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.

Towards Zero by Agatha Christie

Originally Published 1944
Superintendent Battle #5
Preceded by Murder is Easy

What is the connection among a failed suicide attempt, a wrongful accusation of theft against a schoolgirl, and the romantic life of a famous tennis player?

To the casual observer, apparently nothing. But when a house party gathers at Gull’s Point, the seaside home of an elderly widow, earlier events come to a dramatic head. As Superintendent Battle discovers, it is all part of a carefully laid plan – for murder.

I have previously suggested that one of the important questions to consider when looking at non-series Christie is why she opted not to use one of her more established sleuths as a hero. One can only assume that a Poirot, Marple! or Tommy and Tuppence title would have been a bigger draw in terms of sales and so, I believe, there must be some purpose behind that choice.

There are, of course, a wide range of possible reasons for Christie not to use her most popular characters but usually these are quite clear from the structure or themes of the novel. In many cases there is no formal sleuth at all with the story either adhering to more of an adventure or thriller story structure or telling the case from the perspectives of the suspects themselves. That is not the case here however and, as some will no doubt point out, Christie does actually provide us with a recurring sleuth of sorts in the form of Superintendent Battle (even if his previous appearance – Murder is Easy – was little more than a cameo).

The problem is that no matter how hard I try I cannot believe Christie ever considered Battle to be leading man material – at least, not after his first pair of outings. He is a solid and competent detective but he lacks the personality quirks of a Hercule Poirot as evidenced by a point in this story where he tries to imagine how Poirot would see some details of the crime. It feels like Christie was perfectly aware of his shortcomings as a protagonist but chose to use him regardless.

Before I can explain why I believe Battle was the right choice to lead this novel I need to explain what the book is about. Towards Zero is the story of the brutal murder of an elderly widow in bed during a family gathering. The physical evidence of the crime scene seems to indicate a possible suspect and yet that person’s motives would seem to make no sense.

Superintendent Battle happens to be on a short holiday in the area when he learns of the crime and the local police request his help in solving it. This process involves untangling the deceased’s will and the complicated personal relationships of the house guests who include a famous tennis player and both his current and ex-wife.

Could Poirot have solved this case? Absolutely. I think there is nothing in this case that requires Battle’s quiet yet dogged approach to sleuthing and so I do think that he would likely have performed just as well. They would however solve it quite differently as Poirot would have sought to play a more active role in sorting out the truth whereas Battle allows things to play out and applies his experience and knowledge of people to the situations he is witnessing to good effect. In other words, by using Battle I think Christie is able to give the other characters more space and attention – we are paying attention to them, not the sleuth.

While Battle does not prove an overbearing presence on the story, he does enjoy quite a few moments where I think his qualities and view on the world come through effectively, often reinforcing the broader themes of the novel. I particularly enjoyed his first appearance in this story where we see him solving a much more minor crime that takes place in a school and I loved the way Christie was able to tie that moment into the bigger and more important themes of her novel. By the end of the novel I found I liked him far more than I remembered doing in any of his previous outings and I did feel it was a shame that this would be his last appearance.

(As a sidebar to this discussion, I really wish that the Christie estate was publishing new Battle stories rather than Poirot – I feel that the character would offer a writer more space to develop new ideas and expand on his core traits and history)

In terms of the specifics of this story and its plot, I did appreciate the interesting and colorful cast of characters that Christie creates here. Some characters make only brief appearances or are just mentioned in passing while others are much more significant but I felt almost all were lively and interesting enough to justify the attention. I particularly appreciated the extremely minor character of the elderly lawyer Treves whose story about the prepubescent murderer at the start of the book is genuinely quite chilling and unsettling.

I want to try and be careful about giving away the solution but I will say that it is quite a clever one and it was pretty fair in how it presented itself. The mechanics of the crime are explained well and I appreciated the way Christie was able to tie the seemingly disparate strands of the novel back in together at the end.

So, what didn’t work? Well, I think a romantic subplot falls pretty flat, occurring rather suddenly and seeming quite unconvincing. This is a hazard of the final chapter whirlwind romance structure in general but, though sweet, I do think that it is not properly earned as it feels as though it is a little tacked on to the story. It is hardly unique to this story but regardless it is not done well.

I would also say that while I was reading the novel I was a little frustrated by how several elements were established and then were not returned to for a long time. I trusted that moments involving a man who had attempted suicide, Mr Treves and the school theft would ultimately prove important (I even remembered how – at least in the first two cases) but we are left waiting a long time for Christie to return to them. Happily I think the eventual reveal is worth the wait.

One of the most impressive aspects of the novel is the way it develops the meaning behind its title which is derived from a conversation with the elderly lawyer Mr Treves who describes how the act of murder should be the culmination of a mystery novel rather than its genesis. This is an interesting idea that makes more sense once it is explained and I feel it is one that generally works well and makes more sense of the narrative as a whole.

Overall I think Towards Zero is an accomplished piece of mystery writing. The situation developed is interesting and the characterizations of the various figures in the case are pretty compelling. Perhaps its most effective aspect though is the development of the novel’s key themes and ideas which are powerful and, at times, quite chilling.

The Verdict: A triumph of thoughtful development of theme and characterization.

Second Opinions

Brad @ ahsweetmystery describes this as Battle’s best case and lavishes praise on Christie’s development of the killer’s character, placing it in the context of her other work in this period of her writing.

Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime appreciated the complex and ‘knotty’ presentation of human relationships here – I love that word which is perfect to describe what we have here – and makes an interesting point about the relationship at the end which had not occurred to me (it is in the spoilers section of the review).

Les @ Classic Mysteries described the book as one of Christie’s most carefully constructed and praises the use of misdirection.

Murder is Easy by Agatha Christie

Originally Published 1939
Alternative Title: Easy to Kill (US)

Luke Fitzwilliam does not believe Miss Pinkerton’s wild allegation that a multiple murderer is at work in the quiet English village of Wychwood and that her local doctor is next in line.

But within hours, Miss Pinkerton has been killed in a hit-and-run car accident. Mere coincidence? Luke is inclined to think so—until he reads in the Times of the unexpected demise of Wychwood’s Dr. Humbleby.…

Murder is Easy begins with Luke Fitzwilliam, who had been a policeman overseas, making a train journey to London. He is seated next to Lavinia Pinkerton, an elderly woman who tells him that she is headed to Scotland Yard to report a murder she suspects will take place. She bases her suspicions on a look she observed on the killer’s face shortly before several other suspicious deaths. She tells Luke who she expects the victim will be but does not mention the killer’s identity.

He learns later that she was run over in a hit-and-run accident but he suspects that she may have been onto something when he learns that the man she thought would be the next victim had unexpectedly died. He decides that he will investigate her claims informally himself, coming up with a cover story with a friend who arranges for him to stay with a cousin at Ashe Manor, the grandest home in the area.

Let’s begin with the cover story aspect of the novel as it is, in my opinion, the book’s most charming feature. Basically Luke crams knowledge about old English customs, particularly those relating to death, to give him a reason to go to this otherwise unremarkable village and poke around. This leads to some light tension as he runs the risk of being exposed throughout much of the novel, adding complications to his investigation as he has to keep up the pretense that he is there primarily to research this book. This not only works quite well as a plot device, it also lends the village of Wychwood under Ashe and its inhabitants a little personality.

Similarly I quite enjoyed the way Luke (and the reader) is brought into this story, even if the somewhat dotty spinster talking about seemingly improbable murders idea would be used somewhat more memorably in The 4:50 From Paddington. This exchange not only builds interest in the setting and situation, it also helps to introduce us to Luke and give us a sense of his personality and some of the traits that will define him as a protagonist.

On the topic of protagonists, one question I find myself considering whenever I read one of the non-series Christie titles is why she didn’t opt to include one of her series regulars. After all, my assumption (with no data at all to back it up) would be that sales would likely have been higher had it been part of one of her established series.

Sometimes, as with Death Comes as the End, that reason is quite obvious but in other cases it can be more subtle. The thrillers obviously belong in a category by their own but sometimes Christie would play with structure or form in a way that would make it hard to include a detective character (for example, Ordeal by Innocence).

If we consider just the basic elements of the plot it seems that Murder is Easy could have quite easily been a Poirot or Miss Marple story. The setting feels appropriate, particularly for Miss Marple, and it is not difficult to imagine her being pulled into a mystery through a chance conversation on a train. For that reason it shouldn’t really surprise us that ITV decided to adapt it as part of the fourth series of Marple!, albeit with some pretty significant changes to the story and particularly the killer’s motivations.

I think that the changes made for that production actually point to the reason that this book couldn’t have featured Miss Marple. I suspect that with her greater understanding of human nature and the relationships within a community she would have found this crime as it appears in print too easy to solve. As for Poirot, it is hard to imagine him entering the investigation the way that Luke does, listening (albeit very reluctantly) to an elderly lady talking on a train about her suspicions about people he has never met.

Another reason that I think that this story really wouldn’t work as a Poirot tale is that the prominent romantic story thread shared by the protagonist and a young woman he meets in Wychwood under Ashe. This creates a little dramatic tension although I personally did not find them to make for a particularly engaging pairing. The inclusion of a romantic subplot is a fairly typical element in a Christie mystery but here I think it is used to serve a slightly different purpose, albeit with only partial success.

With the exception of Murder on the Links, romances in the Poirot stories seem to be treated distinctly as subplots. What strikes me most about Luke’s romance is that it affects the way he conducts his investigation, particularly as we enter the final phase of the story. I found this idea to be quite intriguing as it is easy to imagine how this could lead to the prospect of a partial or corruptible sleuth and the ways that could affect the investigation. While some of those ideas are not entirely realized, I did find those aspects of the story enjoyable and the way this prompts a secondary detective character to emerge in the later stages of the book.

Alternatively it could just be that Luke is not a particularly good policeman…

This brings me to what I consider the book’s biggest problem to be – as much as I enjoyed the process by which Luke gathers information, for much of the book the investigation seems to be fairly bland. There are few clues turned up and we have a fairly limited pool of suspects with some pretty weak motivations to kill, particularly on the scale we are talking about here.

This creates a problem that I think ends up undermining the effectiveness of the book’s ending. The reader sees all of the evidence pointing in one direction but knows that ending would be pretty unsatisfying, therefore they are likely to guess at the twist not based on any clues in the text but rather based on their intuition as seasoned Christie readers. This is hardly satisfying puzzle mystery writing, leading to an ending that simultaneously feels predictable and yet not really supported by the material that came before it.

This really is a shame because much of the setup for the story and the atmosphere it conjures up is quite delicious and shows enormous potential. For much of the first half of the novel I felt sure I would be writing a rave review. Unfortunately this didn’t quite live up to those expectations but while I was a little disappointed with the destination, I did enjoy much of the journey.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Set in a Small Village (Where)

Further Reading

Kate at CrossExaminingCrime found this to be a middling Christie and was far less entertained than I was with the lengthy exchanges with the villagers. I do agree with her about the book’s biggest problem though.