‘Dumb Witness’ – Hercule Poirot #16 by Agatha Christie

Everyone blamed Emily Arundell’s accident on a rubber ball left on the stairs at her home in Market Basing by her frisky terrier, Bob. But the more she thought about her fall, the more convinced she became that one of her relatives was trying to kill her.

So, on April 17th she wrote about her anxieties and suspicions in a letter to Hercule Poirot. And included a request that he consult with her as soon as possible. Mysteriously he didn’t receive the letter until June 28th … by which time Emily was already dead.

This was fun right up to the final scene where, for me, everything fell apart.

At the start of the book, I was having quite a good time. The writing was pleasingly light and brisk. I was delighted by Emily Arundel, the old lady at the centre of it all. She was wonderfully, robustly Victorian, completely uncooked by the attentions of her grasping relatives. Then there was Bob, the dog, who is definitely my favourite Christie character so far. A completely believable and lovingly drawn picture of an intelligent, lively, playful dog.

It was good to have Hastings back from the Argentine as he makes Poirot easier to engage with, although, apart from his ability to speak dog, Hastings seemed a bit denser than usual and he and Poirot seemed to snipe at each other more than I remembered them doing.

Poirot was not his usual self. He was actively investigating the circumstances of Emily Arundel’s death, seeking out people and asking them questions, not just sitting and watching and thinking, like a spider in its web, picking up every vibration the people around him make and thinking deep thoughts accompanied by gnomic comments and smug asides.

I almost began to like Poirot for once. When he was investigating he seemed to show empathy and concern for others rather than just insight and calculation. Then I got to the big reveal and understood that I had completely mistaken his actions and his intent. The things I’d begun to like about him were a sham, a show put on to earn the trust of the people he was investigating while hiding his true intentions.

As usual, the big reveal was delivered by Poirot doing a ‘let me show you all how clever I have been in finding the killer‘ session in front of the assembled suspects. I found this session particularly sinister. This is where Poirot dropped the mask and showed his true self. Without the least compunction, he explained that he has found the killer and arranged his own form of vigilante justice. What made this particularly disturbing was that he took pleasure in grandstanding about his cleverness in doing so, even though one of the people he is grandstanding to is the loving spouse of the killer whose life Poirot has effectively ended.

After this scene, I was disappointed in myself for not understanding that Poirot remains the sociopath he has always been: strong on insight, untroubled by empathy, willing to tell any lie or practice any deception that serves his purpose, feigning intimacy in order to exploit misplaced trust. He’s also completely comfortable meting out lethal extra-legal justice, based purely on his own assessment. In many ways, he’s a far more chilling creation than the various murderers he has caught.

Still, I liked Bob the dog and I’m very glad that he ended up with Hastings and not Poirot.

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