Agatha Christie often complained about Hercule Poirot, but don’t you think she was more or less having us on? Yes, she claimed to have grown tired of his mannerisms and foibles, the very qualities she had instilled in him: his obsession with neatness and order, his vanity over his moustaches and his shoes, his taste for tisanes and crème de menthe, his trick of playing the “foolish foreigner” causing his adversaries to underestimate him, even the egg-shaped head and the eyes that glowed green to signal enlightenment. Her other detectives were mutable: Tommy and Tuppence aged with each story, and Miss Marple served as a window on the changing landscape of post-War England. Yet it was Christie’s choice to make Poirot a fixed character and to throw these quirks around like candy in each novel. Poirot remained Poirot, and most people would agree (even those who prefer Miss Marple) that the Poirot novels represent Christie’s best writing. It was Poirot who catapulted Christie to fame. Specifically, the third Poirot novel, 1926’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd – made Dame Agatha a star and kept her there, and despite the fact that her final decade as a writer was an almost unmitigated disaster and that she has been gone for forty years, she remains at the top even today.
The 1930’s saw the publication of no less than a dozen Poirot novels within seven years, arguably including most of his classic cases:
- Peril at End House (1932)
- Lord Edgware Dies (1933)
- Murder on the Orient Express (1934)
- Three-Act Tragedy (1935)
- Death in the Clouds (1935)
- The A.B.C. Murders(1936)
- Murder in Mesopotamia (1936)
- Cards on the Table (1936)
- Dumb Witness (1937)
- Death on the Nile (1937)
- Appointment With Death (1938)
- Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (1938)
How exciting it must have been to be a reader in the 1930’s and to anticipate the latest Christie that came out once, twice, even three times in a year! The rule of thumb when reading Christie was to trust no one! There could be no certainty that young love would find a way, that the good guys were all good, or that the person you suspected was a nasty rogue was actually . . . a very nasty rogue! She had proven her outrageousness with Ackroyd, and while another writer might have worried about setting the bar so high, Christie had many more tricks of misdirection up her sleeve, which she dealt like a true master throughout the 1930’s and beyond. “Which of her tricks would she play on us this time?” readers must have asked!
So how do you explain Dumb Witness?
Putting personal preference aside, Poirot enters the ‘30’s with a pair of charming mysteries featuring strong female characters, Peril at End House and Lord Edgware Dies. If the astute reader finds it easy to spot the felon in these books (especially Edgeware), there is much to like, particularly the humorous relationship between Poirot and Hastings. Sandwiched between Murder on the Orient Express, (classic!) and The A.B.C. Murders (again, a classic!) are Three-Act Tragedy and Death in the Clouds, both featuring stunning reversals and two of the most egoistic murderers in the canon. Murder in Mesopotamia, Death on the Nile and Hercule Poirot’s Christmas all feature stunning surprise endings, although one of them (Mesopotamia) strains the limits of credulity which is more than made up for by the wonderful portraits of the victim and of life on an archeological dig.
That leaves Cards on the Table, Dumb Witness and Appointment With Death, which arguably are more straightforward mysteries and don’t rely on reversals of expectation. I personally think that Cards is a brilliant exercise in pure detection: four suspects and four detectives joined in a battle of wits that ends with justice administered to all those who deserve it. Appointment With Death is full of delights: a wonderfully dysfunctional family, a loathsome victim, well drawn supporting characters, and Poirot detecting at his best. Like Orient Express, it has many suspects who all have to be interviewed, so it sags in the middle, but it rights itself in the end with a solution that relies as much on our understanding the psychology of the victim as much as on correctly reading the clues.
And then there’s Dumb Witness. What happened here? What was Christie trying to accomplish at the height of her powers with this one?
Contemporary critics were mixed when the novel came out. “Not doing her most brilliant work,” said the New York Times Book Review. “A certain baldness of plot and crudeness of characterization,” complained the Observer. E.R. Punshon was kinder in his Guardian review, but even he wondered, “She does indeed this sort of thing so superlatively well that one is ungratefully tempted to wish she would do something just a little, well, different, even if less well.”
Everyone is entitled to a lemon in the fruit basket. But here is Christie, on a roll, reaching back to a short story she had written called “The Adventure of the Dog’s Ball,” and inspired to expand it into novel length. Where did she go wrong? And, as this lifelong Christie fan must ask, “Where, if at all, did she go right?” Herewith, a second look at Dumb Witness.
SETTING. Dumb Witness is the only novel on this list that I would classify as a village mystery. Edgware and Clouds are pure London. Orient Express, Mesopotamia, Nile and Appointment With Death are Middle Eastern travel mysteries. The rest hop back and forth between town and country, but none of the others has the flavor of a village mystery. Here, the victim, Emily Arundell, is the last survivor of a Victorian family that has resided in Market Basing for decades. The first third of Poirot’s investigation sees him questioning nosy neighbors and professionals with whom Miss Emily had dealings, all of whom have an opinion about the goings-on at Littlegreen House. For a while, Poirot masquerades as a potential tenant seeking a nice little place to call his own. It’s all vaguely charming but ultimately ridiculous, as the figure Poirot cuts makes him quite the fish out of water in an English village. (Frankly, I don’t see how he landed the house in Kings Abbott, nor why he would choose to retire there in Roger Ackroyd.) Plus, the force of Poirot’s personality overwhelms this portrait of village life. Contrast it to Jerry and Joanna Burton landing in Lymstock and absorbing village life in The Moving Finger, or Luke Fitzwilliam going undercover in Wychwood-Upon-Ashe to flush out a serial killer in Murder is Easy. It isn’t Poirot’s fault that the village color pales in his presence. It also doesn’t help that the villagers really have nothing to do with the case. It boils down to the eight suspects who live with or visit Miss Arundell before her death.
Based on the novel’s beginning, it appears that Christie is trying to create more of a character-based mystery, something more in line with her first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Although the book is narrated by Hastings, the first three chapters chronicle the events leading up to Emily Arundell’s decision to write to Poirot for help. Christie presents Emily with effective economy:
“She was, in every respect, a typical product of her generation. She had both its virtues and its vices. She was autocratic and often overbearing, but she was also intensely warmhearted. Her tongue was sharp but her actions were kind. She was outwardly sentimental but inwardly shrewd. She had a succession of companions whom she bullied unmercifully, but treated with great generosity. She had a great sense of family obligation.”
This description tells us a great deal about why Emily will act the way she does in the weeks leading up to her death, and much of the book’s solution will lead us back to this paragraph. It’s a shame that she does die because she is arguably the sharpest drawn character in the book.
Anyone who complains that Christie worked primarily with character types has ample evidence here in the presentation of Emily’s family. Nephew Charles is the typical rogue: handsome, charming and utterly rotten. His sister Theresa is one of those bright young debauched things that Christie included in many of her early novels, girls like Lenox Tamplin, Bundle Brent, Nick Buckley, Freddie Rice, but this one has plans to tamp down all her wildest impulses and “marry well” if unexplainably, to Dr. Rex Donaldson, a cold, colorless genius. Minnie Lawson, Emily’s companion, is presented with all the contempt that this society seems to have held for such women: she is silly, superstitious, goes unnoticed by most people, and bears her employer’s tyranny with sheep-like acquiescence.
Emily’s other niece, Bella, and her husband, Dr. Jacob Tanios, are moderately more interesting because the dynamic of their marriage is one of the greater sources of tension in the novel. Bella is the plain cousin, the opposite of Theresa, whom she both envies and despises. Having married a Greek doctor primarily to escape the fate of a spinster, Bella finds herself trapped in a joyless life in Smyrna where her only source of happiness is her children. She shares a lot of characteristics with a character who will appear in one of my favorite Christies nine years from now – Gerda Cristow in The Hollow. In Jacob Tanios, Christie exploits the natural prejudice against foreigners that the English tended to feel. Despite the fact that everyone acknowledges how charming, funny and intelligent he is, nobody likes him much or accepts him as a member of the family. One of the most clever things Christie does here is to feed her readers’ own prejudices, going so far as to suggest an abusive element in the marriage. Tanios is always presented as charming and a good husband and father, yet there’s something off here. If we believe that he is too good to be true, are we falling into a trap of our own prejudices or one of Christie’s making?
There are a handful of minor characters who provide bits of information and color. Some of them, like the neighbor Mrs. Peabody, the elderly Dr. Grainger, and the Tripp Sisters (a pair of vegetarian spiritualists) frankly keep the action going better than the suspects often do. Which leaves us with three major characters left, including Poirot himself, and Captain Arthur Hastings, his Watson. Perhaps in a sign that Christie planned to “do away” with Hastings, (this novel is his swan song until Curtain in 1975), he is even more obtuse than usual here, and Poirot grows testy with him: “En verite, Hastings, there are moments when I lose patience with you!”
This leaves Bob, the dog. It’s interesting that Christie – who adored animals – paints the wire-haired terrier as of at least the same level of intelligence as Hastings, who engages in conversation with the canine throughout and – quelle surprise – ends up taking the doggie home with him to live happily ever after. Some of this is quite precious, but the dog is the most likable resident of Littlegreen House, and we feel for him when he is framed for attempted murder. Unfortunately, a little Bob goes a long way here and this dog lover began to wish that, rather than chat cutely with Hastings, the dog would bite him.
PLOT. I spoke in an earlier blog about plot vs. character, suggesting that when Agatha Christie had a surprise ending in mind, her strong attention to plot caused her characterization to suffer. In some of the most ingenious mysteries of this period – Orient Express, Three-Act Tragedy and Hercule Poirot’s Christmas – the casts are large but not particularly distinguished. I would argue that only the murderer really stands out at the end. (Those of you in the know understand the trickiness of this statement in regards to at least one of these novels.) Death on the Nile is one of Christie’s most successful large cast mysteries, as it manages to twist and turn and entertain us with a varied assortment of eccentrics aboard the S.S. Karnac. Of the small-cast mysteries, I think The A.B.C. Murders and Cards on the Table both do a nice job of balancing a certain richness of character with a strong puzzle plot.
I’ve suggested that both the setting and the characters in Dumb Witness are not brought to life with much vivacity, which should ready us for a stronger attention to plot. Yet Christie starts us out with a focus on character, since the book, although narrated by Hastings, does not assume his point of view until Chapter Five. First we get a close look at Emily Arundell, her family, and the events leading up to “the affair of the dog’s ball,” an incident that even the most casual reader will understand was no accident. As a result, Emily writes a letter to Hercule Poirot, the receipt of which is delayed by a month. By that time, Emily has died, apparently of natural causes, but Poirot is not satisfied and takes on her case posthumously.
As a hook, this holds only mild interest, especially compared to some of the great openings of the other novels. Even Death in the Clouds, a relatively minor title, has a fun opening chapter that records the thoughts of all the characters on an airplane just before a murder takes place at the end of Chapter One! One can only hope that Poirot’s investigations reveals surprises and delights along the way.
Not so much. First, Poirot seems determined to find out all he can about the history of the Arundells. In the end, this is not particularly relevant to the case. The subsequent interviews with the villagers and servants have their amusements, but they last eight chapters and start to feel like padding. Poirot learns essentially two things: first, before she died, Emily cut her relatives out of her will and left everything to the companion, and second, a certain event occurred that will lead Poirot to the method for murder.
Then Poirot interviews the five suspects, then some more villagers, and then the suspects again! In between all this chatter, Hastings confesses that he is stumped, and Poirot grows ever more irritable with him, having solved the case in his mind as soon as he met the murderer but still lacking the proof. And this “instant recognition” comes from an understanding of human nature on Poirot’s part that is, at best, outdated and, at worst, insulting to modern sensibilities. At this point, I ask myself whether Christie realized that her idea to expand the short story was simply not a good one, or if she felt she had painted herself into a corner with her publishers and simply had to keep a-going to the point where she can introduce that clever piece of business that will provide Poirot with the proof he needs.
And here is where Christie really falls down in an almost inexcusable way, given the enormous cleverness she has displayed so far in her career. For the “deciding clue” is . . . well, it’s just terrible. It isn’t just that the clue is so obvious that a third-grader should be able to figure it out. It isn’t that, even after Poirot explains it to him in excruciating detail, including a practical demonstration, Hastings doesn’t get it. No, we expect Hastings to be the stupidest Watson ever invented. No, it’s that Poirot himself doesn’t get it for the longest time, merely so Christie can insert one of those “Mon Dieu, what an imbecile I have been” moments for the sleuth. And the clue presupposes a behavior that makes absolutely no sense on the part of any person, let alone a murderer. It’s jarringly stupid, and the killer, as Poirot points out, is not stupid! Either Christie was going through a serious creative deficit here, or she woefully underestimated the intelligence of her audience. (Oh, wait, Donald Trump is the Republican candidate . . . must’ve been a creative deficit!)
If we chart the pluses and minuses of Dumb Witness, on the minus side we have a mediocre plot, insipid clueing, an indifferent village setting and so-so major characters. On the plus side, we have a cute dog, some colorful villagers, and a fairly interesting look at a troubled marriage. That gets you two stars out of five at best.
There is no reason why anyone determined to read all of Christie should skip this. It’s true that even mediocre Christie is better than none. (And it’s better than bad Christie by a mile!) It’s not a particularly thrilling send-off for Hastings, but at least he gets to keep the dog. (And he will return to acquit himself better in thirty-five years.) For those of you who only want to read a smattering of Christie’s best, I fear you will not make the acquaintance of Emily Arundell and her (not so) wacky brood. If you’re ever interested, drop me a line and I’ll tell you how it ends – not with a bang but a “woof woof!”