Cards on the Table
|Cards on the Table|
Dust-jacket illustration of the first UK edition
|Publisher||Collins Crime Club|
|Publication date||2 November 1936|
|Media type||Print (hardback & paperback)|
|Pages||288 pp (first edition, hardcover)|
|Preceded by||Murder in Mesopotamia|
|Followed by||Murder in the Mews|
Cards on the Table is a detective novel by Agatha Christie and first published in the UK by the Collins Crime Club on 2 November 1936 and in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company the following year. The UK edition retailed at seven shillings and sixpence (7/6) and the US edition at $2.00.
The book features the recurring characters of Hercule Poirot, Colonel Race, Superintendent Battle and the bumbling crime writer Ariadne Oliver, making her first appearance in a Poirot novel (she previously had a role in the Parker Pyne short story The Case of the Discontented Soldier).
- 1 Plot summary
- 2 Characters in "Cards on the Table"
- 3 Literary significance and reception
- 4 References or Allusions
- 5 Film, TV or theatrical adaptations
- 6 Publication history
- 7 International titles
- 8 References
- 9 External links
At an exhibition of snuff boxes Hercule Poirot meets Mr Shaitana, a foreign man who is consistently described as Mephistophelean in his appearance and manner. Shaitana jokes about Poirot's visit to the exhibition, and claims he has a better "collection" which Poirot would enjoy. He arranges a dinner party to show off this collection; Poirot is, however, apprehensive.
Upon arrival at Shaitana's house on the appointed day, Poirot is joined by three other guests: mystery novelist Ariadne Oliver, Scotland Yard's Superintendent Battle, and Colonel Race of His Majesty's Secret Service. Soon four other guests join them: Dr Roberts, a hearty, florid man; Mrs Lorrimer, a dignified widow of late middle age; Major John Despard, a dashing Army man and world traveller recently returned from Africa; and Anne Meredith, a nervous yet pretty young woman. Having brought them all to dinner, Shaitana skilfully manipulates the topic of conversation to possible motives for murder. He makes allusions to crimes being committed with the murderers going free. The mood of the dinner party quickly changes.
Shaitana invites his eight guests to play contract bridge in the adjoining rooms; he as the odd man out, does not play. Roberts, Meredith, Lorrimer, and Despard play in the first room, while Poirot, Oliver, Race, and Battle play in the next; Shaitana settles himself in a chair in the first room. Some time later, Poirot and the others prepare to leave and find that Shaitana has been murdered, stabbed in the chest with a jewelled stiletto. Since none of the detectives left the room while they were playing, the killer must be one of the other four guests. Each guest admits to having left the table at one point or another, either to stoke the fire or drink something. As the stiletto was so sleek and sharp, any of the suspects could have handled it with ease and Shaitana would not have made much noise when being attacked, especially if he was caught off-guard. With very little forensic evidence to go by, the detectives must rely on the testimony of the suspects. Poirot states that the psychology of the murderer will be essential in solving the crime. He takes particular interest in the bridge sheets, claiming that they offer insight into the minds of the suspects. Dr Roberts frequently takes risks as he plays, winning the game more often than not. Anne Meredith writes on both sides of the score card, indicating that, despite being well-dressed, she is acquainted with poverty.
Poirot, Battle, Race, and Oliver decide to find out the past history of the other four invited guests whom they believe had murdered before and gotten away with it.
Dr Roberts was discovered to have had a patient who was obsessed with him, a Mrs Craddock. Despite his secretary's insistence that Dr Roberts always behaved appropriately with his female patients, it is heavily insinuated that he was having an affair with Mrs Craddock. During a house call, Roberts and Mr Craddock had a loud argument, overheard by the maid. Craddock accused Roberts of having an affair with his wife. Roberts denied it, saying Mrs Craddock was hysterical and unstable. Mr Craddock died not long after when he contracted anthrax from an infected shaving brush. This wasn't regarded as suspicious at first because a great deal of shaving brushes imported from other countries were found to be infected with many diseases, including anthrax. After her husband's passing, Mrs Craddock went abroad on vacation, became ill and died during her holiday.
Despard shot a man named Professor Luxmore while acting as a guide during an expedition in South America. The dead man's widow, who had also been on the expedition, claimed that she and Despard fell in love during the trip and that Despard had shot her husband in the heat of an argument. During questioning, Despard admits to shooting the man, but tells a very different story. During their time in the jungle, Despard and the Luxmores succumbed to a devastating fever. In a fit of delirium, the Professor began stumbling towards the river. Despard, fearing the man could drown, aimed his rifle to shoot Luxmore in the leg and prevent him from wandering into the water. Mrs Luxmore, mistakenly believing Despard meant to kill her husband, attempted to grab the rifle from his hands. The gun went off, shooting Luxmore in the back by accident and killing him. Despard and Mrs Luxmore buried him in the jungle and lied to the natives, claiming the man had succumbed to his illness. When later telling this story to the other investigators, Poirot states he believes Despard's version is the truth. Despard is an honest man and, conversely, Mrs Luxmore is the type of woman to exaggerate or romanticise things.
Anne Meredith served as a companion for several families, always earning good references as a friendly, if unremarkable young woman. She was always mild-mannered and performed her duties most capably. A relative of one of her former employers applauds Anne for her work ethic when her charge was such a messy, disorganised woman. Anne's friend Rhoda Dawes pays Mrs Oliver a visit and tells her an interesting story. For a short time, Anne was a companion to an ailing older woman named Mrs Benson. During Anne's time with the family, Mrs Benson suffered a particularly painful bout of her illness. A bottle of medicine was fetched from the cabinet and Mrs Benson drank from it, realising too late it was the wrong bottle. Sometime ago, Anne had had a conversation with Mrs Benson, saying they were running low on hat paint. Mrs Benson said that Anne should pour the remaining hat paint into one of the many spare medicine bottles she had. During her fit, Mrs Benson was given the bottle filled with hat paint and she died from poisoning. Everyone in the family believed it to be an honest mistake and Anne left her post with no suspicion attached.
The detectives find out very little about Mrs Lorrimer's history. Of all the guests at the party, she appears to have the least to hide. Poirot notes that she is the best bridge player out of the group, playing very strategically.
The four sleuths gather and compare notes. While all the guests' backgrounds are suspicious, there is no clear evidence that incriminates any of them for Shaitana's murder. Meanwhile, Poirot sets a trap for Anne Meredith. When she pays him a call at his request, he shows her a table on which many packets of the finest silk stockings are piled up, apparently carelessly and with no regard as to how many pairs there are. Poirot lies to her, claiming that he needs a woman's opinion on which items would make good Christmas presents for his fictitious nieces. After Anne makes her gift suggestions and leaves, Poirot discovers that two pairs of the stockings are missing, confirming his suspicion that Anne is a thief. Due to her impoverished upbringing, Anne began to covet the finer things in life and, in Poirot's mind, began stealing money and trinkets from her employers. This went undetected when she served as companion to the disorganised woman; it was assumed that whatever Anne had stolen had simply been lost. Mrs Benson, meanwhile, was an organised woman and Poirot believes that Anne killed her when her thievery had been discovered.
Mrs Lorrimer contacts Poirot with surprising news. She confesses to Shaitana's murder and explains that she took the stiletto impulsively after he mentioned poison as a "woman's weapon" at dinner. Shaitana was right about her, she says; twenty years earlier, she killed her husband. She does not go into further detail about the crime. Poirot objects that Mrs Lorrimer's explanation for Shaitana's killing does not match her unflappable personality. He believes she would only commit murder after much careful planning and consideration. This spur-of-the-moment crime does not fit her psychology at all, considering how successful her last murder was. After Poirot rejects her confession, Mrs Lorrimer reveals that Anne Meredith is Shaitana's killer. During a lull in the bridge game, Mrs Lorrimer happened to look up and saw Anne bending over Shaitana's chair, her hand at his chest. She begs Poirot to let her take the blame for the crime: she is ill and will die soon anyway, and Anne will be free to live her young life.
Poirot is confused by this confession, and fears that there may be more trouble to come. His guess proves correct when Mrs Lorrimer is found dead the next morning, having apparently committed suicide after writing three copies of a letter confessing to the murder of Shaitana and sending them to the other suspects. Dr Roberts rushes to Mrs Lorrimer's house upon receiving the letter, but is unsuccessful in his attempt to save her. A conversation with Mrs Lorrimer's maid reveals that Anne Meredith paid a visit the night before. Poirot and Battle race to Anne Meredith's cottage, fearing that she might strike again. Despard, who has been visiting Anne and Rhoda, both of whom fancy him, is a few steps ahead of Poirot and Battle. At Anne's suggestion, Anne and Rhoda are on a boat in a nearby river. Poirot and Battle see Anne suddenly push her friend into the water. Alas for Anne, when she knocks Rhoda into the water, she also falls in herself. Despard rescues Rhoda; Anne drowns.
Poirot gathers Oliver, Battle, Despard, Rhoda, and Roberts at his home, where he makes several surprising announcements: neither Anne Meredith nor Mrs Lorrimer were Shaitana's killer. When Mrs Lorrimer saw Anne standing over the body, she assumed she had witnessed the crime. In reality, Anne had just discovered Mr. Shaitana had been stabbed by the true murderer. Not wanting to bring suspicion upon herself, Anne lied about Mr. Shaitana being dead and returned to her seat. This led to Mrs Lorrimer's mistaken confession to Poirot, hoping to take the blame for the crime.
The true murderer of both Shaitana and Mrs. Lorrimer is Dr Roberts. Fearing that the investigation was closing in, he wrote the three copies of Mrs Lorrimer's false suicide note, mailing a copy to himself. He was able to imitate her handwriting since she was his bridge partner on the night of the murder. When he arrived at Mrs Lorrimer's house, she was not dead, but asleep. After ordering the frantic maid out of the room, he injected Mrs Lorrimer with a syringe full of a lethal dose of anaesthetic.
Dr Roberts rejects the implication, saying there is no evidence that proves it. Poirot brings in a window cleaner who happened to be working outside Mrs. Lorrimer's flat earlier that morning. He testifies that he saw Dr Roberts inject the sleeping Mrs. Lorrimer just as Poirot claims. Battle chimes in that they can bolster any prosecution with the true story of the deaths of the Craddocks. Roberts confesses. After being arrested, Poirot reveals that the window cleaner is actually an actor. There was no witness to Mrs. Lorrimer's murder. It was a trick to get Roberts to confess, as there truly was little to no evidence against him.
When asked how he knew Roberts was the killer, Poirot draws everyone's attention to the bridge sheets. On the night of the murder, a grand slam occurred during the third rubber. The grand slam came into play by way of Roberts. This was another instance of him taking dangerous risks. Due to the rarity of a grand slam in bridge, this intense play would keep the others focused on the game — Roberts was dummy at that point and would be up from the table — while he used the opportunity to stab Shaitana.
Characters in "Cards on the Table"
The Four Detectives
- Superintendent Battle, a stolid officer from Scotland Yard
- Colonel Race, a debonair Secret Service agent, also featured as a character in Death on the Nile
- Ariadne Oliver, writer of popular detective fiction, very reminiscent of Agatha.
- Hercule Poirot, the famed private detective
The Four Suspects
- Dr Roberts, a successful physician
- Mrs Lorrimer, a well-to-do, expert bridge player
- Major Despard, a dashing explorer
- Anne Meredith, a pretty young woman
- Rhoda Dawes, Anne's wealthy friend and housemate
- Mrs Luxmore, whose husband died in suspicious circumstances
- Miss Burgess, loyal secretary of Dr Roberts
- Elsie Batt, former parlourmaid of a Mrs Craddock, a patient of Dr Roberts
- Sergeant O'Connor, extremely handsome and tall
- Mr Shaitana, a collector of all rare things, including murderers; very rich and mysterious
The novel also contains a foreword by the author, in which the Author warns the reader that the novel has only four suspects and the deduction must be purely psychological. Further, it is also mentioned (in jest of course) that this was one of the favourite cases of Hercule Poirot, while his friend Capt. Hastings found it very dull. The author then wonders with whom will her readers agree.
Literary significance and reception
The Times Literary Supplement (14 November 1936) stated favourably in its review by Caldwell Harpur that, "Poirot scores again, scores in two senses, for this appears to be the authoress's twentieth novel. One of the minor characters in it is an authoress of thirty-two detective novels; she describes in several amusing pages the difficulties of her craft. Certainly Mrs. Christie ought to know them, but she continues to surmount them so well that another score of novels may be hoped for."
In The New York Times Book Review (28 February 1937), Isaac Anderson concluded, "The story is ingenious, but there are one or two loose ends left dangling when his explanation is finished. Cards on the Table is not quite up to Agatha Christie's best work.".
In The Observer's issue of 15 November 1936, in a review section entitled Supreme de Poirot, "Torquemada" (Edward Powys Mathers) said, "I was not the only one who thought that Poirot or his creator had gone a little off the rails in Murder in Mesopotamia, which means that others beside myself will rejoice at Mrs. Christie's brilliant come-back in Cards on the Table. This author, unlike many who have achieved fame and success for qualities quite other than literary ones, has studied to improve in every branch of writing in each of her detective stories. The result is that, in her latest book, we note qualities of humour, composition and subtlety which we would have thought beyond the reach of the writer of The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Of course, the gift of bamboozlement, with which Agatha Christie was born, remains, and has never been seen to better advantage than in this close, diverting and largely analytical problem. Cards on the Table is perhaps the most perfect of the little grey cells".
The Scotsman (19 November 1936) wrote: "There was a time when M. Hercule Poirot thought of going into retirement in order to devote himself to the cultivation of marrows. Fortunately, the threat was never carried out; and in Mrs Christie's latest novel the little Belgian detective is in very good form indeed. The plot is simple but brilliant." The review concluded by saying, "Mrs Oliver, the novelist, is one of Mrs Christie's most amusing creations.
E.R. Punshon of The Guardian reviewed the novel in 20 November 1936 issue when he began, "Even in a tale of crime and mystery humour is often of high value." He went on to say that, "In this respect…Agatha Christie shows herself once again…a model of detective tales. There are delightful passages when Poirot anxiously compares other moustaches with his own and awards his own the palm, when his lips are forced to utter the unaccustomed words 'I was in error', when Mrs. Oliver, famous authoress, discourses upon art and craft of fiction. But all that never obscures the main theme as Poirot gradually unravels the puzzle of which four bridge-players had murdered their host." He concluded, "Largely by a careful study of the score, Poirot is able to reach the truth, and Mrs Christie sees to it that he does so by way of springing upon the reader one shattering surprise after another."
Robert Barnard: "On the very top rung. Special opportunities for bridge enthusiasts, but others can play. Superb tight construction and excellent clueing. Will be read as long as hard-faced ladies gather for cards."
Charles Osborne: "Cards on the Table is one of Agatha Christie's finest and most original pieces of crime fiction: even though the murderer is, as the author has promised, one of the four bridge players, the ending is positively brilliant and a complete surprise." 
References or Allusions
References to other works
- In chapter 2, Anne Meredith, when introduced to Poirot, already knows of him from The A.B.C. Murders.
- In chapter 2, Anne Meredith tells Poirot that she knows Ariadne Oliver from her book The Body in the Library, which was the title of a book later written by Agatha Christie and published in 1942.
- In chapter 15, Major Despard asks Poirot if he has ever had a failure. Poirot replies that the last time was 28 years ago, probably a reference to The Chocolate Box, a short story from Poirot's Early Cases.
- In chapter 23, Poirot offers to show one of the characters a knife given to him by the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits. In describing this knife, he reveals the solution to Murder on the Orient Express: a most unusual example of Christie's occasional references to Poirot's former cases acting as a spoiler.
References in other works
- In The A.B.C. Murders, Poirot mentions to Hastings his vision of an ideal case, which is the basis for Cards on the Table.
- Major Despard and Rhoda, now married, reappear in The Pale Horse (1961). The Major's forename has metamorphosed from "John" in Cards on the Table to "Hugh" in The Pale Horse, not the first time Christie apparently forgot the name of a character.
Film, TV or theatrical adaptations
1981 Stage Adaptation
The book was adapted as a stage play in 1981, although without Poirot. It opened at London's Vaudeville Theatre on 9 December 1981 with Gordon Jackson as Superintendent Battle and a cast that included Derek Waring, Belinda Carroll, Mary Tamm and Patricia Driscoll. This followed Christie's trend of adapting Poirot novels as plays, but without Poirot as a detective, as she did not feel that any actor could portray him successfully.
Agatha Christie's Poirot
ITV adapted the story into a television programme in the series Agatha Christie's Poirot starring David Suchet as Hercule Poirot and Zoë Wanamaker as Ariadne Oliver, which aired in the US on A&E Network in December 2005 and, in the UK, on ITV1 in March 2006. The portrayal strayed from the source material in the following respects:
- Superintendent Battle (in the novel) is replaced by Superintendent Wheeler, and Colonel Race by Colonel Hughes.
- One of the sleuths, Superintendent Wheeler himself, has a shady past in the adaptation.
- Dr Roberts is gay and has an affair with Mr Craddock. He murders the wife and continues the relationship with her husband.
- Mrs Lorrimer is shown to be the mother of Anne Meredith. Mrs Lorrimer is not murdered by Dr Roberts.
- Rhoda Dawes is the real killer of Mrs Benson and causes a rowing accident in which Anne Meredith falls into the water. In the novel, it is the other way around. Major Despard takes a fancy to Anne Meredith in the adaptation, whereas in the novel, he falls in love with Rhoda and it is Anne who dies of drowning.
- The motivations for the crimes committed are no longer about money but about homosexuality, a subject that would have been taboo in detective fiction in the 1930s.
- Mr Shaitana was a drug-user and tired of life. He knew he would be killed by one of his guests so he took sleeping pills to fall asleep and feel nothing when being killed.
- 1936, Collins Crime Club (London), 2 November 1936, Hardcover, 288 pp
- 1937, Dodd Mead and Company (New York), 1937, Hardcover, 262 pp
- 1949, Dell Books (New York), Paperback, (Dell number 293 [mapback]), 190 pp
- 1951, Pan Books, Paperback, (Pan number 176), 186 pp
- 1957, Fontana Books (Imprint of HarperCollins), Paperback, 192 pp
- 1968, Greenway edition of collected works (William Collins), Hardcover, 253 pp
- 1968, Greenway edition of collected works (Dodd Mead), Hardcover, 253 pp
- 1969, Ulverscroft Large-print Edition, Hardcover, 343 pp, ISBN 0-85456-695-3
- 2007, Poirot Facsimile Edition (Facsimile of 1936 UK First Edition), HarperCollins, 5 March 2007, Hardback, ISBN 0-00-723445-7
The book was first serialised in the US in The Saturday Evening Post in six instalments from 2 May (Volume 208, Number 44) to 6 June 1936 (Volume 208, Number 49) with illustrations by Orison MacPherson.
- Arabic: الورق على الطاولة (Cards on the Table)
- Czech: Karty na stole (Cards on the Table)
- Dutch: Poirot speelt bridge (Poirot Plays Bridge)
- Estonian Kaardid laual(Cards on the Table), Kaardid lauale(Cards onto the Table)
- Finnish: Kortit pöydällä (Cards on the Table)
- French: Cartes sur table (Cards on the Table)
- German: "Mit offenen Karten" (Play With An Open Hand) (since 1954), first edition in 1938: Karten auf den Tisch (Cards On The Table)
- Hungarian: Hercule Poirot ismét munkában (Hercule Poirot at Work Again), Nyílt kártyákkal (Cards on the Table)
- Japanese: ひらいたトランプ (Open Cards)
- Indonesian: Kartu-kartu di Meja (Cards on the Table)
- Italian: Carte in tavola (Cards on the Table)
- Macedonian: Отворени карти (Open cards, Cards on the Table)
- Norwegian: Kortene på bordet (Cards on the Table)
- Polish: Karty na stół (Cards on the Table)
- Portuguese: Cartas na Mesa (Cards on the Table)
- Romanian: Cu cărţile pe masă (With Cards on the Table)
- Russian: Карты на стол (=Karty na stol, Cards on the Table), Карты на столе (=Karty na stole, Cards on the Table)
- Spanish: Cartas Sobre la Mesa (Cards on the Table)
- Turkish: Briç masasında cimayet (Murder in the Bridge table)
- Swedish: Korten på Bordet (Cards on the Table)
- The Observer, 1 November 1936 (p. 6)
- John Cooper and B.A. Pyke. Detective Fiction – the collector's guide: Second Edition (Pages 82 and 86) Scholar Press. 1994; ISBN 0-85967-991-8
- American Tribute to Agatha Christie
- Chris Peers, Ralph Spurrier and Jamie Sturgeon. Collins Crime Club – A checklist of First Editions. Dragonby Press (Second Edition) March 1999 (p. 15)
- The Times Literary Supplement, 14 November 1936 (p. 927)
- The New York Times Book Review, 28 February 1937 (p. 23)
- The Observer, 15 November 1936 (p. 8)
- The Scotsman, 19 November 1936 (p. 15)
- The Guardian, 20 November 1936 (p. 7)
- Barnard, Robert. A Talent to Deceive – an appreciation of Agatha Christie – Revised edition (pp. 189–190). Fontana Books, 1990; ISBN 0-00-637474-3
- Osborne, Charles (1982): The Life and Crimes of Agatha Christie,Collins (London)
- Page 188 (at the end of Chapter 23) of the 1940s mapback edition: "A knife, mademoiselle, with which twelve people once stabbed a man. It was given me as a souvenir by the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons Lits."
- Programme for Cards on the Table: Theatreprint, No. 80, May 1982
- Cards on the Table at the official Agatha Christie website
- Cards on the Table (2005) at the Internet Movie Database