Sunday, 19 June 2016

Dress Down Sunday: Dumb Witness by Agatha Christie


LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES



published 1937


 
 
Dumb Witness
 

She came to the head of the stairs, stretched out one hand to the banister rail and then, unaccountably, she stumbled, tried to recover her balance, failed and went headlong down the stairs.

The sound of her fall, the cry she gave, stirred the sleeping house to wakefulness. Doors opened, lights flashed on.

Miss Lawson popped out of her room at the head of the staircase.
Uttering little cries of distress, she pattered down the stairs. One by one the others arrived - Charles, yawning, in a resplendent dressing gown. Theresa, wrapped in dark silk. Bella in a navy-blue kimono, her hair bristling with combs to “set the wave.”

Dazed and confused, Emily Arundell lay in a crushed heap. Her shoulder hurt her and her ankle - her whole body was a confused mass of pain. She was conscious of people standing over her, of that fool Minnie Lawson crying and making ineffectual gestures with her hands, of Theresa with a startled look in her dark eyes, of Bella standing with her mouth open looking expectant, of the voice of Charles saying from somewhere - very far away so it seemed:

“It's that damned dog's ball! He must have left it here and she tripped over it. See? Here it is!”
 
commentary: Is this one nobody’s favourite Christie? It’s competent and a reasonable puzzle – although the pool of suspects is very small, so it’s not going to be a big surprise at the end.

Blogfriend (and fellow Tuesday-Nighter) Brad Friedman recently did a highly recommended and amusing takedown of the book, ‘Deconstructing Second Rate Christie’ – and his piece and others’ comments on it made me feel I needed to re-read it.

It was slightly better than I remembered: but very much the stock selection of characters and arrangements – it is hard to think of any type or situation that isn’t done (probably better) in a different book, with the sole exception of the dog. And the dog is awful, wince-making, all that anthropomorphizing! (Yes I have a stony heart and am not a dog lover.) The characters are moved around like chess pieces (to use a clichéd view) – the elderly but sharp lady, the foolish spinsters, the fashionable and bored young woman – and there is no involvement for the reader, except a feeling of admiration for some of the plot devices.

Blogfriend Lucy Fisher said
I like this book for the social comment: the estate agents’ office, the feisty elderly lady who sees through Poirot, the back story of Emily and her sisters, the spiritualist who dresses like a little girl (haven’t we all met at least one of her?)
So I decided to read it again with that in mind.And these are the main points that arose:

1) Some good dialogue – this is a witness questioning Hastings:
“Can you write decent English?”
“I hope so.”
“H’m – where did you go to school?”
“Eton.”
“Then you can’t.”



2) And this:
“After all, this is a free country -”
“English people seem to labour under that misapprehension,” murmured Poirot.
3) Late on in the book, Poirot names the murderers from four earlier Christie books – he is making the point that murderers can seem pleasant enough. This always seems quite shocking, though to be fair it would probably only be a serious spoiler if you were reading another of the books simultaneously. Or have a very good memory for names.

4) A quotation that I have long remembered, but not the source – glad to find it after all this time:
“Turks are frightfully cruel sometimes.”
“Dr Tanios is a Greek.”
“Yes of course – I mean, they’re usually the ones who get massacred by the Turks – or am I thinking of the Armenians?”

5) The fabled clue of the brooch - under discussion regularly since the book was first published, when one of the reviewers mentioned it with disdain. It is slightly unlikely, but it’s not as bad as I remembered – I think we all imagine it took Poirot weeks and hundreds of pages to get the point of what is seen, but that is not so at all. He is a bit slow, but perhaps Christie was giving readers the chance to feel smart.

And would anyone wear a brooch on dressing-gown? Not impossible, though I was ready to say that I have been looking at photos of clothes of every kind, every day for the past four years, including many a kimono, and don’t recall seeing any such thing.

But voila – what should I find but the picture above? Here is a  woman in a very dark-coloured kimono, with a shiny blotch under her left shoulder, a blotch that could easily be a brooch I would say…. The picture is by William Merritt Chase, from the Athenaeum website .























25 comments:

  1. I read this one early on in my Christie marathon as a teenager (the alternate titled US edition) and enjoyed it, but the dressing gown gambit is the only thing I really remember now.

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    1. I think this just isn't that memorable a book. But it IS enjoyable enough.

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  2. Well, you're right that this is not Christie's best work, Moira - no doubt about that. As you say, there's nothing really remarkable about the characters, and they don't have a whole lot of depth. Some funny moments (I do like the scene in the house agent's office), but still, I think it's appeal for me is more in the way Christie portrays village life at the time. And it's Christie, so I admit to being a bit more lenient...

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    1. It IS a good picture of life, and I like the uninterested and inefficient receptionist because people tend to imagine that this is a recent phenomenon, that TODAY'S young worker are less than perfect. But I'm sure that's been the view down through history.

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  3. It was sandwiched between CARDS ON THE TABLE and DEATH ON THE NILE, which are both excellently constructed and contain some memorable characters, and it's possible that she'd just run out of steam. You get the feeling that she'd had the idea for the idea for the story, needed to provide her publishers with a novel, and thought 'Why not?'. It might probably have worked better as a novella, rather like MURDER IN THE MEWS. The sentimentalising of the dog is really yucky, and you get the feeling that she cares about it rather more than she does of a lot of her human characters. But again, you're bang on about the dialogue. Christie can be pretty sharp and sarcastic, but people don't seem to remember that part of her and are covinced that she's somehow 'cosy;.

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    1. Yes to all you say, and very good point about the excellent books on either side. I think she was a very strong dog lover, and she let herself go in this one - we're lucky she didn't do it more. She says herself that when her life imploded with the divorce and disappearance, she trusted almost no people, but cherished her faithful hounds...

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  4. Thanks for the shout out, Moira! I, too, liked the sassy neighbor most of all and confess that I hadn't remembered her from earlier readings. Reading the top of your review, it just occurred to me: did the killer REMOVE the brooch after Emily fell, or did Christie simply choose not to mention this huge initialed thing? Just another niggling point regarding a most unsatisfactory clue. Or as Bob the dog would put it, "Woof, woof! Stop blogging, everybody, and walk me! Let's chase squirrels! Woof!"

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    1. Blooming dog! I owe you one for making me re-read this: I did enjoy it and was glad to come up to speed on these important brooch details.

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  5. The brooch needn't have been huge. And women did wear brooches on most of their clothes. (Always looking out for Christie.)

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    1. Also, there's a character here who is slightly awkward with her fashion choices and styles, perhaps gets things a bit wrong? I noticed a fashion picture today with someone wearing a brooch half-way down her skirt - it looks unusual but OK! (Am going to be noticing brooches on clothes for the next few months now...)

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    2. I remember Pauline Trigere, the American couturier, was known for wearing brooches and pins in unusual places - including a gold turtle on the hem of her red pantsuit leg. That would have been in the 1970s I think. The image has stuck with me - lucky we don't need to find an illustration of THAT....

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    3. Gosh, she really DID wear turtle brooches on her trousers. https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=cTIrAQAAMAAJ&q=Trigere+turtle+brooch&dq=Trigere+turtle+brooch&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjt7_Gx8LbNAhUsAcAKHf3ZC3oQ6AEIMjAD

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    4. Oh that is interesting Daniel, well proven! Btw, it occurs to me that I forgot to tag you on last week's entry that you inspired - you get a shoutout: http://clothesinbooks.blogspot.co.uk/2016/06/dress-down-sunday-room-for-weapon.html

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  6. Very much enjoyed this, Moira. That does definitely seem to be a brooch. Yes, AC isn't really a cosy writer (any more than Miss Marple is cosy). She had a sharp wit.

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    1. Yes - when you compare AC to the cozy writers around today - well, oranges and apples. And I enjoyed reading it again - there's always something new to ponder in Christie.

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  7. This makes me curious to read the book but it will be a while anyway. Still preferring to read roughly in order within Christie's various series. Will be reviewing The Seven Clues Mystery very soon (for 1929 book) and still haven't decided what I think about it.

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    1. Yes it's funny, because you mentioned Dumb Witness recently when we were talking about reading AC in order. Will be interested to read about your 1929 book.

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    2. Seven Dials Mystery, I seem to have this problem with mixing up words all the time. Wonder if I am losing my mind. Of course we have had smoke in our air for days and it is messing with my mind.

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    3. I did work out that in the end Tracy, though not before finding that there is an obscure crime story called Seven Clues! I chose Seven Dials too, so we can compare notes - my post should go up Sunday.

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  8. I enjoyed this review, Moira, and Bob says "woof!"

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    1. Thanks Curt. Two yips and a woof back! (That's 101 Dalmatians talk, but I'm sure Bob will understand)

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  9. Hmm, not spending my Father's Day Amazon voucher on this!

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    1. Your family would be surprised if you did!

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  10. Like that painting. But what would that kimono look like without the red in the neckline? The makes the picture, it seems to be.

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    1. Excellent point! I know what I think is elegant, but am no good at working put what makes it so. But when it's pointed out I can see it.

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