Dumb Witness (1937) by Agatha Christie

Today finds me doing another re-read, though ironically because I had the ITV TV adaptation of the book stuck in my head, the ending turned out slightly differently than I was expecting. Not a bad thing. Always had a slight soft spot for this book, loving the dog on the original cover, which most of you no doubt already know is a picture of Peter, Christie’s own dog.

Death is mentioned in the opening lines of this book, in particular the death of Emily Arundell. It is said to be a natural one, though every keen eyed mystery fan is thinking otherwise. The main issue of controversy initially seems to be over Emily’s will, which was changed recently; disinheriting her relations and giving most of her money to her companion Wilhelmina Lawson. The narrative goes back in time to look at some of the important events leading up to Emily’s death, in particular a fall she has on her stairs one night. Everyone blames her dog, Bob, for leaving his ball on the landing, but Emily knows this is not true and she is soon writing a rather cryptic letter to Hercule Poirot. Yet of course this letter does not reach him until a month after her death. How mysterious! Poirot is intrigued and soon begins a tentative investigation, which soon develops into a hunt for a murderer: ‘If you show the dog the rabbit, my friend, does he return to London. No, he goes into the rabbit hole. The dog hunts rabbits. Hercule Poirot hunts murderers.’ Through a number of cover stories Poirot converses with those who knew Emily, finding out more about the people involved and the events leading up to her final illness. But Poirot fears that the killer has not finished just yet…

Overall Thoughts

Whilst I don’t know how frequently this book would make readers’ top 10 Christie novels, this was still a story I rather enjoyed and during the re-read I was able to notice more little details. Poirot’s entry into this case is not conventional and in a way reminded me of the later Miss Marple novels, Nemesis (1971) and Sleeping Murder (1976), where Miss Marple is not handed a straight forward murder to solve, but is instead given a small number of pointers to direct her investigation. Consequently I think this tale has a slower, more naturalistic pace. This can also be seen in the way Poirot initially meets the various people involved in the case, beginning with the minor characters on the periphery of the plot before moving in on the main suspects. In addition this is one of Poirot’s cases which is narrated by Captain Hastings and it is fun to see him spoofing Holmes’ deductive technique. Though of course there is another link to the Sherlock Holmes canon in this book, in its reference to “the incident of the dog in the night,” and I think Christie has great fun playing around with this concept. I enjoyed how at points in the book Bob’s thoughts are included, it was a nice touch, though I think the ITV adaptation made more of Bob’s role.

Dumb Witness (1937), in my opinion, is a natural sequel to Cards on the Table (1936), as in both stories there is a focus on characters and their psychology. In this novel Poirot tells Hastings near the end of the case that: ‘If you reflect sufficiently on the character – the necessary character of the murder – then you will realise who the murderer is!’ Though I think Christie does insert a rather large and rather late clue into the book. It is interesting to see in her next work, Death on the Nile (1937) that Poirot’s case manages to cover both personality and physical clues.

Characterisation was definitely something I perhaps focused more on in my re-read of this book. Christie creates a cast of intriguing characters and I was immediately taken with Emily. Her personality is initially described in opposites:

‘She was, in every respect, a typical product of her generation. She had both its virtues and its vices. She was autocratic and often overbearing, but she was also intensely warm-hearted. Her tongue was sharp but her actions were kind. She was outwardly sentimental but inwardly shrewd.’

And I particularly liked how she has a number of Miss Marple qualities, (though not enough to stop herself getting killed of course). For instance it is said that ‘But her sensible, shrewd, Victorian mind would not admit that for a moment. There was no foolish optimism about the Victorians. They could believe the worst with the utmost ease’ and this reminded me of Miss Marple as she too can believe the worst of anybody. Though it would be another 5 years until Christie published another Marple case, but I think it is evident that she still had her in her thoughts. It was also quite clever of Christie to use animals as a way of depicting the class distinctions between Emily and the tradespeople in the market town she lives in:

‘Love how class distinctions between Emily and the tradespeople is played out through their animals: ‘Bob and Spot, the butcher’s dog, circled slowly round each other, hackles raised, growling gently. Spot was a stout dog of nondescript breed. He knew that he must not fight with customers’ dogs, but he permitted himself to tell them by subtle indication. Just exactly what mincemeat he would make of them were he free to do so.’

Describing it in that way really brought it alive for me. But it wasn’t just Emily who grabbed my attention as Theresa, one of Emily’s nieces is also an interesting specimen. Her mother was acquitted of poisoning her first husband before marrying her father, a fact which is not overlooked by the other suspects and like her brother, Charles, you could say they both lack moral fibre. In particular I would say Theresa reminded me of Veruca Salt from Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964) especially when she says this to Poirot:

‘But I want something better than that out of life! I want the best! The best food, the best clothes […] I want to live and enjoy – to go to the Mediterranean and lie in the warm summer sea – to sit round a table and play with exciting wads of money – to give parties – wild, absurd extravagant parties – I want everything that’s going in this rotten world – and I don’t want it someday – I want it now!’

When reading this last bit I was almost prepared for her to burst into the song Veruca sings before falling down the egg chute.

SPOILER WARNING: THE NEXT TWO PARAGRAPHS DISCUSSES THE KILLER IN RATHER BLUNT TERMS SO AVOID READING IF YOU HAVEN’T READ THE BOOK YET.

One of the main things I took away from this re-read was how Christie deliberately obscures and camouflages the killer from the beginning. With descriptions such as these you would never imagine Bella to be the killer, victim maybe, but not the killer: ‘very devoted mother’ ‘good woman’ ‘there was no fault to find with Bella. She was a good woman – a devoted wife and mother, quite exemplary in behaviour – and extremely dull!’ Furthermore, from page 16, it is implied that Bella’s husband has too much control over her. What makes these impressions more credible is that they come from Emily, a character who has no reason to cast aspersions on others. Similar worries also come from Charles who goes one step further and casts Dr Tanios for the role of murderous doctor, harking back to real life crime: ‘If I’d been him I’d have murdered the dreary Bella years ago! Doesn’t she strike you as the type of woman who is marked out by fate to be a victim? You know, I should never be surprised if bits of her turned up in a trunk at Margate or somewhere!’ Charles even calls his cousin ‘an earwig’ and other seemingly disinterested parties such as the sisters Tripp describe Bella as ‘quite a nice woman – but absolutely stupid and completely under her husband’s thumb.’ Christie is even a bit sneaky and includes one scene in the book featuring Bella alone with her husband, which feeds into the idea of not only Bella as innocent and victim like, but also shows her husband as shaping up to be the murderer. Yet that is exactly what Bella and Christie wants the characters and readers to think.

In contrast Wilhelmina Lawson, the companion, is made to look much more suspicious, as her job role is almost a mystery fiction shorthand for an untrustworthy character who is after their employer’s money and in fact Christie did have one such character be the murderer in one of her books. This anxiety over companions comes often in golden age detective fiction, making me wonder if it was a social anxiety particular to the times. Unlike Bella, Wilhelmina is presented in a more ambiguous way. At times she seems nice and innocent and weak, but at other times a certain hardness creeps in, especially when the will is mentioned. Is this guilt or a red herring, the reader wonders. Christie maintains the uncertainty through the way Poirot has a number of interviews with the suspects, creating a kaleidoscope of impressions about the characters, as they are seen from different points of view. This can be helpful for Poirot, but as in the case of Bella and her husband, it can be otherwise, as Poirot has to decide whether to trust the testimony of others or his own intuition. Unsurprisingly Hastings is far too trusting and believes where he shouldn’t, but I think he reflects the way, we as readers, can also be too trusting of what characters say about each other, especially when an image is built up by many different people.

SPOILERS FINISHED

So overall quite a good read from Christie, whose work I will hopefully be dipping into more this month for further re-reads. This is not your average mystery and is full of intriguing and slippery characters. The ending is also worth a read for its unorthodox nature and it is interesting that the police are not involved in this case from beginning to end.

Rating: 4/5

Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item (Gold Card): Dog

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About armchairreviewer

Qualified English teacher, with a passion for literature and crime fiction. On a random note I also own pygmy goats and chickens with afros (it doesn't get any cooler than that).
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10 Responses to Dumb Witness (1937) by Agatha Christie

  1. Brad says:

    I do agree that, while not top tier, there is much to like about this one, Kate, much of which you point out in your analysis. The list of suspects is small and encompasses many British mystery “types” – the obsequious companion, the party girl, the untrustworthy nephew, the foreigner. But Christie plays with our own prejudices there. I’m always grateful to her when I see her exploit the natural prejudices of 30’s white readers; it helps balance out the anti-Semitism one finds throughout her work.

    I don’t see Emily as a Miss Marple-type like I see her as that other kind of old lady: Miss Barton from The Moving Finger or Elspeth McGillicuddy. Miss Marple would never believe in spiritualism, and I don’t think she would find herself in Miss Arundell’s position regarding her relations. Miss Marple knows exactly what Raymond West is – a bad writer – and she doesn’t pretend it’s not true. She is tactful about it. If Raymond was a money stealer or a ladies’ man, Miss Marple would be onto it immediately and deal with it as she sees fit. (She would probably tell that relation that there will be no money coming to them.)

    SPOILER. I agree that the choice of murderer is an interesting one. Bella and Tanios remind me of an early incarnation of Gerda and John Christow, although I think the latter pair are much more deeply and effectively wrought. That Bella’s seeming stupidity masks a really cunning mind is rendered well here, and the fact that she dies quite a bit before the reveal adds to our confusion. The problem for me is that the main clue to her identity is without a doubt one of the clumsiest, most obvious signposts Christie ever invented. With the author’s cleverness for clueing, this was beneath her – and it gave the game away completely for me. END SPOILER

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh I agree the clue you refer to is a rather clumsy affair, but I’m guessing Christie might have worried that she had not really clued the killer enough, as after all this is quite a character focused story.

      Like

  2. Brian says:

    It’s been a very long time since I last read “Dumb Witness” and reading this beautifully detailed review (I didn’t read the “spoilers” though) makes me want to pull out this entry and re-read it. I do remember liking how Christie gave us a look into Bob’s thoughts, a clever use of POV [point of view] and something different from her pen.

    Speaking of “the incident of the dog in the night” Holmes motif that Christie uses at her disposal, she often borrows other motifs from the Holmes stories, especially in the “Poirot Investigates” short story volume. I think Christie was fond of the Sherlock Holmes stories. I wonder what her favorite ones were?

    Please do dip more into her books and provide some more great reviews like this one!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Santosh Iyer says:

    Did you notice the sentence in chapter 18 spoken by Poirot ?
    “I am reflecting on various people, handsome young ——, bluff, hearty——-, the pleasant——-, the quiet, reliable ——–.”
    Here Poirot names the murderers in 4 previous cases: Death in the Clouds, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and The Mystery of the Blue Train.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. The Dark One says:

    You certainly liked this one more than I did. I didn’t think it was bad; worse, I thought it was boring. But you make some good points here. I might have to revisit it.

    SPOLIERS

    It’s interesting what she does with Emily. From what I’ve read, Christie likes these cynical, tough old women who can see through everybody, and to have her make an error in judgement like that is good, shows she aware of her stereotypes and can play with them. Shame it wasn’t in a better book.

    SPOLIERS

    Also am I the only one who thought that clue was clever? There have been better, sure, but I thought it was well-done.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I guess it depends how your brain works. It’s clever if you don’t twig what is going on, but if your get where she’s going the ending lacks a bit of surprise perhaps. I think it comes across as a more clumsier clue in a re-read.

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  5. Pingback: DEFENDING THE HOLLOW | ahsweetmysteryblog

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