Challenge – Ordeal by Innocence (1958)

Ordeal by InnocenceIn which Jacko Argyle is found guilty of the murder of his mother Rachel and dies in prison before Dr Arthur Calgary can come forward and gives him a cast-iron alibi for the time the crime was committed. The other household members aren’t happy to discover that it wasn’t Jacko who killed Rachel – as it means one of them must have. Calgary takes it on himself to discover the truth. As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, as always, I promise not to reveal whodunit!

Book of JobWhereas Christie’s previous book, 4.50 from Paddington, unusually contains no dedication, Ordeal by Innocence contains both a dedication and an epigraph. The book is dedicated “to Billy Collins, with affection and gratitude”. That’s none other than William Collins himself, Christie’s publisher since the days of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, and whose company would continue to publish her books until her death in 1976 – and indeed beyond (with the unusual exception of The Hound of Death.) The epigraph reads: “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.” These are two verses taken from the book of Job, chapter 9 verses 20 and 28. The book was first published in the UK in two abridged instalments in John Bull magazine in September 1958, and in the US in thirty-six instalments in the Chicago Tribune from February to March 1959, under the title The Innocent. An abridged version of the novel was also published in the 21 February 1959 issue of the Star Weekly Complete Novel, a Toronto newspaper supplement. The full book was first published in the UK by Collins Crime Club on 3rd November 1958, and in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company later in 1959 under the British title.

sing a song of sixpenceMuch has been made of two facts regarding this book. Firstly, many commentators believe that the plotline owes a lot to Christie’s short story Sing a Song of Sixpence that was published 24 years earlier in the collection The Listerdale Mystery. Personally, whilst there might be some overlap, primarily in the which of us did it? area, I don’t really see the enormous link between the two – in fact, I think there is a greater link – certainly as regards the motive – with the novel Appointment with Death. Secondly, in Christie’s own words, this book, along with Crooked House, “satisfied me best”; after a period of reflection, she placed it as one of her few personal favourites.

Sleepy boredThis is definitely a book that splits her fandom, with many people siding with the contemporary reviews at the time, that it was below par for Christie, and others agreeing with more recent reviews that it’s one of her best. I firmly sit with the earlier viewpoint. I found this book very stodgy, very slow, and very disappointing. And, where those who like the book, criticise its ending for stacking up too much action and artifice, I find the ending (along with, to be fair, the beginning) by far its most readable and enjoyable part. Christie set about this book to be a psychological thriller rather than a murder mystery, and for me it simply doesn’t work. After its initial mysterious opening, it quickly falls into dull characterisations and strained conversations, until the arrival of Mickey. His confrontation with Calgary injects some drama into the events, and you think that it’s all going to pick up from this point – but it doesn’t. Instead, there are endless scenes of reflect and retrospection, reminiscences, and recollections, and absolutely no action. There’s a lengthy sequence, for example, where Leo Argyle drones on through what appears to be a full psychological assessment of his marriage. It’s very introverted and, frankly, not at all interesting, although you do feel it’s probably cathartic for him. But that doesn’t make a gripping read for us.

police inspectorIt’s not a question of the book missing a Poirot or a Marple, as it has the perfectly serviceable Superintendent Huish in charge of operations, but Christie makes Huish take a very back seat. I just spent hours and hours reading the thing waiting for something to happen. And on those rare occasions where something does happen, it’s in isolation and is followed by more conversations and introverted wonderings. I can appreciate that Christie might well have wanted to try her hand at a different kind of narrative, a more thoughtful, perhaps cerebral book. But the outcome is one of sheer tedium* (*with exceptions).

sunnyThe exceptions are the intensely mysterious and unnerving start, where Dr Calgary drums up the courage to visit the ironically named Sunny Point house, with no understanding of where he fits in to the unfolding drama of the household; and the final twenty pages or so which involve another murder, an attempted murder, the surprise unveiling of the murderer and the explanation of how the whole thing came about. But the morass of pages in between is, I’m afraid, hard work. The retrospective nature of the narration acts as a distancing agent, as Christie tries to make us see inside the heads of Leo, Hester, Mickey and so on, but doesn’t really achieve it. As a result, we’re just onlookers, having a story told to us from a distance but without much in the way of personal involvement or attachment.

InnocentThe second murder is, regrettably, telegraphed about 80 pages before it happens. For some reason, as I mentioned earlier, the police play a very back seat with this book so it’s incumbent on Dr Calgary (because his evidence turns the household into uproar) and Philip Durrant (because he is bored and wants some mental exercise) to do the necessary investigating. Durrant is going to go one of two ways; he’s either going to turn out to be the murderer himself, or be murdered for his meddling. You just know it’s going to happen. And it does. There’s an element of fatalism here, that comes across as rather oppressive but also easy for Christie. There’s a point where Calgary is leading all the investigation and it occurs to the reader that we actually know very little about him, and what his motivation is for getting so involved with trying to uncover the truth. To be fair, that’s never really satisfactorily dealt with; we’re told it’s because of Hester’s early statement “it’s not the guilty who matter, it’s the innocent”, but the lack of a structured investigation procedure doesn’t do this book any favours.

ClueOne thing that is very much in the book’s favour is that the reader hasn’t got a tiny clue as to who is guilty until right at the very end. Christie dumps a couple of enormous clues on us fifteen pages before it ends, that, if you stop and check back on a couple of earlier sentences and actions, indicate precisely and unequivocally who is to blame. Even though another suspect is brought into the frame at the last minute, once you’ve read the passage in question, there’s no doubt as to whodunit. And although you’ve been desperate for some action, so this last-minute excitement comes as a very welcome diversion, in a sense it is a shame that the book’s so closely guarded secret is opened up so inelegantly at the end.

MelancholyWith none of Christie’s usual sleuths taking part in this story, it is left to Superintendent Huish to lead the investigations, under the auspices of the Chief Constable, Major Finney. Christie doesn’t give Finney any characteristics at all – which is quite unusual of her – but we do at least get a small insight into the nature of Huish. “Huish was a tall, sad-looking man. His air of melancholy was so profound that no one would have believed that he could be the life and soul of a children’s party, cracking jokes and bringing pennies out of little boys’ ears, much to their delight.” So, a professionally dour man, which belies his true personality. We know he also has a “gentle West Country voice.” But beyond that, there’s very little to go on.

DartmouthNow we’ll look at some of the references in this book, starting, as usual, with the locations. Apart from a couple of obvious places, like London and Plymouth, all the locations are West Country creations of Christie but probably based on real places. Redquay, Polgarth, Ipsley; the ferry at Drymouth (maybe real-life Dartmouth?), and the cathedral city of Redmyn (maybe Truro?) The introverted nature of the book means that location as such is not important, the only relevant location is in the mind.

KiplingThere are, however, several other references, quotations and people. Most people will recognise Calgary’s early recalling of “how sharper than a serpent’s tooth” as coming from Shakespeare’s King Lear; in fact, Serpent’s Tooth was one of the possible original ideas for the title of the book. “Nothing is ever settled until it is settled right” says Leo, quoting Kipling – it’s a quote that also appears in A Pocket Full of Rye. In discussing Jacko’s trial, and commenting on his mental stability, Leo affirms “the McNaughten rules are narrow and unsatisfactory”; the McNaughten rule – and I’m quoting Wikipedia here, is “that every man is to be presumed to be sane, and … that to establish a defence on the ground of insanity, it must be clearly proved that, at the time of the committing of the act, the party accused was labouring under such a defect of reason, from disease of the mind, as not to know the nature and quality of the act he was doing; or if he did know it, that he did not know he was doing what was wrong.”

Lizzie BordenA number of old cases are quoted in this book. For instance, the case of Lizzie Borden, also mentioned in After the Funeral, who was tried and acquitted of the axe murders of her father and stepmother in Massachusetts in 1892. Huish remembers Harmon “in 1938. Long record behind him of pinched bicycles, swindled money, frauds on elderly women, and finally he does one woman in” – I’m fairly sure that’s a fictional character. Charles Bravo, is cited as a plausible murder victim; Mrs Cox and Dr Gully, also mentioned, were involved in the case. Bravo was killed in 1876 by antimony poisoning, but to this date no one has been brought to book for the murder.

We’ve all heard of the Magna Carta, but Hester is able to quote it: “to no man will we refuse justice”; which remains the basis of many extant laws around the world. Tina’s father is said to have been a Lascar seaman – a lascar was an Indian or Asian sailor or militiaman employed on European ships from the 16th to the 20th century. Micky remembers his mother, hiding in the Tube from “moaning minnies”, a slang term for German smoke mortar bombs. Hester is said to have seen an amateur performance of Waiting for Godot at the Drymouth Playhouse – that is, of course, Samuel Beckett’s famous 1953 play.

Macbeth“We shall never know the truth” says Peter, “I feel a kind of pricking in my thumbs”. By the pricking of my thumbs is a quotation from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, but also the name of an Agatha Christie book that the grande dame hadn’t written yet – a Tommy and Tuppence novel that would appear in 1968. When in London, Hester decides to stay at Curtis’ Hotel, as that’s where her mother used to stay – but it’s a figment of Christie’s imagination, I’m afraid. Philip recollects a line of French poetry – “Venus toute entire à sa prole attaché” – Venus entire latched onto her prey – a line from Racine’s play Phèdre. It’s the moment he realises he doesn’t love Mary any more.

PoundRegular readers will know that I like to consider any significant sums of money in Christie’s books and work out what their value would be today, just to get a feel of the range of sums that we’re looking at. Money has an important role to play in this book, so it is surprising that it’s mentioned so irregularly. Orphan Mickey is taken into Rachel and Leo’s household for the princely sum of £100 – which at today’s value would be £1,633. No wonder Mickey was upset at the bargain basement deal. Jacko demanded half that sum, £50, from Rachel – that’s £816. And the £2 that Hester borrows from Kirsten, is a surprising £32 today.


Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for Ordeal by Innocence:


Publication Details: 1958. My copy is a Fontana paperback, eighth impression, dated November 1970, with a price of 5/- on the back cover. The cover illustration, presumably by Tom Adams, shows a female figure surrounded by blue petals against the clouds across the moon, about to be swallowed up by an enormous snake. None of these symbols seem to have anything whatsoever to do with the story, although Viper’s Point was the original name for Sunny Point.

How many pages until the first death: The first death occurs before the book starts – the best part of two years before. For the second death, you have to wait an additional 170 pages – so if you’re waiting for someone else to die in order for the book to get the kick start it needs, you have to have a lot of patience. That only adds to the sense of boredom.

Funny lines out of context: None that I could see.

Memorable characters: Sadly, the characters are all very one-dimensional. A few of them – Gwenda, Finney, even Hester herself, have very little in the way of personality. Mickey is notable for having a spark of dynamism to him. But the rest do not stay in the mind at all.

Christie the Poison expert:

All the deaths in this book (before and after it starts) are characterised by acts of violence, and poison plays no part in it.

Class/social issues of the time:

As this book is very unlike most of Christie’s other works, unsurprisingly it doesn’t follow many of Christie’s usual themes and issues. The lesson to be learned from the book, if you like, is, as in the words of Lennon and McCartney, that money can’t buy you love. Rachel Argyle collected children with the view to adopting them as she couldn’t have children of her own. And though she showed them love, generosity and support, her relationships with her children were never as good as a those with a true blood relationship.

There’s a conversation in the book between Philip and Hester that goes quite deeply into the subject of suicide, and you feel that today the chapter could almost warrant a trigger warning. Hester confesses that she’s frequently thought of suicide, and Philip loftily discusses how prevalent suicide is in teenagers, citing a number of good reasons why this should be the case. Suicide was still illegal in 1958, and you can tell from the matter-of-fact and critical nature of their conversation that common practice was to look down on and scorn suicide rather than the more compassionate attitude we take today.

There’s a little xenophobia as usual; Mary favours a suggestion that Kirsten is the murderer as “after all, she’s a foreigner”. Tina is twice described as “half-caste”, which simply reflects the language of the day rather than being an indication of racism; however, when Philip starts to consider her as the murderer, he crosses the decency line. “Tina’s always the dark horse, to my mind […] perhaps it’s the half of her that isn’t white.”

Apart from that, there isn’t the variety of conversations with a range of people, or comments on actions that might stimulate class or social observations. Deep down, the book isn’t interesting enough to have them!

Classic denouement:  In a strange way, yes. All the suspects and interested parties are assembled by Calgary, who, guides us all to a slanging match showdown with the guilty party. The most extraordinary thing about this is that it all takes place without sight nor sound of a police officer – not even in the follow-up final chapter.

Happy ending? Yes – probably. Things are definitely looking good for one couple, whilst another might have a chance together. Others, however, are not so lucky.

Did the story ring true? One of its plus points. Yes, you can completely imagine how this story could be true, from the modus operandi to the frantic last efforts of the guilty party to eradicate proof against themselves.

Overall satisfaction rating: It has a good, mysterious start and an exciting, if frantic ending. You don’t find whodunit until the final scraps of pages, and the story does actually hang together quite convincingly. It’s such a shame, then, that the vast majority of the book is made up of tedious conversations, waiting around for something to happen. It’s not Christie’s worst, but she’s way off the mark thinking it was one of her best. I’m being generous with a 6/10.

Cat Among the PigeonsThanks for reading my blog of Ordeal by Innocence, and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge is Cat Among the Pigeons, the Christie that I automatically think of when I try to assess which of all her books is my favourite. It’s a welcome return to Hercule Poirot after three years, and – if I remember rightly – the girls school setting gives a great sense of claustrophobia. So I’m really looking forward to attacking this book again. As usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about it as soon as I can. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

4 thoughts on “The Agatha Christie Challenge – Ordeal by Innocence (1958)

  1. I agree with you 100% that “the vast majority of the book is made up of tedious conversations, waiting around for something to happen.” This was one of my absolute least favorite of Christie’s books that I’ve read so far. In fact, the middle was so boring to me that I did something that I hardly ever do with any book–I skipped to the end. I think the reason I didn’t like it was, like you said, there wasn’t any really good character development. I just started reading Cat Among the Pigeons and I already see a lot of good characters. 🙂

  2. I’m glad to hear you say you like Cat Among the Pigeons because if I read another Christie book right after one as boring as the last, I’d start to think Christie was losing her touch. lol

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