Happy birthday, Agatha Christie! The grand dame of crime fiction turns 127 today (15 September), and as a birthday treat – because I’m sure her ghost has nothing better to do than to read a blog with an audience of about 6 – I wanted to review one of her books.
I’ve chosen Cards on the Table (1936) because I think it encapsulates something about Christie’s strengths as a writer, and the extent to which she is still misunderstood. This novel has always been one of my absolute favourites, and it never ceases to amaze me that so many people can take it or leave it. I read it at a young age – on my first ever day off school due to illness. I had a ridiculously high fever and simply lay in bed all day until I’d finished with my grandad’s old Fontana copy. It was amazing.
The premise is pre-empted in The ABC Murders (1935), when Poirot describes his idea of a perfect case:
‘Supposing,’ murmured Poirot, ‘that four people sit down to play bridge and one - the odd man out - sits in a chair by the fire. At the end of the evening the man by the fire is found dead. One of the four - while he is dummy - has gone over and killed him - and intent on the
play of the hand - the other three have not noticed. Ah – there would be a crime for you! Which of the four was it?’
‘Well—' I said. ‘I can't see any excitement in that!’
Christie alludes to this exchange in her foreword to Cards on the Table, when she writes:
[T]his story [...] was one of Hercule Poirot's favourite cases. His friend, Captain Hastings, however, when Poirot described it to him, considered it very dull! I wonder with which of them my readers will agree.
Already, subtly, she has blurred fiction and reality – not simply by pretending that Poirot and Hastings are real, but also by describing something that was presented one year previously as a hypothetical game as an honest-to-God literary memoir. I think that we need to accept and deal with the fact that Christie was one of the foremost genre destabilisers of her day. She always acknowledged the essential artificiality of her genre; but more than that, she exploited it.
Therefore, we have a very simple, very artificial set-up. Mr Shaitana – see what she did there? – is a parody of Oriental otherness; dripping with sexual nonconformity and esoteric artistry. He has a ‘collector’s mentality’, but what does he collect? Murderers – and ‘only the best’. That is to say, murderers who have got away with it. One day, Shaitana invites Hercule Poirot, some of his friends, and four of his ‘exhibits’ to a bridge party. In one room, four detectives play bridge. In the next room, four murderers play bridge. The host sits out. By the end of the night, the host has been stabbed.
We have here a straightforward case, then: four detectives and four suspects. There are no clever-clever twists: one of the four suspects is the villain.
But Cards on the Table is more than a whodunit in its purest form. It is, among other things, a metatextual masterpiece. Here, Poirot is joined by three sleuths who have only appeared so far in other series of books: Inspector Battle, of The Seven Dials Mystery, Ariadne Oliver, of Parker Pyne Investigates, and Colonel Race, of The Man in the Brown Suit. Hastings and Japp do not appear. In this way, Poirot is thrust into an artificial, stylised world, where he is meeting his own creator’s other creations. At times, this gets extreme: we encounter Ariadne Oliver, a crime novelist and the author of The Body in the Library, complaining about the trials of writing about an eccentric European detective. And who does she ask for advice? Hercule Poirot!
Still more is going on, because, quite simply, from the outset, we know that all the suspects are murderers. They would not be there unless they had killed, and gotten away with killing. And Agatha Christie was far too good a writer to make one of them innocent. These are eminently respectable figures: a wealthy widow, a paid companion, a high-end doctor, and a military adventurer. All respectable, and all downright horrible. So, in the end, does it really matter who killed Shaitana…?
While the police start looking for witnesses and physical evidence, Poirot examines the bridge scores, and asks questions designed to probe psychological make-ups: will the suspect have observed the furniture or the game play? That kind of thing. Our four detectives – though Poirot is the main one – quickly uncover everyone’s closeted skeletons and, eventually, Hercule triumphs.
Poirot captures the murderer by lying shamelessly. He hires an actor to play the part of a window cleaner who saw everything. The murderer promptly confesses all (I didn’t say Christie was perfect). It reminds me of those times in other cases when Poirot lies about finding fingerprints, to force the criminal’s hand. In Death in the Clouds, the murderer snaps back: ‘That’s impossible, I was wearing gloves!’, which is AMAZING. In The ABC Murders, the baddie breaks down and confesses, whereupon Poirot tells Hastings ‘I put [the made up finger print] in for you.’ The point is, he doesn’t care a fig for this kind of physical evidence – this male and traditional way of thinking – which can be counterfeited and manipulated. There is something purer and better about his methods.
Part of Cards on the Table that I particularly like is the romance between Major Despard and Rhoda Dawes, because it is utterly twisted. Despard is the colonial adventurer-slash-murderer who also exhibits barely challenged racism. We are told all along that, regardless of our sex, we should be completely in love with him. I think he’s a prick and was sorry that he not only survived the novel but returned in The Pale Horse (1961). For much of the novel, he is sniffing around Anne Meredith, the pretty young companion who once fed her employer hat poison.
(That was an in-joke, by the way. Lucy Malleson, a friend of Christie’s, wrote crime fiction under two pseudonyms: Anthony Gilbert and … Anne Meredith. One of her best Meredith books is being reissued by the British Library in a special edition as the 50th in their Crime Classics series, later this month.)
When Anne turns out to be a wrong ‘un, the Major barely bats a tanned and war-painted eyelid. He turns his attentions to Anne’s dumpy roommate, Rhoda, who is also a crime fiction geek – Poirot shows her the knife used in Murder on the Orient Express – and way too good for him. Then the major makes a weird psychopathic joke about murdering Poirot, the new feminised foreign threat and the only character who doesn’t like him. Everyone chuckles, and the book draws to its frankly alarming close.
Of course, when Cards on the Table was filmed, it became unthinkable that a pretty girl could be bad and her frumpy friend could be good, so the story was rewritten to make Rhoda an evil lesbian, secretly in love with Anne and slaying everyone who gets in her way, willy nilly, with no apparent logic. Anne ends up with the major and Rhoda ends up at the bottom of a river. I moan much more eloquently and extensively about this adaptation in my book, Queering Agatha Christie.
Cards on the Table is a tour de force from the sharpest mind in twentieth century crime fiction. It has been unjustly savaged by reviewers and horrifically treated on television, and I hope that in the future this golden age gem will be given its due.
P.S. That cover looks like a Tom Adams, doesn’t it? Sometimes, it’s listed as one. I asked Tom Adams about it one day, and he was quite indignant. He said he’d never do a painting like that. Scott Wallace Baker, expert on all things Agatha Christie and Tom Adams, tells me the artist is Ian Robinson.