Cards on the Table (Agatha Christie)

  • First published: UK, Collins, November 1936; USA, Dodd Mead, 1937

My review

Agatha Christie’s twentieth novel is a landmark, for this is, to quote Gillian Gill, “the detective novelist’s detective novel”. The plot is deceptively simple: there are only four people, all of whom are murderers, and one of whom is the murderer — and yet the reader will find it almost impossible to spot the murderer. The look at the background and psychology of a murderer is fascinating, recalling Christie’s 1939 classic And Then There Were None, and, from other authors, Anthony Berkeley‘s Panic Party and John Dickson Carr‘s Death in Five Boxes. All the clues (including a pair of silk stockings and a superb clue in the form of bridge scores) are psychological / character-based—the suspects’ reactions, how they play bridge, how they notice a room, how they may think, and, by extension, how they would commit a murder — and it is natural that the mystery be solved by the amateur psychologist Hercule Poirot, aided by his fellow guests at Mr. Shaitana’s dinner-party, Superintendent Battle, Colonel Race, and that amusing and intelligent self-parody Mrs. Oliver.

Blurb (UK)

“This case, to my mind,” says Poirot, “has been one of the most interesting cases I have ever come across.  There was nothing, you see, to go upon.  There were four people, one of whom must have committed the crime, but which of the four?  Was there anything to tell one?  in the material sense – no.  there were no tangible clues – no fingerprints – no incriminating papers or documents.  There were only the people themselves.”

In fact, this is the “closed” crime par excellence, the type of problem in which Mrs. Christie has always been most interested and which, by its very nature, is the fairest test of the reader’s perspicacity.  Four people are playing bridge, and in the course of the game their host, who has been sitting out, is murdered.  He can only have been murdered by one of the players while dummy.  Now any one of the four, given the right circumstances, might have committed the crime, for each of them is known to have committed at any rate one murder and is quite capable of committing another.  As Mrs. Christie writes in her preface, “They are four widely divergent types, the motive that drives each one of them is peculiar to that person, and each one would employ a different method.  The deduction must, therefore, be entirely psychological, and, when all is said and done, it is the mind of the murderer that is of supreme interest.”

No wonder Poirot called it one of his most interesting cases.  All Mrs. Christie’s readers will emphatically agree.

Blurb (US)

Five people in one room; four of them absorbed in a game of bridge; the fifth sitting quietly by the fire with a thin steel dagger in his heart!

Four suspects and any one of them, given the right circumstances, might have committed the crime.  The murdered man himself has pointed that out, has indeed revealed that each of them had previously committed a successful murder, and thus unwittingly, and with a gruesome irony, made his own murder almost impossible to detect.

“They are four widely divergent types,” writes Agatha Christie; “the motive that drives each one of them is peculiar to that person and each one would employ a different method.  The deduction must, therefore, be entirely psychological and the essential clue to the murder is the mind of the murderer…  I may say, as an additional argument in favour of this story, that it was one of Hercule Poirot’s favourite cases.”

And, may we say, as its publishers, that CARDS ON THE TABLE ranks with the great Christie mysteries—ROGER ACKROYD, THE BLUE TRAIN, THE CALAIS COACH—which is about as high praise as can be given to a mystery.

Contemporary reviews

Times Literary Supplement (Caldwell Harpur, 14th November 1936): Poirot scores again, scores in two senses, for this appears to be his author’s twentieth novel.  One of the minor characters in it is an authoress of thirty-two detective novels; she describes in several amusing pages the difficulties of her craft.  Certainly Mrs. Christie ought to know them, but she continues to surmount them so well that another score of novels may be hoped for.  Her great merit is that her plots are just complex enough to interest the reader, and not complex enough to muddle him.

In this case the victim was a Mephistophelian Syrian, living in London.  He sat by the fire while four of his guests played bridge in the same room and the other four, including Poirot, in the next room.  He was stabbed.  Each of the four in the room had in the past killed someone.  The Syrian had told Poirot so.  Each of the four knew the Syrian knew it.  So when he had paid with his life for his grim joke, Poirot and his friend Superintendent Battle had four biographies to investigate—those of a doctor, a traveller, a widow of sixty-three and a timid girl of twenty-five.  Poirot’s methods included a minute examination of the bridge scores and the purchase of nineteen pairs of silk stockings at 37s. 6d. a pair.

Observer (Torquemada, 15th November 1936): SUPRÊME DE POIROT

I was not the only one who thought that Poirot or his creator had gone a little off the rails in Murder in Mesopotamia, which means that others beside myself will rejoice at Mrs. Christie’s brilliant come-back in Cards on the Table.  This author, unlike many who have achieved fame and success for qualities quite other than literary ones, has studied to improve in every branch of writing in each of her detective stories.  The result is that, in her latest book, we notice qualities of humour, composition and subtlety which we would have thought beyond the reach of the writer of Mysterious Affair at Styles.  Of course, the gift of bamboozlement, with which Agatha Christie was born, remains, and has never been seen to better advantage than in this close, diverting and largely analytical problem.  Cards on the Table is perhaps the most perfect of the little grey sells.

New Statesman & Nation (Ralph Partridge, 21st November 1936): Mr. P. Quentin may be Mr. Q. Patrick under another publisher, Mr. Stagge might be anybody bar Mr. Wills Crofts, but Mrs. Christie is forever Mrs. Christie.  Cards on the Table is one of her inimitable chess problems.  Four people play Contract Bridge while their host sits in a chair at the other end of the room.  During the game all doors remain closed, but when the fourth rubber is interrupted the host is dead.  Every person present had a perfect motive for murdering him; all had the opportunity at some time when they were dummy.  Poirot and you are given the scores of all four rubbers; Poirot and you have to do the rest for yourselves.  The only information Mrs. Christie does not impart is whether this time she has constructed a two-mover or a three-mover—and it is just there you may go wrong.  But if you do join the lugubrious ranks of “incorrect solvers”, you must blame yourself; Mrs. Christie remains impeccable, though not without cunning.

Spectator (Nicholas Blake, 20th November 1936, 250w): Before Mrs. Christie’s fertility of invention, the average detection-writer can only bite the dust.  The store of plots she keeps under her hat is nobody’s business: and year after year with the light patter and deceptive legerdemain of a first-rate conjuror, she goes no producing out of this inexhaustible hat the oddest, most exciting objects.  Her opening situation in Cards on the Table is, I think, the best she has ever devised…  The book flags a little in the middle; but it gathers pace again with a second murder, and—as usual—the author savagely tweaks our legs at the end.

Sat R of Lit (11th December 1937, 30w): Situation, detection, and characterisation make this top notcher—but author nearly outsmarts herself.

Books (Will Cuppy, 21st February 1937, 350w): We always say there’s nobody quite like Agatha Christie, when she puts her mind to it, and that’s what she has done in Cards on the Table.

NY Times (Isaac Anderson, 28th February 1937, 270w): The story is ingenious, but there are one or two loose ends left dangling when [the] explanation is finished.  Cards on the Table is not quite up to Agatha Christie’s best work.

Canadian Forum (G.M.A. Grube, May 1937, 220w): A new Agatha Christie mystery is bound to be greeted with delight by detective-story devotees.  They will not be disappointed, for this is one of the authoress’ best.

Sunday Times (Milward Kennedy): Agatha Christie at her best.  And what more could any one want?  The characters are brilliantly drawn.

Daily Mail: Agatha Christie has written the finest murder story of her career.

Dr. Cyril Alington: I’m inclined to regard it as her masterpiece.

London Mercury: Beats her own best in the double surprise at the finish.