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
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.
A Close Up on Mr Shaitana
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.