Cards On The Table by Agatha Christie

Cards On The TableLots of people collect things. I used to collect Spider-man comics. That’s a safe thing to collect. Mr Shaitana collects murderers. That ISN’T a safe thing to collect… especially when you invite four of them to dinner.

Shaitana invites four suspected (by him) murderers and four sleuths – Ariadne Oliver, Colonel Race, Superintendent Battle and a certain M. Hercule Poirot. And while the four suspects play bridge together while Shaitana watches on, one of them leaves the table and stabs him. But as the murder was silent, nobody witnessed it – and everybody left the table at some point. With no evidence at all, apart from the bridge score cards which fascinate Poirot for some reason, how will it be possible to find the killer and even more, to prove it?

This my post for Past Offences 1936 Challenge. It’s a popular Poirot but when I first read it (years and years ago), I never really liked it much. The bridge information is a somewhat specialised area of information (although not anywhere near as bad as, say, the topic of the clue in The Finishing Stroke) and to the young Puzzle Doctor, it rather spoiled the mystery.

Things change – this is a genuinely impressive piece of work that probably needs a place in my Poirot Top Five, a post that I wrote a few years ago but really needs to be re-evaluated.

This is a very clever mystery, with much more to it than the bridge clues (although I do know a lot more about bridge these days). You could make the case that one of the suspects is a little too clearly innocent from early on, but manages to bounce from reveal to reveal and still manages to pull a surprise (partly due to, for once, having a very short wrap-up, so that the page count doesn’t work against the finale.) The sleuths are given some decent air-time – obviously it’s Poirot’s show, but Race (previously in The Man In The Brown Suit, appearing in the future Death On The Nile and Sparkling Cyanide), Battle (four other appearances, two as the main sleuth) and Ariadne Oliver (six further appearances, five with Poirot) all do themselves justice. The overall plot (not just the murder) is clever and Christie does a good job of keeping things moving with such a small cast of characters.

Always a pleasant surprise to stumble across a book that has improved with (my) age. Highly Recommended.

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28 comments

  1. Must admit, my early reaction to it was the same as yours and I have never re-read it (I too know a little bit more about Bridge) – OK, am definitely going to try again, thanks chum.

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  2. I think this one really does hold up. Not only is it a nice break from the standard setup, it plays well to Poirot’s strengths. His amateur psychology seems less like homespun hokum than other stories, and unlike, say, Death in the Clouds, it’s reasonable for him to be annoying and enigmatic – he has no real evidence, and he has no reason to think anyone is in any imminent danger.

    I think the bridge scores are a weakness though. They feel like a clue from a short story, not a novel. If you know about bridge I think they make things too obvious, and if you don’t know about bridge I feel they might be offputting. Sure, it turns out no bridge knowledge is needed to solve it, but that’s not much good until after the fact. Poirot (rightly, in the context of the story) makes such a big deal of the scores that I think a sizeable proportion of the audience might just give up there and then.

    Not sure what the fix is, but it feels like a blot on a near-perfect story.

    The ITV adaptation made a real hash of this one, I seem to remember.

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    • To be honest, I felt it wasn’t the scoring but the play that gave it away – the method of ensuring the murder is unseen is actually cleverer than the psychology stuff (which is pretty unsubtle, it has to be said). But the misdirection in the later sections does a good job of making you doubt yourself… But it would have helped if Christie had done a better job of making the fourth suspect more viable as a murderer.

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    • IIRC, it’s one of the ITV ones that I tried (mainly because of Alexander Siddig as Shaitana) and barely made it past the half-hour mark. The later Poirots took themselves far too seriously for my tastes.

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      • I regard the entire film as crap and not simply the homosexual bits. Please see the film and judge for yourself.

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      • Oh, I see. That’s not how your post read, I’m afraid. But given my dislike of the later Poirot’s that I have seen, I’m in no rush to waste 2 hours of my life on this one. Does anyone recommend it?

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    • Blimey – just read the details of the TV adaptation. It changes a lot of plot points – seriously, take a look at the Wikipedia page. One fewer death, one different killer and a motive that Dame Agatha would never have touched in a million years…

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      • I have gone through the Wikipedia article. Perhaps the script would have more suited a gay porn story ! 🙂

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      • I have just seen the TV film. Though there are many variations, one amusing incident remains unaltered, the buying of 19 pair of hoses by Poirot. 🙂
        Well, though the film cannot be regarded as porn, there is definitely gratuitous homosexuality added just to titillate the viewers. Of the limited number of male characters, how many are gay ? Not one, not two, not three but four of which 3 are main characters !
        Crap !

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      • “Crap”? Well if you’re referring to the multiple changes to the source material, I understand that reaction. I’m not sure that I completely agree – if there are no changes to the plot at all, what is there in the drama for someone who has read the book? If you’re referring to the homosexuality in a Christie storyline, then I understand that, as it wasn’t something that Christie, or any of the comtemporaries, would have included. But if you’re simply referring to the existence of four gay characters in a story, then there’s nothing “crap” about that. If you accept that the writer is presenting his own adaptation of the tale, then it provides a very credible motive as the scandal at the time would have been career-destroying – even writing about it was taboo. And the writer should be applauded for including homosexuality in a prime time drama on a major channel in the UK, something that even in the present day very rarely happens.

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  3. This is a brilliant novel, one of my favourites. Highly recommended for mystery fans.
    Here the amusing character Ariadne Oliver makes her first appearance in a novel. She has appeared previously in a Parker Pyne short story but this is the first appearance in a novel.
    There are so many French expressions in the book that it would have been better to provide an index of them along with the English translations. One particular expression “sacré nom d’un petit bonhomme” (chapter 26) is exclusively French and its literal translation is meaningless. It is used as an expression of frustration.
    .

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    • Does it really need every French expression explained? Apart from reminding the reader that Poirot isn’t UKIP’s favourite detective, they don’t add anything to the plot. I appreciate the need for a glossary in some books – Michael Jecks always provides one, to stop every character explaining what is meant, for example, by a vill, but that is plot information.

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  4. Some quotes from the book:
    1. Doctor Roberts: “You’re not going to be allowed to monopolize the only pretty girl all the evening. You French fellows, you don’t waste your time, do you?”
    “I happen to be Belgian,” murmured Poirot.
    2. Poirot twinkled at them.
    “How fortunate – to have convinced two such charming young ladies of one’s innocence.”
    “Oh, dear,” thought Rhoda. “He’s going to be French, and it does embarrass me so.”
    These quotes show another stereotyping. The French are supposed to be forward and frank in matters of sex, whereas the British are reticent and embarrassed in such matters.

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    • To be precise, it’s a demonstration of the stereotype in action, rather than the author using it – both cases show English people saying how they expect the French to behave. Admittedly there isn’t a counterpoint to it, but even so, it’s a more positive character trait assigned to the French than is often presented in this country.

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  5. I just noted that in the book it is mentioned that Shaitana “gave wonderful parties – large parties, small parties, macabre parties, respectable parties, and definitely “queer” parties.”
    Well, perhaps the film writer misinterpreted the word “queer” ! 🙂

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  6. I just finished the novel and thoroughly enjoyed it (though the bridge bits went right over my head) but then I decided to rent the DVD and compare. It followed the novel closely until the last 15 minutes and then I became totally disoriented. Whaaaaat??? I’m sure my mouth was hanging open. The best part of both the novel and the drama for me was Mrs. Oliver (one of the few characters that wasn’t changed). I suppose the screenwriter felt compelled to make the motive more contemporary, however he couldn’t out-Christie Christie IMO. I’d been considering buying the boxed set of Poirots, but now I’ve put that plan on hold, as good as David Suchet is in the part.

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    • The impression that I’ve got from the ones that I’ve watched (which are almost exclusively the late ones – or more accurately, the first part of the late ones) is that the humour has been sucked out of them, replacing it with (often literal) darkness. I’m less fussed about the changing motives – Marple does it all the time and it means that you can get something extra out of the show – but I’ve basically found Poirot grim watching. I’m told that the short story adaptations are much, much better – I might take a look at those one day…

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      • Oh do watch the short story adaptations! There are really two shows called Poirot: the 1989-95 series, produced by Brian Eastman, and the series made ten years later. The only common factor is David Suchet. The early series is stylish and clever, and the regulars are delightful. They also respect Christie, and any changes made wirk with, rather than against, the story. The later series is angsty, hjoyless and often boring; Poirot is now a lonely old man with religious mania and a tendency to spit.

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