Three Grand Dames of Mystery: “Cards on the Table” by Agatha Christie


cards-on-the-table1  In Agatha Christie’s Cards on the Table, Mr. Shaitana has an unusual hobby. He collects murderers. But not just any murderers. Only those who get away with murder without anyone else’s realizing a murder has been committed will due. To impress Poirot, Mr. Shaitana sets up a dinner party to which he invites four types of sleuths and four different murderers. At the conclusion of dinner, Mr. Shaitana seats the four murderers down for bridge in one room and the four detectives in another, returning to sleep in the chair by the fire in the room with the murderers. At the end of the evening, Poirot returns to find Mr. Shaitana stabbed in the heart, dead.

Thus begins Hercule Poirot’s favorite case, what is widely considered to be Agatha Christie’s best locked room murder, in which he must investigate using only his “little gray cells” and “the eyes of the brain.” He must delve into his suspects’ past and psychology to figure out who has a secret crime to hide, since Mr. Shaitana might have been wrong that all four have gotten away with murder, and who has the psychology to have committed this particular murder.

Poirot actually described this exact set-up earlier that year when discussing his ideal mystery to investigate with Captain Hastings in The ABC Murders. While Hastings wanted an exciting murder with glamour and beautiful ladies in distress, Poirot described the exact scenario of this book.

One especially memorable elements of this book is the introduction of Mrs. Ariadne Oliver, the famous mystery writer who appears in six Hercule Poirot books and one book of her own. She serves as Christie’s alter-ego, her way of inserting herself and comments about her own role as writer of detective fiction into the book. A large lady who loves to experiment with her hair, eat apples, and promote her feminist values (she’s fond of saying, “If a woman were head of Scotland Yard. . . .”), Mrs. Oliver provides a touch of comic relief to what could risk becoming too serious a book. She complains about the public that expects her to be right on every detail of law and science, such as having once made a blowpipe one foot long instead of six feet long, an inside reference to Christie’s prior such mistake in Death in the Clouds. Mrs. Oliver also laments the fact that she made her detective a Finn, that she gets too many letters from people in Finland who point out things that a fellow Finn would never do. People don’t seem to read as much in Romania or Bulgaria, so she should have made her hero a Bulgar. It would have saved her life a lot of aggravation.

Hugh Fraser narrates this book’s audio version, bringing to life his subject matter as he performs it.

Cards on the Table is a really fine example of how to write a locked room mystery. Agatha Christie is said to have become inspired to write mysteries after reading Gaston Leroux’s The Mystery of the Yellow Room, an early example of a locked room mystery in which the suspects are all together in a confined area with the victim. This is one case where the pupil far outperforms her mentor, with Cards on the Table possibly serving as the best and most famous example of this subgenre of mystery fiction. I give the book five stars!

To purchase this book for yourself, click here on Amazon.


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