Dumb Witness is a detective fiction novel by British writer Agatha Christie, first published in the UK by the Collins Crime Club on 5 July 1937 and in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company later in the same year under the title of Poirot Loses a Client. The UK edition retailed at seven shillings and sixpence (7/6) and the US edition at $2.00.
Dumb Witness was based on an unpublished short story entitled The Incident of the Dog's Ball. This short story was lost for many years but found by the authoress's daughter in a crate of her personal effects, in 2004. "The Incident of the Dog's Ball" was published in Britain in September 2009 in John Curran's Agatha Christie's Secret Notebooks: Fifty Years of Mysteries in the Making. The short story was also published by The Strand Magazine in 2009 in their tenth anniversary issue.
The story is set in Market Basing, Berkshire and centers on Emily Arundell, a wealthy spinster surrounded by grasping young relatives. She is injured by falling down a staircase, and everyone believes that she tripped over a ball left by her pet fox terrier, Bob. Emily later dies of natural causes (or so it is believed), and her estate is unexpectedly left to her companion, Miss Lawson. A letter written before her death to Hercule Poirot by Emily arrives too late to save her, but puts Poirot on the case.
(may contain spoilers - click on expand to read)
Emily Arundell writes to Hercule Poirot because she believes she has been the victim of attempted murder. However, unfortunately this letter is delayed and when Poirot receives it, she has been dead for some time. Her doctor says that she died of liver problems she had had for many years. The woman's companion, Miss Lawson, is the unexpected beneficiary of a substantial fortune, according to a very recent change of will. Under the previous will, Miss Arundell's nephew, Charles Arundell, and nieces Theresa Arundell and Bella Tanios, would have inherited. This gives them all motive for murder, because it is unclear who knew the will had been changed. While examining the house, under the pretense of buying it, Poirot discovers a nail covered with varnish and a small string tied to it. Before her death Miss Arundell had said something about Bob...dog...picture...ajar. Poirot concludes that this means a jar on which there is a picture of a dog who was left out all night—meaning that Bob could not have put the ball on the staircase because he had been out all night. Poirot concludes that Miss Arundell fell over a tripwire tied to the nail.
On the day of her death Emily attended a seance held by a pair of local sisters, the Miss Tripps, both of whom say that when Miss Arundell spoke, a luminous figure came from her mouth. They also say that they saw Emily's "spirit" the night Miss Arundell died, billowing from her mouth in a halo around her head. Miss Lawson, who was also at the seance, similarly claims that a luminous haze appeared.
Theresa and Charles want to contest the will and offer to pay Poirot, who seemingly agrees. He asks Bella, who, after talking with her husband, agrees. While at Miss Arundell's house Poirot talks to the gardener and learns that Charles talked to him about his weed killer which turns out to be arsenic. The bottle is also nearly empty — something that the gardener finds surprising. Theresa Arundell is a strong suspect because Miss Lawson can recall seeing someone through her bedroom mirror at the top of the stairs on the night of Miss Arundell's "accident". The person was wearing a brooch with the initials, "TA".
After implying for a long time that he is bullying her, Bella leaves her husband, Jacob, accusing him of her aunt's murder and claiming he was trying to have her wrongly committed to a mental institution to keep her quiet. She goes to stay with Miss Lawson, but Poirot tells her to go to a certain hotel, and read some papers he has prepared for her. The next day, she is found dead. She has taken an overdose of sleeping medication. Poirot learns that Emily Arundell died of phosphorus poisoning, administered in her liver pills. The reason why the haze appeared from her mouth that the Tripp sisters described was that her breath was phosphorescent. The nature of the murder suggests a doctor. Dr Donaldson, Theresa's fiancé, and Jacob Tanios, are both doctors. At a meeting with the suspects to reveal the murderer, Poirot states that Theresa stole the arsenic. However, she could not bear to take someone else's life, so she threw the arsenic away.
The real murderer was Bella. She committed the murder for money to educate her children and escape from her mundane life. She had grown to hate her domineering husband, and had already attempted to kill him as well. She took her own life to protect her children because the papers Poirot gave her described how Bella had murdered her aunt. She destroyed the papers, burning them in the fireplace as Poirot knew she would. The brooch which Miss Lawson had seen through the mirror was Bella's with the initials "AT" for Arabella Tanios; they appeared as "TA" (reversed) as Miss Lawson had been looking through the mirror. On her deathbed, Miss Arundell had asked Miss Lawson for the new will, presumably to destroy it, but Miss Lawson, thinking the will was only for a few thousand pounds, lied and claimed the will was at the lawyer's office. Upon discovering that the inheritance was much greater than she had imagined, she was racked with remorse. Respecting the original will, Miss Lawson voluntarily shares the estate with her employer's relatives, including Bella's children. The dog Bob goes to Poirot's friend, Captain Hastings.
Emily Arundell's Household
- Emily Arundell, the victim, a Victorian who has no trouble believing the worst.
- Wilhelmina Lawson, the victim's companion and heiress - to her own and everybody else's astonishment.
- Bob, the victim's fox terrier and the titular dumb witness
- Ellen - maid
- Annie - cook
- Angus - gardener
- Charles Arundell, the victim's nephew, Theresa's brother, financially needy with criminal tendencies
- Theresa Arundell, the victim's niece, daughter of Emily Arundell's only brother and a wife who might have murdered her
- Dr Jacob Tanios, Bella's husband, not English and so automatically suspicious. Very charming and a good doctor. His wife seems to fear him.
- Bella Tanios, the victim's niece, daughter of Emily Arundell's sister Arabella who made a late marriage to an Oxbridge don. Unhappy in her marriage to -
- (Edward) John Tanios, the doubly-named son of Bella & Jacob, an example of Christie having changed/forgot a character's name
- Mary Tanios, the daughter of Bella and Jacob.
- Other members of The Arundell family tree
- Dr Rex Donaldson, Theresa's extremely unlikely fiancé, a cool, detached and highly intelligent man.
- Dr Grainger
- The Tripp sisters (Isabel and Julia), two eccentric spinsters and amateur spiritualists whose enthusiasm far outweighs their skill
- Caroline Peabody
- Nurse Carruthers
- Other townspeople of Market Basing
- Hercule Poirot, the renowned Belgian detective
- Captain Hastings, narrator and Poirot's friend
- George, Hercule Poirot's valet
- William Purvis
- Mary Fox
- Hasting's Great-aunt Mary
Tropes and themes
Literary significance and reception
John Davy Hayward in the Times Literary Supplement (10 July 1937), while approving of Christie's work, commented on some length at what he felt was a central weakness of this book: "Who, in their senses, one feels, would use hammer and nails and varnish in the middle of the night within a few feet of an open door! – a door, moreover, that was deliberately left open at night for observation! And, incidentally, do ladies wear large brooches on their dressing gowns? .. These are small but tantalizing points which it would not be worth raising in the work of a less distinguished writer than Mrs Christie; but they are worth recording, if only as a measure of curiosity and interest with which one approaches her problems and attempts to anticipate their solution."
In The New York Times Book Review (26 September 1937), Kay Irvin wrote that "Agatha Christie can be depended upon to tell a good tale. Even when she is not doing her most brilliant work she holds her reader's attention, leads them on from clue to clue, and from error to error, until they come up with a smash against surprise in the end. She is not doing her most brilliant work in Poirot Loses A Client, but she has produced a much-better-than-average thriller nevertheless, and her plot has novelty, as it has sound mechanism, intriguing character types, and ingenuity."
In The Observer's issue of July 18, 1937, "Torquemada" (Edward Powys Mathers) said, "usually after reading a Poirot story the reviewer begins to scheme for space in which to deal with it adequately; but Dumb Witness, the least of all the Poirot books, does not have this effect on me, though my sincere admiration for Agatha Christie is almost notorious. Apart from a certain baldness of plot and crudeness of characterisation on which this author seemed to have outgrown years ago, and apart from the fact that her quite pleasing dog has no testimony to give either way concerning the real as opposed to the attempted murder, her latest book betrays two main defects. In the first place, on receiving a delayed letter from a dead old lady Poirot blindly follows a little grey hunch. In the second place, it is all very well for Hastings not to see the significance of the brooch in the mirror, but for Poirot to miss it for so long is almost an affront to the would-be worshipper. Still, better a bad Christie than a good average."
The Scotsman of 5 July 1937 started off with: "In Agatha Christie's novel there is a minor question of construction which might be raised." The reviewer then went on to outline the set-up of the plot up to the point where Poirot receives Emily Arundell's letter and then said, "Why should the story not have begun at this point? M. Poirot reconstructs it from here and the reader would probably have got more enjoyment out of it if he had not had a hint of the position already. But the detection is good, and the reader has no ground for complaint, for the real clue is dangled before his eyes several times, and because it seems a normal feature of another phenomenon than poisoning that he tends to ignore it. For this Agatha Christie deserves full marks."
E.R. Punshon of The Guardian began his review column of 13 July 1937 by an overview comparison of the books in question that week (in addition to Dumb Witness, I'll be Judge, I'll be Jury by Milward Kennedy, Hamlet, Revenge! by Michael Innes, Dancers in Mourning by Margery Allingham and Careless Corpse by C. Daly King) when he said, "Only Mrs Christie keeps closer to the old tradition, and this time she adds much doggy lore and a terrier so fascinating that even Poirot himself is nearly driven from the centre of the stage." In the review proper, he went on to say that the dedication of the novel to Peter was, "a fact that in this dog-worshipping country is enough of itself to ensure success." He observed that Poirot, "shows all of his usual acumen; Captain Hastings – happily once more at Poirot's side – more than all his usual stupidity, and there is nothing left for the critic but to offer his usual tribute of praise to another of Mrs Christie's successes. She does indeed this sort of thing so superlatively well that one is ungratefully tempted to wish she would do something just a little well different, even if less well."
In the Daily Mirror (8 July 1937), Mary Dell wrote: "Once I had started reading, I did not have to rely on Bob or his cleverness to keep me interested. This is Agatha Christie at her best." She concluded, "Here's a book that will keep all thriller fans happy from page one to page three hundred and something."
Robert Barnard: "Not quite vintage for the period: none of the relations of the dead woman is particularly interesting, and the major clue is very obvious. The doggy stuff is rather embarrassing, though done with affection and knowledge. At the end the dog is given to Hastings – or possibly vice versa."
References to other works
- Chapter 11: "Poirot's travellings in the East, as far as I knew, consisted of one journey to Syria extended to Iraq, and which occupied perhaps a few weeks". After solving a case in Syria at the request of his friend, Poirot decided to travel to Iraq before returning to England. While in Iraq Poirot solved the case of the Murder in Mesopotamia, after which he returned home on the Orient Express and en route solved the Murder on the Orient Express.
- In chapter 18 of the novel, Poirot gives a list of murderers from previous cases of his, more precisely The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926), Death in the Clouds (1935), The Mystery of the Blue Train (1928) and The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920).
Film, TV or theatrical adaptations
Agatha Christie's Poirot
A TV film adaptation was made in 1996 as part of the television series Agatha Christie's Poirot starring David Suchet as Poirot. The setting of the film is changed to England's Lake District and there are changes to the backstories of some of the individuals and some sideplots have been added but the main premise of the original novel is retained.
Les Petits Meurtes d'Agatha
BBC Radio 4 did a full cast adaptation of the novel in 2006.
Graphic novel adaptation
- 1937, Collins Crime Club (London), 5 July 1937, Hardcover, 320 pp
- 1938, Dodd Mead and Company (New York), 1937, Hardcover, 302 pp
- 1945, Avon Books, Paperback, 260 pp (Avon number 70)
- 1949, Pan Books, Paperback, 250 pp (Pan number 82)
- 1958, Fontana Books (Imprint of HarperCollins), Paperback, 255 pp
- 1965, Dell Books, Paperback, 252 pp
- 1969, Pan Books, Paperback, 218 pp
- 1973, Ulverscroft Large-print Edition, Hardcover, 454 pp
- 1975, Fontana Books, Paperback, 255 pp
- 2007, Poirot Facsimile Edition (Facsimile of 1937 UK First Edition), HarperCollins, 3 January 2007, Hardback, ISBN 0-00-723446-5
The book was first serialised in the US in The Saturday Evening Post in seven instalments from 7 November (Volume 209, Number 19) to 19 December 1936 (Volume 209, Number 25) under the title Poirot Loses a Client with illustrations by Henry Raleigh.
In the UK, the novel was serialised as an abridged version in the weekly Woman's Pictorial magazine in seven instalments from 20 February (Volume 33, Number 841) to 3 April 1937 (Volume 33, Number 847) under the title Mystery of Littlegreen House. There were no chapter divisions and all of the instalments carried illustrations by "Raleigh".
Christie dedicated the book to her beloved dog Peter. He died the year after the publication of the book.
- Chinese (simplified): 无言的证人/哑证人 (Speechless Witness/Dumb Witness)
- Croatian: Nijemi Svjedok (The Mute Witness)
- Czech: Němý svědek (The Dumb Witness)
- Dutch: Brief van een dode (Letter of a dead (woman))
- French: Témoin muet (Dumb Witness)
- German: Der ballspielende Hund (The dog who played with a toy ball)
- Hungarian: A néma tanú (The Dumb Witness), A kutya se látta (Even the Dog didn't See It)
- Indonesian: Saksi Bisu (Dumb Witness)
- Italian: Due mesi dopo (Two Months Later)
- Japanese: もの言えぬ証人 (Dumb Witness)
- Polish: Niemy świadek (The Dumb Witness)
- Portuguese: Poirot perde uma Cliente (Poirot Loses a Client), Testemunha Muda (Dumb Witness)
- Russian: Немой свидетель (=Nemoy svidetel', Dumb Witness), Безмолвный свидетель (=Bezmolvny svidetel', Dumb Witness)
- Serbian: Nemi Сведок (Dumb Witness)
- Spanish: El Testigo Mudo (The Mute Witness)
- Turkish: Sessiz tanık (Silent witness)