Sunday, May 1, 2011

The Alphabet in Crime Fiction: Agatha Christie's Poirot Loses a Client

After a restful holiday break, the Alphabet in Crime Fiction community meme has moved on to the 16th stop on our perilous tour of the alphabet – the letter “P.” Thanks, as always, to our tour guide Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise for a safe and pleasant journey thus far. While everyone’s looking at local sightseeing guides, I’ll make my contribution for this week, Agatha Christie’s Poirot Loses A Client (AKA Dumb Witness), published in 1937.

One Easter holiday, Miss Emily Arundell invites her relations to visit her in the town of Market Basing for the week-end. Her family is fond enough of her, but they’re also quite well aware that she has a very large fortune to leave, so everyone is quick to accept the invitation. The house party includes Miss Arundell’s niece Bella Tanios and her husband, Dr. Jacob Tanios, as well as Miss Arundell’s other niece Theresa Arundell and her brother Charles. Late one night, Miss Arundell, who sometimes has insomnia, gets up to go downstairs. She trips and falls down the stairs, coming close to very serious injury. At first, everyone thinks Miss Arundell’s fall was an accident. Miss Arundell herself, though, begins to suspect that the accident was staged and that her life is in danger. So she writes a letter to Hercule Poirot, asking for his help in a delicate matter which she doesn’t specify.

Poirot receives the letter two months after Miss Arundell wrote it, and he and Captain Hastings travel to Market Basing. By the time they arrive, though, it’s too late. Miss Arundell has since died of what looks like liver failure. The diagnosis isn’t so surprising, since she had liver trouble, but Poirot begins to suspect that Miss Arundell may have been poisoned. So he and Hastings begin to investigate. They soon find that more than one person had a motive to kill Miss Arundell. There are, of course, Miss Arundell’s relations, all of whom are eager for her fortune. There’s also Miss Arundell’s companion Wilhelmina “Minnie” Lawson, to whom Miss Arundell has unexpectedly left her considerable wealth. And then there’s Dr. Rex Donaldson, who’s engaged to Theresa Arundell, and who would benefit immensely if his research were to be funded. In this investigation, interestingly enough, everyone has more or less the same motive for murder – money. No-one hated the victim, and she didn’t have any secrets to hide. Nor did she know anyone else’s secret. So Poirot and Hastings have to focus instead on the kind of murder it was, and the sort of person who would use that method. In the end, Poirot uses that approach to tie in the murderer with the method and finds out who the killer is.

As with most of Christie’s work, one of the very important elements in this novel is the mystery itself. All of the suspects had the opportunity to commit both the attempted murder and the actual murder. Each suspect has an equally strong motive, too. So Poirot and Hastings (and the reader) have to rely on clues and on what the suspects and witnesses say (and lie about), as well as the psychology involved in the murder, to find out who the killer is. There are some interesting plot twists and of course, “red herrings,” and I know the first time I read this novel, I didn’t guess whodunit.

The main characters in the novel are an interesting element, too. For example, Theresa Arundell is a young jet-setter whose picture is often seen in the papers. She runs with what used to be called a “fast crowd,” and is willing to do things not strictly within the law to get her share of her aunt’s fortune. And yet, for all that, she’s likeable. She’s vivacious, has a true flair for style and is very much alive. A lot of people don’t trust Jacob Tanios, most especially because he’s not English, and he is as eager as anyone for a share of Miss Arundell’s fortune. But he is warm and friendly and proves himself an able and compassionate professional when Miss Arundell has her fall. And of course, there’s Miss Arundell’s dog, Bob the terrier. He’s got a distinct personality, too, and in fact, he provides an important clue to the mystery.

There are some interesting and eccentric minor characters in the novel as well. For instance, there’s Caroline Peabody, a holdover, you might say, from the Victorian Era, who’s a friend of Miss Arundell’s. She has a sense of humour (more on that in a moment) and a rich, flavourful personality. She’s known the Arundell family for sixty years, so she’s able to give Poirot and Hastings some interesting and useful background information on the Arundell family history. And then there are Julia and Isabel Tripp, who are friends of Miss Lawton. They share, among other things, an interest in spiritualism and séances.

In part, it’s those eccentric characters who add a touch of humour to the novel. For example, Poirot and Hastings arrange to meet with the Tripp sisters, whom Christie describes as

“…vegetarians, theosophists, British Israelites, Christian Scientists, spiritualists and enthusiastic amateur photographers.”

The two ladies are very pleased to meet Poirot, who’s led them to believe he is also an old friend of Minnie Lawson. He and Poirot have an odd sort of interview with the sisters, and at one point, Isabel says to the epicurean Poirot,


“‘Would you, that is, stay and share our evening meal? A very simple one – some shredded, raw vegetables, brown bread and butter, fruit.’

‘It sounds delicious,’ Poirot said hastily. ‘But alas! My friend and I have to return to London.’…

‘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 said with a shudder.”


Poirot and Hastings also have a meeting with Miss Peabody, during which he says that he’s writing a book about Miss Arundell’s family. As we find out later, she doesn’t really believe him, but she tells him what she knows of the Arundell family. At one point, Miss Arundell addresses Hastings:


“‘You are his secretary, I suppose?’

‘Er – yes,’ I said doubtfully.’

‘Can you write decent English?’

‘I hope so.’

‘H’m – where’d you go to school?’

‘Eton.’

‘Then you can’t.’

I was forced to let this sweeping charge against an old and venerable centre of education pass unchallenged as Miss Peabody turned her attention once more to Poirot.”


Miss Peabody is clever, witty and provides some useful information.

All of these characters fit quite well in the market village setting, which is another interesting element in the novel. Because it’s a small village, gossip spreads quickly, as we find when it’s discovered that Miss Arundell has left her fortune away from her family. Opinion’s sharply divided on the topic, and it’s interesting to see how people take sides. Poirot Loses a Client is a solid mystery in the classic English village setting, with interesting characters and Christie’s trademark twists and “red herrings.” But what’s your view? Have you read Poirot Loses a Client? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

17 comments:

  1. I read it! I've even reread it. But it's a curious thing with Agatha Christie - I love her writing and all the different characters, but not only can I never guess whodunit, I can hardly remember from one reread to the next (except for The Halloween Party)...

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  2. Deniz - I love Christie's work, too, I must say, and like you, I'm not good at figuring out whodunit before all is revealed. She was that good. And every time I re-read one of her novels, I get something new out of it. She was that good, too...

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  3. As a Christie lover and a terrier owner I love this book! The Tripp sisters are a slightly wrong note for me, but otherwise it's as good a village mystery as any.

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  4. Jane - Oh, I know what you mean about Bob the terrier :-). I don't have a terrier myself, but I am a "dog person," so I really like Bob. As for the Tripp sisters, they do add a touch of humour, but you're not the only one for whom they just don't work as characters. As you say, though, that aside, this is a good village mystery.

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  5. Thanks for choosing this one Margot and for reminding us how eccentric and funny the subsidiary characters can be. Christie really was at her absolute best in the 1930s - so even if she doesn't always play fair the plots are so ingenious that it's very hard to feel disappointed.

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  6. Sergio - You know, I understand exactly why you argue that Christie was at her best during this era. She certainly created some truly memorable plots and characters and you're quite right that some of the minor characters are quite nicely done. Some people forget that Christie had a sense of humour, and I like it when one or another of her characters reminds us of it.

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  7. This was an excellent choice Margot. I've read it this year and very much enjoyed it. I'm with Deniz- even when I'm re-reading a Christie title I have trouble in remembering "whodunnit"- there's something about the way she writes.
    BTW- will you submit this to the next Blog Carnival too please?

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  8. Kerrie - Thank you :-). I know exactly what you mean; there really is something about the way Christie wrote that just invites the reader to experience a story all over again, even to the point of forgetting whodunit. I like that about her work very much. And I'll be honoured to submit this for the Blog Carnival; thanks for inviting me.

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  9. I'm another who usually fails miserably at remembering the identity of the killer. In mysteries like this one (written at just the right time for me) I get so caught up in the language or other things that it generally takes some time before something dings in my head and I say (usually out loud) "Right. It's you, isn't it?" Ah, Agatha. She sits, for me, on one of the highest pedestals.

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  10. Elspeth - ...and for me, too. And you've made such a fine point about how the reader can get very caught up in the language used, and the setting and so on. And for someone like you, who writes historical fiction, I'm sure it's even more alluring. My proverbial hat is off to those like you who take readers to another time :-).

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  11. I think that you're right, one of the most important--and expected in an Agatha novel--elements is the mystery. I have made the mistake of motive in my mysteries--not giving enough motives to enough characters to divert suspicion from the actual culprit.

    The 'Eton' part is very funny!
    I've read the novel but it's been awhile. Thanks for the review.

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  12. Clarissa - I've done exactly the same thing about not giving enough really strong motives to enough suspects. Christie was a genius at leading the reader on without misleading the reader.

    And I'm glad you enjoyed this post; I have to say that bit of dialogue makes me laugh no matter how many times I read it.

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  13. Is this Dumb Witness under a different title? I never realised that it had a different name. If I recall, I was a bit non-plussed by this one because of one very obvious clue towards the end. Maybe I should give it a second chance...

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  14. Classicmystery - Right you are. This is, indeed, Dumb Witness by another name. There are definitely clear clues to the killer and if you and I are thinking of the same clue, it is, if not obvious, at least very, very clear. But I have to admit I didn't find that a problem, probably because it came later in the story, so didn't spoil it for me. But everyone's different about those things...

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  15. Ah, a fine post about a really fine crime novel. I also know it as "Dumb Witness", and I agree that the Eton part is great.

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  16. Dorte - Thank you :-). I'm glad you liked that conversation about Eton, too - I really do think it's terrific :-).

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  17. A terrific choice of a terrific book. I even like the PBS Mystery version they filmed a while back with the one and only David Suchet as Poirot. (Even if they changed some of the story as usual. They didn't ruin it entirely.)

    I loved the scene of Poirot squishing about on the grass with his patent leather shoes and complaining about the country. (I think this scene is from this episode.)

    Anyway, enjoyed reading your post. :)

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