Dumb Witness by Agatha Christie – Book Review

I’m always delighted to come across a Christie mystery I’ve never read before. This Poirot and Hastings adventure, dedicated to Dame Agatha’s beloved dog Peter, is held back from the true vintage status by some glaring plot weaknesses, but still had enough ingenuity and light humour to keep me happy from page to page.

Apparently the alternative title for this novel is Poirot Loses a Client, appropriate for a story in which Poirot’s client expires before he even knows she exists. Miss Emily Arundell is a wealthy lady in her seventies, with no children of her own but a couple of nieces and a nephew hovering around, all set to inherit but hoping to see some of Auntie’s cash sooner. Unfortunately for them, Miss Arundell is thoroughly dissatisfied with the younger generation. Nephew Charles is a charming amoral scoundrel living beyond his means; his sister Theresa is a London party girl who shockingly got engaged to a young doctor Miss Arundell considers a boring dead fish. Another niece Bella married a Greek, an unforgivable sin in the eyes of a prejudiced old-school Victorian.

Still, blood is blood, which means family obligations such as Easter gatherings at Littlegreen House, the Arundell family home. The holiday is disrupted by a nasty accident, when Miss Arundell takes a fall down the staircase late one night. Everyone blames it on a rubber ball found nearby, which must have been left there by Miss Arundell’s terrier Bob after a round of his favourite game. But the more she thinks back to her accident, the more convinced she is that one of her relatives was trying to bump her off, prompting her to write a letter to a certain Hercule Poirot.

Miss Arundell writes about her suspicions on 17 April, but Poirot doesn’t receive her letter until the end of June. By this time, she’s already dead, after an attack of ailment that she barely recovered from in the recent past. Her death doesn’t shock anyone, but everyone is scandalised when it’s revealed that Miss Arundell had signed a new will shortly before her passing, disinheriting her family and leaving everything to her companion that she’s employed for barely a year.

This is another Poirot novel narrated by his friend Hastings, who can’t see anything suspicious about Miss Arundell’s death and would just rather throw her rambling and frankly confusing letter into the waste-paper basket. But Poirot’s grey cells are always on alert for small curious details that don’t add up. His strong sense of justice compels him to investigate the accident, even if it was only an attempted murder and the eventual death was due to natural causes… or was it?

I always enjoy the Poirot and Hastings team-up, and this time it’s fun to see Poirot assume all sorts of fake personas in order to get information from the various people connected to Miss Arundell, while poor honest Hastings squirms with discomfort at his friend’s easy lying. Hastings of course is left to go from one wrong-headed conclusion to another, until the classic drawing room reveal at the very end. I also had a laugh at a small episode in which Hastings makes a mistake of dragging Poirot to theatre to see a crime play:

There is one piece of advice I offer to all my readers. Never take a soldier to a military play, a sailor to a naval play, a Scotsman to a Scottish play, a detective to a thriller – and an actor to any play whatsoever! The shower of destructive criticism in each case is somewhat devastating.

Going by the title, I had expected Bob the wire-haired terrier to somehow be important to solving the crime, in the vein of the dog that didn’t bark from the classic Sherlock Holmes short story. But other than getting the blame for Miss Arundell’s fall, Bob is mainly in the story for the light whimsical touch, with Christie imagining his inner running monologues whenever he comes across Poirot and Hastings. This was a very cute addition to the novel, and I also enjoyed Poirot’s explanation of why the dogs’ dislike of mailmen is completely logical from the doggie point of view. However Poirot himself is not much of a dog person!

This time around, I guessed the murderer about fifty pages away from the ending, after a crucial reveal and a few clues scattered previously clicked together. The event described in the testimony however is where the book doesn’t quite stand scrutiny, with a certain character’s behaviour really stretching credulity. I’m overall pretty forgiving to Christie’s more improbable plot twists and turns, but this one stuck out like a sore thumb.

Overall though the mystery in this one is a lot of fun, partly because you’re never sure what Poirot is dealing with: is it an attempt at murder followed by a natural death, or did the culprit simply try again? Were they committed by the same person, since the method is so different in each instance? Which character has the most fitting psychological profile for each attempt? Before I was able to pin the murderer, I can honestly say my suspicions fell on every character in turn. Characters actually do shine in this Christie novel, from autocratic but kind-hearted Miss Arundell to a hilariously listless and inept girl at the house agent office.

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