In the foreword she wrote for this novel, Christie names Cards on the Table one of Hercule Poirot’s favourite cases. I guess there’s no arguing with the author who is basically God of her fictional universe, but even so it’s a plausible claim. This case depends almost entirely on psychological sleuthing, and there’s nothing that our favourite Belgian detective enjoys more.
The book kicks off with the meeting between Poirot and certain Mr Shaitana, an eccentric socialite, art collector and globe-trotter with a striking Mephistophelian appearance and uncertain ethnic origin that invites casual racism from most Englishmen, who nevertheless still end up going to his lavish and fabulous parties. This time, Shaitana has a rather small gathering in mind, a bridge party for eight carefully chosen guests.
It’s not until later that the choice reveals Shaitana’s twisted sense of humour: four sleuths invited to the party along with four people who had gotten away with murder. Whatever dramatic ending to the evening Shaitana had in mind, he never gets to savour it, because he’s found stabbed with one of his own precious trinkets.
Unlike with other Christie mysteries, there’s no chance of a surprise suspect no one saw coming – Shaitana could only have been killed by one of the four successful past murderers. On the side of the law, there’s Poirot, Superintendent Battle of Scotland Yard, Colonel Race of Secret Service, and mystery writer Ariadne Oliver. The four suspects include a successful doctor, a big-game hunter, a sixty-something lady with flair for bridge, and a pretty young girl who, going by her fragile looks, wouldn’t hurt a fly.
Much of the book is spent on exploring their personalities and possible motives for the past murders, while Poirot mystifies everyone by his focus on the details of the bridge game that took place on the night of the crime. As you might guess, there’s absolutely nothing random or pointless about it. I do wish though that I knew more about bridge, since some of the terminology went completely over my head.
Cards on the Table is a fun, brisk read; it doesn’t have much in the way of emotional content other than one of Christie’s unconvincing romances, but as a puzzle it is supremely satisfying. It also introduces one of my favourite recurring characters, mystery novelist Mrs Ariadne Oliver, lover of apples and birds, and a firm believer in a woman’s intuition (which sadly is not much use to her in this novel). I love the parts of the book where Mrs Oliver vents her frustrations about the process of writing detective stories, which sound a lot like Christie expressing her own real-life frustrations as a writer.