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