Dumb Witness

Today I want to talk about dumb witnesses–and no, I’m not being politically incorrect!

I’m using the word dumb in its original meaning, as in being unable to speak. In mysteries, a dumb witness is one that has witnessed a crime, but is powerless to tell its story.

At least not in the conventional manner.

Perhaps the most beloved dumb witness is Bob the Jack Russell Terrier from Agatha Christie’s novel Dumb Witness. As Bob was with his mistress on the night she was murdered, Poirot is certain the little fellow knows the truth and eventually the great detective “hears” what the dog has to say.

However, a good dumb witness is more than a plot point. As with any other element of the story, it can be used to develop character, inject pathos or even add a little humor. It’s also part of a long and revered tradition in Western literature as the first dumb witness appeared way back in Homer’s Odyssey.

I’m speaking of Argo, Odysseus’ faithful dog.

When Odysseus returns home in disguise only Argo recognizes him. The faithful dog wags his tail, but lacks the strength to go to his master. Fearful of betraying his identity, Odysseus dares not acknowledge Argos.

Odysseus entered the well-built mansion, and made straight for the riotous pretenders in the hall. But Argos passed into the darkness of death, now that he had fulfilled his destiny of faith and seen his master once more after twenty years.
There is something so very human and heartfelt in this passage. Through Argo, Odysseus is more human.

A recent impressive use of the dumb witness is found in Donna Leon’s The Waters of Eternal Youth. In the novel Commissario Guido Brunetti is asked to investigate a cold case from fifteen years earlier in which a young girl is attacked and subsequently brain damaged. Before her injury, the girl was an avid equestrian whose greatest joy was her beloved horse Petunia. In the novel’s poignant conclusion, the girl is brought to the farm when Petunia now lives and, against all the odds, the old horse and damaged girl recognize one another.

Now, we move from the sublime to the ridiculous.

I’m a dog person and so when I sat down to write my first mystery Murder in Mystic Cove, I knew a dog was going to play a crucial role in the plot. Sure enough, the victim’s elderly pug Jinks witnesses his master’s murder. Because the victim was such a nasty piece of work I originally pictured Jinks as an extension of his master in order to emphasize the victim’s loathsome nature.

Anyhow, I pictured Jinks as something like this–

Jinks, first draft

Yeah, he is a bit much and it didn’t take long for me to switch tracks and soften some of Jinks’ rough edges.

Jinks, final draft

Though the elderly pug didn’t exactly became lovable–what with his chronic halitosis and excessive gas–he did become a pitiable creature, which helped humanize my very unlikable victim and add a bit of pathos to the tale.

I hope I’ve shown that dumb witnesses aren’t dumb at all but very smart.

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Magical Venice!

Venizia Do believe in magic? I do, but then I’m a writer, and writers are great believers in magic. We dream up stories, write them down and make them real–if that’s not magic, what is? But until recently I hadn’t … Continue reading

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Wicked Florida!

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I’ve always said that Florida is the ideal home base for a mystery writers–there are just so many interesting ways to plan a murder. This point was reinforced last year when I attended a fun exhibit at the Florida Museum … Continue reading

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Mixing Genres: A Dangerous Game

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Although I’d dreamed of writing when I was a kid growing up in Baltimore, life kept getting in the way of dreams, when it should have been the other way around. And so it was only after several careers, which … Continue reading

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April in the City of Light

The Eiffel Tower puts on a show! WHAT MAKES A CITY GREAT? I’m not sure what makes a city great, but I know a great city when I meet one. I’ve been fortunate to have visited some of the famed … Continue reading

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Sweet Dreams

People often ask me where I get my ideas for stories. Of course, all fiction stems from the imagination and the simplest answer is that I make it up. But the imagination is not an bottomless pool of ideas–like anything … Continue reading

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Happy Halloween!

I have a confession to make–I’m a horror gal. Since the day I discovered a pile of pulp mags under a bed in my grandparents’ house, I’ve been a shameless devotee of ghoulies and ghosties and things that go bump in the night. But I’m most fond of monsters, which is why I love Halloween.

As a kid I always felt a rush of excitement when the Halloween decorations appeared in stores. That’s changed a bit, especially now that the skeletons and costumes show up around the Fourth of July. And each year the trick-or-treaters are fewer in number and most Halloween parties for kids are most likely to be called the “Harvest Festival” or “Corn Maze Party.” Somehow the adults have claimed the night for themselves and stripped it of any real fun for the kids.

But I don’t them ruin my fun. October 31 is All Hallows Eve,the night when the monster hiding under the bed comes out to play. And so in the spirit of Halloween,  I offer three creepy tales involving a few of my favorite monsters.

The Vampire

Perhaps the preeminent creature of the night is the vampire, the ultimate seducer who offers eternal life, with a catch. Like most people, I first encountered vampires in the movies.  However, Bela Lugosi’s Dracula never did much for me–he looked too much like a waiter.

“Today’s special is pan seared Chilean Bass in a balsamic reduction…”

But Christopher Lee’s hissing count scared the heck out of me. I watched most of Horror of Dracula with my hands partially covering my eyes, afraid to look, but unable to turn away. 

However, it was only when I read Bram Stoker’s Dracula that I felt the cold hand of fear. There was always a sexual component to Dracula, who both attracts and repels. I imagine this passage was pretty strong stuff to Stoker’s Victorian readers:

There was a deliberate voluptuousness that was both thrilling and repulsive. As she arched her neck she actually licked her lips like an animal til I could see in the moonlight the moisture that lapped the white, sharp teeth. Lower and lower went her head. I closed my eyes in a languorous ecstasy and waited.

The vampire offers sex, but it is  debased and bestial, cut off from the human. And I think Stoker touches on the primal fear that animates much of horror–the fear of losing one’s humanity. Nowadays vampires have morphed from bloodsucking monsters into someone’s prom date! For years I  despaired of seeing a pair of fangs I could relate to, until I found Enter, Night by Michael Rowe. It’s a briskly told tale of ancient, toothy horrors, with an ending that is both heartbreaking and transcendent. If you’re hungry for a really good vampire story, this one’s for you.

The Zombie

Zombie flash mob in London
 Zombies are all the rage these days, so popular that there’s even a subgenre of literature called zombie lit! Popularity aside, I don’t find anything particularly frightening about these plodding creatures. To me they’re just one-trick ponies on the lookout for fresh brains. Give me an old-school zombie any day, one created by a Voodoo  priestess on a moonlit night in New Orleans.


Which brings me to one of the most frightening short stories I’ve even read: Pigeons from Hell by Robert E. Parker. The story’s set in a deserted plantation haunted by ghostly pigeons, and something else. Stephen Kings calls “Pigeons from Hell” to be “one of the finest horror stories of our century. “As usual in matters of horror, King is right.

The Ghost

Can they feel, I wonder, those white silent people we call the dead? …Oscar Wilde

Susan Hill’s novel is the source for the excellent film of the same name. The narrative’s framed as a Christmas Eve ghost story, much as Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw. Like James, Hill conjures an atmosphere of escalating dread and isolation. The horror rises to a shattering and unexpected conclusion.Ancient and enduring, the  first ghost appeared at some primeval campfire  when one of our ancestors told the first ghost story. More than other monsters, the ghost is a sturdy literary device and pops up in all sorts of fiction, from Shakespeare to Dickens to David Mitchell.

But a Halloween ghost always means mischief  and there is no more malicious spirit than The Woman in Black.

Psychologists like to theorize why people like me love horror. In his theory of archetypes,  Carl Jung believed that all humans inherited a set of primordial images that are contained in the collective unconscious, and that horror evokes these archetypes. Maybe, but I read ghost stories and watch horror films because I like them.

So tonight, after the last trick-or-treater has come and gone, I’ll pour a glass of blood-red wine and read one of the old tales, one guaranteed to send a shiver down my spine.


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A Visit with Mr. Dickens

Throughout his all-too-brief life, Charles Dickens was constantly on the move. By any measure, his list of residences is astounding. Perhaps he inherited this restless spirit from his father, who moved from pillar to post, usually one step ahead of … Continue reading

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The Detection Club

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As such things go, detective fiction is the new kid on the literary block. Unlike romance, which can trace its roots back to the middle ages, the detective story burst on the scene in 1841 with Edgar Allen Poe’s detective Auguste … Continue reading

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Murder in Mystic Cove wins Book of the Month poll at LASR

BoM 2014 October Murder in Mystic Cove

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