‘Cards On The Table’ – Hercule Poirot #15 by Agatha Christie – fun in an inside joke sort of way (Oh, and it helps if you enjoy playing Bridge)

A flamboyant party host is murdered in full view of a roomful of bridge players…

Mr Shaitana was famous as a flamboyant party host. Nevertheless, he was a man of whom everybody was a little afraid. So, when he boasted to Poirot that he considered murder an art form, the detective had some reservations about accepting a party invitation to view Shaitana’s private collection.

Indeed, what began as an absorbing evening of bridge was to turn into a more dangerous game altogether…

‘Cards On The Table’ is a sort of twist on the Locked Room mystery only the room wasn’t locked but four eminent Christie sleuths (well, three eminent Christie sleuths and one more than slightly tongue-in-cheek crime writer) are sitting outside the only exit and you know exactly who was in the ‘locked’ room when the man was murdered, you just don’t know which of the four people with him did it and why the three who didn’t do it, didn’t see anything.

This isn’t a book that’s heavy on authenticity. It’s a shameless puzzle box construction that wins you over by being over the top in how it’s presented and by having a clever puzzle at its heart.

The guy who gets murdered, the wryly named Mr. Shaitana, gets no sympathy from anybody. He’s written off as the instrument of his own destruction. He’s shown as a vain foreigner who liked to take on a Mephistophelean persona and play games with people’s emotions and who finally played a game where the odds were against him.

The game? To invite four people he suspects of having gotten away with murder and four detectives to a bridge party and waits to see what mischief occurs.

How did he lose? One (or more, you can never take anything for granted with Christie) of the suspected murderers killed him, quietly and efficiently and without being seen or leaving any clues.

This reminded me of one of those comics Marvel used to do back in the day, when they’d assemble teams of heroes and villains with broadly similar powers and throw them at one another to see what happened. Here we have four of Christie’s professional and amateur sleuths from earlier novels, Superintendent Battle, Colonel Race, Hercule Poirot, and Ariadne Oliver, facing off against two men and two women who, as well as being suspects in the death of Mr. Shaitana, may have murdered before and gotten away with it.

The premise, while bold, was unapologetically mechanical so I was surprised at how much fun ‘Cards On The Table’ was. I think I had fun mainly because I think Christie was having fun with it – debunking herself via her crime writing counterpart Ariadne Oliver and trying to see how many times she could squeeze the lemon in this very static murder set-up and managing to mislead me several times.

There was a knowingness to this book that I enjoyed. Christie is almost speaking through the fourth wall via Ariadne Oliver to her readers with a subtext that said ‘I know what you expect of a mystery – after all, beneath the surface they all have the same plot. it’s always the least likely person and I always mislead you about who the least likely person is and you always come back for more’. Her tone is playful. She’s a magician showing you how her old tricks worked while dazzling you with new ones. She has fun bouncing her sleuths off one another and takes full advantage of the fact that none of the four suspects seems innocent.

Towards the end of the story, I thought she’d finally gone too far and was ready to rail at her when Poirot produced a convenient window cleaner in support of a theory because it seemed so unlikely and such an obvious cheat and then she turned it into another twist of the lemon that felt like a grin and rescued herself. 

The only drag on the fun might have been Poirot and his obsession with how the four suspects played Bridge. If you don’t play bridge then this will likely all slide by and most of Poirot’s enquiries will seem pointless (thinking about it, I often feel that most of Poirot’s enquiries are pointless, so there’s no change there). I went through a phase in my late teens when I played bridge obsessively so I recognised some of the behaviours Poirot was looking for that might hint at who carried out the murder and how they could do so unseen. I was the kind of Bridge player who wouldn’t have noticed anything about the room the game was played in but would have recalled every bid and every trick. I was always deeply frustrated by players who habitually over-called, especially when they won, as it turned a game of maths and rational decision making into a game of chance and bravado.

I listened to Hugh Fraser doing his usual skilful narration, which was enriched this time because he’d already developed voices for the four sleuths so that I recognised each of them instantly. I do wonder who he based Adriane Oliver’s voice on and whether she’s forgiven him for it yet. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear a sample.

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