Dumb Witness by Agatha Christie

Originally published in 1937
Hercule Poirot #17
Preceded by Murder in the Mews
Followed by Death on the Nile

This has also been published as Poirot Loses a Client.

In Agatha Christie’s Dumb Witness, Hercule Poirot investigates the very suspicious death of an elderly spinster who, fearing the very worst, had written to the great detective prior to her demise.

Everyone blamed Emily Arundell’s accident on a rubber ball left on the stairs by her frisky terrier. But the more she thought about her fall, the more convinced she became that one of her relatives was trying to kill her.…

On April 17th she wrote her suspicions in a letter to Hercule Poirot. Mysteriously, he didn’t receive the letter until June 28th…by which time Emily was already dead.…

I need to start this post by acknowledging the elephant in this room. I forgot that the short story collection Murder in the Mews followed Cards on the Table. There is, of course, no excuse for this oversight which really amounts to carelessness on my part. Rest assured that this will be rectified in the coming weeks! Now, on with the story…

Emily Arundell’s nephew and nieces are visiting her to spend the Easter weekend at her home in the country. During their stay Emily meets with a shocking accident when she tumbles down her stairs having apparently slipped on her terrier’s ball. Fortunately she emerges just badly bruised but as she thinks over the affair she becomes increasingly concerned that it might not be an accident.

Emily decides to take the precaution of writing to Hercule Poirot to seek his advice. Unfortunately for her the letter is not posted until after she dies several weeks later. When he, accompanied by his friend Hastings, travels to Market Basing, he learns that she was widely believed to have died of a malady that had nearly killed her a year and a half earlier. Poirot however suspects that Miss Arundell had reason to think an attempt had been made on her life and wonders if the would-be killer might have tried again…

The opening chapters of this book are quite remarkable and do a fantastic job of introducing us to Emily and the members of her family and household who will be our principal suspects. There are some absolutely fantastic turns of phrase employed in Christie’s prose that give the narration a somewhat sardonic tone. One favorite of mine is that after describing how Miss Lawson, Miss Arundel’s companion, had professed ignorance that she would be named as the principal beneficiary of the will there is a paragraph break before the narrator adds ‘A lot of people, of course, did not believe this.’

Similarly I think Christie’s depiction of Emily Arundell feels really boldly drawn, in the best possible way. Between her love of her dog, Bob, and her extremely particular way that she organizes the household festivities and makes the bedroom arrangements (giving priority to her nephew over her niece because ‘In Miss Arundell’s day, women took second place’), we quickly build a strong picture of her. Indeed, I might well suggest that I consider her to be one of Christie’s most dimensional victims – helped by the fact hat we not only encounter her prior to the crime but she feels present in much of what follows as characters debate what her wishes or intentions might have been and we focus on the question of what she must have thought prior to her death.

I also really like the mechanism of Poirot becoming engaged in this case when a piece of mail is belatedly delivered to him. This is not only intriguing in itself as a question – why does this letter suddenly appear months after the death – but I appreciate that Poirot seems to regard it as a matter of honor to investigate as a result. It is curious to consider whether he would have had the same curiosity had the letter arrived when it was intended. Would there have been enough to catch his attention?

Poirot’s investigations take the form of a series of interviews but there is little sense of repetition or stagnation here. Each interviewee presents something new that pushes our understanding of the case forwards either by presenting some new piece of evidence or by clarifying or complicating the relationships within the family. Presentationally there is also the novelty that Poirot engages in a variety of minor deceptions to encourage those suspects to talk to him prompting a couple of comical moments where Hastings expresses his dismay at such unsportsmanlike conduct on the part of his friend.

The supporting characters are arguably a little less dimensional than the victim but each makes a strong impression and has a very clearly defined personality (an exception is Miss Peabody, Emily’s friend who has some wonderfully sharp dialogue, but she is not a suspect). Few come off particularly sympathetically but I felt there were nuances in the characterizations, particularly that of the Greek physician Dr. Tanios who is presented as a subject of much suspicion largely because of his nationality.

Even Emily’s little terrier, Bob, feels pleasingly characterful – helped by Hasting’s decision to interpret his barking. This is peak self-induglent Hastings behavior and I am absolutely in love with it, in part because Christie doesn’t overdo it and limits it to just a couple of scenes. It’s odd but I think it speaks perfectly to his romantic and imaginative character.

The solution is quite clever and I liked some of the subtle clueing that pointed to the solution. While the relevance of a particular clue may elude some readers, I think the way it is visually suggested is superb and certainly appeals to the imagination. Similarly, I think that the choice of villain is an interesting one and I appreciate in revisiting this very nearly in order how it feels quite unexpected in the context of the previous few novels. Poirot’s explanation is clear and struck me as holding together pretty well.

Unfortunately this post cannot be entirely positive.

There is a clue that is revealed midway through the novel that is predicated on someone doing something incredibly odd while wearing something that seems to make no sense. This aspect of the story bothers me every time I revisit it and I have never managed to make peace with it yet. I really dislike how contrived the situation feels and the idea that it exists purely for the benefit of the reader rather than because it makes any sense for the characters involved.

The other objection I have to the book is its use of a racist expression which is quoted for the title of Chapter Eighteen and casually used by Poirot himself in conversation with Hastings. I think it is that latter part which is what makes me most uncomfortable with this – Poirot is, after all, the hero and so I don’t like to think of him in such a light.

It’s really disappointing because in almost every other regard Dumb Witness is superb. After all, it boasts one of Christie’s most memorable victims, a puzzling premise and a rather clever solution.

The Verdict: This clever tale boasts one of Christie’s most distinctive victims and a broadly satisfying conclusion.

6 thoughts on “Dumb Witness by Agatha Christie

  1. In the audio book available at Amazon, narrated by Hugh Fraser,the title of chapter 18 has been changed to “A Cuckoo In The Nest”
    And Poirot’s words have been changed to “There is a saying, is there not, a cuckoo in the nest. Eh
    bien, that is just what I find here. There is – not a cuckoo – but a murderer in our nest.”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It is possible I may have listened to this rather than read the book the first time around. I had no memory of the passage at all and I think I would have remembered it…


  2. Aidan – thanks for the post. Perhaps I should re-read this one as it has been years since doing so. I always relegated it as a middling Christie bothered by the same plot contrivance that you mentioned. While it is still well above “The Clocks” or “Elephants Can Remember”, there are much better Poirot stories than this one.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I do think complaints about the contrivance are fair and obviously they bother me too but I do love some of Hastings’ narration here. The tone of the opening and the character of Emily factors heavily here.
      I have not read The Clocks or Elephants in years so I am a little apprehensive about returning to those!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m glad you enjoyed this one, because when I first read it during my Great Christie Binge – as one of the final Poirots I would read for the first time, no less – it did not come off as being anything memorable. It’s one of those Christies, in my opinion, which would be an above-average or generally well-regarded novel by another author, like Marsh or Mitchell or who have you – but for the Queen of Crime, it seems a bit sub-par. I remember that, although there was good characterization and Hastings has some good moments, the pacing was not to my personal liking and the cluing wasn’t what I’d hoped it to be.

    You have, however, inspired me to take another look at the limited circle of suspects and the solution itself – especially now that I’ve read books like Green for Danger, The Problem of the Green Capsule, and The Reader Is Warned which have similarly small closed circles; and solutions which, while dazzling, do not rely on a Christie-esque “surprise” murderer – and I can better appreciate the subtleties of the cast of suspects juxtaposed with non-suspect characters, and the difficulty in pulling off a solution of this sort, without any major surprises but still trying to successfully enlighten the reader. Of course, Christie herself did this other times (and, I would argue, did it better,) in Cards on the Table, Five Little Pigs, and Sparkling Cyanide – and while I always saw Dumb Witness as being one of those “small closed circle” Christies alongside them, it always seemed like the “forgettable” one of the group. That notion of mine, however, may now be subject to a re-evaluation.

    Great review, as always! I’m looking forward to your review of Murder in the Mews, which contains the sublime novella “Dead Man’s Mirror” – the best of Christie’s bona fide locked rooms, and perhaps one of the greatest short works of fair-play GAD.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I definitely wouldn’t place this at the top of my Poirot ranking but for enjoyment of the narrative voice and characters I certainly enjoyed it more than Murder in Mesopotamia.
      In terms of the clues, I really dislike one for how uncharacteristically clumsy it feels. On the other hand, I really like a piece of testimony related to a seance which struck me as very clever back when I first read it and that still never fails to impress me.
      I am looking forward to reading Murder in the Mews. I have so little memory of the collection that I think they all feel pretty new to me!

      Liked by 1 person

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