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.
14 thoughts on “Cards on the Table – Agatha Christie (1936)”
With all respect, Ben, I think the book could have never lived up to your expectations. As your review began, I muttered, “Oh-oh!” because you were describing the book that you or Carr would have written. It could have never lived up to that because that’s not the book she wrote.
I’m glad that at least you enjoyed the ending and that you are finding Christie’s that fool you. And now I’m excited because I’m about to start Death in Five Boxes, which I hear is highly entertaining but doesn’t play fair.
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Yes, my expectations were definitely too high on this one. For some reason I had decided this would be the Christie book. Walking into a book with an expectation like that is never fair.
Death in Five Boxes is a highly entertaining read, although it falls flat in the end. I'll be posting a review in a week or two.
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What I particularly didn’t get on with where Cards on the Table is concerned was the promise of a purely psychological detective story which — as you rightly say — could well end up pointing the finger at anyone. And how they catch the guilty party in the end just…argh, I hated that. Hated it.
Death in Five Boxesfor my money, does the same essential idea much better, but with a baffling piece of unfair play that would have been so easily avoided. And Case for Three Detectives does the “multiple sleuths investigate the same crime” thing much better, complete with Hercule Poirot as well 🙂 So whichever aspect of this appeals to someone, I’m always keen to point out that far better of the same exists.
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This has got me very excited to read this actually Ben. Having just finished After the Funeral and having Christie spin my head with a gorgeous solution I am all about getting into Christie works knowing they have a great ending!
I just ordered a copy of After the Funeral so I can read it as one of my next Christies. I had a copy, but most of the cover art had been removed by a sticker and I wanted a decent edition given how good Brad says it is. I’m looking forward to your review, although I may have to skim it since I plan to read this one soon.
Speaking of good Christie’s, I started A Murder is Announced today and so far it has been a dream come true. She certainly knows how to write a village mystery.
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Feel free to skip, I highly recommend it, as it’s good to get the full effect! (Not a way to sell my blog I realise, but look forward to your comments at a later date).
I don’t have a copy of A Murder is Announced but will bag that now!
I’ve always had the suspicion (nothing to back it up) that Christie wanted to challenge herself and decided, maybe while playing bridge, to write a novel where you know one of the four bridge players is the murderer. Could she make it engrossing and surprising with so few suspects? I remember when I read it I figured she HAD to have a surprise twist, and I decided Colonel Race would turn out to be the murderer (I’d read Christies with Battle and Mrs. Oliver but not with Race). Considering the restrictions she put on herself, she did an admirable job—I glanced through it this weekend and was impressed—but… well, it’s sort of like writing The Best Novel Ever That Doesn’t Use the Letter -e.
A MURDERIS ANNOUNCED is one of my favorite Christies, probably because it was one of my first—it’s a great premise and a great read, and when I got to the solution I thought “How could I miss that? I spotted the big clue and still missed it!” [POTENTIAL SEMI-SPOILER] Later I read a couple of her much-praised earlier novels and solved them right away because they had a similar trick. It probably depends what order you read them in. [/END SPOILER]
Reading AFTER THE FUNERAL, I was a bit “meh” until the solution, which made me go around the room picking up pieces of exploded head. Christie had set a trap, and I fell right into it. It’s not one of her best books, but well worth reading.
I like the theory about the challenge. Even though Christie played with a limited field of suspects she certainly shocked me multiple times at the end. I love how authors like Christie and Carr can limit themselves to such a small cast and still manage to surprise you with the culprit.
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Thanks for the review – I very much enjoyed this title, and I agree that the misdirection and final twist were especially strong. 😁 From my vague memory of reading this novel, I seemed to think that the set-up and the solution as to why nobody spotted the crime being enacted was not impressive, and your review appears to have confirmed my hazy recollection.
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