Opening sentence: “My dear M. Poirot!”
Cards on the Table has an interesting line in the foreword by Agatha Christie: ‘(this) was one of Hercule Poirot’s favourite cases. His friend, Captain Hastings, however, when Poirot described it to him, considered it very dull!’
Interesting, as when I started reading I feared I was going to be agreeing with Captain Hastings. This book has a big focus on the card game, Bridge. And if – like me – you’ve never played it and don’t know anything about it, the constant references can get a bit tedious: Christie writes as if you do know the game. I CAN confirm that although Bridge is key to the plot, not knowing the game is not a stopper to understanding the plot.
Despite this, I have faith in Agatha and she has not let me down yet. And the premise of the book is good: The mysterious (and often described as Mephistophelian) Mr Shaitana hosts an unusual dinner party for eight guests; four of whom he suspects have gotten away with past murders and four he considers to be great detectives: ‘The four murderers and the four sleuths – Scotland Yard. Secret Service. Private. Fiction. A clever idea.’
Mr Shaitana divides his guests into two groups of four so they can each play a game of Bridge (in separate rooms). He takes a seat by the fire in one of the rooms and at some point during the evening, is murdered… By someone he already suspected of murder. This means that although the four sleuths (including Poirot) were in the other room when the murder happened, they are the best placed to investigate. While Superintendent Battle takes the lead and starts to research the suspects in the traditional way, Poirot takes a more unconventional route: His approach is gentle, psychological and very, very clever.
Cards on the Table also marks my first encounter with the character of Ariadne Oliver, an author of crime fiction (invited to the party as one of the sleuths) who subsequently appears in many Christie novels. She is a wonderful caricature of the writer herself and has some great self-deprecating lines: “I can always think of things,” says Mrs. Oliver happily. “What is so tiring is writing them down. I always think I’ve finished, and then when I count up I find I’ve only written thirty thousand words instead of sixty thousand, and so then I have to throw in another murder and get the heroine kidnapped again. It’s all very boring.” For me, it’s these knowing elements like Mrs Oliver that just make Agatha Christie’s books so special and so readable.
This is such an ingenious little story. Agatha takes you down one narrative path then spins you at the last moment. Even when you think she’s dropped the ball on a plot point, she sweeps in and proves you wrong. She is a straight-up genius. Cards on the Table might not be as high drama as some of her other novels, but it is every bit as enticing – I can see why it’s one of Poirot’s favourite cases.
/ Published by Collins, The Crime Club 1936
/ 286 pages
/ Rating: 4/5