Captain Hastings in Dumb Witness

Dumb Witness (originally titled Poirot Loses a Client), published in 1937, is the seventh and penultimate appearance of Captain Hastings in a Poirot novel. (The last would be the final Poirot novel, Curtain, which was written in the early 1940s and put in a bank vault until 1975, when Agatha Christie knew she would write no more novels.) The portrayal of Captain Hastings, in Dumb Witness, represents something of a strange development of the character.

The Wikipedia article on Dumb Witness has a quote from an E.R. Punshon, in a review of the novel, who said that Poirot, “shows all of his usual acumen; Captain Hastings – happily once more at Poirot’s side – more than all his usual stupidity…” This seems an adequate description. His stupidity is only slightly more pronounced than it was in the previous novel with him, The A.B.C. Murders. In fact, I wrote about this aspect of the portrayal of Hastings in it. In both, Hastings seems to have had a turn for the worse, compared to his earlier portrayals. I find myself wondering all the more why he did.

One thing I will say for Hastings in Dumb Witness over The A.B.C. Murders is that he does not, at least, lose his head over pretty women. This may be that Christie only put one beautiful woman in Dumb Witness and she was engaged, but happily Captain Hastings at least behaved like a married man. he seems to have become even dumber, though.

Hastings’ stupidity in Dumb Witness seems to be channeled primarily into one action—complete certainty that Emily Arundel died of natural causes. Why he is so certain is given no explanation whatever. He at first bases this certainty on the casual word of a real estate agent—and one who only got his news from local gossip, at that. Each person who had no better knowledge of Miss Arundel’s death thinking it was natural causes would have strengthened this conviction if it didn’t start out as complete certainty, but it certainly didn’t weaken it. This feels like it is here to serve some practical purpose, but I can’t imagine what that practical purpose is.

Hastings started off as a Watson, that is, as a character of ordinary intelligence who narrated the stories, was impressed by the detective, and asked questions which gave the detective an opportunity to explain clues to the reader. As a mild variation, the Watson can have an intelligence very slightly below the average reader, as commanded in the decalogue of Fr. Ronald Knox.

Hastings seems, here, to be a complete idiot. He is, until about three quarters of the way through the book, unable to consider the possibility that Emily Arundel might have been murdered. He holds as absolutely certain, for no reason whatever, that a rich old woman, upon whose life one attempt had been made, must have died of completely natural causes. This might have served some literary function if it prompted Poirot to explain why there is doubt, but it long-since lost that purpose after the first such explanation. Especially since Hastings’ doubts were often in the narrator’s commentary, it took on the character of a simple monomania.

I suppose that this might have been meant to produce a contrast when Poirot turned out to be right, except that we already knew that. There is not going to be a Poirot novel in which Poirot turned out to be wasting his time and there was nothing whatever to discover. This is as implausible as a Poirot novel in which Poirot doesn’t appear, or shave his mustache, or dies on the first page. So why spend so much time and effort suggesting such a thing?

Even stranger, this seems to be at odds with the character’s function as a Watson. Watson admires Holmes. He all but worships Holmes. He doesn’t bemusedly play chauffeur all the while thinking his friend is senile and wasting his time. This is all the more the case given that this is a late case of Poirot’s and Hastings should, by now, have an ample store of experience to draw on that Poirot’s instincts are usually right. What’s the point of bringing a character back if he isn’t the same character from the previous stories—or acts like he wasn’t in them. What’s the purpose of a close friend of Poirot’s who grows to trust Poirot less and less as time wears on?

I think that there must be an answer because Agatha Christie was an intelligent, thoughtful woman. I don’t think that writing Hastings this way was a good choice but it seems very likely that it was at least an intelligible idea. Of course, given that this was his last appearance before the final Poirot novel, I suspect that Mrs. Christie also came to think that it wasn’t a good choice. But what on earth was the goal with him that didn’t work out? She did, after all, pack him off to Argentina in Murder on the Links. Bringing him back was a choice.

I’m in some danger of repeating myself, but I find the whole thing very perplexing. Approximately every character but Hastings has a reasonably consistent psychology to them. Hastings, alone, seems more a collection of a pointless literary devices than a character. Even Poirot seems to tire of him. Since Hastings refuses to think, Poirot doesn’t explain anything to him. His function even as a literary device seems to be lost.

Perhaps Hastings was merely meant as comic relief? There is some possibility here, except that for the most part he isn’t funny.

Perhaps I’m merely biased because Hugh Frasier’s portrayal of him in the David Suchet Poirot is so compelling. It just seems like such a pity. Captain Hastings had the potential to be so interesting but he simply wasn’t used. Perhaps Mrs. Christie thought that he was beloved by the fans and so brought him back for their sake, but reluctantly, and that’s why she didn’t make any use of him. If so, it’s a great pity. It is an explanation which explains, at least.

I hope it’s not true, though.

Murderers Call In Poirot a Lot…

As I’ve been reading the Poirot short stories and novels, it’s struck me that it’s not just once or twice that it was the murderer who called Poirot into the case. I don’t want to go into a list, since merely to name them would consist of spoilers, but off the top of my head I can think of at least four novels and a short story in which the murderer called Poirot into the case and two more short stories about robbery rather than murder in which the thief called Poirot in. I’m confident that this is not an exhaustive list. I’m really not sure what to make of this.

If it happened merely once, it would be an interesting twist. Happening so often, it feels like something else. What, I’m not entirely sure. A few possibilities recommend themselves.

One possibility is that by frequently having the person who called Poirot in be the criminal it keeps the reader more on his toes. I’m not sure this really works, though; there’s a certain foolishness in calling in the world’s greatest detective to investigate your crime. It becomes more foolish still after reading about his cases in the newspaper (or in Captain Hastings’ records of them) and seeing how often he’s willing to accuse the person who hired him. If I murdered someone in the 1930s and I was determined to call a detective in to investigate the case, I would far rather call in Giraud than Poirot.

Another possibility is that this was merely a solution to the problem that all mystery writers face of how on earth you get your detective in on the case. It is, of course, possible to go the Jessica Fletcher route and simply have the astonishing coincidence that the detective just happens to be around murders ten to twenty times per year. Those who want a little more realism need to be more creative. The problem with calling a detective in before the crime is committed is that, in general, there is only one person who knows that the crime will be committed—the criminal. The major alternative I can think of is a person who suspects that attempts have been made before against his life calling in the detective. This works, but requires either a remarkably incompetent murderer or slow poisoning. The murderer calling in Poirot does open the field a bit.

The tradeoff is that it is mostly not in the murderer’s interest to call the world’s greatest detective in, which makes it very hard to make this plausible. Of all the times that it happened with Poirot, I’m inclined to say that the A.B.C. Murders was probably the most plausible. The murderer had a legitimate (from his perspective) reason for it to be Poirot and not someone less well known. The murderer also produced a very clever series of murders, complete with a scapegoat who believed that he did it, so it was plausible that Poirot might have been fooled, or else that he would have been overruled by the police.

As for the other times, the criminal calling in Poirot seems far less excusable. It was mostly pretty gratuitous. Granted, Poirot tries to be underestimated by criminals, but it seems odd for so many criminals to take such an unnecessary risk. Especially because it’s usually with very little gained by bringing him in.

Which leads me to suspect that it really is done merely as a way of bringing Poirot into the story. I’m hesitant to believe that’s the case, though, since Agatha Christie is such a master of plotting. Overall, I’m not sure what to make of it. All I’m sure of is that it’s strange.

Captain Hastings In the ABC Murders

Having recently finished reading The A.B.C. Murders (and I must remark, in passing, that the David Suchet adaptation was remarkably faithful to the book, in this case) I find myself confused by the character of Captain Hastings. As I mentioned before, he started out as a near-clone of Dr. Watson. In only the second Poirot novel, Agatha Christie gave him a wife and sent him off to Argentina. She then used him in more than twenty short stories and another dozen short stories that would become the novel The Big Four. He then periodically showed up in the novels a few more times, the second-to-last of which was The A.B.C. Murders. He’s an odd character, there.

Captain Hastings is an odd character in The A.B.C. Murders for two reasons:

  1. He’s changed in ways that don’t quite make sense.
  2. He’s stayed the same in ways that make no sense at all.

To give an example of the second one first, Captain Hastings still hankers after beautiful women. It’s natural enough that he would notice them, or even to be a bit weak-minded about them. What isn’t natural is the way he does so exactly as if he was still twenty years old and unmarried. He never mentions his wife. He openly wants to escort the young and pretty Miss Thora Grey when he should, in fact, be actively avoiding her. Now, it’s no good to say that Hastings was always weak for a pretty face, because he was so in the context of being a completely decent and honorable man. That’s what made it charming. Moreover, that’s what drew Poirot to Hastings. Hastings had a beautiful nature which Poirot admired. He really should have been on the point of refusing to accompany Miss Grey.

Further, he really should have mentioned his wife when Poirot was teasing him about being weak-headed to Miss Grey’s pretty face. “I’m off the market, old chap” or some such line really should have come to his lips. So, for that matter, should some talk about how wonderful his wife is and how happy they are together. That’s just the sort of man that Hastings was.

Similarly, Hastings has learned next to nothing in all of his years with Poirot. That’s not quite 100% true, as he does mention on some of Poirot’s more strange actions that he’d learned that when Poirot was least explicable was when Poirot was hunting down an especially important clue. Still, you’d think that after so many years following the great detective around, he would have learned a little bit. He might have occasionally made a prosaic guess just because Poirot had so frequently told him that he went wrong by being too romantic in his imagination. It’s hard to take the age of their relationship entirely seriously when it seems to have had no effect whatever on Hastings.

The changes that don’t quite make sense are, perhaps, stranger. In some sense they are related to Hastings not changing with his changing circumstances, but he no longer has that beautiful nature which Poirot so admired in Hastings’ youth. His instincts are no longer pure, if for that reason frequently misleading. To some degree I suppose Hastings is merely out of his element. The murderer being presumed to be a madman, the inordinately sane Hastings has nothing really to say. But that brings me to my main question: why on earth did Agatha Christie bring Captain Hastings back for this story? He doesn’t really seem to have a place in it.

The thing that Captain Hastings has to contribute to a story that he’s in is common humanity. He’s a thoroughly decent man. He’s honest, honorable, and generous. He is also romantic. To Poirot, he gives two things. The first is that, never being cynical, he counterbalanced Poirot’s own cynicism. Poirot sees through everything; Hastings sees through nothing. Hastings, therefore, reminds Poirot of the value of the surface. This is related to the second thing he offers Poirot: the perspective of an ordinary person. It is something that Poirot, in his brilliance, is apt to miss on the rare occasions when he forgets to take it into account.

We do get a little bit of that in The A.B.C. Murders. It is Hastings who wonders whether the third note might have had the wrong address written on it intentionally. It’s not much, though, and the story seems to barely notice it.

Overall, I don’t know what to make of it. There was no need to bring Hastings back from Argentina for this story, but little use seems to have been made of him. The problem seems to me that anything which explains the second part will run aground of the first. If there was some reason not to make use of Hastings, why not just leave in him Argentina? He was made much better use of in Peril at End House, and that was written before The A.B.C. Muders. Perhaps Mrs. Christie was so preoccupied with the clever plot that she forgot the good captain. In favor of this hypothesis, she didn’t seem to pay that much attention to the other characters, either.

Murder On The Links: Sniffing For Clues

Murder On The Links is the second novel featuring the detective Hercule Poirot. Published in March of 1923, it came very slighty after the first few Poirot short stories published in The Sketch magazine. However, publishing schedules being what they are, it was probably written before they were. It’s a very interesting story both in its own right and for its place within the history of detective stories. (If you haven’t read it yet and dislike spoilers, go read it now.)

One of the very curious elements of the story is the rivalry between Poirot and Giraud, the famous detective from the Sureté of Paris. Giraud focuses with single-minded determination on finding minute clues, like remnants of footprints and a match discarded in the grass. He painstakingly combs every inch of every crime scene on his hands and knees, looking closely at every surface. This is in strong distinction to Poirot, who lets others find the small clues while he remains standing and contents himself with figuring out what the clues mean. There is a wonderful section of dialog with Hastings in which Poirot defends his method (Hastings, who narrates the story, begins):

“But surely the study of finger-prints and footprints, cigarette ash, different kinds of mud, and other clues that comprise the minute observation of details—all these are of vital importance?”

“But certainly. I have never said otherwise. The trained observer, the expert, without doubt he is useful! But the others, the Hercules Poirots, they are above the experts! To them the experts bring the facts, their business is the method of the crime, its logical deduction, the proper sequence and order of the facts; above all, the true psychology of the case. You have hunted the fox, yes?”

“I have hunted a bit, now and again,” I said, rather bewildered by this abrupt change of subject. “Why?”

“Eh bien, this hunting of the fox, you need the dogs, no?”

“Hounds,” I corrected gently. “Yes, of course.”

“But yet,” Poirot wagged his finger at me. “You did not descend from your horse and run along the ground smelling with your nose and uttering loud Ow Ows?”

There is another section, in which Giraud discounted a two foot section of lead pipe because it did not fit into his theory of the case, but scoured the ground for other clues such as an unburnt match. Poirot remarks:

Mon ami, a clue of two feet long is every bit as valuable as one measuring two millimetres! But it is the romantic idea that all important clues must be infinitesimal!

You also see this in the much later Five Little Pigs, where the client uses this very fact that Poirot does not crawl on his knees in the dirt for clues to persuade him to take a seventeen year old case. He objected that after so much time there would be no clues to find, and she pointed out that he doesn’t use those clues anyway. (He had just boasted of that when she was taken aback by how old Poirot was.)

The context of all of this disparagement of physical clues is interesting to consider. Sherlock Holmes started the detective crazy in 1891 and was known for his magnifying glass, chemical analyses, and sharp eye for detail. He was, perhaps, more known for it than was entirely fair; he certainly did consider psychology, at least on occasion. That said, he was famous for his monograph on cigar ash, for being able to distinguish the tread of every make of bicycle tire, etc. And in 1923 the Holmes stories were by no means complete. Holmes Short stories were published in the 1920s until the last one was published in 1927.

There is also the at-the-time popular detective Dr. Thorndyke, whose entire stock-and-trade was careful observation, extensive medical knowledge, and for-the-time high tech experiments. (The for-the-time high tech may in part explain why he was enormously popular in his day and has had very little staying power after it.) He was relatively early on in his career at this point, having started in 1909 and appearing in five novels by the end of 1922.

I should also mention that from things I’ve read in the time period, there was something of a flood of works that have not generally been remembered but which imitated Sherlock Holmes to greater or lesser extents (often greater). These often, I get the impression, focused on physical evidence to seem clever. Imitation frequently involves exaggeration, especially when it is imitation by writers who are not extraordinary.

Standing against this context, however, is G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown. Father Brown did not crawl about with a magnifying glass any more than Poirot did, and he started solving cases in 1910. Father Brown was immensely popular in his day (and is still beloved at least by fans of Chesterton). I am not certain of the history but I believe that Father Brown formed the other end of the spectrum from Sherlock Holmes, being primarily a psychological sleuth.

What, then, should we make of Poirot’s looking down on the gathering of minute physical evidence? I think it is probably best classed as a preference among the existing spectrum of detective stories, rather than as anything new, even though it is presented as something of a novelty to the people in the story. Detective stories have something of a tradition of commenting on detective stories as a genre. Especially during the golden age, it is common for detectives to do this by discussing their “theory of detection”. Another common approach was what we see here—for some character to have a rival theory of detection. I think it was most often the Watson character, but police detectives also commonly would clash with the brilliant detective over the right way to go about solving a case.

This commentary had two main purposes, but I think that the second was far more important than the first. The less important purpose was as a commentary on the genre. The more important purpose was to make the brilliant detective seem brilliant. He could not, after all, be all that brilliant if he went about things in the same manner as everyone around him but was merely luckier. Or to put it another way: in order to achieve magical results, one must have some magic. The detective’s commentary on the theory of detection provides this magic; it is his unique theory of detection which is the key to his success.

I think, therefore, the rivalry between Poirot in Giraud should be taken primarily in this light. Instead of as commentary on other fictional detectives, it is meant primarily to be a humorous way to make the brilliance of Hercule Poirot shine. It just happens to be funny, too.

The Poirot Short Stories Are Interesting

A few weeks ago I bought a book of the complete Poirot short stories. I’m not through it; there are a lot of them. I’ve made a lot of progress, though.

Interestingly, the short stories are in three major groups. The first is a series of short stories written for The Sketch magazine. This comprises possibly the majority of short stories, by number, since it was a weekly magazine. The next grouping consists of various short stories that came out as one-offs. A good example of this is the short story How Does Your Garden Grow, which was originally published in Ladies’ Home Journal, and was, so far as I know, the only Poirot story ever published there. (To be fair, that was in America; it was published in Strand magazine in the UK a few months later.) Finally there was the collection of twelve short stories which made up the collection The Labours of Hercules. Each of these bore a tenuous relationship to one of the twelve labors of Hercules from Greek mythology.

(There was a series of short stories right after the ones in The Sketch magazine which then formed the novel The Big Four, but they’re a connected series of short stories rather than traditional, independent, short stories, so I’m not counting them. They’re closer to a novel first being published in serialized form than true short stories.)

One of the things I’ve found interesting about the Poirot short stories is how often they are not fair play mysteries; in many cases they’re not even so much mysteries as they are tales of something interesting. They are told in a mystery format. In The Nemean Lion, for example, (spoiler alert) the reader has no real way to guess that one of the lady’s companions has a trained Pekingese dog which gets substituted for the real one and is trained, once its leash is cut, to run home. Frankly, there was no need for such a solution; if the Lady’s Companion was in on it, a confederate to walk the Pekingese home would have worked just as well. Further, that Poirot’s client was poisoning his wife in order to be able to marry his secretary was justified by what was said, but was a shot in the dark even for Poirot. It was an entertaining story to read, but mostly because of the revelations and not because of any sort of detection. It was interesting to find out the unusual criminal enterprise and the revelation that the apparently dumb Lady’s companion—who herself complained about being untrained and unskilled—was an organizational criminal genius.

I find this sort of short story curious because I had been used to thinking of short stories as being primarily about setting up complex puzzles with ingenious solutions. On the other hand, The Labours of Hercules dates from 1939 through 1947 (though most were published in 1940), and short stories were probably changing by then. It would be a while before the market for short stories fell out, but tastes were undoubtedly changing, especially as we’re getting into early World War II, here.

To some degree this is just a historical curiosity. I think that the market for short stories is never coming back. It’s moved into television and the streaming that is replacing television. It’s interesting to look at short stories, though, since they were so influential in the early development of the mystery genre.

Intelligent Murder Mystery Suspects

I’ve recently watched the episodes in the thirteenth and final series of Agatha Christie’s Poirot, starring David Suchet. It included Curtain, which of course must be the last episode, but it had several episodes which differed very greatly from their source material. In particular, The Big Four and The Labours of Hercules.

The former was described by the screenwriter as an unadaptable mess, which it certainly seems to be looking at the plot summary. It is basically a spy thriller with dozens of characters set throughout Europe, which is not very viable for a TV show, even if it is nearly two hours long. The one which really interests me, though, is The Labours of Hercules. The original is a collection of twelve unrelated short stories, which the screenwriter turned into a single long-form mystery by taking one of the stories as the central one and using several of the other stories as the red herrings which one expects in a Christie novel. At this point, I should warn you that this post will include spoilers. You have been warned.

Given what a challenging prospect that is, the writer did a good job, but there were problems in the story which I do not think were avoidable for structural reasons. As everyone knows, a murder mystery must have suspects, with the plural being imperative. Every man having free will, anyone who was anywhere near the victim is a suspect, which is why an isolated setting—a mansion, a private island, etc.—is so interesting. Unless the author is cheating, the suspect list is known at the outset. When doing this, the author must be very careful to make all of the suspects believable suspects. That’s a universal criteria, but a murder in the middle of a city means that we see a great deal less of the suspects, so each one has far greater scope for unseen action, including accomplices we don’t know about yet, than people in an isolated setting.

The episode, The Labours of Hercules, was set in a hotel on the top of a mountain in Switzerland, with the funicular train that is their only link to the outside world having been shut down by an avalanche. Short of a ship in the middle of the Atlantic ocean or an aeroplane in the sky, it’s about as isolated as it is possible to get.

The central mystery, though Poirot stumbles onto it almost by accident, is the identity of a psychopathic killer and thief called Marrascaud. The mystery was set up in the beginning where Marrascaud managed to kill several people and steal several valuable items—one of them a large painting—from a crowded building, with disguised policemen and Poirot himself protecting them. From this we know that Marrascaud is a genius on a level with Poirot, and this forms the central problem once we get to the hotel.

As has been observed in countless murder mysteries, the best place to hide a leaf is in a forest; to hide a genius one must really put them amongst other geniuses, but the characters at the hotel were taken from other stories and thus had qualities appropriate to those stories, none of which involved unique genius. In this case, the beautiful daughter of Poirot’s former love interest who is fascinated with criminology stands out almost like a sore thumb; the only other person who comes close is the Countess Rossakoff, her mother, but it was very clearly established in the previous episode where we met the Countess that the character is not a murderer. Marrascaud kills for the pleasure of it, brutally, which is not something one degenerates to in old age. It is true that one can be cruel vicariously, through underlings, in old age, but it does not make sense as a personality change to go from an honorable thief to a psychopath who delights in killing.

An interest in criminology is also something of a red flag in a suspect. Though everything has by this time been used as a false flag in detective fiction, none the less the similarity of the violent nature of both crime and law enforcement is unavoidable. As the saying goes, the main thing which distinguishes a sheep dog from a wolf is who it bites. None of the other guests seemed sufficiently… canine.

I think that this is the reason why Conan Doyle put Moriarty as the mastermind, behind the scenes. The proxy of an evil genius need only be of ordinary intelligence, which makes it far easier for him to blend in. Indeed, executing a plan which requires greater intelligence than he himself possesses serves as a form of camouflage for the immediate villain. Still, as bumbling accomplices have long shown, it is best to choose someone intelligent enough to understand the plan once it has been created; an accomplice who can understand only his part and not what it fits into will make mistakes that will prove the undoing of both.

I think that fact is why some villains have tried to manipulate their accomplice into helping without realizing it; if done well the mistakes of the unwitting accomplice actually hide the involvement of the mastermind. I suspect that this is the ideal strategy for the criminal mastermind; it is the safest type of plan if a brilliant detective shows up. If done extremely skillfully, it is possible to conceal that there even is a brilliant plan at work; the brilliance can be disguised as coincidence.

Of course, mysteries can go the other way—the more realistic way—where the detective must make sense of genuine coincidences. The problem with writing this sort of mystery is that it is extremely difficult to pull off without the detective himself getting lucky. And while a comedic detective—Inspector Clouseau, for example, or taking the idea of a detective very loosely, Maxwell Smart—can stumble onto all of his solutions, it’s not entertaining if a serious detective does that. Though, I should mention that this is why Jessica Fletcher almost invariably figures out the solution of most episodes by chance. In order to make Murder, She Wrote accessible to a general audience, the writers would tend to throw in enough clues that one should be able to figure out the solution before Jessica does. Since Jessica does have to figure out the mystery, something must make her realize the solution, and because we the audience are supposed to already get it, it can’t be the last piece of critical evidence, but nor can it be slam-dunk evidence, because then you couldn’t feel smart during the reveal. So it’s usually something silly somebody says, and then Jessica says, “Wait, say that again? Of course! That’s it!” That’s not literally every episode, but it is basically a structural requirement imposed by the show’s relationship with its audience.

The solution to the mystery depending on figuring out coincidence without the detective merely getting lucky is typically easiest to pull off through exhaustive leg-work—checking every chemist’s shop in a 30 mile radius, that sort of thing. This is why that sort of mystery is most common when the detective is a public detective (i.e. a member of the police) rather than a private detective, or at least when the police and the detective are working together, rather than separately. And even then, Sherlock Holmes had his Baker Street irregulars.

The other approach, which is a compromise that keeps things closer to a  detective the reader can relate to, is for the detective to have something to go upon which through intelligence, knowledge, and wisdom allows him to rank coincidental possibilities according to an order they are likely to have happened, and to be right according to a Poisson distribution (basically, they usually get an answer by their third try to verify a coincidence, sometimes it takes a lot of tries, and because no one has infinite effort to give, sometimes they don’t get an answer). Fundamentally this is still the detective getting lucky, but it is a way for the detective to earn his luck. Since the detective doesn’t create the clues but only discovers them, that’s the best he can do in any case.