Most of us can probably remember two or three stories by Christie, which include animals in the title and of course how can we forget about dear old Bob in Dumb Witness; Poirot’s canine associate. However, a wider look at Christie’s work shows that animals, large and small, are deployed in all manner of ways, and not all of these are on the side of the angels…
Assistants – Giving a Helping Paw
When it comes to the debate about whether cats or dogs are better, the issue can be a fiercely contested one. The correct answer of course is cats, (and I’m not just saying that because my cat, (who is appropriately named Agatha), is sitting on my knee). But which side might Christie have chosen? In answering this question, we can draw upon her own pets and the way they made their way into some of her stories.
I think Christie gives herself away in her autobiography, as there is no ambiguity in her pleasure in her canine companions. Her first dog was a Yorkshire terrier and her happiness at this gift rendered her speechless:
‘On my fifth birthday, I was given a dog. It was the most shattering thing that ever happened to me; such unbelievable joy, that I was unable to say a word.’
Christie went on to become a lifelong owner of dogs, with her preference leaning more towards terriers. Her dogs meant so much to her that she often referred to them as belonging to the OFD, which stands for Order of the Faithful Dogs. Readers will be most familiar with her dog Peter, though her first dog was unusually named George Washington, (the name having been bestowed by her father, whilst Agatha chose his shorter name, Tony). Peter was the dedicatee of Dumb Witness: ‘Dear Peter, Most Faithful of Friends and Dearest of Companions, A Dog in a Thousand.’ He also makes his way into the book, with Bob, being his fictional counterpart.
Dumb Witness, which was based on the short story ‘The Incident of the Dog’s Ball’, sees Bob blamed by several people for Emily Arundell’s fall down the stairs. However, the idea takes hold that this was merely an act of murder which didn’t work out and various clues eventually point to the fact that Bob could not have left his ball on the stairs that night for Emily to fall over, as he was outside during the time in question. This incident provides a clever allusion to the well-known phrase first used by Sherlock Holmes of ‘the incident of the dog in the night.’ In the TV adaptation of this book Bob’s role as a detective’s assistant is expanded with him more demonstrably showing how Emily’s fall down the stairs was not an accident and he also aids Poirot in figuring out the deception caused by a mirror. In the adaptation shots are also taken from Bob’s perspective, which I feel mimics the way Christie has Captain Hastings interpret Bob’s thoughts in the novel. For example, when Bob hears the doorbell at one point Hastings includes an interpretation of his barks:
‘”I’ll have your liver and your lights!” he snarled. “I’ll tear you limb from limb! I’ll teach you to try and get into this house! Just wait until I get my teeth into you.”’
This is then followed by Hastings interpreting Bob’s reaction to being told to calm down:
‘Bob, dragged by the collar, was immured in the morning room much against his will.
“Always spoiling a fellow’s sport,” he grumbled. “First chance I’ve had of giving anyone a really good fright for ever so long. Just aching to get my teeth into a trouser leg. You be careful of yourself without me to protect you.”’
Furthermore, I would say Christie also bestows other sleuthing qualities upon Bob in the book, having Poirot in one passage explain why dogs ‘always go for postmen.’ Poirot’s reasoning is as follows:
“It’s a matter of reasoning,” said Poirot. “The dog, he argues from reason. He is intelligent; he makes his deductions according to his point of view. There are people who may enter a house and there are people who may not – that a dog soon learns. Eh bien, who is the person who most persistently tries to gain admission, rattling on the door twice or three times a day – and who is never by any chance admitted? The postman. Clearly, then, an undesirable guest from the point of view of the master of the house. He is always sent about his business, but he persistently returns and tries again. Then a dog’s duty is clear, to aid in driving this undesirable man away, and to bite him if possible. A most reasonable proceeding.”
The other occasion upon which one of Christie’s dogs make a prominent presence in her work is in one of her later novels, Postern of Fate. I think it is fair to say this is not one of her best books, though a re-read of it last year strongly left me with the conclusion that Hannibal, Tommy and Tuppence Beresford’s dog, is one of the few bright spots of the story. Hannibal is a Manchester terrier and he is based on Christie’s dog Bingo and the UK dust jacket includes a photograph of him, as shown opposite. Hannibal assists at several points in the book, including warning Tommy and Tuppence that there is a shooter hiding in the garden. He also gains a trophy for himself in coming away with a sample of the criminal’s trousers. Further chasing and biting of the bad guys also crops up later in the book. Yet Hannibal acts as more than a guard dog in this story, as his desire to go into the churchyard, ignoring Tommy’s instructions, leads to Tommy uncovering an important grave head stone. As with Bob in Dumb Witness, Hannibal’s “thoughts” are included or inferred by the other characters.
Nevertheless, this does not mean cats are excluded from the Christie canon. They too lend a paw in the aid of justice. However, in comparing the instances where either a cat or a dog helps one of Christie’s sleuths, we can see some differences emerge. Firstly, when a cat enables a detective to alight upon the solution, the assistance provided by the feline comes across as rather impersonal. For example, in A Murder is Announced (1950) Miss Marple is staying at the local vicar’s home where there is a cat, (unusually named Tiglath Pileser, after the Assyrian king). Tiglath chews at a flex of wire coming from a lamp, and then subsequently causes someone to spill water on it, by swiping at them with a paw. The light fuses and this act of misbehaviour shows Miss Marple how the lights went out during the murder of Rudy Scherz. This detached and aloof position is reinforced by the way the support rendered comes about through the cat’s natural behaviour.
Nevertheless, Christie’s investigators are more than happy to harness a cat’s natural instinct, such as Tommy Beresford in ‘The Cracker: Part 2’ in Partners in Crime (1929). Here Tommy pours valerian outside a door, in order to attract the alley cats to it, thereby showing his rescuers which building he is being held. A final difference between the way cats and dogs tend to be depicted in Christie’s tales is that it is only the latter who have their inner thoughts included in the text. This is evident in both Dumb Witness and Postern of Fate.
However, animals are not always used to further the cause of truth and justice in the stories of Christie. Instead criminals have used them to assist in their murder plots… The prize for the “ickiest” example has to be given to Murder is Easy, in which the killer bumps off one of their victims by putting pus from their cat’s ear into the victim’s hand wound. Whilst the most dramatic example is arguably found in Endless Night, which has its roots in an earlier Miss Marple short story entitled ‘The Case of the Caretaker’s wife’. This was discovered amongst her notes and was published for the first time in Agatha Christie’s Murder in the Making (2011) by John Curran. In both cases a horse is deliberately spooked in order to make it throw off and ultimately kill its’ rider.
A gentler instance of animals being used for criminal ends can be found in Death in the Clouds, where a wasp is used in an attempt to misdirect everyone as to how the victim died. The killer let the wasp loose within the aeroplane cabin, and one passenger even goes onto kill it with their coffee cup. So, when Giselle is found dead with a mark on her neck it is initially supposed that she died from a reaction to a wasp’s sting. Of course, with Poirot on board the plane this theory does not last for long…
Another example of criminal plans involving an animal which I came across was in the short story ‘The Capture of Cerberus,’ which can be found in the short story collection The Labours of Hercules. A wily culprit hides a packet of cocaine inside the mouth of a fierce dog named Cerberus, when the club they are at is raided by the police. Interestingly the design for the dust jacket of the hardback edition of this short story collection did not meet Agatha Christie’s approval and she wrote to them saying this: ‘All I can say is – try again’! Changes were made to the subsequent paperback and later editions.
Avengers – You Don’t Want to Mess with the Cat
No Christie was not anticipating the Marvel superheroes of the same name, but in her short story collection, The Hound of Death (1933), she includes the tale, ‘The Strange Case of Sir Arthur Carmichael.’ Yet to fully appreciate this story you need to go back further in time to one of Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories, ‘The Black Cat,’ (1843) as Christie’s later work carries on and develops many of themes brought out in this earlier tale. In Poe’s story the narrator abuses his black cat, Pluto, removing one of his eyes before hanging him. Yet this is only the beginning of the tale as another cat, one eyed, arrives at his home, a cat who very much reverses roles with the narrator, becoming the man’s persecutor. Even the white blotch on the cat’s fur continually reminds him of the gallows and his previous crime. The man’s madness increases exponentially and eventually he kills his own wife, an act he blames entirely on the second cat. Did the cat merely foreshadow the narrator’s own journey to the hangman’s noose? Or was the cat in any way responsible for what happened in the end? Was it an unorthodox deliverance of justice or retribution for the first cat’s death? It’s stories like this which show the uncomfortable and ambiguous feeling people can have towards cats.
With this in mind we can now take a look at Christie’s short story. Lady Carmichael attempts to put her stepson, Sir Arthur’s, soul into a cat, before killing the cat in question with prussic acid. Her efforts have seemingly worked as her stepson’s behaviour becomes remarkably cat-like, as well as unstable. Lady Carmichael intends to have her stepson declared mentally unfit, so she and her own son can control the large estate. However, a feline apparition is seen around the home and it appears that this ghostly cat is far from happy, violently shredding a chair cover, before honing in on Lady Carmichael herself. Unsurprisingly the apparition looks exactly like the cat she had killed. A fall in a lake returns her stepson to his senses, yet this reversal ultimately leads to his stepmother’s death of shock following, an attack from what appears to be a cat.
We have a cat here who is abominably treated and is even used to harm a human being, yet as in the Poe short story we have a mystery tinged with the supernatural, which means the cat is able to strike back at the one who struck it down. This story also continues the idea of cats having the ability to unnerve their human neighbours, with a particular emphasis placed on the sounds cats make: ‘unmistakably angry in its tone – a fierce cat yowl, long-drawn and menacing. And then as it ceased the brass hook outside the door was rattled violently as by a cat’s paw.’ Yet as with Poe’s story, the cat’s menace is only intended for one person, the one whose guilt begins with an act of violence against the cat and again as with Poe only death will be deemed an appropriate reparation. This ability for cats to alarm humans, aided by their stealthy and silent movements, is also explored in this story when such movements are found in Sir Arthur Carmichael himself.
Animal Imagery – A Picture Paints a Thousand Words
So far I have been looking at animal characters within Christie’s novels, but now I am going to turn my attention to those instances where Christie uses an animal vignette to describe one of her human characters. Miss Marple is one such figure and I could be wrong, but it seems to me that animal imagery is used far more frequently in her descriptions than they are with Hercule Poirot, (though in The Big Four his eyes are likened to a cat’s.) The types of animals chosen to depict Miss Marple perhaps do not vary much, but their consistency helps to reinforce certain ideas about her.
The key concept which these images convey is how dangerous Miss Marple is. Whilst she is no ninja or street fighter, (though if Phelps ever gets her mitts on her she could become one), her dangerousness lies in her mental powers. Through her skills of observation and intuition Miss Marple is able to peel away the carefully made up personas of those around her. There is no chance of hiding anything from her, which is bad news for anyone planning a murder or two in the nearby vicinity.
Initially this vision of Miss Marple is depicted quite ambiguously. In her debut novel appearance, The Murder at the Vicarage, the vicar’s wife Griselda, introduces her to the reader as ‘the worst cat in the village,’ who ‘always knows every single thing that happens’ and ‘draws the worst inferences from it.’ Later Griselda says that she is a ‘nasty old cat,’ which suggests that Miss Marple’s ability to uncover the truth is not automatically seen as desirable.
Yet as Miss Marple’s cases continue this perspective shifts and these her sleuthing powers are regarded as a force for good and something others wish to rely upon. Another reason why Miss Marple’s skills may seen quite dangerous and deadly, is because they are not a defensive power, but one which goes on the offensive. For instance, in the short story ‘Sanctuary’ Miss Marple’s thinking is given a feline and predatory tone: she ‘considered for a moment or two, and then pounced on the point.’ Moreover, in an earlier story, A Murder is Announced, a character asks the question, ‘Wouldn’t she like to get her nice ladylike teeth into this?’ Here the animal imagery is less direct, as it infers animal-like behaviours.
The deadliness of Miss Marple is more pronounced in the later books where Christie begins to use classical allusions to describe her sleuth. In A Pocket Full of Rye Miss Marple is likened to ‘an avenging fury,’ which in Greek mythology were also known as Erinyes. They were associated with vengeance and the merciless execution of justice. Interestingly for us physical descriptions of them often employ animal-based imagery ranging from them having bat’s wings and snakes as hair, to having dog’s heads. Miss Marple herself is said to be as ‘dangerous as a rattlesnake’ in A Murder is Announced.
Yet perhaps what unnerves people the most about Miss Marple is the fact that despite her predatory detective skills, her own appearance camouflages them, so those new to her are unaware of the type of person they are dealing with. Someone a bit more clued in is Cherry Baker in the novel, Nemesis, who says to Miss Marple, ‘Seeing you with your wool and the pretty things you knits and all that anyone would think you were gentle as a lamb. But there’s times I could say you’d behave like a lion if you was goaded into it.’ The disparity between a lamb and a lion is great in showing us how well concealed Miss Marple’s dangerousness is.
Miss Marple is not the only character whose descriptions use animals to denote deadliness, as such vignettes are also employed with many of Christie’s suspects and killers. For instance, in Sleeping Murder Helen remembers the killer’s hands as ‘monkey’s paws,’ whilst Kay in Towards Zero is said to be a ‘tiger-cat.’ However, I feel the feline imagery used with Kay is not empowering in the way it is with Miss Marple and is used more as a comment upon her determination to hold onto her husband, (whilst flirting with other men).
Anxiety on the part of suspects is also portrayed using animal imagery. The butler in Towards Zero says that:
‘everything that’s said and done in this house lately seems to me to mean something that’s different from what it sounds like…Made me think of a trainer who’s got a lot of wild animals into a cage, and then the cage door shuts. I felt all of a sudden, as though we were all caught in a trap.’
This final image is one which crops up more than once in Christie’s work, with suspects becoming increasingly anxious knowing that some uncontrollable violence is within their midst and that they are unable to figure out from whom it originates. The fact they very often cannot live the area heightens this tension. This fear is naturally even worse for those who have something to be feel guilty about. Murder on the Orient Express demonstrates this quite well, with all the suspects trapped on a snow bound train. During the interviewing process it is said that Antonio Foscarelli ‘had a wary look in his eye as he came in. He shot nervous glances from side to side like a trapped animal.’
However, perhaps the most extensive use of animal imagery in this way can be found in And Then There Were None. Here references to animals reveal the rapid degeneration and mental disintegration of the suspects, as the body count rises on the island. The fewer survivors there are, the more distrust grows between the remaining characters, with Vera Claythorne near the end of the book seeing Philip Lombard’s face as a ‘wolf’s’, placing an emphasis on his ‘horrible teeth.’ This time it is not the teeth of Miss Marple ready to pounce on an unsuspecting killer, but a victim fearing that they’re next in the line of corpses.
At the start of the book we soon learn that all the suspects have killed before, which adds a sharper edge to the allusions made to predatory animals. For example, Lombard is said to move ‘like a panther, smoothly and noiselessly;’ two helpful facets for a murderer. Although regardless of their killer status, they are still the potential victim of an unknown other, so even the dangerous sounding Lombard is equally likened to a ‘beast of prey.’
It is possibly ironic that the animal imagery used to describe the killer is rather un-predator like, often referring to vegetarian creatures such as the ‘tortoise’. Though maybe the tortoise references allude to the story of the hare and the tortoise and the adage that slow and steady wins the race. The suspects are quite hare like, trying to work fast to figure out who is bumping them off one by one. Nevertheless, all that effort is ultimately futile. They may be successful killers, but they are not as smart as their enemy within, which is asseverated in the character of William Blore. He is said to have the walk ‘of a slow padding animal […] a look of mingled ferocity and stupidity about him […] like a beast at bay ready to charge its pursuers.’ He lacks the acumen to figure out what is going on, so his undirected deadliness is significantly impaired.
It is not surprising that the characters quickly feel like they are in a trap with Lombard reflecting that the money used to bribe him to come to the island was like a ‘little bit of cheese to get me into the trap.’ Furthermore, as levels of hysteria rise Vera shouts: ‘Don’t you see. We’re the zoo. Last night we were hardly human anymore. We’re the zoo.’ Vera’s identification with wild animals almost feels like the beginning of an acceptance of what is to befall them and perhaps a realisation of the what their act of killing has done to them psychologically. There’s also a recognition of how their murderer status separates them from the rest of society, in the way a wild animal is kept apart from the visitors who come to see them.
Since we get to spend the most time with Vera, I think her descriptions are more complex than some of the others, such as Anthony Marston, the first victim, who is a ‘young bull with no nerves.’ Instead Vera, despite ultimately being a killer twice over, is said to be ‘like a bird that has dashed its head against glass and has been picked up by human hands.’ I found this to be quite a surprising image to find in this book given the backgrounds of the suspects. I wondered if Christie was intentionally echoing Susan Glaspell’s 1916 play Trifles, in which a dead caged bird becomes symbolic of the wife that turns on her husband. Are we meant to feel sympathy for Vera? Are we supposed to see her as a victim of her class and social background, in the way the wife of Trifles is shown to be a victim of cultural and gender expectations?
There is much more which could be said on the animals and animal imagery in Christie’s fiction. Sometimes such images add to a much wider thematic framework, as in the case of Miss Marple. Other times they are there to quickly capture a character’s personality, such as with Thomas, depicted as a ‘hermit crab,’ in Towards Zero. Animal imagery can also be used to point towards a killer, but it is also used to portray suspect anxiety and even detective supremacy. Animal characters ambiguously aid sleuth and murderer in Christie’s books and even provide the occasional clue.
Well done for making it to the end of the post! Give yourself a pat on the back. I hope you have enjoyed it.
Here’s to another 100 posts!
Who was that groaning at the back?