Cards on the Table by Agatha Christie
Originally published in 1936
Hercule Poirot #15
Preceded by Murder in Mesopotamia
Followed by Murder in the Mews
Mr. Shaitana is famous as a flamboyant party host. Nevertheless, he is a man of whom everybody is a little afraid. So when he boasts to Hercule Poirot that he considers murder an art form, the detective has some reservations about accepting a party invitation to view Shaitana’s “private collection”.
Indeed, what begins as an absorbing evening of bridge is to turn into a more dangerous game altogether…
You asked me just now to admit that your idea of a collection of murderers was amusing. I said I could think of another word other than amusing. That word was dangerous.
Cards on the Table has long been one of my favorite Hercule Poirot stories, though I will freely confess that prior to rereading it for this post it had been probably fifteen years since I last read the actual book. I have frequently revisited the excellent BBC Radio adaptation that starred John Moffatt however and so when I failed to reread this in time for Jim, Brad and Moira’s Spoiler Warning podcast I fortunately had no trouble following along. Their discussion, which was interesting as always, did leave me curious to revisit the actual book to see whether it would hold up to my memory of it.
Mr. Shaitana, a better dressed but morally-degenerate version of John Hammond, has developed the dangerous hobby of collecting murderers. Instead of a theme park, he irresponsibly gathers his deadly collection of four murderers at a dinner party attended by four exponents of the detection game, drops some not altogether subtle hints as to a secret he knows, clearly enjoying the little mind game he is playing with his murderers.
After dinner a suggestion is made that the party should play some rubbers of bridge and the group divides in two – our four sleuths playing together in one room while Mr. Shaitana goes with the others into the room housing an ornate dagger. The four play while their host seems to doze in an armchair but they soon realize that he is dead, having been stabbed while they were all playing the game. It is clear that the killer must be one of the four players – the problem lies in figuring out which of the four it was.
If the premise of this story sounds a little familiar, it is probably because it basically matches what Poirot describes as his ideal case in the earlier novel The A. B. C. Murders. The reader begins the novel knowing the means and the motive. We can even be certain that it is one of four individuals, each with an equal opportunity to commit the crime. Poirot’s inquiry will therefore look a little different than his usual cases – as Agatha Christie suggests in her introduction, the case is intended to be purely psychological.
In that Spoiler Warning podcast there is quite a bit of discussion of whether the novel is actually as psychologically-rich as is commonly supposed. I would strongly contend that it is but I think things get confused by Poirot’s discussion of the psychological moment – an idea he referenced in several previous cases such as Death in the Clouds. For those unfamiliar with the idea (which is referred to but not actually described in this book) it is that a murderer may manufacture a dramatic moment to draw your attention away from their actions. I do not want to diminish that aspect of the story in any way – it is clearly a central part of understanding this case and is a focus for the investigation – but I think the aspect of the investigation that is intended to be psychological is quite different.
Early in the novel our four sleuths discuss the idea that killers will repeat themselves. This is not meant in a literal way with a repetition of a method but rather that the reasons they will kill will be the same (whether it is for gain, out of fear or for some other motive). The psychological element of the investigation therefore is to understand the reasons that our four supposed murderers may have killed in the past and the circumstances leading up to that decision to see if those instances have any parallels with the Shaitana case. Whether that idea is psychologically sound is, of course, debatable but I feel Christie does a very solid job of exploring the characters of our four suspects.
One consequence of starting the novel knowing that at least some of those four characters have committed murder before is that we are never allowed to presume innocence. Yet most of the four are given moments where they may seem appealing or sympathetic reflecting a richness and complexity that I think elevates them and this book as a whole. Indeed I would suggest that in writing this book, Christie was laying the groundwork for her novel And Then There Were None with its cast of antiheroes which she would write just a couple of years later.
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Christie not only has Shaitana assemble four possible villains, he also brings together four sleuths who will work together to solve the case. In doing this she not only utilized Poirot but also brought back two detectives from previous novels – Colonel Race and Superintendent Battle. This was lost on me on the first reading (this being one of my earliest Poirot novels) but I really like the way this establishes that they all coexist in the same universe.
Joining them is Ariadne Oliver, making the first of several appearances in the Poirot novels (she had made a previous appearance in a non-Poirot short story). This character is clearly an example of the author poking fun at her own image as can be seen from the discussion of her irritating series detective which mimics some of the sentiments that she is recorded expressing about Poirot himself. I will admit to not having been the biggest Miss Oliver fan in the past, feeling then that the joke can be rather self-indulgent, so I was pleasantly surprised when I found myself really enjoying those passages this time around. It perhaps helps too that she makes for a strong contrast to the very masculine energy of Battle and Race.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of giving us four sleuths is that we see four distinctly different styles of investigation take place. Each of the sleuths at points will take the lead in talking with a suspect and we get to see how they use their particular skill set to elicit information and form judgements about that person. These not only help us get to know the suspects, they also cast a great deal of light on the personalities of the sleuths too. This is particularly welcome as it introduces some variety into what might otherwise be a very interview-driven story with comparatively little action (at least for much of the novel).
Where I do find some common ground with critics of the novel is in my feelings regarding the various games of bridge. While I think Christie was clearly wary of writing too much detail about the games for fear of aliening those who do not already love the game, those passages can feel a little alienating and confusing. I understand the necessity for them in that the information they provide will be one of the relatively few clues in the book and Christie does explain why the information is important after the fact, but I would sympathize with those who find them a little dull.
My bigger issue with the book is an aspect of the resolution which always strikes me as a little underwhelming whenever it is employed. Still, while I don’t love the manner in which the killer is captured, I really enjoy the chapters immediately preceding them with contain some really dramatic developments and help bring the story to a memorable conclusion.
As you can hopefully tell, I had a good time rereading this one and was glad to find that it mostly held up to my memories. While there are a few dry bridge-dominated passages and a few moments we might describe as a little stuck in their time, I think the story is a clever and original one that I found significantly more satisfying than the previous Poirot novel.
The Verdict: A clever and original tale that I consider one of Poirot’s better adventures.