Cards on the Table is a detective novel by Agatha Christie and first published in the UK by the Collins Crime Club on November 2 1936 and in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company the following year. The UK edition retailed at seven shillings and sixpence (7/6) and the US edition at $2.00.
The book features the recurring characters of Hercule Poirot, Colonel Race, Superintendent Battle and the bumbling crime writer Ariadne Oliver, making her first appearance in a Poirot novel (she previously had a role in the Parker Pyne short story The Case of the Discontented Soldier).
The mysterious Mr Shaitana involves Poirot and three other sleuths for a dinner along with what he calls his collection: four people whom he believes have gotten away with murder. He tells his guests that he will make an announcement during the dinner but he dies while the guests are playing bridge.
The novel also contains a foreword by the author, in which the Author warns the reader that the novel has only four suspects and the deduction must be purely psychological. Further, it is also mentioned (in jest of course) that this was one of the favourite cases of Hercule Poirot, while his friend Capt. Hastings found it very dull. The author then wonders with whom will her readers agree.
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At an exhibition of snuff boxes, Hercule Poirot meets Mr. Shaitana, a mysterious foreign man who is consistently described as devil-like in appearance and manner. Shaitana jokes about Poirot's visit to the snuff box exhibition, and claims that he has a better "collection" that Poirot would enjoy: individuals who have got away with murder. He arranges a dinner party to show off this collection; Poirot is apprehensive.
Upon arrival at Shaitana's house on the appointed day, Poirot is joined by three other guests: mystery novelist Ariadne Oliver, Scotland Yard's Superintendent Battle, and Colonel Race of His Majesty's Secret Service. Soon, the other four guests join them: Dr. Roberts, a hearty, florid man; Mrs. Lorrimer, a perfectly poised gentlewoman of late middle age; Major John Despard, a dashing Army man and world traveller, recently returned from Africa; and Anne Meredith, a shy, quiet, very pretty young woman. Having brought them all to dinner, Shaitana skilfully manipulates the topic of conversation to possible motives for murder. He makes allusions to crimes being committed, yet their culprits getting away scot-free. During this conversation, several of the guests exhibit nervous reactions.
Shaitana invites his eight guests to play bridge in the adjoining rooms; he, as the odd man out, does not play. Roberts, Meredith, Lorrimer, and Despard play in the first room, while Poirot, Oliver, Race, and Battle play in the next; Shaitana settles himself in a chair in the first room and thinks of how wonderfully his party is going. Hours later, Poirot and the others prepare to leave, and go to thank Shaitana. Shaitana has been murdered, stabbed in the chest with a jeweled stiletto.
Once the preliminary police work has been done, Poirot reveals Shaitana's strange mention of a "collection" to the other three with whom he played bridge. They quickly realize that they are four "sleuths" meant to be pitted against the four in the next room whom Shaitana suspected of murder. The four agree to work together to solve the crime, and interview the four suspects. Poirot takes interest in the way each member plays bridge, which he discerns through asking each suspect to grade the play of the others. As there seems to be no conventional way to prove which of them has committed Shaitana's murder, Poirot suggests that the group of sleuths delve into the past and uncover the murders that the dead man thought he knew about.
Battle is put on the trail of the death of a Mrs. Craddock, whom Dr. Roberts once attended. Her husband died of anthrax poisoning from an infected shaving brush (and readers at the time of the novel's publication in the 1930s might well have remembered anthrax deaths from infected shaving brushes during and in the years after World War I); Mrs. Craddock herself had died not long afterward, of a tropical infection, in Egypt. Race seeks out information on Despard, and discovers a case in which a botanist named Luxmore and his wife travelled with him to South America; Luxmore officially died of a fever, but it is rumoured that he was shot. Mrs. Oliver visits Anne Meredith and her housemate, Rhoda Dawes. Rhoda later visits Oliver and explains Anne's bad manners: Anne, after her father's death and before old friend Rhoda came to her rescue, worked as a live-in companion; one employer, a Mrs. Benson, had taken hat paint—poison—from a medicine bottle and died. Fellow suspect Despard takes an interest in Anne's welfare, recommending that she retain an attorney.
In the meantime, the four sleuths gather and compare notes. Meanwhile, Poirot sets a trap for Anne Meredith. When she pays him a call at his request, he shows her to a table on which many packets of the finest silk stockings are piled up, apparently carelessly. After Anne makes her gift suggestions and leaves, Poirot discovers that two pairs of the stockings are missing, confirming his suspicion that Anne is a thief, and seemingly giving weight to his suspicion that she stole from Mrs. Benson and killed her when she feared she had been discovered.
At this point, Mrs. Lorrimer contacts Poirot with surprising news. She confesses to Shaitana's murder, and explains that she took the stiletto impulsively after he mentioned poison as a woman's weapon. Shaitana was right about her, she says; twenty years earlier, she had, she confesses, killed her husband. Poirot objects that Lorrimer's explanation of Shaitana's killing does not match her unflappable personality. Lorrimer thus believes that Meredith is Shaitana's killer, and decided to lie to save the younger woman. She begs Poirot to let her take the blame for the crime: she will die soon anyway, and Anne will be free to live her young life.
Poirot is confused by this confession, and fears that there may be more trouble to come. His guess proves correct when Mrs. Lorrimer is found dead the next morning, having apparently committed suicide after writing three copies of a letter confessing to the murder of Shaitana and sending them to the other suspects. Roberts arrives after receiving the letter, but is unsuccessful in his attempt to save Mrs. Lorrimer. Poirot and Battle race to Anne Meredith's cottage, fearing that she might strike again. Despard, who has been visiting Anne and Rhoda, both of whom have fallen for him, is a few steps ahead of Poirot and Battle. At Anne's suggestion, Anne and Rhoda are on a boat in a nearby river. Poirot and Battle see Anne suddenly push her friend into the water. Alas for Anne, when she knocks Rhoda into the water, she also falls in herself. Despard rescues Rhoda; Anne drowns.
SPOILER ALERT! DON'T READ AHEAD IF YOU HAVEN'T READ THE BOOK!
Poirot gathers Oliver, Battle, Despard, Rhoda, and Roberts at his home, where he makes a surprising announcement: the true murderer of both Shaitana and Mrs. Lorrimer is not Anne, but Dr. Roberts. Poirot brings in a window cleaner who happened to be working outside Mrs. Lorrimer's flat earlier that morning. He testifies that he saw Roberts inject Lorrimer with a syringe; a syringe, Poirot reveals, full of a lethal anaesthetic. Battle chimes in that they can bolster any prosecution with the true story of the deaths of the Craddocks, who died of infections, true, but infections deliberately inflicted on each of them by Roberts. Roberts confesses.
Poirot points out that in the third rubber of bridge on the night of Shaitana's murder, a grand slam occurred. This intense play would keep the others focused on the game—Roberts was dummy at that point—while Roberts used the opportunity to stab Shaitana. It is also revealed that the "window cleaner" was actually an actor in Poirot's employ, though Poirot brags that he did "witness" Roberts kill Mrs. Lorrimer in his mind's eye. Despard suggests that one of the gathered party murder Poirot, and then watch his ghost come back to solve the crime.
Characters in "Cards on the Table"
- Mr Shaitana, a collector of all rare things, including murderers; very rich and mysterious
The Four Detectives
- Superintendent Battle, a stolid officer from Scotland Yard
- Colonel Race, a debonair Secret Service agent, also featured as a character in Death on the Nile
- Ariadne Oliver, writer of popular detective fiction, untidy and somewhat ridiculous
- Hercule Poirot, the famed private detective
The Four Suspects
- Dr Geoffrey Roberts, a successful physician
- Mrs Lorrimer, a well-to-do, expert bridge player
- Major John Despard, a dashing explorer
- Anne Meredith, a pretty, impecunious young woman
- Rhoda Dawes, Anne's wealthy friend and housemate
- Mrs Luxmore, whose husband Professor Luxmore died in suspicious circumstances
- Miss Burgess, loyal secretary of Dr Roberts
- Elsie Batt
- Mrs Craddock and husband Mr Craddock, patients of Dr Roberts
- Mr Lorrimer
- Dr Emery
- Mrs Graves
- Mr Bury
- Mr Myherne
- Mr Pickersgill
- Mrs Astwell
- Major John Meredith
- Mrs Eldon
- Emily Deering
- Mrs Benson
- Dr Lang
- Gerald Hemmingway
Police and officials
- Sergeant O'Connor, extremely handsome and tall, used to get the goods out of Elsie
- Constable Turner
- Sir Charles Imphery
- Inspector Harper
- Dr Davidson
Foreword by Agatha Christie
Unusually for a novel, Cards on the Table does not contain a dedication. Instead Agatha Christie wrote a foreword in which she tells readers that in the case of this book, it is not a matter of looking for the least likely suspect, which has become a fashion in crime novels. There are only four suspects and the killer is indeed one of them. They have divergent backgrounds, motives and would have employed different methods. Any one of the four could have done it. The deduction must therefore be entirely psychological. Christies also writes that this is one of Poirot's favourite cases but Hastings found it "dull".
Literary significance and reception
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The Times Literary Supplement of November 14, 1936 stated favourably in its review by Caldwell Harpur that, "Poirot scores again, scores in two senses, for this appears to be the authoress'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."
In The New York Times Book Review for February 28, 1937, Isaac Anderson concluded, "The story is ingenious, but there are one or two loose ends left dangling when his explanation is finished. Cards on the Table is not quite up to Agatha Christie's best work.".
In The Observer's issue of November 15, 1936, in a review section entitled "Supreme de Poirot", "Torquemada" (Edward Powys Mathers) said, "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 note qualities of humour, composition and subtlety which we would have thought beyond the reach of the writer of The 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 cells".
The Scotsman of November 19, 1936 said, "There was a time when M. Hercule Poirot thought of going into retirement in order to devote himself to the cultivation of marrows. Fortunately, the threat was never carried out; and in Mrs Christie's latest novel the little Belgian detective is in very good form indeed. The plot is simple but brilliant." The review concluded by saying, "Mrs Oliver, the novelist, is one of Mrs Christie's most amusing creations.
E.R. Punshon of The Guardian reviewed the novel in the November 20, 1936 issue when he began, "Even in a tale of crime and mystery humour is often of high value." He went on to say that, "In this respect…Agatha Christie shows herself once again…a model of detective tales. There are delightful passages when Poirot anxiously compares other moustaches with his own and awards his own the palm, when his lips are forced to utter the unaccustomed words 'I was in error', when Mrs. Oliver, famous authoress, discourses upon art and craft of fiction. But all that never obscures the main theme as Poirot gradually unravels the puzzle of which four bridge-players had murdered their host." He concluded, "Largely by a careful study of the score, Poirot is able to reach the truth, and Mrs. Christie sees to it that he does so by way of springing upon the reader one shattering surprise after another."
Robert Barnard: "On the very top rung. Special opportunities for bridge enthusiasts, but others can play. Superb tight construction and excellent clueing. Will be read as long as hard-faced ladies gather for cards."
Charles Osborne: "Cards on the Table is one of Agatha Christie's finest and most original pieces of crime fiction: even though the murderer is, as the author has promised, one of the four bridge players, the ending is positively brilliant and a complete surprise."
References or Allusions
References to other works
- In chapter 2, Anne Meredith, when introduced to Poirot, already knows of him from his having solved The A.B.C. Murders.
- In chapter 2, Anne Meredith tells Poirot that she knows Ariadne Oliver from her book The Body in the Library, which was the title of a book later written by Agatha Christie and published in 1942.
- In chapter 15, Major Despard asks Poirot if he has ever had a failure. Poirot replies that the last time was 28 years ago, probably a reference to The Chocolate Box, a short story from Poirot's Early Cases.
- In chapter 23, Poirot offers to show one of the characters a knife given to him by the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits. In describing this knife, he reveals the solution to Murder on the Orient Express: a most unusual example of Christie's occasional references to Poirot's former cases acting as a spoiler.
References in other works
- In The A.B.C. Murders, Poirot mentions to Hastings his vision of an ideal case. It is in fact the plot of this novel.
- When Poirot meets Race in Death on the Nile, Christie writes: "Hercule Poirot had come across Colonel Race a year previously in London. They had been fellow-guests at a very strange dinner party—a dinner party that had ended in death for that strange man, their host."
- Major Despard and Rhoda, now his wife, reappear in The Pale Horse (1961), the only time suspects were re-used by Christie. It should perhaps be noted that Despard's given name has metamorphosed from "John" in Cards on the Table to "Hugh" in The Pale Horse: not the first time Christie apparently forgot the name of a character.
Film, TV or theatrical adaptations
1981 Stage Adaptation
The book was adapted as a play in 1981, although without Poirot. It opened at London's Vaudeville Theatre on 9 December 1981 with Gordon Jackson as Superintendent Battle and a cast that included Derek Waring, Belinda Carroll, Mary Tamm and Patricia Driscoll. This followed Christie's trend of adapting Poirot novels as plays, but without Poirot as a detective, as she did not feel that any actor could portray him successfully.
ITV's Agatha Christie's Poirot
ITV adapted the story as episode 2 of series 10 of their series Agatha Christie's Poirot. This starred David Suchet as Hercule Poirot and Zoë Wanamaker as Ariadne Oliver. The episode aired in the US on A&E Network in December 2005 and, in the UK, on ITV1 in March 2006.
Les Petits Meurtes d'Agatha
- 1936, Collins Crime Club (London), November 2, 1936, Hardcover, 288 pp
- 1937, Dodd Mead and Company (New York), 1937, Hardcover, 262 pp
- 1949, Dell Books (New York), Paperback, (Dell number 293 mapback), 190 pp
- 1951, Pan Books, Paperback, (Pan number 176), 186 pp
- 1957, Fontana Books (Imprint of HarperCollins), Paperback, 192 pp
- 1968, Greenway edition of collected works (William Collins), Hardcover, 253 pp
- 1968, Greenway edition of collected works (Dodd Mead), Hardcover, 253 pp
- 1969, Ulverscroft Large-print Edition, Hardcover, 343 pp, ISBN 0-85456-695-3
- 2007, Poirot Facsimile Edition (Facsimile of 1936 UK First Edition), HarperCollins, March 5, 2007, Hardback, ISBN 0-00-723445-7
The book was first serialised in the US in The Saturday Evening Post in six instalments from May 2 (Volume 208, Number 44) to June 6, 1936 (Volume 208, Number 49) with illustrations by Orison MacPherson.
- Czech: Karty na stole (Cards on the Table)
- Farsi: ورقها روی میز (Cards on the Table)
- Dutch: Poirot speelt bridge (Poirot Plays Bridge)
- Finnish: Kortit pöydällä (Cards on the Table)
- French: Cartes sur table (Cards on the Table)
- German: "Mit offenen Karten" (Play With An Open Hand) (since 1954), first edition in 1938: Karten auf den Tisch (Cards On The Table)
- Hungarian: Hercule Poirot ismét munkában (Hercule Poirot at Work Again), Nyílt kártyákkal (With Open Cards)
- Japanese: ひらいたトランプ (Open Cards)
- Indonesian: Kartu-kartu di Meja (Cards on the Table)
- Italian: Carte in tavola (Cards on the Table)
- Macedonian: Отворени карти (Open cards, Cards on the Table)
- Polish: Karty na stół (Cards on the Table)
- Romanian: Cu cărţile pe masă (With Cards on the Table)
- Russian: Карты на стол (=Karty na stol, Cards on the Table), Карты на столе (=Karty na stole, Cards on the Table)
- Spanish: Cartas Sobre la Mesa (Cards on the Table)
- Turkish: Briç masasında cimayet (Murder in the Bridge table)