THE BOOK Fontana, 1967 pp 255
The cover is one of Ian Robinson’s. The matches are a reference to phosphorous poisoning but the relevance of the bowl of sweets, the maze at Littlegreen House and the pin escape me. Not in the same league as the PAN (with its dog collar, capsules and Tarot card). At 255 pages in these editions, this is Agatha Christie’s longest detective story.
Emily Arundell falls down the stairs and, as she recovers in bed, begins to think it was not an accident. She writes to Hercule Poirot asking for help, but her reasons are not clearly specified. The letter is not delivered until a couple of months after it was written, and when Poirot and Hastings go to call on her they find that she had died.
Poirot decides to act as though she was still his client, and delves into the past, initially presenting himself in a number of different roles to gain access to the characters involved.
Unusually, the opening chapters, which deal with the accident and its aftermath, are not narrated by Hastings, and are much the better for it. This book reads like a play to me, with limited settings and many, many long conversations and interrogations. Also, unusually, no murder actually takes place, although one is assumed.
CHARACTERS AND ATTITUDES
Emily Arundell is a snob of the first water, but fair-minded and fiercely proud of the family name. Her unscrupulous blood-relatives, on the other hand, have each considered killing her for her money, and her companion, having learnt that she inherits all of Miss Arundell’s fortune, fraudulently prevents the old lady from changing her will before she dies.
The only straight character is Dr Tanios, and he is widely derided by everyone else for being Greek: a Dago, no less! In this case, however, I think the author is (gently) mocking the “insular prejudices” of her characters. Note that Dr Tanios’ forename is Jacob: by 1937 Swigatha was becoming a bit more careful about giving her characters anti-semitic sentiments to intone, and there are none here, but you get the impression there would be a few in the narrator’s absence. Apart from Emily Arundell herself, the characters are hollow. The most excruciating member of this excruciating household is the terrier, Bob.
Hastings has no role in the story. Poirot’s pointless role-playing came across as padding to me; his application of ‘psychology’ is laughable, his means of obtaining a confession is hugely unconvincing, and his collusion with the culprit, to allow her to take her own way out, is criminal. Not his finest hour.
Dumb Witness grew out of an unpublished 14-page short story, The Incident of the Dog’s Ball1. The extra 241 pages have very little to recommend them.
Here is Dr Tanios, as seen by the other characters:
For Bella had married a foreigner – and not only a foreigner – but a Greek. In Miss Arundell’s prejudiced mind a Greek was almost as bad as an Argentine or a Turk.
“And anyway, it isn’t Bella – it’s Tanios. I bet he’s got a nose for money all right! Trust a Greek for that!” (Not ‘a Jew’, note)
“Made a fool of herself though. Married some Dago who was over at the University. A Greek doctor.”
“What can he have been doing to her? I believe Turks are frightfully cruel sometimes.”
“Dr Tanios is a Greek.”
“Yes, of course, that’s the other way about – they’re usually the ones who get massacred by the Turks – or am I thinking of Armenians?”
“And yet you liked Tanios, did you not? You found him an agreeable man, open-hearted, good-natured, genial. Attractive in spite of your insular prejudice against the Argentines, the Portuguese and the Greeks – a thoroughly congenial personality?”
“Yes,” I admitted. “I did.”
Hastings ‘admits’ to liking the Dago when prompted by Poirot. It is remarkable that his ‘insular prejudice against the Argentines’ had survived 14 years of living amongst them.
Apart from the Greek element, there are few points of interest in the writing, but here are a couple. I love Miss Peabody’s description of Mrs Tanios’ mother:
Then came Arabella. Plain girl. Face like a scone.
And here is Poirot on Britain as self-perceived haven of liberty:
“After all, this is a free country – “
“English people seem to labour under that misapprehension,” murmured Poirot.
That is an extraordinary statement from a man who had come to the country as a refugee twenty years earlier and stayed.
SWIGATHA RATING 3/10
The main clue to the perpetrator of the first murder attempt is sign-posted in letters three feet high.There is never any confirmation that Miss Arundell was murdered, there is no police involvement, and no direct evidence of either an accusation by Poirot or a confession by the culprit. These factors all combine to make it one of the more unusual, bloodless Christies. That should make it interesting, but unfortunately, there is no flow to it; all seems forced and humourless, and it becomes boring.
WHAT HAPPENED NEXT
Hastings is (thankfully, for Agatha Christie had clearly tired of the pairing) despatched back to the Argentine and does not re-appear in published form until 1975 (in Curtain). He takes the dog with him.
The ITV Poirot adaptation struggled with a flimsy and unexciting plot and therefore added some bits of its own:
– Charles Arundell’s failed attempt to break the water-speed record on Lake Coniston
– the mediumistic Tripps’ ability to foresee tragedy
– a love affair between Dr Grainger and Miss Lawson
– the murder of the doctor…
… and so on. The finest performance is by the dog. The incidental wind music is, however, lovely.
1 First published in 2009 as the coda to Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks (John Curran)