His own face looked strange to him. Who am I, he thought, where am I going? Thoughts that had never occurred to him before.
I've read a great many of Agatha Christie's novels, but I don't claim to have read them all, and this is one I'd never heard of until I caught the first episode of a dramatisation on BBC Radio 4 recently. I was instantly hooked, and when I discovered that it was only going to be on once a week, I sped off to Audible, where I luckily had one free credit, and downloaded it. And how glad I am that I did. Read by the incomparable Hugh Fraser (better known to most of us as Captain Hastings), this gave me many happy hours of listening, and kept me up far too late last night as I couldn't wait to get to the denouement.
Apparently one of Christie's own two favourite novels (the other one being Crooked House), Ordeal by Innocence features neither Poirot nor Marple -- though Wikipedia tells me it was adapted, with Marple inserted into it, for the series starring Geraldine McEwan. That seems a shame, as it stands up brilliantly without either of them. For this is not a detective novel in the generally accepted sense, though there are several people trying to solve the crime. Instead, it can best be described as a psychological thriller, and one everyone should read if they think Christie isn't much good at characterisation.
This is the story of a family, though quite an unusual one. Wealthy, childless Rachel Argyle and her husband Leo adopted five children, all from disadvantaged homes. Now adults, they were a seemingly united family, apart from one bad apple, the youngest boy Jacko, who seemed determined on a life of dishonesty and crime. However, when the novel begins, Jacko has died in prison, having been convicted of the murder of his adoptive mother. He had claimed to have an alibi, though it had not been possible to verify. But all this is now going to change, as Dr Arthur Calgary returns from a long period overseas ready and willing to confirm that Jacko was in his car at the exact time that Rachel died. As soon as Arthur realises what has happened, he rushes round to the Argyles' house to tell them that Jacko was innocent. He expects this news to be greeted with delight by the family, but is initially puzzled by their lack of gratitude. Slowly it dawns on him that Jacko's innocence shows that one of them must be guilty. But who? As he sees a dark cloud of suspicion polluting previously happy relationships, he determines to solve the crime himself.
Christie does a wonderful job of revealing the flaws in these well-educated, privileged people, and the cracks that begin to appear in previously untroubled relationships. Everyone, it seems, had a motive of sorts, and nobody can any longer trust anyone else. Rachel's widower Leo had been about to announce his engagement to his secretary Gwenda, and beautiful, troubled young Hester had been planning to marry the local doctor, but both couples now drift further and further apart, each suspicious of their other half. As for the oldest daughter Helen -- a particularly chilling creation -- her previously (apparently) happy marriage is slowly eroded by her husband Philip's determination to uncover the real murderer. Philip Durrant (that's him in the quotation at the beginning) lives his life in a wheelchair, a result of an attack of polio, and feels increasingly smothered by Helen's obsessive adoration -- she neither cares for nor takes any interest in anyone else, while he longs to get more involved with the outside world and to test his sharp intellect with a real-life puzzle. Then there's quiet, mixed-race Tina, who seems to be nursing a secret, and rebellious Mikey, never able to forgive Rachel for not being his promiscuous, uncaring birth-mother, who was happy to sell him to Rachel for £100. And then there's the middle-aged housekeeper, Swedish Kirsten Lindstrom, who has been with the family since they were children -- what secrets about them all might she know? I suspected everyone in turn.
I see this was made into a film in the 1980s, with a lot of famous names in it (Donald Sutherland, Anthony Hopkins and Faye Dunaway among others) but I don't feel much inclined to watch it. Apart from the fact that the actors look as if they were too old to play the quite young men and women Christie portrayed, I'm sure I'd be troubled by any changes made to what seemed to me an almost perfect plot. I didn't guess who did it, but that's no surprise as I never have guessed the identity of any of Christie's murderers. If you've never read this, please do. It's highly recommended.