Cards on the Table
by Agatha Christie

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

a Hercule Poirot mystery

Collins: London, 1936
286 pages

Dodd, Mead: New York, 1937
262 pages

December 2008


A neat trick, or a grand slam? Agatha Christie's novel Cards on the Table presents a mystery of an unusual shape. The solution to the murder lies not so much in establishing alibis and time of death, tracking footprints or the like, but within a process of superb psychological detective work.

Her Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot, is invited to a London dinner party, among a most oddly chosen group of guests. The host has invited eight to his party, and with devilish glee informs Poirot that of the eight diners, four are more or less specialists in detection — Scotland yard; a mystery novelist; and so on. The other four are murderers, or so says the host:

"Bah!" Mr. Shaitana snapped disdainful fingers. "The cup used by the Brighton murderer, the jemmy of a celebrated burglar — absurd childishness! I should never burden myself with rubbish like that. I collect only the best objects of their kind."

"And what do you consider the best objects, artistically speaking, in crime?" inquired Poirot.

Mr. Shaitana leaned forward and laid two fingers on Poirot's shoulder. He hissed his words dramatically.

"The human beings who commit them, M. Poirot."

After dinner, the host insists on bridge being played, and divides the guests into two tables of four,, in two rooms; himself sitting out. Before the evening is over, a murder has been committed. All of the suspects are reasonably suspectible.

I must say that bridge is not my game when it comes to cards. That is poker. There is nothing in Cards on the Table so blatant as the "Dead Man's Hand" (aces and eights), whose cards after all had little to do with the death of Wild Bill Hickock. A little knowledge of bridge is helpful here, but not I think essential.

Agatha Christie in her short Foreword explains that in this book all her cards are on the table, as it were. There is nothing up her sleeve:

... the personalities are four widely divergent types; the motive that drives each one of them to crime is peculiar to that person, and each one would employ a different method. The deduction must, therefore, be entirely psychological, but it is none the less interesting for that, because when all is said and done it is the mind of the murderer that is of supreme interest.

Hercule Poirot is not present when the murder is committed. Where to look for clues? It is the bridge players' style of play that evening that Poirot reconstructs, to closely study their various psychological natures. We may even term this book a psychological procedural.

As a mystery-novel plot, Cards on the Table is very neat trick; and to my taste, also a grand slam in mystery-novel quality. No cards are up Christie's sleeve, yet the story is full of surprises all the way. Hercule Poirot shows, with each modestly revealed card, his great talent for the subtlest details.


© 2008 Robert Wilfred Franson

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