“it’s not the guilty who matter. It’s the innocent… It’s we who matter. Don’t you see what you’ve done to us all?”
As much as I love Hercule Poirot and dear old Miss Marple, I rather enjoyed the absence of them in this novel. Ordeal by Innocence is a little more psychological than many Poirot/Marple stories – although there is a murder in the past, and another toward the end of the novel to remind us that we’re in familiar Christie territory. There is a small amount of typical 1950’s xenophobic posturing against foreigners, while Christie considers the whole nature vs nurture debate in the stories of five very different siblings. It is perhaps this element of the narrative that really dates the novel.
The opening is brilliantly atmospheric; a stranger climbs the hill up from the Ferry at dusk one cold evening, asking for directions to Sunny Point, a house still called Viper’s Point by the locals. The stranger is Arthur Calgary, a scientist recently returned from an Arctic expedition; he has important information for the family at Sunny Point. News, which when delivered will change everything for the shocked members of the Argyle family.
“He was conscious, or thought he was conscious, of a veiled curiosity in the ferryman’s eyes. Here was a stranger. And a stranger after the close of the tourist season proper. Moreover, the stranger was crossing at an unusual hour – too late for tea at the café by the pier. He had no luggage so he could not be coming to stay.”
Jacko Argyle had died in prison just a few months into a life sentence for the murder of his mother. There had been little doubt in his guilt, the police case hardly tested at all, despite the defendant’s insistence that he had an alibi. Jacko was always a delinquent, a difficult boy he grew into a difficult young man, he stole, he lied, he conned money out of lonely, vulnerable women, and none of his family really mourn his loss. Now, Calgary will shatter the peace of this odd little family by showing that Jacko’s alibi can be proved after all. For Leo Argyle and his family, the news can hardly be less welcome, for if Jacko didn’t kill his mother, it stands to reason that one or other member of the family most probably did.
Jacko was one of five adopted children of Mrs Rachel Argyle, a woman who having discovered she was unable to have her own children went around collecting waifs from disadvantaged backgrounds in a series of unofficial adoptions during the war. Now these adult unrelated siblings continue to be affected by the woman who had controlled their lives. Jacko, given to sudden bursts of temper had always been after money, and had argued with his mother on the day of her death. Mary Durrant, married to Philip a polio sufferer was the first of Rachel Argyle’s adoptions in New York City. Michael had always resented Rachel and her lovely home and the life she gave him, remembering, with rose tinted spectacles the colourful life he had had with his natural mother, late night fish and chips and a series of ‘uncles. ’ Tina, a quiet little librarian, the child of a prostitute, and Hester, the youngest of the Argyle children, were all spoiled and indulged, given the best, wrapped in cotton wool. Rachel Argyle’s husband Leo is about to marry his secretary Gwenda Vaughan, while Miss Lindstrom, the woman who had helped Rachel Argyle with her war time nursery and stayed, is openly suspicious of Calgary and his story.
With Jacko now officially cleared and given a posthumous pardon, there is danger for the remaining members of the Argyle family. Someone is hiding something and Calgary hangs around at a local hotel to see the thing through and do a bit of his own investigating. While Calgary speaks to members of the Argyle family, the doctor, and the family lawyer, Superintendent Huish finds himself having to look again at a case he thought had been solved. It would seem that almost everyone connected to Sunny Point had reason to kill the wealthy matriarch, however with no evidence at all, and the distance of two years, Huish is unsure the truth can ever be known.
The truth (for naturally we get to truth after all) – is delivered in a Poirot style revelation by Calgary – following a dramatic series of events which brings everything to a head. The solution is clever, ends tied up nicely, and quite satisfactorily, which even allow for the suggestion of a little romance. Ordeal by Innocence is by no means the best Christie novel I don’t think, but still it is very enjoyable, with some good twists.