Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Alphabet in Crime Fiction - Cards on the Table

I’m very much enjoying being part of the community alphabet meme led by Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise. It’s a wonderful way to learn about books I haven’t read, remember those that I have, and learn some background information about authors, too. For the letter “C,” I’ve decided to profile Agatha Christie’s Cards on the Table, published in the UK in 1936, and in the US the following year.

As the novel opens, Hercule Poirot is invited to dinner by the very eccentric Mr. Shaitana. Shaitana, who collects unusual objects, promises to show Poirot his most interesting collection – a group of murderers who’ve gotten away with their crimes. Poirot warns Shaitana of the danger he faces in confronting a murderer, but Shaitana takes no account of the warning. Poirot arrives at Mr. Shaitana’s house on the night of the dinner, to find that three other sleuths have also been invited: Superintendent Battle of the police, Colonel Race of the Secret Service, and Ariadne Oliver, author of detective stories. In addition, Shaitana has invited four other guests: Doctor Geoffrey Roberts, Miss Anne Meredith, Major John Despard and Mrs. Lorrimer. During the meal, Shaitana hints at ways of committing murder, clearly with the intention of making his guests uncomfortable. After dinner, the eight guests settle down to play bridge; the four sleuths play in one room, and the other guests play in another room where their host, Mr. Shaitana sits by the fire, since he does not play bridge. When the four sleuths finish their game, they prepare to take their leave, only to find that their host has been stabbed in the back of the neck by one of his own curios – a small dagger.

Since Shaitana has to have been murdered by one of the four people in the room, the four sleuths decide that Shaitana must have been right that at least one of the suspects has murdered before and has killed Shaitana to prevent him from revealing what he knows. So, each in a different way, the sleuths begin to look into the background of each suspect. What they find is that each suspect has been connected with a case of unexplained death that might be, but was never proven to be, murder. Each suspect has both a motive and the opportunity to kill Shaitana, and there is no obvious physical evidence connecting any one of them in particular with his death. So the solution to this mystery has to be, as Poirot puts it, psychological. In the end, Poirot uses what he learns about each suspect’s personality, along with their approaches to keeping bridge scores, to solve the crime. Along the way, he’s helped greatly by evidence that Mrs. Oliver, Colonel Race and Superintendent Battle find.

The suspense in Cards on the Table doesn’t lie in the kinds of plot twists and turns that Christie uses in some of her other novels, although there are certainly some surprises, especially towards the end of the novel. We know from the very beginning that the only suspects in Shaitana’s murder are the four people in the room with him. What keeps the reader engrossed is the slow buildup of tension as Poirot, Battle, Oliver and Race learn the truth about each suspect. What’s especially suspenseful in the novel is the verbal parrying as each suspect is confronted with his or her past. Cards on the Table also includes “red herrings” that are vintage Christie, and some very interesting minor characters whom we meet as the sleuths look into the suspects’ backgrounds. It's a "must-read" for Christie fans.

A few interesting notes on Cards on the Table: This novel introduces Christie’s fictional sleuth, Ariadne Oliver, who also figures in several other novels such as Dead Man’s Folly, Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, Hallowe’en Party, and Elephants Can Remember. Oliver was said to be Christie’s way of poking fun at herself, and in Cards on the Table, Oliver gives readers a delightful and sometimes comic look at what it’s like to develop a mystery plot, write a story and deal with the realities of publishing.

Cards on the Table also contains the solution to another Christie mystery, Murder on the Orient Express, so while I recommend Cards on the Table highly, it's best to read Murder on the Orient Express first. Christie also refers to The A.B.C. Murders in Cards on the Table, although she doesn’t provide the solution. Interestingly enough, in one scene in The A.B.C Murders, Poirot and Hastings are discussing different kinds of murders. Poirot imagines exactly the kind of murder that's at the core of Cards on the Table: a group of four people playing bridge, one of whom kills a fifth person while the other players are intent on the game.

Christie herself said this about the novel:

There are only four starters, and any one of them, given the right circumstances, might have committed the crime….They are four widely divergent types, the motive that drives each of them to crime is peculiar to that person, and each would employ a different method. The deduction must, therefore, be entirely psychological, but it is none the less interesting for that, because when all is said and done it is the mind of the murderer that is of supreme interest.

In the case of this novel, I agree, and I think Hercule Poirot would, as well.


  1. I have the Cards on the Table paperback from when I was in high school, but I haven't read it for ages! I'm going to pull it back out again. That's one of my favorite premise for a mystery--a handful of suspects, very divergent personalities, and getting into the "why" of it. My other fave premise is a similar scenario, but the "how" of it...locked room kind of aspect to the book. This sounds like a 'why' one and I have only really vague memories of the book, so it will be a perfect read!

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  2. I'm sure that recently I have seen a TV version of this Margot. It was interesting that Christie brought her sleuths together in this fashion, and also that referred to it in other books.
    Thanks for adding it to the Alphabet in crime Fiction series. Will you add it to the Agatha Christie Reading Challenge Blog Carnival too please?

  3. Elizabeth - You're absolutely right that Cards on the Table is more of a "why" kind of a story. Any one of the four suspects could have grabbed the dagger that kills Mr. Shaitana, and every one of them had a motive, so the "how" isn't as importnat as which psychology fits the kind of crime it was. I hope you enjoy reading it : ).

    Kerrie - I've heard of the TV version of this one, but hadn't seen it. I agree that it's so interesting to see how Christie used a few different sleuths in this one. They all use different strategies to find out information, too, which is just as interesting. Christie does that in a few other novels, such as Death on the Nile, where we meet Colonel Race again. As a matter of fact, she directly mentions in that one that Poirot had met Race earlier, and refers to Cards on the Table.

    Thanks for that ACRCC link; I'll add this post to it.

  4. Margot: Cards on the Table is one of my top favorite Agatha Christie novels. Thanks for reviewing it. And Kerrie's right -- there's an excellent A&E adaptation with David Suchet as Poirot and Zoe Wannamaker as a superb(!) Ariadne Oliver. You must see it if you get a chance.

  5. MissLemon - Thanks for visiting and commenting : ). No-one could touch David Suchet as Poirot in my opinion, so I'm already interested. I've seen Zoe Wannamaker as Ariadne Oliver, too ('though not in this particular mystery). Time to get that DVD and watch it! I appreciate the recommendation.

  6. I've always been a fan of 'why' books, which explains my worship of Elizabeth George. I like finding out what goes on in people's minds and their different reactions to a supposed threat. My question is usually "but why did he/she have to be killed now, as opposed to tomorrow or next week?"

    I'm another vote for David Suchet's wonderful portrayal of Poirot. Stupendous work, with just the right touch of comedy. The clothes and settings are also always tremendously evocative of the era.


  7. Elspeth - You're right; Elizabeth George is an expert at letting the reader see what characters are thinking, and understand their motivations and what's happening in their minds. That's one thing I like about her work,too!

    And you're also right about David Suchet - He is an excellent Poirot!

  8. Margot, we should have added this one to the current ACRC Blog Carnival. Would you like to add it to the next one please?