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Literature / Ordeal by Innocence

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Ordeal by Innocence is an Agatha Christie murder mystery first published in 1958.

Two years before the beginning of the novel, Jacko Argyle was sentenced to life in prison for killing his adoptive mother Rachel Argyle. Jacko insisted during the trial that he was innocent and that he was getting a lift with a stranger during the time of the murder. This stranger couldn't be found, despite an extensive search. Jacko later died in prison. In the present day, Dr Arthur Calgary visits the Argyles to tell them that he was the stranger that had picked up Jacko two years earlier. He had not come forward earlier because he had been hit by a lorry soon after dropping off Jacko, and the accident had caused amnesia which made him forgot the hitchhiker he had picked up. Expecting gratitude from the Argyles for clearing Jacko's name, Dr Calgary is surprised when the reveal is instead met by anger and hostility. Dr Calgary later decides to investigate the murder of Rachel Argyle, to protect the innocent by finding the murderer.

The novel has been adapted for the screen three times: in 1984 as a feature film, in 2007 as an episode of Marple (despite Miss Marple not appearing in the book), and in 2017 as a three-part BBC miniseries filmed in Scotland; the latter was originally intended to air as 'a Christie for Christmas', following the 2015 adaptation of And Then There Were None and the 2016 adaptation of Witness for the Prosecution. However, accusations of sexual misconduct against one of the principal actors led to the mini-series being pulled before airing, and his scenes being re-filmed with another actor. It instead aired in April 2018, beginning Easter weekend.

Ordeal by Innocence was regarded by Christie as one of her two favourites among her own novels (the other being Crooked House).

The story contains examples of:

  • Absent-Minded Professor: Defied by Arthur Calgary. He is accused of being absent minded because he is a scientist, so he might remember the times wrong. He assures them that he remembers quite right. However, the Marple version plays it straight, at least when he is introduced. He still proves quite capable of solving the case.
  • Acquitted Too Late: Jacko's alibi only shows up after he's been convicted of murder and died in prison. Inverted though since he was the one who ordered the murder in the first place.
  • Beneath the Mask: Inspector Huish, the investigating officer, is described as a sad-looking man with a perpetual air of melancholy around him. Despite this, he is said to be the life of the party and is fond of jokes.
  • Big, Screwed-Up Family: The Argyles. Rachel Argyle, the matriarch, is a wealthy philanthropist who is obsessed with motherhood but because she is unable to conceive, expends most of her attention to support child care services, and, in the process, adopted five children from broken homes. Her husband, feeling unneeded because he can't satisfy her needs, began to fall for his secretary. Meanwhile, four of the five children harbour resentment towards Rachel for her interference, although two of them eventually grew out of it.
  • Delusions of Parental Love: Micky Argyle resents his adoptive mother because she took him away from his real mother — whom he remembers as a nice and caring, if somewhat ill-tempered, woman — even though according to his adoptive parents, she was an abusive drunk. Micky later admits that he deliberately paints a rosy image of his real mother because he genuinely loved her and did not want to acknowledge that she doesn't love him back.
  • Easy Amnesia: The reason why Dr. Calgary never came forward two years earlier, as he had gotten amnesia after being hit by a lorry. All three adaptations do away with this plot point and just have him leave the country before he finds out about the murder.
  • Evil Is Petty: Inspector Huish, Dr. McMaster the family doctor and female associates of Jacko describe him as a small-scale criminal who dealt in swindles and preying on women, able to manage a short-term plan but not able to commit anything grand. And the only reason Jacko killed his mother was so that he could get her hands on the money he would get through her inheritance, which he only needed then and there to get out of debt, although Freudian Excuse would come into it also.
  • Fake Alibi: Subverted. The murderer had his alibi all planned out, having someone else do the murder while he was elsewhere, but the witness suffered a car crash that put him in a coma, then left for an Antarctic expedition without learning of the trial, leaving the murderer without a witness to testify that he wasn't present. And while there was another person who could have testified, she chose not to out of Woman Scorned, having discovered he was already married and just using her to do the actual killing.
  • Framing the Guilty Party: Not unusually for Agatha Christie, Jacko makes sure he would be the prime suspect, then creates an alibi to mislead the police into thinking that someone else is trying to frame him. Unfortunately for him, his alibi fails.
  • Genius Cripple: Philip Durrant, Mary's husband, is described as a smart chap. He's also sitting in a wheelchair after being crippled by polio.
  • Horrible Judge of Character: Calgary assumes that by telling Jacko's family that he is innocent (thus died in vain) would make them happy. He turns out to be completely wrong. Especially since now everyone starts suspecting each other. Though in his defense, he had no idea about the family dynamics and tensions that he'd just stirred up.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: Dr. Calgary points out that Kirsten shouldn't have gotten skittish and attacked Philip and Tina, because that was how he found her out.
  • Idiot Ball:
    • If Jacko had just bothered to get the full name and some background details of the driver who picked him up and who he expected to provide his alibi, just in the way of casual conversation, the police might have been able to track the driver down. The amnesia might have been an instrument of Laser-Guided Karma, but the very fact the person existed could have been enough for reasonable doubt at trial. Not to mention, having hitchhiking as an alibi is very risky - what if no one had picked him up?
    • And before that, if you've seduced a woman into committing murder for you, it might be a good idea to make sure that your secret wife doesn't make contact with your family - and said accomplice - when you're arrested. It might lead to your accomplice realizing she's been used, and letting you go to jail or even be hanged anyway.
  • In the Back: Rachel Argyle was killed when she was hit in the back of the head with a fire poker. Philip Durrant is later killed by being stabbed in the back of his neck. The murderer also stabs Tina in the back, but she survives.
  • Irony: A masterstroke, brilliant and beautiful in its simplicity: Jacko didn’t commit the crime, he simply planned it and had someone else do it for him, while he found a witness who’d ensure he was not seen anywhere near the house. Then later on, he gets sentenced for the crime because his accomplice betrayed him and his witness had a concussion.
  • Karma Houdini: Jacko tries to invoke this by seducing someone into murdering his stepmother for him, thus rendering him legally innocent. However, his plot fails and he was arrested as the murderer anyway.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: Jacko is the true Big Bad, and Calgary's "alibi" for him was in fact arranged. Unfortunately for Jack, Calgary is hit by a car and Jacko winds up arrested for the murder he was responsible for.
  • Last-Minute Hookup: At the end of the story, Dr. Calgary prepares to leave the Argyles and wishes Hester a happy marriage with her fiance Donald. Hester instead declares that she's breaking off her engagement with Donald and says that she wishes to marry Dr. Calgary instead, which he accepts.
  • Nature Versus Nurture: Discussed, Jacko seem to have been predestined to a life of crime by nature, despite Rachel Argyle's best attempt to make him a upstanding member of society.
  • Not Blood Siblings: Adoptive siblings Micky and Tina are romantically involved with one another.
  • Revisiting the Cold Case: The premise of the story. The novel opens with a key witness arriving two years late to present an alibi for a convicted murderer, Jack Argyle, who had since died in prison. His testimony forces the state to grant a free pardon to Jacko, and the police must re-investigate the case to catch the real murderer.
  • Rewarded as a Traitor Deserves: Kirsten feels Jacko got what he deserved, for lying to her about loving him and making her murder her employer.
  • Summation Gathering: Dr. Calgary does one at the end of the novel.
  • Tempting Fate: Philip tries to find out who the real murderer is, just because it is a good mental exercise to him. He pays no attention to either Mary's or Kirsten's warnings.
  • Younger Than They Look: Downplayed. When Micky first meets Dr. Calgary, he guessed the doctor to be at least 45. Calgary corrects him, stating that he is only 39.