In Agatha Christie’s Dumb Witness , Hercule Poirot receives a cryptic letter begging for help amid the utmost confidentiality, but with the only detail’s being an oblique reference to the dog’s ball. What intrigues Poirot is the fact that the letter was dated in April but evidently mailed in June. When Poirot arrives at Little Green House to visit his new client, he learns that Miss Emily Arundell has died, and Poirot suspects foul play, especially after finding evidence of an attempt to kill Miss Arundell a few weeks before her death, when her family were all visiting her.
Upon asking about Emily Arundell’s estate, Poirot learns that the lady had disinherited her family after the murder attempt and left all her money to her companion, Minnie Lawson. Her two nieces and nephew have all been grasping for money at every chance, making Emily Arundell suspicious of each. Poirot next visits various people in the community to learn about his client and her family, each time giving a different name and story about his reasons for asking such questions. Captain Hastings, the narrator, objects to all these lies, comparing Poirot to a juggler with lots of balls in the air, an analogy Poirot likes, saying that he will then catch each ball in triumph and bow to his adoring crowd.
This book gives the last appearance of Captain Hastings until the final Poirot book, Curtain . Seeing Poirot through his eyes adds a touch of humor to the book, especially with Hastings’s dismay at Poirot’s methods, which include lying, listening at doors, peeking through keyholes. He objects because Poirot’s behavior “is not playing the game.”
Dumb Witness contains one of my very favorite characters in all of Agatha Christie’s books, Bob the dog. Christie clearly knew and loved dogs well, speaking on behalf of Bob. The terrier runs up barking, “I’ll tear you limb from limb!” before pulling up short upon recognizing his friends Poirot and Hastings. Bob delights in playing with his ball, sending it bumping down the stairs. I especially love Poirot’s explanation of why Bob keeps trying to bite the postman. There are people who are welcome in the house and people who are not. The postman comes three times a day to the house, not being allowed to enter, as Bob can tell because the postman always leaves. Therefore, this man must be an enemy. “It’s dog logic!”
The book brings up the issue of spiritualism, which was very popular in post-World War I England. Many people who lost loved ones in the war turned to spiritualism in the desire to reach the dead. The topic arises in other Christie books, but this book, the first to deal with it, ridicules those who practice this, by showing the two Miss Tripp sisters to be silly.
Another social issue that this book brings up is the way that wealthy women of the day took advantage of their companions, single or widowed women who were given room and board in exchange for living with more well-off women, often seniors, and assisting them in running the house. These companions usually did not have any skills for regular employment and were considered higher class than the other employees of the house but nowhere near the level of their employers. These women tended to suffer some degree of abuse at the hands of their employers, for they were at the mercy of the wealthier women for their livelihood. Miss Arundell, though leaving her fortune to her companion, was hard on her companions, firing and getting a new woman every year or two. We get the sense of what a hard life Minnie has when she tells Poirot how she didn’t notice something because her mind was busy worrying that perhaps she had not ordered enough meat for dinner, which would have angered Miss Arundell.
Hugh Fraser narrates the book, with excellent results. He gives a good variety of voices for the characters, especially for Bob, making me enjoy that fun character all the more.
Dumb Witness has an interesting plot and is an enjoyable read. It does not quite measure up to the best of Agatha Christie’s books, but I still recommend it to all. I award it four stars.
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