The Agatha Christie Challenge – Dumb Witness (1937)

Dumb WitnessIn which the great Hercule Poirot receives a commission from a Miss Emily Arundell, only to discover she had died a couple of months earlier. Together with his faithful Captain Hastings, he examines the circumstances of her death and concludes it was not as natural as the doctor had presumed. Miss Arundell had recently changed her will but had her scheming relatives known this, and did any of them decide to help her on her way to the next world? Poirot sees through the falseness and deceptions, but is he able to prevent a second death? As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to tell you whodunit!

wire-haired-fox-terrierThe book is dedicated “To Dear Peter, most fruitful of friends and dearest of companions, a dog in a thousand”. I’m not certain how many other books have been dedicated to animals, but it’s not inappropriate for this book. The Dumb Witness of the title is Miss Arundell’s wire-haired terrier, Bob, a playful chap with a penchant for leaving his ball at the top of the stairs, where an old lady could trip and take a tumble, with serious consequences. I can assure you, gentle reader, that Bob is not the murderer. The book was originally published in the US in The Saturday Evening Post, in seven instalments in November and December 1936 under the title Poirot Loses a Client. In the UK, it first appeared in an abridged format in the Women’s Pictorial magazine in seven instalments from February to April 1937 under the title Mystery of Littlegreen House. In book format, it first appeared in July 1937 in the UK and a little later that year in the US, still using its American title of Poirot Loses a Client.

MurderI remember this book as being one of my mother’s favourites; I think she really enjoyed the fact that the dog plays such an important role. To be fair, I think the title misleads the reader somewhat. This is one of those books that I’ve read countless times but can never remember whodunit; and I think part of the reason for that is that I expect the dog to feature even more in Poirot’s grey cells procedure than he does. The title “Dumb Witness” implies that the dog actually sees the murder take place and somehow betrays the identity of the murderer by some kind of animal instinct. Well, neither is true, as far as I can make out. It’s still an enjoyable read, and Christie lays some false trails that we follow hook line and sinker; once you realise the psychological game that one of the suspects is playing, the logic of the case all falls into place quite comfortably.

liarWe don’t learn much about Poirot that we didn’t already know. He is perhaps a little more disgraceful than usual in the way that he tells so many lies in order to obtain information from the suspects, much to Captain Hastings’ embarrassment; that does lead to some amusing exchanges as he is often rumbled as the book progresses. Unusually, he is very indiscreet about some of his previous cases, and reveals the names of the murderers in The Mysterious Affair at Styles, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, The Mystery of the Blue Train and Death in the Clouds, so I would really recommend that you don’t read this book until you have read those. I can’t think why Christie would have decided to spoil so much of her own work.

moustache2There are a few humorous episodes; when he is interrogating Theresa Arundell (even though she doesn’t realise it) she decides to call him Hercule, which I don’t think anyone else in his books so far has dared to be so personal. You sense he doesn’t like it, by the way he quickly moves the conversation on. Later, Poirot becomes the butt of Miss Peabody’s humour, when she (with such impertinence!) mocks his moustache. In another scene, where Poirot (lying again) is pretending to be interested in buying a house, he encounters two estate agents of varying abilities of salesmanship, Mr Gabler and Miss Jenkins. Given the way she ridicules them, I think it’s fair to say that Mrs Christie doesn’t hold the practitioners of that profession in very high esteem.

ManservantAs is so often the case in these early books, the story is narrated by Captain Hastings, but this will be the last time his faithful friend sets down Poirot’s sleuthing in writing until Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case, published posthumously in 1975, but written at the height of Christie’s powers. But to keep some continuity, we are reintroduced briefly to Poirot’s manservant George, whom he had first met in The Mystery of the Blue Train.

Men in chargeOne interesting aspect of how Christie characterises Emily Arundell is to show how, in the Victorian era when Miss Arundell was growing up, men were socially far more important than women, both in their achievements and in their general significance. Even though Charles Arundell is portrayed as a fairly amoral chap, Miss Emily still insists that he has the best of the spare rooms, because it’s correct to treat men more positively than women. Theresa can have the old nursery, she’ll be grand. It’s also fascinating to read how the pharmacy service was a very different kettle of fish in those days. Today, we go to the doctor, he gives us a prescription and the pharmacist provides the drugs. We might be involved in the decision to prescribe, but on the whole the patient has the most insignificant role in the whole administration of drugs. In Dumb Witness, Dr Tanios asks for his own “mixture” to be made up. “A very interesting mixture it was” says the pharmacist, “”one I’ve not previously become acquainted with.” The man spoke as of a rare botanical trophy. “It makes a change, sir, when you get something new. Very interesting combination of drugs, I remember….”” Can you imagine wandering into Boots and just suggesting an odd concoction to the pharmacist today? I don’t think you’d get very far.

basingstokeAs usual, there are a few references to check out. The book is set in the town of Market Basing, in Berkshire; it’s not hard to imagine that the inspiration for this name comes from Basingstoke, although that’s in Hampshire. Market Basing recurs in a number of Christie’s works, including the short story The Market Basing Mystery, which was not published in the UK until 1974’s collection, Poirot’s Early Cases, but was the forerunner for the title story in Murder in the Mews. Market Basing is also said to be close to St Mary Mead, the village where Miss Marple lives, although I always think of that as being in Kent. There’s a lot of vagueness in the Christie village environment.

SmyrnaThe Tanios family are said to have come back to the UK from living in Smyrna. That was the contemporary name for Izmir, Turkey, and during the 1930s was a hive of archaeological industry, with which Mrs Christie would doubtless have been familiar. The Tanioses are now living at the Durham Hotel, in Bloomsbury, but there’s no currently hotel with that name in London. Theresa and Donaldson enjoy a drive out to Worthem Abbey, described as one of the local beauty spots. Again, no such place exists, but with a slight letter change to Wortham Abbey, then you have such a place in Devon and also in Suffolk. Miss Lawson has now moved to 17 Clanroyden Mansions, W2. There’s no such address, but in the vicinity there is a Clanricarde Gardens, which might be the inspiration. In a moment of fury, Theresa insists that Poirot goes away… “and take St Leonards with you”. It took me ages to work out that her joke is a play on the town of St Leonards that adjoins Hastings in Sussex. Poirot thinks it’s funny. Hastings isn’t so impressed.

Boulle cabinetMiss Emily Arundell was in the habit of taking Dr Loughbarrow’s Liver Capsules. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these are an invention of Christie’s – if they really had existed in real life, sales would have plummeted. And in one of the seances that Miss Lawson liked to attend, the planchette revealed that there was a mystery regarding the key to the Boule cabinet. Nothing to do with the French ball game, but rather a cabinet designed by André-Charles Boulle, cabinet maker to the King of France.

PoundAs you possibly know, I like to research the present-day value of any significant sums of money mentioned in Christie’s books, just to get a more realistic feel for the amounts in question. There are quite a few large sums bandied around in this book that I think bear some investigation. Theresa Arundell says she originally inherited £30,000 from her father, which would have been enough to provide a regular income of £1200 per year; but she’s spent it all and has just £221 left. As at 1937, £30,000 was the equivalent of a good £1.4m, and that regular income of £1200 would have provided at today’s rate an annual allowance of £57,000. Not bad, but not enough for Theresa. Her pathetic £221 today would be worth £10,500. No wonder she was worried. Littlegreen House is on the market for £2,850, which today would be a modest £135,000. Haven’t property prices have soared over the last 80 years? And the value of Emily Arundell’s estate? £375,000. Today that would have been a handy £18m. Worth killing for?

Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for Dumb Witness:

Publication Details: 1937. Pan Books paperback, 9th printing, published in 1971, price 25p. The cover illustration depicts the Tarot card of Death, which I think is a little misleading as I can’t recall tarot cards playing a part in the story at all. There’s a dog’s collar – maybe a little large for Bob, hard to say – a few pills and a nail with some thread attached – that’s more significant. It’s quite an evocative image but I’m not sure to what extent it really reflects the story.

How many pages until the first death: 1. Miss Arundell’s death is reported in the first sentence of the first page of the book. However, we then go back in time and see her conversations with her family and acquaintances, and the first four chapters of the book are written so that we almost feel she’s still alive.

Funny lines out of context: Slim pickings, I’m sorry to say. Nothing to report.

Memorable characters: Emily Arundell is a well-drawn, fully believable character; you feel you understand her motivations and her old-fashioned ways very well – even though she dies in the first sentence! The amoral Charles and Theresa are also very vivid. And I was very entertained by the mischievous Miss Peabody, ridiculing Poirot’s moustache and not believing his story about writing a biography of General Arundell.

Christie the Poison expert:
Christie employs her knowledge of and interest in poisons to very good effect in this book. We discover that the gardener uses arsenic and is surprised by how much of the bottle has been used. Dr Tanios is known to buy a bottle of chloral from the pharmacist; this has been the cause of death in Christie’s previous books, The Secret Adversary, The Seven Dials Mystery and Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? But it’s what Miss Lawson believes was the ectoplasm leaving Miss Arundell’s body during the final séance that really nails Christie’s poison credentials; I won’t give the game away by explaining it, but suffice to say, it’s NOT ectoplasm!

Class/social issues of the time:

There’s really only one of Christie’s betes noir that gets a hammering in the book – and it really does get a hammering – and that’s the xenophobic distrust and dislike of foreigners. It’s everywhere. The Greek Dr Tanios comes in for most of the prejudice:

“Emily Arundell’s people, who were what is known as “service people”, simply did not marry Greeks”.

“Bella had married a foreigner – and not only a foreigner, but a Greek. In Miss Arundell’s prejudiced mind a Greek was almost as bad as an Argentine or a Turk. The fact that Dr Tanios had a charming manner and was said to be extremely able in his profession only prejudiced the old lady slightly more against him. She distrusted charm and easy compliments. For this reason, too, she found it difficult to be fond of the two children. They had both taken after their father in looks – there was really nothing English about them.” I believe this is the first instance of Christie recognising that her characters’ racism is in fact true prejudice and not just a nice middle-class trait.

In the words of Isabel Tripp: “Not that I’ve anything to say against Mrs Tanios – she’s quite a nice woman, but absolutely stupid and completely under her husband’s thumb. Of course, he’s really a Turk, I believe – rather dreadful for an English girl to marry a Turk, I think, don’t you? It shows a certain lack of fastidiousness.”
And in the words of Miss Lawson (ironically in conversation with the Belgian Poirot): “Of course, Dr Tanios pretends to be very fond of his wife and he’s quite charming to her. His manners are really delightful. But I don’t trust foreigners. They’re so artful!”

Miss Lawson doesn’t care who she recklessly offends with her blanket racism. “If he’d been an Englishman, I would have advised her – but there, he isn’t an Englishman… And she looks so peculiar, poor thing, so – well, so scared. What can he have been doing to her? I believe Turks are frightfully cruel sometimes.” “Dr Tanios is a Greek.” “Yes of course, that’s the other way about – I mean, they’re usually the ones who get massacred by the Turks – or an I thinking of Armenians?”

Poirot also receives some prejudice; consider this conversation between Miss Peabody and the great detective: “”Goin’ to write a book, eh?” “Yes.” “In English?” “Certainly – in English.” “But you’re a foreigner. Eh? Come now, you’re a foreigner, aren’t you?” “That is true.” She transferred her gaze to me. “You are his secretary, I suppose?” “Er – yes,” I said doubtfully. “Can you write decent English?” “I hope so.””

Classic denouement: In a sense. There’s an important person missing, which slightly detracts from the full drama, but it can’t really be avoided!

Happy ending? You don’t really get a sense of natural justice, tying up the loose ends, so it’s not really that happy an ending, and a few of the characters have a rather mournful future to look forward to. Nevertheless, two other characters appear to be happy in their new lives. And Bob gets a surprise ending too.

Did the story ring true? Not especially. The manner in which Emily Arundell’s first accident took place is, I feel, highly unbelievable. The characters are very believable though.

Overall satisfaction rating: It’s an enjoyable story but I think it lacks a certain je ne sais quoi, so I’m giving it 7/10.

Death on the NileThanks for reading my blog of Dumb Witness and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge is another big one – Death on the Nile. I can’t remember too much about the book but I’m very familiar with the Peter Ustinov film, so I can remember whodunit even before starting to re-read. So that will be an interesting experience! As always, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

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