Dumb Witnesses

 A dumb witness in s just what it sounds like. It's an animal--often a dog--that had witnessed a crime. Usually a murder. The creature has knowledge of the crime, but is unable to communicate what it know. Leaving it to the detective to ferret out the truth.

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--usually a murder--but is powerless to tell its story. At least not in the conventional manner.

Perhaps my favorite 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 in 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 Argo. As Odysseus passes by his old companion, the old dog dies, having lived to see his master once more.  In this heartfelt passage, the clever Odysseus is rendered more human.

A recent 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. In a transcendent scene, the old horse and damaged girl recognize one another.

Now, we move from the sublime to the ridiculous. I'm a dog person so when I sat down to write Murder in Mystic Cove, I knew a dog would 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.

It didn't take long for me to switch tracks and soften some of Jinks' rough edges. Though the elderly pug didn't exactly become 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.

Originally, I patterned Jinks after my son's dog Lucas, but soon realized I should soften some of Lucas rough edges. Which as you can see from the before-and-after picture proved a wise move.

So you see, dumb witnesses aren't dumb at all but very smart.

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