Thursday, 23 June 2016

Dumb Witness by Agatha Christie: Part 2


published 1937
 
 
Dumb witness 4She was nearer fifty than forty, her hair was parted in the middle in Madonna fashion, her eyes were brown and slightly prominent.

She wore a sprigged muslin dress that conveyed an odd suggestion of fancy dress.
Poirot stepped forward and started the conversation in his most flourishing manner…

[Miss Tripp said:] "Sit here, won't you--no, please--really, I always prefer an upright chair myself. Now, are you sure you are comfortable there? Dear Minnie Lawson--oh, here is my sister." More creaking and rustling and we were joined by a second lady, dressed in green gingham that would have been suitable for a girl of sixteen.


"My sister Isabel--Mr.--er--Parrot-- and--er--Dumb Witness 2Captain Hawkins. Isabel dear, these gentlemen are friends of Minnie Law son's." Miss Isabel Tripp was less buxom than her sister. She might indeed have been described as scraggy. She had very fair hair done up into a large quantity of rather messy curls. She cultivated a girlish manner and was easily recognizable as the subject of most of the flower poses in photography. She clasped her hands now in girlish excitement.

"How delightful! Dear Minnie! You have seen her lately?"

"Not for some years," explained Poirot.
 
 
commentary: I’m now doing a second entry on this book, despite having described it in a recent entry as nobody’s favourite Christie.

Blogfriend Lucy Fisher got me going on a re-read. Her defence of the book included this:
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?)
- And indeed the spiritualist sisters were so awful I did want to do an entry on them. There is an assumption that being mediums means they must also be vegetarians, wear strange clothes, and not have proper plumbing. Poirot and Hastings refuse an invitation to supper, and Hastings says:
“thank goodness, Poirot,” I said with fervour, “you got us out of those raw carrots! What awful women!” 

“Pour nous, un bon bifteck—with the fried potatoes—and a good bottle of wine. What should we have had to drink there, I wonder?" 
“Well water, I should think,” I replied with a shudder. “Or non-alcoholic cider. It was that kind of place! I bet there’s no bath and no sanitation except an earth closet in the garden!”

This all bears a remarkable resemblance to George Orwell’s frequent criticisms of the popular view of socialists – faddy foods and sandals and loose-cut clothes. Spiritualists and socialists don’t always go together.

GA mysteries also suggest that these identifiable women – hand-woven items of clothing are another giveaway – often ran cafes with weird décor and doubtful cakes.

Unexpectedly, Poirot does not dismiss spiritualism out of hand:
“What makes you say that spiritualism is tomfoolery, Hastings?”
I stared at him in astonishment. “My dear Poirot—those appalling women-" 
He smiled. “I quite agree with your estimate of the Misses Tripp. But the mere fact that the Misses Tripp have adopted with enthusiasm Christian Science, vegetarianism, theosophy and spiritualism does not really constitute a damning indictment of those subjects!...I have an open mind on the subject.”


Christie likes to use spiritualism, seances and mediums a lot, but usually as straight tools to sharpen the plot, the way the hocus pocus can hide what is really going on. But she also likes the atmosphere they create, and the hint of a question lingering in the air as to whether there might be something to it…

The top picture is from the NYPL.

The lower one, from Wikimedia Commons, is a medium, Mina Crandon, who was active in the USA in the 1920s: one of those who was investigated by Harry Houdini. There seems no doubt that she was entirely fraudulent, but her Wikipedia entry makes for fascinating reading and is highly recommended.

Earlier entry on this book here, endless Agatha Christie posts all over the blog – click on the label below.





















18 comments:

  1. No doubt about it, Moira, the Misses Tripp are not treated kindly in this novel. Their presence is actually interesting, though - a different perspective on the town, etc.. And I do like it that they shed light on the case...in their own way. You also make a really interesting point about Christie and spiritualism. Some time when I devote a whole post to Christie I'll mention that. I've often wondered what she really thought of it all.

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    1. I so agree with you: you cannot take Christie at face value, and assume that the views she puts in her characters' mouths are hers. Robert Barnard writes well on this topic in his Christie book, comparing her with other authors.
      Would love to read you on her use of spiritualism - such a good topic.

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  2. Wasn't there another Christie novel with some kind of medium... Some kind of Egyptian theme I seem to remember, with an Egyptian pendant or necklace, and a woman with some kind of Egyptian spirit guide... only it was all part of an elaborate murder plot? And was there another one where Poirot borrows a doll and makes it 'speak' from beyond the grave and the murderer is reveled - was that the bloke on a boat who had been a stage ventriloquist and murdered his wife? Oh, I must get hold of a stash of Poirots and Marples and embark on a reread.

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    1. Yes I recognize some of that, but obviously you should be drawing up plots for someone to write spiritualist crime books, what a lovely collection that is...

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  3. Christie had a fiance who got very into spiritualism and raved about a medium who was always having conniption fits because "something awful has happened here". The relationship fizzled. In most of her books, seances and spiritualism are frauds, though sometimes staged to make a murdererer reveal him/herself. But in the Mr Quin series, there is an Other World that sometimes communicates with this one.

    You could hardly avoid the occult in the 20s and 30s - see Spiritualism Between the Wars by Jenny Hazelgrove.

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    1. My ha-ha response is that that must be a huge long and fat book! It's amazing how much it turns up in both fiction and non-fiction in that era. The sadness of those trying to contact the dead from the war at one end, and Benson's Mapp and Lucia at the other - fads and one-upmanship. Didn't know that about her fiancé...

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  4. In between-the-Wars detective fiction, the whole idea of spiritualism (not to mention socialism, vegetarianism and any other sort of faddism that you care to mention) is used as a shorthand for 'weirdness'. I suspect that most of the writers who used it had little or no practical experience of spiritualism. Like a lot of Christie, it is using an image to manipulate the reader. She knew that a lot of her readership would respond in a certain way to a certain cliche image (spinster, retired colonel, artist) and that she could use that knee-jerk response to manipulate them. Were she writing these stories today, I suspect that members of strange religious cults might be used rather than spiritualism. The latter is no longer really a fad in the way that it was then, and has become almost respectable. The aftermath of WWI caused a boost in interest in spiritualism in a way that the aftermath of WWII didn't. After WWII there was more of an interest in extreme left-wing politics than in spiritualism, which has left the eariler book with a charming period feel.

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    1. Interesting - it would have been good to see her on cults.
      Ggary, can I just check - do you have a blog? I've tried to find one several times, but haven't. You make such wonderful comments on mine....

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    2. I'm afraid that I don't. To be honest, I've never thought that anyone would be interested in what I have to say. I'm always rather in awe of people like yourself who can run blogs like this, day in day out and constantly find interesting things to say. I'm the most un-together person and the thought of keeping up a blog and answering all of the posts fills me with terror! That said, I'm really so pleased that you liked my comments so much that you took the time to look. Thanks so much.

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    3. Well I'm the beneficiary - I just think your comments on my posts are so considered and clever, they would make post in themselves. Thank you!

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  5. Well, that lack of proper plumbing is definitely a vote again - speaking of which (no, I wont't go there, just too bloody awful for words) ,,,

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    1. Can't speak about it Sergio. No blog post this morning.

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  6. Moira, while "Dumb Witness" may not be everyone's favourite Christie, I think it has good humour and the Dame seems to have had fun writing it. I haven't read this book, of course. I have detected Wodehousian humour in some of her novels, which is not surprising considering they were good friends.

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    1. It was better than I remembered Prashant, and she is always funnier than people give her credit for in my view.

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  7. Not one for me - slim pickings of late, but I've a few more blog posts to catch up on so there's still hope!

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    1. Yeah, sorry, we're a bit ladies of crime lately...

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  8. The story doesn't sound at all too bad to me. And a great post. I am glad you took the 2nd look at it here. I look forward to it when I get there.

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    1. It's a good readable book, with a good plot and entertaining sections, like the one above. I'm sure you'll like it when you get to it!

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