Agatha Christie wrote in An Autobiography that Ordeal by Innocence and Crooked House were the two books she’d written that satisfied her the best. Neither book features Poirot or Miss Marple, so maybe she had become rather tired of them and had enjoyed introducing completely new characters.
Summary from the back cover of my copy:
According to the courts, Jacko Argyle bludgeoned his mother to death with a poker. Sentenced to life imprisonment, he died behind bars following a bout of pneumonia. Tragically, it was not until two years later that Dr Arthur Calgary came forward with the testimony that could have acquitted Jacko. Worse the doctor’s revelations were about to re-open old wounds in the family, increasing the likelihood that the real murderer would strike again.
Ordeal by Innocence is thus a stand-alone novel, first published in 1958, unlike the TV adaptation that had Miss Marple (in the form of Geraldine McEwan), solving the mystery.
Dr Calgary was surprised by the reception he received from the family when he visited them to tell them that Jacko was innocent and why he hadn’t come forward at the time to confirm his alibi. Instead of relief he was met with wariness and suspicion as the family members realised that one of them could be the murderer. This is a cold case that they wish had never been re-opened; they had been happy to accept that Jacko, a thoroughly nasty character, was guilty. Only Philip the eldest daughter’s wheelchair-bound husband is keen to discover the murderer’s identity. So, it is up to him, Doctor Calgary, helped by the family solicitor and Superintendent Huish to carry out fresh investigations.
What I liked about Ordeal by Innocence was the way Agatha Christie delved into the family relationships and their characters. Mrs Argyle was one of those mothers who was always right and thought she knew best and at times all her children had rebelled or wanted to rebel against her authority, so all were suspects, along with her long-suffering husband, who since her death was planning to marry his secretary.
The novel is as much about protecting the innocent as punishing the guilty, and the fact that stating your innocence is not proof of it. Calgary has to find the murderer so that the innocent will not suffer from the taint of guilt. Without knowing who was guilty they would have all come under suspicion, destroying their love and trust.
I swung from believing first one, then another character, was the guilty person and was quite taken in by all the red herrings Agatha Christie threw into the book. All is made clear in the last chapter when Dr Calgary presents his findings and reveals the killer. Although I don’t think it is one of Agatha Christie’s best books, I still enjoyed its complexity and admired her skill in plotting this novel.