Ordeal By Innocence
First Published: Collins Crime Club, September 1958, London.
Series: Stand Alone
Summary: Rachel Argyle was murdered, struck on the back of the head by a fireplace poker; her adopted son Jacko is found guilty of her murder. All through the police investigation and trial Jacko maintained his innocence, but his alibi was thin. Two years after his conviction Dr. Arthur Calgary arrives at Sunny Point, where Rachel’s family still lives, with the most impossible tale. He can corroborate Jacko’s alibi - he was an innocent man. The problem is Jacko died in jail. The only other people in the house at the time were the family, so now the question is who killed Rachel if Jacko didn’t?
Review: Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without. This isn’t just an axiom which applies to cutting up shirts into rags when they’ve outlived their lifespan (i.e. stained beyond hope of saving), using bed sheets as fabric for shirts when they accidentally get ripped in the wash (BTW best material I’ve ever worked with) or why I struggle to throw out any scrap of material because I might need it later (as it happens I’ve made some interesting quilts by just using my scrap bin). This particular saying has all kinds of real world applications beyond my sewing stash! Bottles, batteries, bras, soap, wine corks, water filters and crayons all can find a second life somewhere!
As it turns out, writers are avid recyclers as well! Meaning? Writers often reuse their own ideas and depending on the skill of the writer and how good the initial idea was the derivatives sometimes outshine the originals! One of my favorite examples of recycling starts with Beatrice’s speech right after Hero is accused of being unfaithful in Much Ado About Nothing, “O God, That I were a man! I would eat his heart in the market-place.” (act 4, scene 1). This scene is one of my absolute favorites in fiction, the burning frustration of being a woman, the impotence Beatrice felt in her inability to defend her kinswoman from slander is riveting. Then her ability to persuade Benedict to kill his “sworn brother” to right this wrong for her is stunning. A few years later Shakespeare retools this dynamic for Macbeth, in this case furthering a far more sinister ambition, “Come, you spirits that tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here, And fill me from the crown to the toe topple Of direst cruelty!” (act 1, scene 5). Lady MacBeth’s wish to murder Duncan, to take up the dagger and do the deed is strong but is hampered by her gender. Instead she persuades Macbeth to kill Duncan. In both comedy and tragedy Shakespeare made this plot device sing and honestly I cannot say which play I enjoy more!
Christie was keen on recycling as well. The first instance I noticed a reimagined idea was in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Christie overhauled and honed an idea first introduced to her readers in The Man In The Brown Suit to perfection in Ackroyd. Both books I found very enjoyable to read, but Ackroyd I do have to admit is the star of the two due to its sheer audacity. You might think this a mere coincidence, a one-off so to speak, the recycling of plot devices. Every author with a lengthy catalogue at some point usually plucks an underdeveloped idea from a book and explores it further. But it doesn’t happen that often, right?
Well, until I hit her "Murder in Retrospect" quartet, I might have agreed with you. Each of the four books explore the unique factors which allowed a murderer to go unpunished. Essentially Christie created four cold cases for her sleuths to solve. In each book the murderer has been able to get away with their crime for years, until someone takes a closer look. The groupings are like this; Five Little Pigs and The Sleeping Murder start in a similar fashion - two young women who want to find the truth, even after they are warned that the truth may not be pretty. Five Little Pigs, Nemesis and Ordeal By Innocence share the commonality of having someone convicted of the crime who may or may not be innocent. In my opinion these four are wonderful reads (I must say I am a bit partial to the Miss Marples).
While Ordeal can be grouped within the theme of a murder in retrospect, it shares one more link within the Christie canon: And Then There Were None. These two books are tied together by the poisonous fume of suspicion. The entire Argyle family is plunged into suspicion when Dr. Calgary delivers his news of Jacko’s confirmed alibi, thereby fraying the familial relationships since each member had the means, motive and opportunity to murder the family matriarch. In And Then There Were None, suspicion rears its ugly head on the first evening when the record plays and ratchets up the tension when one party member suddenly drops dead. In addition, both groups were assembled by a single person for a singular purpose. In Ordeal, Rachel assembled a family from strangers through marriage, adoption and employment. In None, they assembled to have justice served for unpunished crimes which had been committed. However it was familial ties which kept the Argyles from fracturing the way the victims/villains of Soldier Island did.
Ordeal By Innocence, when you look at it closely, contains very little which is completely unique, we’ve read many of these plot devices before. However, Christie's skill as a writer is what allows something new to be found in gently used devices and themes. I enjoyed reading this book immensely. Even though it is missing much of the sly humor she often injects through wry observations, dandified detectives and twittering women. Unlike None, this book supplies enough clues, if you’re paying attention, to solve the mystery before you naturally come to the end of the book, which is nice to read in what really is more a psychological suspense novel than a mystery.
You might think this post sounds a bit recycled itself (I am not sure you're wrong in this estimation) but the book itself contained so many cobbled together bits I felt the need to make this observation!
“The truth often sounds unconvincing.” (pg. 195)
“That was one of poor Mrs. Argyle’s troubles...The fact was she was nearly always right, that she did know best. If she’d been one of those women who run into debt, lose their keys, miss trains, and do foolish actions that other people have to help them out of, her entire family would have been much fonder of her.” (pg. 109)
Really Random Fact: Ever been on a blind date? On said blind date, did you make sure to meet in a public place to help mitigate any funny business? Did you then make a joke to break the tension about making sure your date wasn't an “axe murderer”? (Because wondering out loud if they are a serial killer or a rapist might seem a tad offensive?) *crickets sounds* Just me with a weird sense of humor?
Did you know at one point in our history, this fear wasn't as far-fetched as it seems now? Nether did I, until I started researching this post. It began with Lizzie Borden, one of the first truly sensationalized murder trials in the United States (a precursor to the frenzied media coverage to OJ Simpson or Fatty Arbuckle trials). Back in 1892 Lizzie's stepmother and father were brutally murdered in their home from repeated blows delivered by an axe. Eleven blows for the father and 18 for Lizzie’s step mother - not the 40 and 41 the rhyme claims (the rhyme was coined and spread by a newspapers to sell more copies). Lizzie quickly became the police’s prime suspect. Later the same year she stood trial for the two brutal murders and was acquitted by a jury in an hour and a half. No further arrests were ever made in this case and it remain unsolved to this day.
Christie refers to the case several times in Ordeal By Innocence, as the suspect pool in both the fictional and real life drama were similar, consisting mainly of long-standing servants and family members present in the house at the time of the murder. In addition, the Borden case illustrates what may have happened to the Argyle family if Rachel’s killer wasn’t unearthed. Lizzie was subjected to severe ostracism by the residents of Fall River, Massachusetts, after she elected to stay in the town after her acquittal. We see the bare beginnings of ostrasism in Ordeal, when Hester’s engagement essentially was called off because her fiance' didn’t believe her when she told him she was innocent.
While Lizzie Borden is by far the most famous of the accused axe murders, her alleged crimes are not unique. On June 9, 1912, in Villisca, Iowa, the Moore family and two of their friends were murdered in their beds by an unknown assailant wielding an axe. Similarly to Lizzie’s case, the suspect pool was small - but there wasn’t any family members on the list - just a tramp, a Reverend, a state senator and two killers (both of whom were later convicted of murdering members of their own families with an axe). Similar to Lizzie Borden, the police in this case honed in on a suspect, The Reverend George Kelly (who in all fairness did confess to the murders but later recanted). Kelly was tried twice by the state for the murders, the first trial resulted in a hung jury and the second acquitted him. Unlike Lizzie Borden, George Kelly left Iowa after the trials, living in Kansas City and New York before passing away.
In New Orleans from 1918-1919, a serial killer called "The Axeman of New Orleans" targeted men and women of Italian descent. He perpetrated at least eight murders over a six month period and then for some inexplicable reason stopped. The real wickedness of this killer (beyond the murders) stems from a single taunting letter that was published in several newspapers. The letter mocked the police and public for their failure in catching him. In addition he threatened the population of New Orleans, placing a collective fear in their hearts, by saying he would be out looking for a new victim on the night of March 19th, fifteen minutes past midnight, and anyone who not playing jazz music could fall victim to his axe. Amateur and professional jazz musicians worked hundreds of parties across New Orleans that night, dance halls were packed to capacity and even a few records played to keep the killer at bay. But not all residents were cowed by his threats; many invited the killer to “visit” their homes and they would be waiting for him. Presumably they were well armed. Incidentally no one was murdered that night, and unfortunately he was never caught.
I do not think I will ever make an axe murder joke again. I had absolutely no idea I’d picked up a joke based on residual public consciousness of gruesome historical fact!
Cheating: Four more to go! Still tempted, but I am to close to the end to fail now!
My 52 Weeks With Christie: A.Miner©2014