While serving a sentence for killing his foster 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 suspicion falls upon each of them, but that one of them is the real murderer. Christie's focus in this novel is upon the psychology of innocence, as the family members struggle with their suspicions of one another.
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 strike 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.
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. In order to do so he visits the retired local doctor, Dr MacMaster, to ask him about the 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.
Sarah Russell of The Guardian gave a short review to the novel in the December 9, 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.
Maurice Richardson of The Observer of November 2, 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.
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.'
A close film adaptation was made in 1984, 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.
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 February 4th to February 17, 2007, and included 14 performances.
Ordeal by Innocence was released by HarperCollins as a graphic novel adaptation on July 1, 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.
In the UK the novel was first serialised in the weekly magazine John Bull in two abridged instalments from September 20 (Volume 104, Number 2725) to September 27,1958 (Volume 104, Number 2726) with illustrations by “Fancett”.
In the US, the first publication was in the Chicago Tribune in thirty-six parts from Sunday, February 1 to Saturday, March 14, 1959 under the title of The Innocent.
An abridged version of the novel was also published in the February 21, 1959 issue of the Star Weekly Complete Novel, a Toronto newspaper supplement, with a cover illustration by Russell Maebus.