Notes On Dumb Witness

Rating: 4 out of five

Year of Publication: 1937

Motive for Murder: Wealth

Plot:

Bob the dog takes the blame after the elderly Emily Arundell fell off the stairs in the small hours, allegedly having tripped over its ball. She does not die from the accident – yet, but over two weeks later on 1st May.

A West-Highland-white-haired terrier. Bob?

On 28th June Hercule Poirot receives a letter in the deceased’s handwriting dated two months before, enquiring his advice on a ‘very delicate matter.’ Although there are not any details given, he decides to go at once to Market Basing, the town where she lives. Little does he realise about her demise nor the fact that the well-to-do spinster has left everything for her companion, Wilhelmina Lawson. He is intrigued that Arundell has apparently made a new will a few days after her fall, which no longer in favour of her two nieces and a nephew.

Then he realises that it was not Bog’s ball that brings about the incident. As a result, suspicions are drawn to people who were in the house at that time. Furthermore, is Lawson one to believe that she had no idea about the will in her favour?

 

Highlights:

‘Hanky-panky, that’s what I say. Something fishy somewhere.’

Catherine Peabody to Hercule Poirot

 

Here are the clues:

–          A nail on the skirting board

–          Smell of varnish

–          Easter Bank holiday

–          Bob locked out

–          Thin smoke from Arundell’s lips

–          ‘AT’ initial on a female brooch

(feel free to add in your comments).

Here are the choices for the scenario:

– A failed murder attempt?

– Unscrupulous companion?

– On-the-spur-of-the-moment murder?

– Cunning relatives?

 

The incident has shaken Arundell to the core. For she has realised that someone in the house was trying to kill her and failed. Yet, her surviving means there will be another attempt. Despite having taken some precautions, the murderer succeeds.

Six suspects: the Tanios (Bella the niece and her Greek husband Dr. Jacob), brother and sister Charles and Theresa (the nephew and the other niece), Dr. Rex Donaldson (Theresa’s fiancé) and Wilhemina Lawson, the companion. The long-standing servants, Ellen the housemaid and the cook, are out because they were the ones who found Arundell’s letter to Poirot and posted it later. Besides, her late mistress leaves generous legacies for them.

In How Does Your Garden Grow? (see the details on Notes On Poirot’s Eearly Cases), Amelia Barrowby also consults the sleuth about the similar matter. Nonetheless, she remembers to post the letter and the sleuth duly responds to it. In Arundell’s case, Poirot does not wait, aroused by curiosity as to the ‘progress’ that awaits him and Hastings. The house is already on sale when they arrive and therefore Poirot’s inventing a story of writing a book about General Arundell, the deceased’s father.

Nevertheless Miss Peabody, Emily’s close friend, manages to see through ‘the joke.’ A perceptive female character which resembles the likes of Catherine Sheppard (The Murder of Roger Ackroyd) and Jane Marple. In her interview with Poirot (see Clues), in spite of the interviewee being amused by the questions given, she is willing to give him the insights about each suspects. More importantly is her feeling something amiss although it is highly unlikely that Dr. Grainger, whom attended her late friend for many years, has killed his patient.

As for the murderer, a number of qualities in him might recall readers’ memories to a character in The Hollow.  Seemingly harmless and clumsy, she is clever enough to make them as an advantage and create the opportunities. Also, as a wolf dressed in a lamb costume, the meek look deceives almost everyone but Poirot. Even Miss Peabody is very careful when presenting the facts, having been aware of not to suggest anything about the three relatives of the deceased.

Needless to say, the murderer attempts to frame other suspects for the crime. The plot has been carefully thought to the minute detail; perhaps not being put down in writing just as in Towards Zero but anticipation to the unexpected turns of the events, ie. the changing of the will is already in place. What he does not predict, however, is the deceased’s writing a letter to a private investigator.

‘Incident of The Dog’s Ball’, the short story version of the book first appeared in Strand magazine. The manuscript then was found in Greenway many years afterwards along with ‘The Capture of Cerberus.’ They are then republished in John Curran’s Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks (2009).

What is unusual in the book is Poirot’s astute approach when dealing with the suspects. He clearly states a portion from Emily Arrundell’s money for his fee on the success of contesting the will. It does seem at first as a direct challenge to the companion. As the bait does not make an effect, it only confirms him about the deliberate lie Lawson has made about not knowing about the new will. Yet, will the bulk of wealth of Arundell make the poor woman a murderer?

The fascinating aspect of the plot is Poirot’s being adamant not to involve the police. Has he calculated already the chance of success in luring the killer into the trap? I suppose it is not a lack of evidence although the threat of the exhumation of the body is a good one. For it is Miss Lawson’s saying that Emily might have been a medium herself that makes him think about the possibility of  phosphorus poisoning.

To my mind the most brilliant aspect of the book is the title itself. What we mere humans regard ourselves with the intelligence besotted by God? Is a white-haired terrier indeed dumb or is it simply a misconception that a mammal is dumb because it does not speak the same language? Christie makes an exemplary example when Bob direct Hastings’s attention to the staircase. For it tries to show him how the incident was done in the same manner of Tiglath-Pileser (A Murder Is Announced) and Hannibal (Postern of Fate). I did hope he would have been the one who makes of a protruding nail on the third step from the top, not Poirot. Also, the fact that the nail is varnished with the same colour as the skirting board and therefore becomes inconspicuous (although I do wonder how the killer gets hold of the varnish in the first place).

Readers, I leave you to decide whether Miss Lawson is similar either to Miss Gilchirst (After The Funeral) or Miss Dora Bunner (A Murder Is Announced).

 

The Twists:

– Emily Arundell remembers to have kept the dog’s ball in the drawer in the evening before the incident

– On the night of Easter Bank Holiday Lawson sees the reflection of a woman in the mirror; her kneeling on the third step of stairs from the top and wearing a brooch with ‘T.A.’ initials

-Mr. Angus, the gardener, finds that a tin of weedkiller is nearly empty (after his conversation with Charles Arrundell about killing someone with it)

– Arabella Tanios is reported to have bought sleeping pills at the chemist’s in Market Basing during her visit to her aunt a week after the incident

 

Cast of Characters:

Arthur Hastings (Hugh Fraser) and Hercule Poirot (David Suchet) takes ‘Snubby’ for a walk in 1996’s adaptation into Poirot series.

The Arrundells:

Arabella Tanios (nee Winter, daughter of Emily’s sister, the wife of Dr. Tanios)

Charless (the nephew)

Emily

Theresa (the other niece of Emily)

 

Others:

Mr. Angus (the gardener at Littlegreen)

Arthur Hastings

Bob – a white-haired terrier

Miss Caroline Peabody (Emily’s close friend)

Nurse Carruthers (who looks after Emily Arrundell in the last two weeks of her life)

Ellen (Emily’s maid)

Mr. Gabbler (of Messrs Gabler and Stretcher, the local state agent)

Dr. Grainger (the senior doctor who attends Emily Arrundell)

Hercule poirot

Dr. Jacob Tanios (Arabella’s husband, Greek)

Rex Donaldson (the junior doctor, Theresa’s fiancé)

Mr. Purvis (Emily’s lawyer)

The Tripps (Julia and Isabel, the mediums, Minnie’s friends)

Wilhelmina Lawson (a.k.a. Minnie, Emily’s companion)

The chemist’s at Market Basing

The waiter at the George, the local pub

 

The Most Fascinating Character: Dr. Jacob Tanios

Is he a crook or an upright doctor? As cunning as a fox or astute? A charming personality or an accomplished actor? A loving husband or manipulator?

Smyrna – the ancient town where Dr. Tanios comes from. Its rich and colourful history is almost forgotten among the silent walls and whispers of tales of the dark days in 1922.

Emily Arundell disapproves of her niece marrying Greek, of whom (in her prejudiced mind) is almost as bad as Argentine or Turk. Be that as it may, nobody would disagree his being genuinely pleasant to his host during their two-week stay for the Easter at Littlegreen.

As for Hastings, here is his impression about Dr. Tanios: ‘a rotund, jolly, brown-haired, brown-eyed man. And though it is true he had a beard, it was a modest brown affair that made him look more like an artist. He spoke English perfectly. His voice had a pleasant timbre and matched the cheerful good-humour of his face.’

The Tanios live in Smyrna (Izmir as it is known nowadays, still part of Greece in the thirties) and they come to England for the spring.  Despite a good reputation in his work, the doctor has little means to pay for his two children’s British education. Thus, his ordering Bella to ask her aunt for help, of which she then refuses on the grounds of such talk is inappropriate.

A week after the incident he visits Arundell alone. Apparently she was given a mixture of tonic, which, according to Ellen, she then drained the contents into the sink. The nature of his call is arguable; either he has been concerned about the impact of her fall or he takes the opportunity to slip into a cupboard where Arundell’s tablets are kept. After all, he has knowledge about poisons and medicine and how to make them look like a natural death.

During the interview with Poirot he expresses his worry about his wife’s state of health. ‘It occurred to me that my wife might have – or may yet- come to you with some extraordinary tale. She may conceivably say that she is in danger from me – something of that kind.’ On the other hand, his wife implies to the sleuth in a separate occasion her belief that her husband might have drugged her late aunt to the grave.

This requires Poirot’s little grey cells. On the one hand, Mrs. Tanios does not take into account the loyal maid’s above statement. On the other, Bella does not seem to be keen at Charles and Theresa’s conferring to the sleuth.

Above all, is it enough motive for Dr. Tanios to end Arundell’s life as his pleas for her help for his two was rejected?

Clues:

Ellen and Poirot: [about Wilhelmina Lawson]

P: ‘She [Emily] must have been unusually attached to Miss Lawson, though.

E: ‘Oh, I don’t think so, sir’

P: ‘Miss Lawson was not in any way remarkable?’

E: ‘I shouldn’t have said so, sir. Quite an ordinary person.’

P: ‘You liked her, yes?’

E: ‘There wasn’t anything to like or dislike. Fussy she was – a regular old maid, and full of this nonsense about spirits.’

P: ‘Spirits?’

E: ‘Yes, sir, spirits. Sitting in the dark round a table and dead people came back and spoke to you. Downright irreligious I call it – as if we didn’t know departed souls had their rightful place and aren’t likely to leave it.’

P: ‘So Miss Lawson was a spiritualist! Was Miss Arundell a believer, too?’

E: ‘Miss Lawson would have liked her to be!’

P: ‘But she wasn’t?’

E: ‘The mistress had too much sense. Mind you, I don’t say it didn’t amuse her. “I’m willing to be convinced,” she’d say. But she’d often look at Miss Lawson as much as to say, “My poor dear, what a fool you are to be taken in!”’

 

Conversations between Miss Peabody (P) and Poirot(HP):

HP: ‘I understand Miss Arundell died a rich woman?’

P: ‘Yes, that’s what made all the pother. Nobody dreamed she was quite as well off as she was. How it came about was this way. Old General Arundell left quite a nice little income – divided equally among his sons and daughters. Some of it was reinvested, and I think every investment has done well. There were some original shares of Mortauld. Now, of course, Thomas [Charles and Theresa’s father] and Arabella [Bella’s mother] took their shares with them when they were married. The other three sisters lived here, and they didn’t spend a tenth part of their joint income; it all went back and was reinvested. When Matilda died she left her money to be divided between Emily and Agnes, and when Agnes died she left it to Emily. And Emily still went on spending very little. Result, she died a rich woman – and the Lawson woman gets it all!’

HP: ‘Did that come as a surprise to you, Miss Peabody?’

P: ‘To tell you the truth, it did! Emily had always given out quite openly thta at her death her money was to be divided between her nieces and her nephew. And as a matter of fact, that was the way it was in the original will. Legacies to the servants and so on and then to be divided between Theresa, Charles and Bella. My goodness, there was a to-do when, after her death, it was found she’d made a new will leaving it all to poor Miss Lawson!’

HP: ‘Was the will made just before her death?’

P: ‘Thinking of undue influence? No, I’m afraid that’s no use. And I shouldn’t think poor Lawson had the brains or the nerve to attempt anything of the sort. To tell you the truth, she seemed as much surprised as anybody – or said she was!’

‘The will was made about ten days before her death. Lawyer says it’s all right. Well – it may be.’

HP: ‘You mean..’

P: ‘Hanky-panky, that’s what I say. Something fishy somewhere.’

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