“Every healthy Englishman who saw him longed earnestly and fervently to kick him!” – Cards on the Table by Agatha Christie

March 4, 2011 at 4:48 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

This is a strange book.

To begin with, the focus at the outset is on a thoroughly odd character: a Mr. Shaitana. (If there’s a first name given, I missed it.) Here’s how Christie describes him:

He was tall and thin; his face was long and melancholy; his eyebrows were heavily accented and jet black; he wore a mustache with stiff waxed ends and a tiny black imperial. His clothes were works of art–of exquisite cut–but with a suggestion of the bizarre.

In addition, we’re told that Shaitana strove for what Christie terms “a Mephistophelian effect.” In fact, his name is derived from an Arabic word meaning “devil.” Unfortunately, he is more than once referred to as a “Dago,” an all purpose slur for anyone possessed of a Latin or Semitic countenance.

Here’s the set-up: Mr. Shaitana gives a dinner party to which he invites eight guests. Hercule Poirot is one; Superintendent Battle of Scotland Yard is another. Present also is Ariadne Oliver, celebrated author of detective fiction, who serves as an alter ego for Christie herself.

After the meal, he arranges his guests in two groups of four and installs them in two different rooms.. They’ll be playing bridge for the rest of the evening. That’s the plan – or part of it, at least. The other part involves a shocking crime. It would almost have to: four of the individuals present that evening had, in the past and in widely varying circumstances, already committed murder.

I’m not giving anything away here. This information is clearly spelled out by the author herself in a foreward to the novel proper. But to say much more about the plot would involve giving too much away after all, so I’ll stop here. Just a few more general comments:

I found the plot of Cards on the Table exceptionally convoluted. The challenge of following the various threads of the plot was made even more difficult by frequent references to the game of bridge. I know nothing about bridge, except that it seems to have become an obsessive pastime among England’s idle rich during the early years of the last century. (This novel was published in Britain in 1936 and in the U.S. the following year.)

A bright spot was provided by the irrepressible Ariadne Oliver, who supplies badly needed comic relief. (She performs a similar function in The Pale Horse and several other Christie works.) At one point, when Superintendent Battle is in the process of talking to suspects, she disagrees with his choice of whom to interview next. If this were one of her novels, she avers,  she would have had her detective speak to that particular person last. When the superintendent reminds her that this is the real world and not a fictional one, her immediate riposte is: “I know….Badly constructed.”

Later on, Oliver expressed her regret at having chosen to make her detective – his name is Sven Hjerson – Finnish:

‘I don’t really know anything about Finns and I’m always getting letters from Finland pointing out something impossible that he’s said or done. They seem to read detective stories a good deal in Finland. I suppose it’s the long winters with no daylight.’

I decided to read Cards on the Table after watching the made for television version of the novel.  This film, made in 2005 and starring the dependably superb David Suchet, contained plot elements which seemed to me at the very least anachronistic, given the period in which the book was written. There were other ways in which the movie deviated substantially from the novel. These divergent aspects are enumerated in the Wickipedia entry, toward the bottom. Please be aware of the spoilers contained in this article.

Even more interesting are the reviews posted on Internet Movie Database. (The spoiler alert applies here as well.) They range all the way from: “Excellent drama: striking characters, good plot and the always grand Suchet” to: “The Worst Agatha Christie Adaptation I Have Ever Seen” Lots of territory in between is covered, but the write-ups are mostly negative. Alas, they’re the ones with which I tend to agree.

David Suchet as Hercule Poirot and Zoe Wanamaker as Ariadne Oliver

5 Comments

  1. Mystica said,

    I thought I had read all the Agatha Christie there is but this is a new one for me!

  2. demie Aas said,

    I enjoy all your posts. But I have to admit your Agatha Christie posts are my favorites!
    Thank you Roberta 🙂

  3. Nan said,

    I have this on the Kindle waiting for me. I just read a short story in Poirot’s Early Cases called The King of Clubs which featured bridge a bit. I have an older friend who is passionate about the game – she plays it twice a week. I don’t think I’m smart enough. :<)

  4. Elizabeth said,

    Okay, I can’t believe you are posting about this book today — (I haven’t read your blog in a few days and you may have posted about it a few days ago).

    Anyway, without seeing your blog first, on a whim, I picked up this book yesterday afternoon and read the entire thing! Can you believe that?

    I wasn’t sure if there was a film version of this– I was actually going to check into that today. Can’t wait to watch it! I just love David Suchet as Poirot.

    Like all of Christie’s books, this was a page turner for me. I began the book and couldn’t stop reading until I finished it. This often happens to me with Christie books on lazy Sunday afternoons– especially the Poirots 🙂

    I was lost when it came to all the discussion of Bridge but I guess it really didn’t matter so much except when Poirot was trying to get an idea of people’s characters.

    Oliver was very comic! I loved the scene of her writing in her “jungle room” with apple cores on the floor.

    Most of the book, I thought young Anne was “the one”….all the way until those last 2 pages when in classic Poirot fashion, he delivers his very revealing monologue that proves me wrong 🙂

    Elizabeth

  5. Yvette said,

    I love this book, it’s one of the few Christies whose plot I can, more or less, remember when I think back on it. Not always the case with my faulty ‘old lady’ memory. Mr. Shaitana was just waiting to be murdered, far as I’m concerned. I know ‘zip’ about bridge, but I still enjoyed the book.

    Thanks for the great review. As for the pbs film interpretations, I don’t bother watching them. For me, they are all uniformly awful. They take the perfect Christie plots and try to make them – what? MORE perfect. Impossible.

    The earlier interpretations, the Miss Marples with Joan Hickson and earlier Poirots, with Suchet, are much better. I’ll stick with those.

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