Christie Week: Cards on the Table by Agatha Christie

A menagerie of murderers…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Mr Shaitana loves to collect things – jewels, weapons, Egyptian artefacts, objects from the mysterious Far East, etc. One of his stranger collections is of uncaught murderers and when he meets the famous detective Hercule Poirot, he can’t stop himself from boasting about them. Almost against his better judgement Poirot is intrigued, so when Shaitana invites him to a little party to meet his murderers, he accepts. When he arrives, he finds there are eight guests including himself, three of whom he knows – Superintendent Battle of Scotland Yard, Colonel Race, whose career included intelligence work, and Ariadne Oliver, detective novelist, who believes that more crimes would be solved if only there were a woman at the head of Scotland Yard. [FF muses: Hmm! Wonder what she’d have thought of Cressida Dick! 😉 ]. It’s obvious, then, that the other four guests must be Shaitana’s murderers. And when later in the evening Shaitana is stabbed to death, it’s equally obvious that one of these four must have done the deed. It’s up to Poirot and the other three detectives to work out whodunit, but first they must look into the backgrounds of the four suspects to find out if Shaitana was right that they had each successfully committed a murder before…

….“He played the part of the devil too successfully. But he was not the devil. Au fond, he was a stupid man. And so – he died.”
….“Because he was stupid?”
….“It is the sin that is never forgiven and always punished, madame.”

I love this one but I have two tiny reservations, so let me get them out of the way first. There are some unfortunate racial slurs in this and some attitudes to foreigners which were perfectly normal back then, but which may jar today. My other issue is that Christie assumes that her readers will understand the intricacies of the card game of bridge, which the suspects were playing at the time of the murder. Poirot uses the bidding and scores as a method to understand the personalities of the four players. Back then I’d imagine the vast majority of her readers did play bridge, or at least knew the rules. I, however, only have the sketchiest understanding of it so most of that was lost on me and I found my eyes glazing over during some of the rather lengthy dissections of the game.

However, there’s so much good stuff in it that these small points don’t spoil the overall enjoyment. Ariadne Oliver is always a favourite of mine when she turns up in a Poirot mystery, and in this one she’s especially fun as she explains to another star-struck character what being a mystery novelist is like – the hard work that comes between thinking up a plot and having a finished book, the pressure of publishing deadlines, and so on. She also discusses with Poirot how it’s possible to re-use plots so long as you disguise them well enough. I always feel Mrs Oliver gives us a real insight to Christie’s own writing life, and she does it with so much humour and such a complete lack of pomposity that it makes me like her even more!

“As a matter of fact I don’t care two pins about accuracy. Who is accurate? Nobody nowadays. If a reporter writes that a beautiful girl of twenty-two dies by turning on the gas after looking out over the sea and kissing her favourite Labrador, Bob, goodbye, does anybody make a fuss because the girl was twenty-six, the room faced inland, and the dog was a Sealyham terrier called Bonnie? If a journalist can do that sort of thing I don’t see that it matters if I mix up police ranks and say a revolver when I mean an automatic and a dictograph when I mean a phonograph, and use a poison that just allows you to gasp one dying sentence and no more. What really matters is plenty of bodies! If the thing’s getting a little dull, some more blood cheers it up.”

Zoe Wanamaker as Ariadne Oliver in the Suchet adaptation

Superintendent Battle and Colonel Race are occasional recurring characters too so it’s fun to have all of them working together. The four suspects each provide interesting stories. Young Anne Meredith (called after one of Christie’s fellow mystery novelists) seems too naive and innocent to be a murderer, but is she what she seems? Dr Roberts has all the opportunities given to him by his profession – has he bumped off one or two patients in his career? Major Despard has had an adventurous life in some of the far-flung corners of Empire, where dark deeds (and dead bodies) can easily be buried. And Mrs Lorrimer – she’s an enigma: ultra-respectable, it seems, and lives for her bridge. Can she possibly have murdered anyone? Shaitana thought so. Each of the four detectives brings their different expertise to bear – Poirot working on the psychology of the suspects, Race using his intelligence contacts to learn about Despard’s career, Mrs Oliver gossiping with Anne Meredith and her friend Rhoda, and Superintendent Battle doing all the painstaking police work. And each of them contributes valuable information, although of course it will be up to Poirot to solve the case in the end.

….“But I don’t doubt it will be essentially the same type of crime. The details may be different, but the essentials underlying them will be the same. It’s odd, but a criminal gives himself away every time by that. Man is an unoriginal animal,” said Hercule Poirot.
….“Women,” said Mrs. Oliver, ” are capable of infinite variation. I should never commit the same type of murder twice running.”
….“Don’t you ever write the same plot twice running?” asked Battle.”

The solution is particularly good, with Christie misdirecting the poor reader (and most of the detectives) all over the place. It is fair play, I’d say, but with each of the suspects being suspected of other murders there’s the added element of solving all those mysteries too, and that adds hugely to the interest. One of her best, I think – one of many!

I listened to Hugh Fraser narrating the audiobook and as always he does a wonderful job of giving each of the characters their own voice and persona.

Audible UK Link

Hope you enjoyed Christie Week – I’ve loved chatting Christie with you all!

20 thoughts on “Christie Week: Cards on the Table by Agatha Christie

  1. Ha, Ariadne Oliver’s blind insistence that a woman would do a good job of running Scotland Yard always makes me think of Cressida Dick too!

    I don’t remember very much about this one, as it’s been a while since I read it – but I do remember that I didn’t even get within sniffing distance of the solution. Normally I at least guess a little bit of it before the end, but if I recall correctly I was completely flummoxed with Cards on the Table!

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  2. I am not keen on audiobooks, but it might be down to the ones I listened to. A woman at the head of Scotland Yard must have been such a novel idea at that time. 🙂

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  3. I love this one, too, FictionFan! I’m a big fan of Ariadne Oliver, so I love it that she’s in this story, and some of her comments are memorable, especially when she’s talking with Rhoda about her books and writing. It’s a clever plot, and I have a soft spot for links between old crimes and new ones. You’re right about the ‘isms,’ but I can’t help it – it’s a great story!

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  4. Great review! This is one of the first Christie’s books I read and is still one of my favourites. I think I first read it when I was around 13 and it had a big effect on me, Mr Shaitana’s personality, the cosy, “one-room” setting, and, like And Then There Were None, suspects who are far from being totally innocent.

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  5. I remember reading this and being lost, because I don’t play bridge. My brother’s in-laws are in a bridge club, so they play it regularly.
    Zoe Wanamaker was the perfect choice to play Mrs. Oliver!

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  6. I haven’t read this one but have seen Zoe Wanamaker as Ariadne Oliver and really enjoy her, I hadn’t thought of her letting us in on a bit of Christie herself, but it makes perfect sense! Loved Christie Week, thank you!

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  7. It’s a danger to use a plot device or clever elements that may become a bit esoteric in one’s story, especially if they are key to understanding. I have less patience than you, although her writing is always so much fun. But if I were trying to figure out “who dunnit,” I may lose patience here….

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  8. How did i miss reading this one?? It sounds very intriguing — except for the Bridge aspects. My parents used to play that a LOT when I was a wee kiddo, but somehow, I must’ve missed the craze. Who knows? Since things tend to be cyclical, maybe it will experience a resurgence in popularity.

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  9. I loved reading about Ariadne Oliver talking about her writing and her characters in this book. It has a star-studded cast, that’s for sure. I’ve really enjoyed Christie week, thank you 🙂

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  10. This does sound like fun, despite my lack of Bridge knowledge. I like playfulness when it extends across a few layers. I’ve found an audio copy I can access too, so double the pleasure.

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  11. I read ‘Cards on the Table’ as a teenager (ah, my misspent youth!) but I can’t now remember any of it. I might dig out our battered and dog-eared copy and read it again.
    And I agree totally with all the commenters who don’t like audio books. I want to read, at my own pace, and without some actor’s voice interpreting the words for me. However, of course, I appreciate that for people who have sight problems or are dyslexic, audio books are a boon.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I love the premise of this one – a room full of murderers, how genius! I’ve never heard of something like this before, but it sounds fabulous. And I also love the idea that one of the characters is a famous mystery novelist – what fun Christie must have had writing her.

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  13. I agree with everything in this review and Ariadne Oliver is a favourite character if mine as well. Good point about knowing bridge. The long passages about bridge didn’t bother me, but I suspect they would have been a lot more interesting for bridge players.

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