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Ordeal by Innocence

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Ordeal by Innocence

Ordeal by Innocence
Dust-jacket illustration of the first UK edition
Author Agatha Christie
Cover artist Not known
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Genre Crime novel
Publisher Collins Crime Club
Publication date
3 November 1958
Media type Print (hardback & paperback)
Pages 256 pp (first edition, hardcover)
Preceded by 4.50 From Paddington
Followed by Cat Among the Pigeons

Ordeal by Innocence is a work of detective fiction by Agatha Christie and first published in the UK by the Collins Crime Club on 3 November 1958[1] and in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company the following year.[2][3] The UK edition retailed at twelve shillings and sixpence (12/6)[1] and the US edition at $2.95.[3] It is regarded by critics as one of the best of her later works, and was also one of Christie's two favourites of her own novels, the other being Crooked House.

The novel is also noted for being one of Christie's darkest works, alongside such classics as And Then There Were None, with a strong focus on the psychology of innocence.


  • Plot summary 1
  • Literary significance and reception 2
  • Film, TV or theatrical adaptations 3
    • Ordeal by Innocence (1985 film) 3.1
    • Agatha Christie's Marple 3.2
    • 2007 stage adaptation 3.3
    • Graphic novel adaptation 3.4
    • BBC radio adaptation 3.5
  • Publication history 4
  • International titles 5
  • References 6
  • External links 7

Plot summary

While serving a sentence for killing Rachel Argyle, his adoptive mother – a crime he insisted he didn't commit – Jacko Argyle dies in prison. Two years later, the man who could have supported Jacko's alibi suddenly turns up; and the family must come to terms with the fact not only that one of them is the real murderer, but also that suspicion falls upon each of them. Christie's focus in this novel is upon the psychology of innocence, as the family members struggle with their suspicions of one another.

The witness, Arthur Calgary, believes that, when he clears the name of their son, the family would be grateful. He fails to realise the implications of his information. However, once he does so, he is determined to help and to protect the innocent by finding the murderer. To be able to do so, he visits the retired local doctor, Dr MacMaster, to ask him about the now-cleared murderer, Jacko Argyle. Dr MacMaster states that he was surprised when Jacko killed his mother. Not because he thought that murder was outside Jacko's 'moral range', but because he thought Jacko would be too cowardly to kill somebody himself; that, if he wanted to murder somebody, he would egg on an accomplice to do his dirty work. Dr MacMaster says "the kind of murder I'd have expected Jacko to do, if he did one, was the type where a couple of boys go out on a raid; then, when the police come after them, the Jackos say 'Biff him on the head, Bud. Let him have it. Shoot him down.' They're willing for murder, ready to incite to murder, but they've not got the nerve to do murder themselves with their own hands". This description seems to be a reference to the Craig and Bentley case which had occurred in 1952.

While two outsiders attempt to find the murderer, it is an insider – Philip Durrant – whose clumsy efforts to uncover the truth force the killer to kill again. Ultimately it is revealed that the murderer was indeed acting under the influence of Jacko Argyle, and that the failure of his (carefully planned) alibi was, in hindsight, an ironic stroke of fate. Jacko was not, in fact, innocent after all and had a hand in the death of his adoptive mother. The killer is revealed to be Kirsten Lindstrom, the Argyles' middle-aged housekeeper. Jacko had persuaded plain-faced Kirsten that he was in love with her, and so persuaded her to murder his adoptive mother under cover of a "foolproof" alibi in order to steal some much needed money. But once Kirsten learned that Jacko was secretly married, she decided not to confess to her role in Rachel's murder in court, even with the failure of his alibi, and abandoned Jacko to his fate.

Literary significance and reception

Philip John Stead concluded his review in the Times Literary Supplement of 12 December 1958, with, "The solution of Ordeal By Innocence is certainly not below the level of Mrs Christie's customary ingenuity, but the book lacks other qualities which her readers have come to expect. What has become of the blitheness, the invigorating good spirits with which the game of detection is played in so many of her stories? Ordeal By Innocence slips out of that cheerful arena into something much too like an attempt at psychological fiction. It is too much of a conversation piece and too many people are talking – people in whom it is hard to take the necessary amount of interest because there is not enough space to establish them. The kind of workmanship which has been lavished on this tale is not a kind in which the author excels and the reader feels that Miss Marple and Poirot would thoroughly disapprove of the whole business."[4]

Sarah Russell of The Guardian gave a short review to the novel in the 9 December 1958 issue when she said, "In this solving of a two-year-old family murder sympathy is, unusually with Miss Christie, evoked for too many people to leave enough suspects; but the unravelling is sound and the story well told."[5]

Maurice Richardson of The Observer of 2 November 1958 said, "The veteran Norn has nodded over this one. There is ingenuity, of course, but it lacks a central focus. The characters are stodgy and there is little of that so readable, almost crunchable dialogue, like burnt sugar." He concluded, "The serious socio-psychological approach doesn't suit A.C. somehow. Only at the end with the big surprise do you feel home and dry."[6]

Robert Barnard: "One of the best of 'fifties Christies, and one of her own favourites (though she named different titles at different times). The Five Little Pigs pattern of murder-in-the-past, the convicted murderer having died in prison, innocent. Short on detection, but fairly dense in social observation. Understanding in treatment of adopted children, but not altogether tactful on the colour question: 'Tina's always the dark horse…Perhaps it's the half of her that isn't white.'"[7]

Film, TV or theatrical adaptations

Ordeal by Innocence (1985 film)

A film adaptation was made in 1985, starring Donald Sutherland, Christopher Plummer and Sarah Miles. Its musical score (by Dave Brubeck) has in many quarters been heavily criticised as totally inappropriate for this style of mystery and has given the film a certain notoriety.

Agatha Christie's Marple

The novel was adapted for the third season of the ITV television series Marple featuring Geraldine McEwan first broadcast in 2007 even though Miss Marple was not in the original novel. This version changed heavily from the novel. Gwenda Vaughan is the second victim in this adaptation, not Philip (however, she dies in the same way – stabbed at the base of the brain). Omitted completely is Kirsten's attempt to silence Tina and Michael by stabbing Tina. There is also the addition of another adopted child Bobby, who is the twin brother of Jacko (he commits suicide after financial ruin). Kirsten is arrested in the end—unlike the novel, where she escapes, though it is suggested that Kirsten will be picked up by the police later.

2007 stage adaptation

The novel was also adapted into a stage play by Mary Jane Hansen and performed for the first time by the New York State Theatre Institute in Troy, New York. The original run lasted from 4 to 17 February 2007, and included 14 performances.

Graphic novel adaptation

Ordeal by Innocence was released by HarperCollins as a graphic novel adaptation on 1 July 2008, adapted and illustrated by "Chandre" (ISBN 0-00-727531-5). This was translated from the edition first published in France by Emmanuel Proust éditions in 2006 under the title of Témoin indésirable.

BBC radio adaptation

The BBC produced a radio adaptation in 2014 starring Mark Umbers as Arthur Calgary and Jacqueline Defferary as Gwenda. It was first broadcast on BBC Radio 4 over three weeks from 17 March 2014.

Publication history

  • 1958, Collins Crime Club (London), 3 November 1958, Hardcover, 256 pp
  • 1959, Dodd Mead and Company (New York), 1959, Hardcover, 247 pp
  • 1960, Pocket Books (New York), Paperback, 211 pp
  • 1961, Fontana Books (Imprint of HarperCollins), Paperback, 192 pp
  • 1964, Ulverscroft Large-print Edition, Hardcover, 256 pp

In the UK the novel was first serialised in the weekly magazine John Bull in two abridged instalments from 20 September (Volume 104, Number 2725) to 27 September 1958 (Volume 104, Number 2726) with illustrations by "Fancett".[8]

In the US, the first publication was in the Chicago Tribune in thirty-six parts from Sunday, 1 February to Saturday, 14 March 1959 under the title of The Innocent.

An abridged version of the novel was also published in the 21 February 1959 issue of the Star Weekly Complete Novel, a Toronto newspaper supplement, with a cover illustration by Russell Maebus.

International titles

  • Arabic: محنة البريء
  • Czech: Zkouška neviny (Ordeal by Innocence)
  • Dutch: Doem der verdenking (Burden of Suspicion)
  • Finnish: Syyttömyyden taakka (Burden of Innocence)
  • German: Tödlicher Irrtum (Fatal Error)
  • German: Feuerprobe der Unschuld (Trial By Fire for Innocence)
  • Hungarian: Az alibi (The Alibi)
  • Italian: Le due verità (The Two Truths)
  • Norwgian: Døde spor (Dead traces)
  • Persian:مصیبت بی گناهی (Tragedy of innocence)
  • Portuguese (Brazil): Punição para a Inocência (Punishment for Innocence)
  • Portuguese (Portugal): O Cabo da Víbora (Viper's Point)
  • Russian: Горе невинным (Woe to Innocents)
  • Spanish: Inocencia trágica (Tragic Innocence)
  • Swedish: Prövad Oskuld (Proven Innocent)
  • Turkish: İçimizden Biri (One of us) also Şahidin Gözleri (Eyes of the Witness)


  1. ^ a b Chris Peers, Ralph Spurrier and Jamie Sturgeon. Collins Crime Club – A checklist of First Editions. Dragonby Press (Second Edition) March 1999 (Page 15)
  2. ^ John Cooper and B.A. Pyke. Detective Fiction – the collector's guide: Second Edition (Pages 82 and 87) Scholar Press. 1994. ISBN 0-85967-991-8
  3. ^ a b American Tribute to Agatha Christie
  4. ^ The Times Literary Supplement 12 December 1958 (Page 726)
  5. ^ The Guardian. 9 December 1958 (Page 4).
  6. ^ The Observer 2 November 1958 (Page 22).
  7. ^ Barnard, Robert. A Talent to Deceive – an appreciation of Agatha Christie – Revised edition (Page 201). Fontana Books, 1990. ISBN 0-00-637474-3
  8. ^ Holdings at the British Library (Newspapers – Colindale). Shelfmark: NPL LON LD116.

External links

  • Ordeal by Innocence at the official Agatha Christie website
  • Ordeal by Innocence (1984) at the Internet Movie Database
  • Marple: Ordeal by Innocence (2007) at the Internet Movie Database
  • Review of New York State Theatre Institute production
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