Saturday, 20 November 2010

Dumb Witness (1937)

Plot: The curious case of the dog in the night.

Very much a companion piece to After The Funeral, this is a story that also features a downtrodden companion, an inheritance, and a clutch of ill-deserving relatives. However, it unwinds in a very different way.

One major difference is that Hastings is narrating, and shows a remarkable degree of psychological insight this time out.... although that's because he finally meets his intellectual equal, a small dog who he spends ages describing while Poirot stamps around pointing at enormous clues which Hastings utterly misses cos he's too busy playing with his new friend.

There is even a marvellous scene where Poirot is forced to demonstrate a clue to Hastings, then make it out of cardboard, and cut it out and demonstrate it to his hapless companion... all without illumination. We have Poirot jumping up and down, pretty much shouting out what's going on, and Hastings as oblivious as a sheep. Just this once, Christie lets us in early.

At around about you may well work out what is really going on – allowing a nice little cushion of smugness as the ending of the book plays out. Admittedly this gets immediately and creepily unsettled before going back to run along the lines we originally suspected – this is, after all, a book with a very very creepy husband and a very nervy wife...

The real shame of this book is that the victim has to die. Emily Arundell is a lovely character, full of life and fun and the book is all the poorer without her – but we do get her friend, the lovely Miss Peabody, who sees right through Hercule Poirot.

The Arundell family themselves are stupid, venal and worthless. Pretty Theresa is unimpressed by Poirot (lamenting that she doesn't have her autograph book on her), Charles just wants some money, and the plain daughter simply laments that she doesn't have the looks or the money or her relatives. Faced with such lamentable people, Poirot is at his least scrupulous, planting misinformation, listening at doors and playing the warring family off against each other. It's a delight that Hastings (when he notices) doesn't approve of any of this. But it shows that, just occasionally, Poirot doesn't care.

Despite the twee wrappings (does a dog know who did a murder? awww) the story contains a remarkable assortment of clues, all of which turn out to be relevant (pay attention to the mad spiritualist sisters who witness a glowing cloud of ectoplasm). It is a story that ties itself up neatly – any injustices are evened out slightly, and there is even a marriage of sorts, as Hastings finds true love at last:

“Woof,” said Bob with energetic assent.

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