Four suspected murderers sit around a table playing bridge. Nearby, four of Christie’s greatest detective minds sit embroiled in their own game. The play is interrupted by a gruesome discovery – the body of the party’s host, stabbed through the heart. Despite the murder occurring in full view of a room of players, nobody can describe how it happened.
Sounds like a dream come true, right? There’s almost an element of John Dickson Carr’s The Problem of the Green Capsule or Seeing is Believing, in that a murder is pulled off in front of a room full of spectators. In this case though, it wasn’t quite a captive audience – the players were paying too close attention to their cards. It’s still a perplexing puzzle – how did the killer slip away from the game and dispatch the host without being observed?
I’ve been holding off on reading Cards on the Table since I first got started with Agatha Christie. The hook is so powerful that I desperately wanted to read it, but I was confounded by the problem that I hadn’t yet read Murder on the Orient Express. You see, I was tipped off to the fact that in Cards on the Table, Poirot reveals the solution to the famed murder on the train, and I’m apparently one of ten people on the planet who hasn’t read Christie’s most popular book. Despite getting my hands on two copies of Orient Express, I ended up being too tempted by my friend’s suggestion that we watch the newish theatrical release. Well, I probably shouldn’t have, but I watched the movie before reading the book… Never a good idea.
Anyway…with Orient Express out of the way, I was free to finally dive into the Christie title that I had been longing for. It was too much to resist. We have a party attended by four people rumored to have gotten away with murder. That promises at least five mysteries to be solved – the present day murder, plus digging to the bottom of whatever crime each of the suspects committed in the past.
Now mix in the fact that you have four detectives in attendance. Er, well, you have Poirot, plus Christie’s b-squad of Colonel Race, Superintendent Battle, and Ariadne Oliver – characters who typically play some degree of foil to the main detective in a Christie novel. It’s a good angle though, as we have a murder committed right under the detectives’ noses, and get to witness their individual approaches to investigating the crime.
The victim, the mephistophelean Mr Shaitana, gathered the sleuths and suspects together for a night of bridge. Over dinner, he makes a dangerous statement implying that there is at least one murderer in the room. The party splits into two groups to play cards, and Shaitana is discovered several hours later, dead in a chair by the fire. The rest of the story follows the four detectives as they delve into the past of each of the suspects.
The book was….ok. The investigation is interesting enough, and we do indeed learn the sordid past of each of the suspects, but there’s never that spark that I expected. Although the story presents five crimes and their respective solutions, it didn’t feel as though it was bursting with moments of discovery. The crimes of the past are revealed in a humdrum manner and are somewhat packed towards the end of the book. As such, the middle slightly drags. To be fair, it isn’t in any way bad, it just wasn’t that tour de force I had in my mind going into it. John Dickson Carr tackled a slightly similar plot more successfully two years later with 1938’s Death in Five Boxes.
If Cards on the Table excels in any respect, it’s the end. I’ve lamented in the past that I was able to see through Christie’s misdirection in several of her books, but she sure spun my head here. Christie unveils shock after shock in a tensely paced finale that just keeps on going. There was a moment of reveal at the end where I know I let out an audible gasp, and it’s this moment I hope I remember for some time to come.
Although the ending was satisfying, I was somewhat disappointed with the “how” of the crime. Yes, I realize that Christie doesn’t exactly do Carr-style impossibilities, but I was hoping for some brilliant solution to how the victim was stabbed without a room full of people noticing it. Mild spoiler – there’s no brilliant solution. Also, as shocking as the identity of the killer was, I think it was a case where the author could have pretty much told you that any of the suspects had committed the crime, and as a reader you just kind of have to go along with it.
Cards on the Table is a respectable read, and I’d happily flip through the pages of 100 more of its kind. It just didn’t quite live up to the potential of the plot. You probably run that risk with the most heralded books by any author – if you walk in looking for that masterpiece, you’re bound to come away a little disappointed. Still, I’ve read about five Christie books that I think are better.
Oh, and as for Cards on the Table ruining Murder on the Orient Express? Yeah, the solution is described, but so obliquely that I never would have realized the reference. I appreciate that some readers have more of a memory/sensitivity for this sort of thing, but I think most people would be safe reading the two books in any order.
One of my favorite parts of wrapping up a Hercule Poirot novel is watching the David Suchet adaptation. I butter up my wife for a few days, finally break her down into watching one of my boring mysteries, and then sit back in fascination with my eyes glued to the screen while she paints her nails and then falls asleep (to her credit, she did immediately figure out what happened in Death on the Nile). The films are never quite as good as the book, but the acting and sets are wonderful and there’s quite a bit to be enjoyed.
Well, this one is rotten. To be fair, Brad at Ah Sweet Mystery tried to warn me. But, you see Brad, you buried your warning deep inside a (fairly labeled) spoiler-laced post that I had to skim many months ago.
The movie started well enough, although I wasn’t a fan of the casting of Mr Shaitana. The adaptation is fairly faithful to the book for the majority of the story, with the exception of Superintendent Battle and Colonel Race oddly being swapped out for alternative detective characters. Then things swerve wildly off course in the final third, with massive changes being made to key parts of the solution. I think it’s fair to say that every single part of Christie’s solution that made it so brilliant was stripped out and replaced with lesser twists.
I really don’t get it. Why change the actual solution to a mystery, in particular when it’s an extremely strong solution? I get that some of the changes were made to cast suspicion in new directions and build tension, but man, the end of the book already has an insane amount of tension.
Thankfully my wife fell asleep about 30 minutes into it. “So who ended up doing it?” she asked the next morning with genuine curiosity. “Ehhh, never mind…” I replied.