Cards on the Table
Dust-jacket illustration of the first UK edition
|Publisher||Collins Crime Club|
|2 November 1936|
|Media type||Print (hardback & paperback)|
|Pages||288 (first edition, hardcover)|
|Preceded by||Murder in Mesopotamia|
|Followed by||Murder in the Mews|
Cards on the Table is a detective novel by British writer Agatha Christie, 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. The four detectives and four possible suspects play bridge after dinner with Mr Shaitana. At the end of the evening, Mr Shaitana is discovered murdered. Identifying the murderer, per Mrs Christie, depends wholly on discerning the psychology of the suspects.
This novel was well received at first printing and in later reviews. It was noted for its humour, for the subtlety of the writing, good clueing and tight writing, showing continuing improvement in the author's writing style in this, her twentieth novel. One later reviewer considered this in the top rung of her novels, and another found it to be most original, with a brilliant surprise ending.
The mysterious Mr Shaitana hosts an unusual dinner party. His guests include four sleuths – Hercule Poirot, secret agent Colonel Race, mystery writer Mrs Ariadne Oliver, and Superintendent Battle of Scotland Yard – and four people suspected to have murdered in their past – Dr Roberts, Mrs Lorrimer, young Anne Meredith, and Major Despard. After dinner, the guests retire to play bridge – the sleuths play in one room, while the others play in another room that Shaitana relaxes in. After the sleuths end their game, Poirot and Race find that Shaitana had been stabbed in the chest, with a weapon from his collection. As he made a veiled accusation about how murder could be committed within one's profession, the sleuths suspect one of the other four guests as his murderer. Each denies this when interviewed. To help his investigation, Poirot takes the score sheets they made in their bridge game.
Seeking the motive and psychology behind the murder, each sleuth finds out about a death connected to each suspect – a female client of Dr Roberts, Mrs Craddock, lost her husband to anthrax, while she herself died afterwards from a blood infection while abroad; the botanist Luxmore died suddenly from a fever, while Despard guided him through the Amazon; an elderly woman died of accidental poisoning when Meredith worked for her; the husband of Mrs Lorrimer was poisoned. During the investigation, tensions among the suspects rise, with Meredith becoming skittish and afraid, despite offers of support from Oliver, Lorrimer and Despard. Sometime later, Poirot visits Lorrimer, who reveals to him that she killed her husband and that she has a terminal condition. She then confesses to the murder, but Poirot refuses to believe this, suspecting she wishes to protect Meredith. The next morning, Lorrimer is found dead by Roberts – she committed suicide, leaving a note admitting to the murder.
That same morning, Meredith decides to take her flatmate, Rhoda Dawes, for a punt in the nearby river, as they await a visit from Despard. Suspecting another death, Poirot and Battle race to her cottage, arriving after Despard to watch Meredith attempt to drown Dawes. After she falls in, both are rescued; Dawes survives, but Meredith dies in the aftermath. Poirot invites Dawes, the sleuths, and the surviving suspects of the dinner party to his apartment, whereupon he accuses Dr Roberts of killing the Craddocks – the husband's shaving brush was contaminated with anthrax during a house call, while Mrs Craddock was given a viral infection during her anti-typhoid inoculations for her trip abroad. Shaitana was killed because Roberts believed his words at dinner hinted to his crime, while Lorrimer was murdered by him to create a scapegoat – she died from a fatal injection of anaesthesia. Although Roberts protests, he eventually confesses when Poirot reveals a window washer who witnessed Lorrimer's murder and Battle makes clear that the police have a strong case against him.
Poirot later explains that his theory was based upon Roberts' recollection of the bridge game – he could remember little of it, except for the grand slam that he made, but could remember much about the layout of the room they played in. This was in direct contrast to what the other suspects recalled. In addition, Lorrimer's body was found to have the mark of a hypodermic needle. To elicit a confession from Roberts, Poirot hired an actor to pose as the witness he provided. A police investigation later reveals that Meredith killed her employer when she found out about her petty thievery and that she intended to murder Dawes, while Poirot reveals that Despard did not kill Luxmore – both he and Luxmore's wife revealed that the botanist contracted fever, but died from a shooting accident. With the murder solved, Despard courts Rhoda.
- Hercule Poirot – Belgian private detective. A guest at Shaitana's dinner party.
- Ariadne Oliver – Crime fiction writer, and Poirot's friend. A guest at Shaitana's dinner party.
- Superintendent Battle – A top detective from Scotland Yard who likes to project a professional image of stolidity, with a wooden expression. A guest at Shaitana's dinner party.
- Colonel Race – A Secret Service agent. A guest at Shaitana's dinner party.
- Sergeant O'Connor – Handsome and tall police sergeant. Known for getting facts from women for police investigations, earning him the nickname of "the Maid's Blessing".
- Mr Shaitana – The first victim of the case. A wealthy, but mysterious man, known to be a collector of rare objects. Has a fascination with crime, primarily focused on murders and the people who commit them. In Hindi, his name means 'the naughty one' (The translation is noted to allude to the devil, being a cognate of Satan).
- Dr Geoffrey Roberts – The killer of the case. A successful physician, who is bright but showing signs of age. A guest at Shaitana's dinner party, whom alludes to Roberts having killed one of his patients; goaded to kill his host in order to expose his crimes.
- Mrs Lorrimer – The second victim of the case. A widow and expert bridge player. A guest at Shaitana's dinner party, whom alludes to Lorrimer having killed her husband.
- Major John Despard – An explorer and sport hunter. A guest at Shaitana's dinner party, whom alludes to Despard having killed someone on an expedition in a shooting accident.
- Anne Meredith – A young woman, formerly a companion to several elderly women. A guest at Shaitana's dinner party, whom alludes to Meredith having killed one of her employers. Dies from drowning during the case.
- Rhoda Dawes – Anne's wealthy friend and flatmate. A lively, direct, and polite young woman.
- Mrs Luxmore – A widow, whose husband died in suspicious circumstances during an expedition.
- Miss Burgess – Loyal secretary of Dr Roberts.
- Elsie Batt – Former parlourmaid to Mrs Craddock, a patient of Dr Roberts until her death from illness while abroad.
The novel 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 Captain Hastings found it very dull. The author then wonders with whom will her readers agree.
Superintendent Battle is in charge of the investigation by the police. He agrees to work with the three other sleuths, unusual for the police, sharing all facts equally. He says in Chapter 19, "Cards on the table, that's the motto for this business." There is a theme of playing cards in the plot, as the potential murderers played a card game, contract bridge, as the murder was committed, and the manner of playing bridge (level of skill, risk taking) is part of Poirot's way to study the psychology of each individual.
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) wrote, "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 the 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 8, Hercule Poirot mentions two of Ariadne Oliver's books, The Lotus Murder and The Clue of The Candle Wax, which both revolved around victims planning the crime which happened, and at the last minute "the third person steps in and turns deception into reality". This pattern already appeared in The Murder on the Links.
- 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 Rhoda Dawes 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.
- Mrs Ariadne Oliver previously had a role in the Parker Pyne short story The Case of the Discontented Soldier, but this is her first time in a novel featuring Hercule Poirot.
- In Death on the Nile, Poirot meets Colonel Race again at Wâdi Halfa, and the narrator references their first meeting in Cards on the Table: "Hercule Poirot had come across Colonel Race a year previously in London. They had been fellow guests at a very strange dinner party – a dinner party that had ended in death for that strange man, their host."
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.
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. While the adaptation, written by Nick Dear, retains some elements of the plot, including the method of the murder and who committed it, the episode was only loosely based on the novel. The changes that were made included:
- Both Colonel Race and Superintendent Battle are replaced by new characters – Colonel Hughes and Superintendent Wheeler. The latter is made an additional suspect in the murder, in that Poirot learns that he had a shady involvement with Shaitana: he had been in a homosexual relationship with him and allowed himself to be photographed in compromising positions. Wheeler breaks into Shaitana's house, a few days later, to recover the photographs, but fails to find them; his knowledge of Shaitana's nationality gives away his connection to the victim, and he later has the photographs returned to him by Poirot, who retrieved them from a photography studio.
- Shaitana is found to have been drugged with sleeping pills, before being murdered, leading to a belief the murder was planned and not on impulse. Poirot later proves this to be incorrect, revealing that Shaitana had told him in a cryptic manner that he was a drug-user and was tired of life. The glass he was holding that contained traces of the drug, had only his fingerprints (apart from Wheeler's), thus Poirot points out that he had drugged himself, knowing he would be murdered, in order to fall asleep and thus feel nothing when he was killed.
- Dr Roberts' motive for the murder is changed. In the adaptation, he is gay and is involved in a homosexual affair with Mr Craddock, his usual bridge partner. Mrs Craddock found out what he had done and was overheard arguing about it and threatening to have Roberts blackballed. He thus murdered her by contaminating the needle he was using to inoculate her for her trip to Egypt, in order to continue his affair. Poirot exposes him with a bluff that Wheeler's photographs are evidence of his murder of Mrs Craddock. In addition, Roberts commits only one murder; he does not murder Mr Craddock nor Mrs Lorrimer in the adaptation.
- Mrs Lorrimer has no fatal heart condition when she confesses to Poirot her crime of murdering her husband; her second husband, whom she desired to be with and thus was the motive for her murder, died a year after her crime from a heart attack. Furthermore, her motivation for protecting Anne Meredith is strengthened in the adaptation, in that she is her daughter, who ran away after witnessing her murdering her first husband and Meredith's father.
- Rhoda Dawes is a close school friend of Anne Meredith, and the two women live together in a cottage. Anne's employer was Rhoda's aunt, whom Rhoda murdered after she discovered that her friend had been caught in the act of stealing from her aunt; Rhoda constantly reminded Anne of this death while she lived with her, and tries to dissuade her from taking the affections of Major Despard. She eventually attempts to murder her friend when they take a punt; while Despard arrives in time to save Anne, Rhoda drowns after she is pulled into the water, before he can save her – much the opposite of what happens in the novel.
Cards on the Table was adapted for radio by BBC Radio 4, featuring John Moffatt as Hercule Poirot, Donald Sinden as Colonel Johnny Race, and Stephanie Cole as Ariadne Oliver. This adaptation was generally faithful to the plot of the novel.
- 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.
- The Observer, 1 November 1936 (p. 6)
- Cooper, John; Pyke, BA (1994). Detective Fiction – the collector's guide (Second ed.). Scholar Press. pp. 82, 86. ISBN 0-85967-991-8.
- "American Tribute to Agatha Christie". Retrieved 2 December 2013.
- Peers, Chris; Spurrier, Ralph; Sturgeon, Jamie (March 1999). Collins Crime Club – A checklist of First Editions (Second ed.). Dragonby Press. 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 (1990). A Talent to Deceive – an appreciation of Agatha Christie (Revised ed.). Fontana Books. pp. 189–190. 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