Sunday 25 December 2016

Cards on the Table by Agatha Christie

My Aunt Barbara, whom I revered, was a crime fiction afficionado. Oddly enough, though, she didn't like Agatha Christie. And I sort of inherited her prejudice in an unconsidered way. For many years I dismissed the Queen of Crime.

But then I read a short story in an anthology and was rather impressed. And I saw her play Murder on the Nile and admired the plotting. Slowly I came around to the notion that I should give Christie a chance.

Card on the Table is the first full length novel by her which I've read. This was partly because it was on a list of her superior works given to me by my friend and Agatha Christie expert David Parsons. And partly because I found a copy with lovely elegant cover art by Milton Glaser.

What's more, this copy was a Dell map back, which means you have a nice floor plan of the mayhem in the story.

The plot concerns Mr Shaitana, a sinister rich mischief maker. As his name suggests, "He deliberately attempted a Mephistophelian effect" in his clothes and appearance — satanic black moustache and pointy narrow beard, etc.

He's also two-dimensional and tedious. But Shaitana has an intriguing invitation for our hero, the detective Poirot. Come to a dinner party where some of the guests will be murderers who have escaped detection.

So Poirot turns up at what turns out to be a bridge party. There are two games, four guests each at a table (check out the map). One table consists of Poirot and other investigators, the other of the presumed murderers.

Their host doesn't play. He just sits happily in a chair by the fireside. And this is when Christie springs her first surprise — and it occurs so early in the book that this is not really a spoiler...

Naturally, the reader is expecting a murder to happen at some point as the story develops. But it takes place almost instantly — and Shaitana is the victim.

This is just wonderful, not only because it is completely unexpected — Shaitana is set up so it looks like he'll be in the story for the long haul — but also because Christie very cleverly disposes of a rather cardboard character before he has a chance to become a liability.

The other brilliant thing about the plot is that it effectively gives you five murder investigations for the price of one — since each of those four guests is supposed to have already gotten away with at least one unlawful killing.

The story unfolds neatly and briskly, although there are things that will take the modern reader aback, for example one of the characters holds forth, in all seriousness against “All this hysterical fuss about road deaths.” 

Also, Poirot talks to himself, which is a device I've always found clumsy and unconvincing. Plus he does far too much twinkling for my liking. On the other hand, Christie's dialogue is often surprisingly good, and there's more wit on offer than I expected. Along with with a refreshing self mockery.

For instance, during a discussion of murder mystery stories someone remarks “It’s always the least likely person who did it.” And one of our investigators is a lady crime novelist, whose detective hero is a “long lanky" Finn.

Here Agatha Christie is so clearly sending up her own portly Belgian sleuth that one is willing to forgive her a lot.

Cards on the Table is far from perfect, and all the stuff about bridge hands might as well have been written in ancient cuneiform on a clay tablet as far as I'm concerned, but it displays some flashes of genius which show why Christie is held in such high regard.

And it was certainly good enough to have me looking forward to the next one of her books that I read.

(Image credits: the front and back cover of Milton Glaser's Dell map back are scanned from my personal copy, bought this autumn in Winnipeg. The nice white Fontana version with the Tom Adams cover art is also from my collection, since it's a better copy than the one I found online at  Good Reads, which is where all the other covers come from.)


  1. I haven't read that one, but I was amused by your comments about the bridge hands. It's often difficult to know how much to put in about a topic with which the reader might be unfamiliar. I tend to be more forgiving of authors who provide a bit more detail, simply because I dislike putting down the book to do research. Although, massive info dumps are boring, too. (I could have used a bit more detail/explanation in "Written in Dead Wax" but there was just enough there that I avoided the research phase while reading.)
    And now, off to do research to find out if this story was done before or after her "all the killers on an island being killed off one by one" story.

  2. Thanks James! And thank you for reading... I was relieved you didn't think I'd put *too much* detail into Written in Dead Wax. I'm sure if I was a bridge player, the detail in Cards on the Table this would have added a dimension for me. I'm looking forward to reading more Christies and reporting on them.

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  4. I love Agatha Christie's stories and this is a good one to read!

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