Poirot Loses a Client
by Agatha Christie

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

a Hercule Poirot mystery

first published in Britain as —
Dumb Witness
Collins: London, 1937
316 pages

Dodd, Mead: New York, 1937
302 pages

April 2010


There's an interesting structure in Agatha Christie's mystery novel Poirot Loses a Client: it begins, in the very first sentence, with the death of Hercule Poirot's client — of whom he has never heard.

Briefly, how it works is this: after we learn of the death of Emily Arundell at her big English rural house, we are introduced to her relatives, several employees, and other friends and acquaintances. She has left a will, with considerable money to inherit: most of these people are heirs or potential heirs, all seem to have been callers or guests or workers at the house prior to the death, and all of them fairly reek not only with motive but with suspicion of each other. However —

[Captain Hastings is observing Poirot: ]

Poirot had a particular routine when opening his morning correspondence. He picked up each letter, scrutinized it carefully and neatly slit the envelope open with his paper-cutter. Its contents were perused and then placed in one of four piles beyond the chocolate-pot. (Poirot always drank chocolate for breakfast — a revolting habit.) All this with a machine-like regularity!

So much was this the case that the least interruption of the rhythm attracted one's attention.

Thusly the great Belgian detective long resident in London, Hercule Poirot, receives a letter from Emily Arundell, well after she has died. So he has a client in a way, although he soon discovers that she is dead already; the letter is too late. Importantly, though, she after all does acquire a detective, and no ordinary one.

The above gives you the why of the American title. The British title, Dumb Witness, refers to the dog of the house, an engaging fellow who is himself entangled in the events surrounding his mistress' death, and hence a plot character in his own right.

No doubt there is method in Poirot's conversational gambits. On the surface, Emily Arundell's death seems no crime: a natural death, no murder. Hastings believes so, firmly. But Poirot senses that in the hidden depths of this is the truth, and he is determined to get at it.

Poirot Loses a Client is distinguished by the variety of verbal guises he assumes. Not cloak or uniform or false moustache — he hardly needs the latter — or even always of name; but simply false presentations of himself, partly planned but then improvised brilliantly as conversation develops. Following is a nice example, with a couple of spiritualist sisters. Poirot's friend Hastings observes and narrates:

"Are you interested at all in the occult, Mr. Poirot?"

"I have little experience, mademoiselle, but — like any one who has travelled much in the East, I am bound to admit that there is much one does not understand and that cannot be explained by natural means."

"So true," said Julia. "Profoundly true."

"The East," murmured Isabel. "The home of mysticism and the occult."

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. To judge by his present conversation one would swear that he had spent most of his life in jungles and bazaars and in intimate converse with fakirs, dervishes, and mahatmas.

Poirot's method turns up plenty of oddments of information, but does it all mean anything?

"See you, Hastings — it is a pot that boils and seethes and every now and then a significant fact comes to the surface and can be seen. There is something in the depths there — yes, there is something! I swear it by my faith as Hercule Poirot, I swear it!"

I was impressed in spite of myself by his earnestness.

Poirot Loses a Client is a bit more than Agatha Christie's median length, and I think as subtle and continuously surprising as any. An intriguing mystery with interesting characters, very well done.


© 2010 Robert Wilfred Franson

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