Ordeal by Innocence // by Agatha Christie

Two years ago, a man was convicted of murdering his adopted mother.  Six months ago, the man died in prison.  Now, a witness comes forward who proves the man’s innocence.

But instead of being relieved and glad to hear that Jack didn’t kill Mrs. Argyle, the reactions of Jack’s family range from uncomfortable to distressed.  At first, the witness, Arthur Calgary, is confused at the response of the family.  But as he learns more about the circumstances surrounding Mrs. Argyle’s death – and her life – he realizes that everyone wanted it to be Jack.  Jack is the trouble child, the one whom they can all not excuse, exactly, but at least understand.  If Jack wasn’t the murderer, than it was someone else in the family.  And after two years… how will they ever know?  Now the entire family is torn apart by suspicion and doubt.

Christie weaves an engaging story with a range of characters.  Mrs. Argyle, unable to have children of her own, adopted a brood, all of whom came from various “troubled” backgrounds.  Many of the children came to her during the war, when she opened her home to youngsters from London with no where else to go.  Some just never went back.

While (as always) the mystery is good and the solution quite twisty, this was one of the rare occasions where Christie’s personal opinions made  me a little uncomfortable.  While I could understand – if not justify – her repeated description of one of the adopted children as “half-caste” because her mother was from India, as a product of Christie’s time, her frequent references to heredity as the main reason that some people become criminals and some don’t seemed a little off.  While I could agree that Jack was the type of person who would be a “wrong’un” no matter his upbringing, I wasn’t sure I could agree that it was because of his parentage.  Christie tells us on several occasions that, basically, breeding always tells.  Her conclusion seemed to be that adoption was a futile process.

‘It was an article of faith with her that the blood tie didn’t matter,’ [Mrs. Argyle’s widower said].  ‘But the blood tie does matter, you know.  There is usually something in one’s own children, some kink of temperament, some way of feeling that you recognize and can understand without having to put into words.  You haven’t got that tie with children you adopt.  One has no instinctive knowledge of what goes on in their minds.  You judge them, of course, by yourself, by your own thoughts and feelings, but it’s wise to recognize that those thoughts and feelings may be very widely divergent from theirs.’

And I’m not sure that I can completely concede this one to Christie, perhaps because I have an adopted sister and know many other happily adopted children who did come from terrible backgrounds and terrible parents.  But these children aren’t doomed to failure because of their parents’ choices, and they aren’t doomed to be forever misunderstood and only half-loved by their adopted families.  Of course their thoughts and feelings will be widely divergent – they are humans and no two humans can fully comprehend the way the other’s mind works.

Adoption is difficult, especially when the adopted child is older, but Christie’s comments on how Mrs. Argyle’s adoptions may have been more successful if she had been able to find children from her “class” rather than from the offspring of prostitutes and alcoholics, whom are already doomed to repeat the mistakes of their parents no matter what training, love, or discipline they receive, did not sit well with me.  And while I know that these opinions are also somewhat a product of her time, it was still a bit much.

While Ordeal by Innocence was a decent mystery, it wasn’t particularly a favorite of mine.  3/5, but not particularly recommended.