Reflections on Christie’s Cards on the Table (1936)

N.B. SPOILER ALERT – There are a few spoilers about And Then There Were None in the second paragraph, as well as one mild spoiler about Cards on the Table. However, since this is not a normal review there is no plot summary and generally is probably best read after you have read the book itself.

Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item: Playing Cards

Cards on the Table

A brief survey of the internet shows this to be a well-loved read, featuring in favourite Christie novels lists by Martin Edwards and on 6 of those collected by Curtis Evans at The Passing Tramp. Though I don’t think it has the same celebrity status as some of Christie’s other titles such as Murder on the Orient Express (1934) or And Then There Were None (1939). Then again this may be due to the fact it hasn’t been made into an epic blockbuster. Then again a murder which occurs during a game of bridge may not have the same tension factor as a serial killer bumping people off on an island. Or does it?

And Then There Were None and Cards on the Table

I wanted to begin my post by looking at just that. Or rather the similarities which crop up between Cards on the Table and And Then There Were None. Both texts have a number of characters (10 in And Then There Were None and 4 in Cards on the Table) who are culpable in some way of ending another person’s life, yet are beyond the reach of the law. The morally dubious backgrounds of such characters also means that it is harder to determine the one current murderer, which is voiced in the preface to Cards on the Table: ‘There are only four starters and any one of them, given the right circumstances, might have committed the crime.’ Moreover, like in Cards on the Table, in And Then There Were None, the murder suspects are ‘widely divergent types’ and their motives and means of ending the lives of others vary considerably. In some ways a parallel can be made between Anne Meredith and Vera Claythorne as both of these characters committed their first murders out of a desire for a comfortable living, (Vera murdered her charge so her beau could inherit the family money and then marry her and Anne murdered her employer because they had caught her stealing from them,) and their second ones (well attempted second one in the case of Anne) is borne out of fear, fear in Anne’s case of her past coming out, whilst Vera kills out of fear that Philip Lombard is the murderer on the island. There are also some similarities between Lombard and Major Despard, as they are both explorers who love living dangerously. They are also both involved in romance subplots, though this ends fatally for Lombard.

Cards on the Table 2

A Close Up on Mr Shaitana

Introductions

Though he does not last for long in this book, Mr Shaitana is a memorable victim, which the narrative itself corroborates: ‘The whole of Mr Shaitana’s person caught the eye – it was designed to do so. He deliberately attempted a Mephistophelian effect.’ If you didn’t get the idea he was meant to be a sinister character from the Doctor Faustus allusion then it becomes even more obvious when it is said that ‘he was a man of whom nearly everybody was a little afraid.’ Moreover, this fear people have of him is hard to pin down and quantify, giving him an additional eerie quality. Like many victims in Golden Age detective fiction, such as Jonas Wright in Clyde B. Clason’s Dragon’s Cave (1940) who collected weaponry, Mr Shaitana also is a collector of sorts. He is a collector of people in this case, people who have committed murder and have gone undetected…

Cards on the Table 3

Shaitana and Hercule Poirot

During my re-reading of this book it came more and more apparent to me that Mr Shaitana and Hercule Poirot can be read as doubles (in Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde kind of way maybe?) This begins with their physical description as we are told that Mr Shaitana has ‘a fine moustache – a very fine moustache – the only moustache in London, perhaps, that could compete with that of M. Hercule Poirot.’ Furthermore, they both come from outside of the UK and as such as are sometimes treated to unkind and inaccurate assumptions about themselves, with the word ‘mountebank’ being used to describe both of them (though not in this particular book for Poirot). Additionally in this book Poirot describes Mr Shaitana’s mind as ‘tortuous’ and at the denouement of the story Poirot’s mind is similarly named. And this is perhaps where the two character begin to diverge, as tortuous can refer to complexity, but also to deviousness. Both characters employ similar skills yet for different ends. Mr Shaitana is said to be:

‘very quick – very sensitive to expression. It amuses him to experiment – to probe gently in the course of apparently aimless conversation – he is alert to notice a wince, a reservation, a desire to turn the conversation.’

Moreover it is said that ‘he’d only got to hint that he knew everything – and they’d start telling him a lot of things that perhaps he didn’t know.’ What struck me about both these quotes was that the psychological skills and tools mentioned in them are also utilised frequently by Poirot himself, which I felt added a new complexion to the detecting role, that the skills used can easily become abused. At their hearts though Mr Shaitana and Hercule Poirot are different people as Shaitana glorifies the idea of the murderer as ‘an artist,’ whilst Poirot never forgets the moral dimension of what the murderer has done, to Poirot they are always ‘a murderer!’ Finally when I first read Cards on the Table I initially thought Mr Shaitana was to become Poirot’s adversary as the early narrative does present him as a possible challenge or threat. It is therefore deliciously ironic when pages later he becomes the book’s central victim.

Cards on the Table 4

The Elephant in the Room

A topic which often comes up when this book is discussed is whether Mr Shaitana is portrayed in a racist manner. With comments such as these it does make you wonder:

‘Every healthy Englishman who saw him longed earnestly and fervently to kick him!’

‘There’s that damned Dago…’

‘Whether Mr Shaitana was an Argentine, or a Portuguese, or a Greek, or some nationality rightly despised by the insular Briton nobody knew’.

‘Because he was the sort of Dago who needed kicking badly.’

Of course without resurrecting Christie herself and asking why she presented her characters the way she did one can only conjecture what she was trying to do, but for me I don’t think the case of Mr Shaitana is straight forward or clear cut. There is more going on with Mr Shaitana than is first seen. For instance I think when Christie includes comments such as those mentioned above she is often critiquing the speaker of those comments, those ‘insular Britons,’ and revealing their less pleasant side. Another example of this occurring is during the dinner party when Mrs Oliver asks Major Despard about unknown tribal poisons, a question which reveals Mrs Oliver’s own assumptions about the far flung places Despard travels to. She is disappointed by his response as he suggests that tribes tend to stick to the ones their families have used for generations and instead he suggests that she goes ‘to civilisation, not to the wilds for’ unknown poisons, as ‘in the modern laboratory… cultures of innocent-looking germs that will produce bona fide diseases.’ Major Despard is not someone who can stay in “civilisation” for long, soon sickening of it, and it is interesting that he places danger and barbaric forms of killing much closer to home than Mrs Oliver would like.

Cards on the Table 5

Moreover, I think that Mr Shaitana and his death can be regarded as a catalyst in this story, not just for the subsequent plot, but also as a catalyst for revealing other characters’ personalities and their prejudices and assumptions, not just about himself but about other suspects too. In some ways Mr Shaitana brings out the worst in people. Furthermore, his death also brings out the prejudices and assumptions not just of the suspects, but also of the detective figures and the reader also, as his death and the closed number of suspects easily encourage assumption making on psychological surmises, which inevitably are filtered through people’s experiences. And it is in such a scenario that Christie can of course play with our assumptions and ideas and turn them upside down, such as our attitudes towards young female characters. Mrs Oliver herself says about the murder that ‘It’s lucky it’s not in a book. They don’t really like the young and beautiful girl to have done it.’ Yet as we see Christie certainly has fun with that concept.

Cards on the Table 6

Finally, looking back at Mr Shaitana, is he really as awful as some of the characters make out? It is assumed by characters like Anne Meredith that he has a depraved mind: ‘you never know what would strike him as amusing. It might – it might be something cruel… something oriental!’ Nevertheless I think it is the suspects who are shown to have the depraved minds, being mostly un-convicted murderers (Despard probably counts more as an un-convicted case of man-slaughter). Mr Shaitana is far from perfect of course, as he uses his ability to uncover sensational information to cause psychological distress to others, yet Poirot rather than buying into the Mephistopheles persona, emphasises the humanness and therefore the human foibles and follies of Mr Shaitana: ‘Oh, the stupid little man… to dress up as the devil and try to frighten people… He played the part of the devil too successfully. But he was not the devil.’

The Four Sleuths (though mostly Mrs Oliver)

An aspect of this story which I loved was the inclusion of Mrs Oliver and Superintendent Battle, (Colonel Race has never been a character who has stuck in my mind much), as I enjoyed seeing the different ways the sleuths worked. Mrs Oliver has always entertained me and in this book is not to be taken too seriously, though Christie being Christie does allow Mrs Oliver to get the last laugh. Her more intuitive and flamboyant approach to detecting is a delight to read as she hops from idea to idea, never resting on one suspect for long:

‘Absolutely impossible. None of those people can be criminals… In that case, it’s Dr Roberts, I felt instinctively that there was something wrong with that man as soon as I saw him. My instincts never lie.’

I also liked how she interjects a game-like element into their work, which I think the reader catches as they do try to decide which out of the four did the murder. This is also a story where Christie humorously vents some of frustration of writing a detective series, through the character of Mrs Oliver. Interesting, to me at any rate, is that in this story Mrs Oliver is said to have written a detective novel named The Body in the Library and 6 years later Christie goes on to do likewise, with her second Miss Marple novel.

Cards on the Table 8

Tension

And Then There Were None is a brilliant book for relaying the claustrophobic tension the characters feel as they get killed one by one and I think it would be hard to say Cards on the Table managed something similar. Yet in this latter novel I still think Christie creates tension and suspense, which is heightened by the enclosed domestic space within which the murder occurs. Due to their only being four suspects, tension is generated by these characters as they begin to ponder which of them did it and to a degree they do turn on each other. The last 20 or so pages are also superb at conveying tension and suspense as the twists are piled on (one of which I forgot about during my re-read) and there is definitely a race against time feel. I think an uncontrollable human element, which creeps in with the character of Mrs Lorrimer, adds to this atmosphere as you wonder whether Poirot and legal justice will be thwarted.

Cards on the Table 9

Rating: 4.25/5

Other Blog Reviews of: In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel, Mysteries in Paradise, Only Detect

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About armchairreviewer

Qualified English teacher, with a passion for literature and crime fiction. On a random note I also own pygmy goats and chickens with afros (it doesn't get any cooler than that).
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16 Responses to Reflections on Christie’s Cards on the Table (1936)

  1. Great look at this book – it’s one that I thought rather dull (set at a card came..?! how boring) when I was a teenager, but liked much better on a re-read. I love the idea of Poirot and Shaitana as doubles, brilliant.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. JJ says:

    If I remember correctly, Christie herself posed this exact setup through Poirot a couple of books earlier — I think it was The ABC Murders — by having Poirot describe to Hastings his (Poirot’s) “ideal” setup for a crime to solve. I seem to remember Poirot’s (and so Christie’s) delight at it requiring a purely psychological deduction and thus provide an interesting challenge.

    Cut to the ending of the novel itself, and the revelation of the killer is reached by anything other than a psychological deduction (POSSIBLE SPOILER am I right in saying that they simply tell the person they think is guilty that they were seen by a window-cleaner? And then go “Oh, yeah, actually, no you weren’t — we totes made that up, dude”? So all they need to do is simply bluff it out for like two seconds and they’re fineEND SPOILER) I could be mis-remembering, though…

    Leo Bruce’s Case for Three Detectives was released in the same year and did a far better job of “multiple sleuths investiagte a murder” for my money. I mean, sure, Christie won out overall, but I find this a horribly muddled and under-realised book that’s all the more disappointing for being one that she was obviously so excited about writing.

    Also, to end this increasingly-lengthening comment, interesting to note that she mentions The Body in the Library here and then in The Body in the Library makes mention of…Agatha Christie. Meta!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yes your beautiful paraphrase of the ending is true in terms of getting the killer to confess guilt, though Poirot has already used psychological deductions earlier on to deduce that guilt in the first place, which is explained afterwards. I liked the ending but I can see how it might annoy some readers. I think the Bruce and Christie novels had different purposes for the multiple sleuths concept so it’s not a straight forward comparison. I can see some areas of Cards on the Table which could have done with some expanding as the last 2o or so pages has brilliant twists but they come at quite a pace.

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      • JJ says:

        There is inevitably a fair amount of stuff I’ve forgotten — and it may be a long time before I come back to this one (it’s surprisingly later in Christie’s output than I remember — I’m guessing it’s one I read out of sequence, because I get the impression it was a fairly early one for me).

        Your promise of brilliant twists has me slightly more interested in rereading, though. Maybe I should start with the ones I remember to be disappointing once I’m done, rather than simply doing them again chronologically…ah, well, time to decide yet.

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  3. Brad says:

    I really really really enjoyed reading this, Kate! Let me count the ways:

    1) The idea that this pre-dates the same basic construct of And Then There Were None makes COTT a much more significant book in the pantheon. (Sorry, JJ, but you’re wrong.) It’s intriguing that the U.N. Owen character in COTT is the victim, the very opposite of ATTWN. In addition, there is no detective per se in ATTWN, except that the survivors act as detectives throughout. One thing that makes ATTWN so brilliant is that the characters MUST solve the crimes in a life or death struggle, keeping in mind that the person they seek IS ONE OF THE DETECTIVES!! It shows how brilliantly Christie could throw the same pieces in the air, mix them around, and come up with something completely different.

    2) The whole doubling of Shaitana and Poirot is brilliant. This explains Poirot’s compassion and determination to solve the crime of a man who, to put it mildly, wasn’t very nice. He senses a similarity between them (just as Holmes respects Moriarty as an intellectual equal). Both are foreign and therefore despised, and both know how to manipulate people to discover the truth. Think about it: none of these four strike me as people who a man of Shaitana’s sophistication would socialize with. He must have cultivated each one and played them brilliantly in order to unearth their stories. The fact that he didn’t get all of them right strikes me as proof that most of his information comes from hearsay, coupled with his conversations with each person and the conclusions he draws from them.

    Poirot does the exact same thing. He reads people well initially but excels at unmasking them through conversation. Thus, he can read Rhoda quickly as someone who would love to hear about his cases AND as a potential mate for Despard. He can see what a woman like Mrs. Lorrimer would do for a girl like Meredith. His trick with the stockings is brilliantly conceived and tells him much of what he needs to know about Meredith, too.

    I also like the points you make about Meredith/Vera. I can see where you’re going with Despard/Lombard, for they both are antsy after service. But Despard is the wholly good soldier vs. Lombard as the sociopath with a gun in his hand.

    3) I haven’t read CASE FOR THREE DETECTIVES, so I can’t compare except that I know it’s a satire of “great detectives” since the plodding cop runs rings around the more colorful sleuths at the end. However, I respectfully take issue with JJ’s opinion of COTT as “a horribly muddled and under-realized book.” Given the constrictions of going into depth of character that all GAD fiction seemed to follow, Christie does a wonderful job of showing us how an investigator peels back the layers in discovering the truth about people during a murder investigation.

    So we start with a dinner party amongst strangers that leads to murder. All the sleuths have going for them are their first impressions, and Mrs. Oliver, using female intuition, immediately opts for the CORRECT murderer. So clever of Christie because, as a figure of fun, Mrs. Oliver is not meant to be taken seriously, and a few readers cross that suspect off their lists right away. The first interviews are surface stuff about what everyone saw and did, but even then Poirot starts to manipulate with a question about the room that helps him determine everyone’s priorities and character: Dr. Roberts knows a LOT about nice stuff, Mrs. Lorrimer cares only for the bridge game, etc.

    The next set of interviews reveal more, and then there’s more after that. The peeling back of layers of truth is done externally, as is the norm for a murder investigation, whereas the same process in ATTWN is more internalized and haphazard. Although Poirot has a strong idea by the end of COTT who everybody really is, nobody EVER gets to really know or understand anyone else in ATTWN. It’s what adds to the tension of that novel. So, by the end of COTT, when Poirot reveals what Mrs. Oliver blurted out at the beginning, we come back to this same conclusion from an entirely different place. A stronger understanding of character and events makes the reveal logical, yet many of us are still surprised because we had dismissed this character . . . thanks to Mrs. Oliver!!!!!

    Sorry, JJ, but I think this one is beautifully constructed!

    4) JJ’s point about the mention in ABC MURDERS makes a great case for reading Christie in order. (DUMB WITNESS gives away most of the endings from the previous Poirots . . . another good reason.)

    Liked by 2 people

    • Always a relief when a Christie post gets a Brad seal of approval, considering how many of her works you have blogged about. Can’t be that many left now surely? Part me of does feel like Mr Shaitana is underused in his role as victim, as he has so much potential as a character who battles with Poirot.

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  4. Santosh Iyer says:

    In Hindi, Shaitana means Devil !

    Liked by 2 people

  5. cmikolj says:

    I must agree with Brad on this one. COTT is definitely one of Christie ‘s more complex novels although the presence of Mrs. Oliver and Poirot make it more of a fun read than ATTWN. One thing I noticed was that, of the four murderers, the three who are ‘genuine’ murderers meet a just end and the one who can be excused up to a point is spared. Given the period in which this novel was published this would have been a more morally acceptable ending and more enjoyable for contemporary readers. I also love the way in which Poirot carps on about the bridge game and its psychological insights into the players, but reveals at the end that he was simply looking for a moment at which the players’ attention would have been fully engaged.
    This book was adapted for television starring David Suchet as Poirot, although it was completely ruined by tinkering about with the ending, a completely unnecessary alteration which sadly marred many of the later adaptations in what started life as an excellent series. There ought to be a law against changing the ending!

    Liked by 2 people

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