Sunday, October 10, 2021

And Now for a Stairy Story: Dumb Witness, by Agatha Christie (1937)--with a possible cameo by the author herself (and her little dog too)

In a not insignificant portion of vintage mysteries, the primary murder victim dies from having been fatally impelled in some foul fashion down a staircase.  (This happens in Miles Burton's A Will in the Way, recently reviewed here.)  Naturally this murder ploy faded away with the rise of bungalows and ranch houses.  The classic instance of the "true crime" staircase death dates from the sixteenth century, when all the most fashionable people lived in castles and such, don't you know, and had plenty of stairs that they needs must tread.   

This was the death of Amy Robsart, first wife of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester and a favorite of Queen Elizabeth I.  Indeed, after his wife's death, Dudley's enemies intimated that he might have engineered her untimely demise in order to marry the Queen; and ever since historians have debated the famous question, did she fall or was she pushed?  No one knows the answer to that one.  

Fall Gal
Emily Arundell takes a near fatal tumble
down the stairs at Littlegreen House

In Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot novel Dumb Witness, wealthy, elderly spinster Emily Arundell is NON-fatally propelled down the staircase at her home by means of of a trip wire, although this attempted slaying is covered up to look like an accident.  Emily owned a terrier named Bob, you see, and Bob had been trained to drop a little rubber ball down the stairs while recumbent at the half landing.  It's assumed that to her near-death Emily tripped over the ball, which evidently inadvertently had not been picked up and put away in its drawer.  (Someone removed the telltale trip wire, you see.)

However, Hercule Poirot appears on the scene after Emily's later, ostensibly natural, death.  (After the staircase incident Emily had written him an agitated, disjointed letter asking him down, but Poirot received the epistle only after her death.) 

Naturally Poirot discovers this criminal hanky panky and he decides, perhaps a bit quixotically, to stick around to snoop some more into the matter of Emily's ostensibly natural death.  Attempted murder followed by "natural" death he finds a little too hard to swallow, n'est-ce pas, like a plate of bubble and squeak--although his friend Hastings thinks the little Belgian is just dramatizing himself again.  (Hastings will never learn!)

Yes, Hastings comes along for the ride as well, in what would be his last appearance in the Hercule Poirot canon until Curtain was published nearly four decades later.  According to the Agatha Christie Fandom website, Dumb Witness marked the seventh appearance of Hastings in a Poirot novel, which somehow seems fewer than I recalled. However, it's true.

first English edition by Collins, with Agatha Christie's own dog, Peter, gracing the cover as Bob

Hastings appeared in three Poirot novels in the 1920s, followed in the 1930s by Peril at End House, Lord Edgeware Dies, The ABC Murders and Dumb Witness.  After his back-to-back appearances in Peril and Edgware, Hastings missed three consecutive Poirot novels until The ABC Murders (a three-year gap), then missed two more novels between ABC and Dumb Witness.  So it does appear that Christie indeed had become something less than enamored with Hastings in the mid-thirties and was in the process of gradually dispensing with his services.

Certainly Hastings' late appearance in Dumb Witness seems a bit off-kilter, because Christie presents the first four chapters of the novel as having been written by Hastings in the third person, artfully dramatizing the events within Emily Arundell's demesne, Littlegreen House, before he and Poirot arrive on the scene.  Now I know such literary devices are a legitimate conceit of fiction writers, yet, really, I think we all have to admit that such imaginative skill would have been utterly beyond Hastings' capacity.  I can't help feeling that Christie was really ready to move beyond Hastings.  

Bob drops the ball

So why did she use him at all here?  Were the fans clamoring for the return of Captain Hastings?  This seems unlikely, as reviewers at the time mostly just commented, in reference to Poirot's Watson, that he was just as dumb as ever.  My theory is that Christie needed Hastings to relate to the dog Bob, who in fact is a major character in the novel.  Hastings even allows Bob to "speak," in passages which readers likely will either find delightful or painful depending on how much they like dogs.  Being a dog lover myself (like Christie; see below), I don't mind it.  One of the many transgressions of the television version of Dumb Witness, in my eyes, is that it portrays Poirot as Bob's special pal.  Does Poirot have to have everything in this life?  I say at least give Hastings the dog! 

So for better or worse Hastings narrates most of Dumb Witness, which has largely been regarded, since its publication almost 85 years ago, as the weakest of the Thirties Poirot novels.  (Admittedly they set a high bar.)  I have been writing lately about underrated Christies so as I reread Dumb Witness I had to ask myself, is it underrated?  

Poor Hastings! Poirot (David Suchet)
makes a new friend in the 1996
television adaptation of Dumb Witness

On the whole, I think not.  It probably indeed is the worst of the Thirties Poirots, although it is important to add the caveat that even a subpar Thirties Christie was likely better than 75% or more of the detective novels of the time.  She was that good in those days.  

First off, does the title even make sense?  Bob obviously is the "dumb" (i.e., mute) witness, but in the book he's neither dumb (Hastings has him "speak," seriously) nor a witness with anything important to impart to the detective.

This contrasts, for example, with Belisarius, the delightful feline in Miles Burton's detective novel The Cat Jumps (1946), who literally witnesses the murder and could have told sleuth Desmond Merrion all about it, had he but possessed the power of speech.  No wonder the Americans changed the title of Dumb Witness to Poirot Loses a Client--not that that's a great title either! 

Also, what possessed Christie to have Hercule Poirot name the culprits in murders from four of his previous cases (i.e., four of Christie's past novels)?  That's a lot of wanton spoilerage in one book!  I wonder if this indiscretion on Poirot's part still occurs in later editions of Dumb Witness, or in the American edition?  I will have to check.

a long way down

Critics since 1937 have pointed out weaknesses in the puzzle structure of Dumb Witness, but I can't discuss that aspect of the book without massive spoilerage, as it were.  However, I will say that most of the novel's cast of characters is composed of an exceptionally pallid bunch by the Queen of Crime standards.  To be sure, Emily Arundell and her latest beleaguered companion, Wilhelmina "Minnie" Lawson, are done to a turn--Christie always portrayed imperious spinsters and their skittish companions well--but Emily's relations are a forgettable lot, aside from her Greek doctor son-in-law, who is interesting not so much in and of himself but for how the author treats him.  

Truthfully, the dog Bob is more developed than any of these humans.  (Maybe that's the authentic Hastings' touch!)

Strikingly it's Emily's dead relations--her sisters and her brother and her domineering drunk of a father, the General--who strike the most powerful chord.  There's a passage where Emily wanders though her house late at night thinking about the shades of her late family that is quite moving.  It may have been beyond Hasting's literary ability but it certainly wasn't beyond Christie's!  How interesting a Christie murder novel set in the Victorian era would have been.

this "special edition" with pictures
(see photos) probably followed
the first UK edition the next year

As we learned from John Curran, Dumb Witness had its inception in an unpublished Christie short story, "The Incident of the Dog's Ball," written a few years earlier.  Was this story inspired by real life practice of Christie's own terrier, Peter, dropping a ball down the stairs at Christie's own house?  It seems too colorfully specific to have been entirely imaginary.

I assume Christie's main house at the time would have been Winterbrook House, a lovely red brick Georgian house, coincidentally now up for sale, just outside the town of Wallingford, Oxfordshire, in the village of Winterbrook.  Wallingford is said to have been the model for the town of Market Basing, Berkshire where Emily Arundell's Littlegreen House is located.  Winterbrook at the time was part of Berkshire too.  From what I can tell, Littlegreen House seems a lot like Winterbrook House.

So presumably Christie modeled Littlegreen House after Winterbrook House.  She affectionately dedicated the novel to Dear Peter, Most Faithful of Friends and Dearest of Companions, A Dog in a Thousand.  Peter, who also had been a co-dedicatee of The Mystery of the Blue Train nine years earlier (reviewed here), died the year after Dumb Witness was published.  

Peter was photographed as Bob, it has been claimed, in the "special edition" of the Dumb Witness which The Book Club published in England, not long after the original edition.  So this claim goes, Peter appears at the half landing of the stairs, having just dropped his ball, while no less than his mistress, appearing as Emily Arundell, lies prone at the bottom below--at least according to some booksellers.  (See pics above.)  Christie authority Mark Aldridge disagrees, however.  I'm told John Curran emphatically doesn't buy this notion either.  Me, I'm keeping an open mind about it.  (Peter definitely appeared on the cover of the Collins hardcover edition of Dumb Witness, published slightly earlier; see pic above.)

If true, I think Christie most definitely must have had more than a passing affection for the book to have done this.  She must not have deemed it the dog that some of the critics did.  Or perhaps that's some other lady at the bottom of the stairs!  Who was that lady?  And who was that dog?

pictured: Agatha Christie's home Winterbrook House, the model for Littlegreen House?
"These large Georgian homes fronting the street must be the devil to get rid off."
(Hastings to Poirot on Littlegreen House, Market Basing, Berks in Dumb Witness)


  1. I've always felt like Hastings was in way more novels than he actually was. I blame it on the Poirot series with Suchet & Fraser which has Hastings in pretty much everything.

    1. Yes, and it had the same "duplication effect" with Inspector Japp and Miss Lemon, didn't it? Except even more so, because they appeared in fewer things than Hastings (Miss Lemon especially).

    2. He was in many of the short stories, which a lot of the earlier episodes of the Poirot TV series are based on.

  2. This one is next on my reading list. Right after I finish the Miles Burton one I’m reading now! Everytime I read your blog I find my next book. Thanks for great reviews.

  3. I agree about the TV series, it should have been Hastings who bonded with Bob.