I’ve mentioned a few times that I have spent the past couple of months immersed in Agatha Christie, being the only author who was able to circumnavigate my reader’s block – everything else I tried was abandoned after a page or two, but I could tear through a Christie in a day or two. Thankfully (for my general reading) I’m now having more success getting past p.1 with other authors, although it’s still a bit impeded, but I did enjoy getting into Christie mode and wolfing them down.
I haven’t blogged about them, partly because Christie novels are often very similar and partly because you can’t say much without giving the game away – but in the spirit of my Reading Presently project (reading and reviewing 50 books in 2013 that were given to me as presents) I shall write about Dumb Witness, because my lovely colleague Fiona gave it to me when I left my job at OUP (which, incidentally, I am missing furiously.) It was (is?) published in the US under the rather-better title Poirot Loses A Client.
We had quite a lot of chats about Agatha Christie over the months, but the reason Fiona picked Dumb Witness as my leaving gift wasn’t only because she knew I hadn’t read it – it was because of the dog on the cover. We had lengthy cat vs. dog arguments (publishers, it turns out, tend to prefer dogs – librarians and book bloggers definitely fall down on the cat side) and this was Fiona’s funny way of making a point – so, of course, I used a bookmark with a cat on it. Sherpa, in fact, painted on a bookmark by Mum.
Dumb Witness is a Poirot/Hastings novel, which is my favourite type of Christie after a Marple-takes-centre-stage novel (she is sadly sidelined in a few of her own novels). You may recall an excerpt I posted from Lord Edgware Dies, in which the delightful relationship between Hastings and Poirot is perfectly illustrated. More of the same in Dumb Witness – Hastings constantly makes suppositions and conclusions which Poirot bats away in frustration, never revealing quite why Hastings is wrong (other than his touching readiness to believe what he is told by almost anyone) and holding his own cards close to his chest.
I shall say very little about the plot, because (unlike most novels I read) the plot is of course crucially important in a detective novel – so I’ll just mention the premise. Poirot wishes to follow up a letter he has received Miss Emily Arundell, asking him to investigate an accident she had – falling down the stairs, after tripping on her dog’s ball. Her letter isn’t very coherent, but she seems to be suggesting that it may not have been an accident… Although she recovers from the minor injuries sustained in this fall, by the time Poirot receives the letter – mysteriously, two months later – she has died from a long-standing liver complaint. Poirot decides to accept the posthumous commission into attempted murder…
As far as plot and solution go, Dumb Witness has all the satisfying twists, turns, and surprises that we all expect from a Christie novel – it certainly doesn’t disappoint on this front, and this is one especially excellent twist, albeit with a few cruder details that are not worthy of her name on the cover. But, alongside that, I loved Poirot’s determination that attempted murder should be investigated and prosecuted, whether or not the victim was dead – Hastings, for all his gentlemanly bluster, can’t see why it is a matter of importance. Poirot’s moral backbone is one of the reasons I find him such a fantastic character.
And the dog? Yes, Fiona, the dog (Bob) is rather fun, and Hastings is predictably wonderful about him – although I did find the amount of words put in the mouth of Bob a little off-putting. It reminded me of Enid Blyton’s technique of including passages along the lines of “‘”Woof’, said Timmy, as if to say ‘They’ve gone to the cove to fetch the boat’.” There, I believe, I have spotted the major flaw with Dumb Witness – or at least, an aspect where it could be improved. It would be a far superior novel, had it featured a cat.