You really have to admire 1950s for their marvelous plot devices. Amnesiacs, mistaken identities, and in this mystery by Agatha Christie, a man with a concussion fails to provide an alibi, and shortly after recovering, heads off to Antarctica for a research expedition. Barring that somewhat awkward premise, Ordeal was an interesting psychological mystery that kept me engaged.
Dr. Calgary, the Antarctic research scientist, discovers through old newspaper articles that he was the missing alibi for Jack Argyle, accused and convicted of killing his mother. Despite steadily maintaining his innocence, Jack was sent to prison, where he died of pneumonia after only six months. Troubled by guilt, Dr. Calgary consults with the lawyer of the Jack’s family, determined to seek them out and assure them of Jack’s innocence. He expects a mixed emotional reaction, perhaps to be thanked or perhaps to bear the brunt of their anger for his untimely appearance and information. Unfortunately, the facts of the case have failed to impress Dr. Calgary, and not even the warning from Jack’s sister makes it clear: “it’s not the guilty who matter. It’s the innocent… It’s we who matter. Don’t you see what you’ve done to us all?”
One of her brothers visits Dr. Calgary at his hotel, examining his story and providing Calgary with the background on his family–and the reason they are so upset by his news. Calgary, shocked, finds himself back at the lawyer’s seeking more information, and then proceeds to talk with some of the principles. “I thought that I was ending something, giving–shall we say–a different end to a chapter already written. But I was made to feel, I was made to see, that instead of ending something I was starting something. Something altogether new.” Meanwhile, the police, while doubtful of their ultimate success, are determinedly re-opening the case, and eventually Dr. Calgary’s goals dovetail with their own.
Technically, her writing is impressive. On re-read, I realized how streamlined and exacting her prose is, and all the clever ways she conveys dialogue without resorting to a simple “he said,” “she said” format that plagues less experienced writers.
Characterization is also impeccably done, a few short sentences illuminating an entire personality:
“Arthur Calgary walked down the sloping ramp and got into the boat as the ferryman steadied it with a boathook. He was an old man and gave Calgary the fanciful impression that he and his boat belonged together, were one and indivisible.”
“For a moment a feeling of poignant sadness came over him as he confronted the virile youth of the boy facing him.”
“Superintendent Huish was a tall, sad-looking man. His air of melancholy was so profound that no one would have believed that he could be the life and soul of a children’s party, cracking jokes and bringing pennies out of little boys’ ears.”
“It was a pretty, rather vapid little face, plastered with make-up, eyebrows plucked, hair hideous and stiff in a cheap perm.”
Writing like this reminds me of the certain degree of sloppiness I see in current writers who are churning out book after book. Easy enough to do, if your last ten books bore any resemblance to Parker phoning in Bad Business or Evanovich and her umpteenth Plum fiasco. But Christie wrote for over 40 years and had 66 detective novels to her credit; while not all of them hit excellence, I’m not sure they fell quite to those depths. Grand Dame indeed.
To top it off, the mystery was decent and the solution a surprise. There were pieces Christie left in place, and while I picked up on a few, I was short of constructing the picture.
Note: Christie does show her upper class British upbringing in this one. One character is referred to a “half-caste” and a “dark horse.” I assumed the dark-horse to refer to her status as a potential murderer, but it could be a racial remark. She ends up being quite a sympathetic character so it bothered me less than it could have.
At any rate, four stars for Christie’s delicious period piece and managing to surprise me with a couple different twists.