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 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. 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.
- 1 Plot summary
- 2 Characters in "Cards on the Table"
- 3 Foreword by the author
- 4 Title
- 5 Literary significance and reception
- 6 References or Allusions
- 7 Adaptations
- 8 Publication history
- 9 References
- 10 External links
Mr Shaitana hosts an unusual dinner party, with four sleuths and four people he suspects have murder in their past as the guests. In a veiled statement of accusation, Shaitana lists the ways various people might commit murder based on their occupation. After the meal, he settles the latter four at one bridge table in the main room, and leads the four sleuths to a table in another room. He settles in a chair near the fireplace in the main room. When the sleuths end their game, two of them, Poirot and Colonel Race, in saying good night to their host, find the man dead in his chair, a fine weapon from his own collection in his chest. The two call Superintendent Battle to take over the situation.
Only Poirot knew Shaitana’s plan for the dinner party; he tells Battle, Race and Mrs Ariadne Oliver, the celebrated mystery author. The other four guests wait in a separate room while the police do their work, and remove the body. Battle questions each one by one. Dr Roberts, Mrs Lorrimer, young Anne Meredith, and explorer Major Despard each deny the murder. Poirot rescues the score sheets kept for the four rubbers of the game, which he uses both to mark the passage of time and the character of each player as the evening passed.
The investigation proceeds openly on the connection of each of the four to Shaitana, and quietly in finding if there is a death that could have been murder in their past, seeking motives and psychology for Shaitana's murder. Each sleuth uncovers a death: Battle finds that one client of Dr Roberts and her husband died separately, he of anthrax, she of a blood infection while in Egypt; Colonel Race learns that the botanist Luxmore being guided through the Amazon by Despard died of fever, with rumours he was shot; Mrs Oliver learns that a woman who employed Anne as a companion died of accidental poisoning; while Poirot learns at the end that Mrs Lorrimer poisoned her husband. Colonel Race then leaves the country for his work in the Secret Service. During the investigation, tensions rise among the four guests. Anne is skittish and afraid, even with offers of support from Mrs Oliver and Mrs Lorrimer, an older woman who wants the young woman to be free of accusation. Despard engages a solicitor for himself and for Anne. Dr Roberts lives as before.
Mrs Lorrimer tells Poirot that she killed her husband years ago, that she has a fatal health condition, and then not believably confesses to Shaitana’s murder, to save Anne. As Poirot leaves, Anne comes to visit Mrs Lorrimer. The next morning, Mrs Lorrimer is found dead by Dr Roberts, who makes a dramatic entrance to her home, saying he received a note from Mrs Lorrimer admitting to the murder as part of a suicide note she mailed to the other three guests. He says she is dead of a sleeping drug overdose. Poirot joins Battle at the scene, where Poirot sees the mark of a hypodermic needle in Mrs Lorrimer. The same morning, Anne takes her roommate Rhoda out in a punt in the nearby river, as they await a visit from Despard. Realising another death is possible, Poirot and Battle race to Anne’s cottage, arriving just after Major Despard. Anne intentionally upsets the punt, and both girls fall in the water, neither able to swim. Despard first saves Rhoda then he and Battle bring in Anne. Rhoda survives, but Anne dies.
Gathered at Poirot’s apartment, the survivors of the dinner party plus Rhoda hear the final resolution. Poirot accuses Dr Roberts of murder; he denies it. Poirot introduces a window washer who saw Dr Roberts injecting Mrs Lorrimer. The police found her cause of death to be injected anaesthesia. Roberts killed Shaitana as well. Roberts waited until he was “dummy” in the bridge game and the play of the game held the attention of the other three, as he wandered from the table to get a drink. Further, the doctor had killed Mr Craddock, husband of his patient, by infecting his shaving brush with anthrax during a house call. Then he injected Mrs Craddock during her required anti-typhoid injections prior to her trip to Egypt with the germ that led to her death by a blood infection. Roberts protests then confesses as Superintendent Battle makes clear the strength of the police cases against him. Later explaining the psychology, Poirot reveals that the window washer was an actor, used to elicit that confession.
Poirot learned from Mrs Luxmore, and then from Despard, how the botanist had died. He did have fever but died from an accidental shooting. The Major is exonerated. The police investigation identified the woman Anne killed, out of anger at being found out for petty thievery. Anne meant to kill her roommate; instead, Despard courts Rhoda.
Characters in "Cards on the Table"
The Four Detectives
- Superintendent Battle, a top detective from Scotland Yard who likes to project a professional image of stolidity, with a wooden expression
- Colonel Race, a debonair Secret Service agent, about 50 years old
- 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, bright but showing signs of age
- Mrs Lorrimer, a well-to-do, expert bridge player, long widowed, 63 years old
- Major Despard, a dashing explorer and sport hunter
- Anne Meredith, a pretty young woman, 25 years old
- Rhoda Dawes, Anne's wealthy friend and housemate, lively, direct and polite
- Mrs Luxmore, whose husband died in suspicious circumstances
- Miss Burgess, loyal secretary of Dr Roberts
- Elsie Batt, former parlourmaid of Mrs Craddock, who had been a patient of Dr Roberts
- Sergeant O'Connor, extremely handsome and tall, with a good way of getting stories from women for police investigations
- Mr Shaitana, a collector of all rare things, including murderers; very rich and mysterious (ironically, the name Shaitana means a 'the naughty one' in Hindi and is sometimes used to allude to the devil).
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) 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 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 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.
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.
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 adaptation, written by Nick Dear, differed radically from the source material, introducing the following changes:
- The motivations for the crimes committed are no longer about money but instead about homosexuality.
- 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: Wheeler had been involved in a homosexual relationship with Shaitana and had allowed himself to be photographed with the latter in compromising positions.
- 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.
- 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.
Cards on the Table was adapted for radio by BBC Radio 4, featuring John Moffatt as Poirot.
- 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.
- "put one's cards on the table". Wiktionary definition. Retrieved 18 March 2014.
- 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