Book of the Month: Dumb Witness

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When Emily Arundell has a horrible accident, everyone blames it on her beloved dog, Bob. Miss Arundell however is afraid that it is her relatives who are trying to murder her and desperately writes to Hercule Poirot for help.  Two months later the detective receives the letter – but she is already dead. Poirot begins to investigate the sinister reasons behind her death…

Agatha Christie’s Dumb Witness, published in 1937, might not be one of the author’s best known works, but it offers a solid whodunnit with interesting twists and turns to baffle the reader. The novel, which is also known as Poirot Loses a Client and Mystery at Littlegreen House, is based on a short story titled The Incident of the Dog’s Ball (published in Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks: Fifty Years Of Mysteries).

In the novel, the renowned detective Hercule Poirot receives a mysterious letter from the wealthy Emily Arundell in which she begs for his help. Poirot sets off to find out what she is so afraid of, only to discover Miss Arundell is dead and has left her vast fortune to a surprising recipient. Was her death a tragic accident or was there foul play involved?

“It cannot be denied, Poirot, that you have a noticeable personality. I have often wondered that it has not hindered you in your career.”

Poirot sighed.

“That is because you have the mistaken idea implanted in your head that a detective is necessarily a man who puts on a false beard and hides behind a pillar! The false beard, it is vieux jeu, and shadowing is only done by the lowest branch of my profession. The Hercule Poirots, my friend, need only to sit back in a chair and think.”

– Agatha Christie’s Dumb Witness, 1937

The novel begins with a mysterious accident of Miss Arundell  – which may or may not have been caused by her frisky terrier Bob – and the events leading up to her death.  The old lady suspects foul play and tries to contact Hercule Poirot, but her cry for help does not reach the detective in time.

Poirot doesn’t appear until the fifth chapter, after which Captain Hastings acts as the narrator of the story. The pair travel to the sleepy town of Market Basing only to discover that the sender of the letter has passed away. Poirot however cannot let the matter lie and puts his little grey cells to the test.

In true Christie style, the plot then introduces a limited number of possible murderers who are all related by blood and have a lust for money. But which one or ones are guilty? And what part did Bob the dog play in the tragedy?

“‘I don’t know why dogs always go for postmen, I’m sure’, continued our guide.

‘It’s a matter of reasoning’, said Poirot.

‘The dog, he argues for 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, whom may not – that a dog soon learns. Eh bien, who is the person who most persistently tries to gain admission, rattling the door twice or three times a day – and who is never by any chance admitted. The postman.’”

– Agatha Christie’s Dumb Witness, 1937

The most refreshing part of the Dumb Witness is the amount of humour it portrays, especially with the introduction of Bob the terrier as a comical side character – with Hastings interpreting the little fellow’s thoughts.

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Hercule Poirot (David Suchet) and Captain Hastings (Hugh Fraser) with Bob in the TV adaptation of Dumb Witness.

One can wonder who in fact is the “dumb witness” Christie refers to in the title, since Bob is not present for most parts of the crime nor can give witness to the events. There is however one eyewitness who’s memories will be the key to solving the crime!

“Bob shifted his gaze impatiently to Poirot.

‘This woman’s a fool’, he seemed to be saying. ‘You look a brainy sort of chap. Balls are kept in certain places – this drawer is one of those places. There always has been a ball there. Therefore there should be a ball there now. That’s obvious dog-logic, isn’t it?’

It’s not there now, boy,’ I said.”

– Agatha Christie’s Dumb Witness, 1937

Dumb Witness manages to keep the reader hooked until the very end, yet there also lies an element of disappointment. This novel is not one of Christie’s most brilliant or inventive works: the final solution is slightly disappointing, as are the antics of the guilty party.

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However, even though Dumb Witness might not be as memorable as some of Christie’s other novels, it is still a good read, if not only for the reason that we get to see what goes on in Arthur Hasting’s mind and how he sees his brilliant detective friend. The best – albeit naïve – part of the novel is the introduction and characterization of the hilarious Bob the terrier, which Christie must have written solely to please the dog loving Brits.

Verdict: 3 out of 5

3xmustache– LS –

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