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.
In this novel, Poirot goes on a holiday in Egypt to escape dreadful British winter and has a nice relaxing cruise down the Nile, enjoying sunshine, tranquil balmy evenings and the ancient Egyptian temples. At least, that was the idea before he ends up investigating a murder onboard the river ship. Don’t you hate it when your job keeps following you around?
“Yet who would have thought the old man to have so much blood in him?”
This Poirot novel was written as Christie’s response to her brother-in-law James, who had complained that her murders were getting too refined and anaemic. You’d hope that James’ craving for a ‘good violent murder’ was satisfied with this locked room murder mystery: its chief victim, a cantankerous wealthy patriarch, is found in a pool of his own blood, his throat cut, after making a noise described by witnesses as “a soul in hell” or “a stuck pig”.
This classic Poirot murder mystery always hovers near the top whenever a discussion of Christie’s greatest novels arises, rightly so. Along with a handful of later books, it made her name and displayed her particular genius for a simple yet daring concept, and an ending that yanks the carpet from under the unsuspecting reader’s feet.
Christie dedication at the beginning of the book (to her older sister, nicknamed Punkie) playfully refers to it as orthodox detective story, murder, inquest, and suspicion falling on everyone in turn! True enough, until its startling conclusion the novel runs as a straightforward and seemingly conventional murder mystery, taking place in a small village of King’s Abbot.
Now that I’m officially doing a Christie challenge I suspect I’m going to give preference to the novels that stuck in my head the most, and leave the least favourite or poorly remembered ones for last. This Poirot mystery is definitely up there with the best.
Our favourite Belgian detective is investigating a sixteen-year-old case on behalf of a young woman, Carla Lemarchant, whose mother Caroline was convicted for murdering her husband. Amyas Crale was a brilliant and egocentric painter with an appetite for affairs, and all evidence points to Caroline poisoning him when his latest passion turned serious enough for him to consider divorce. Years later, Carla receives a posthumous letter from her mother swearing her innocence, and now, her mind in turmoil, Carla wants Poirot to find the truth, whatever it might be.
I was a true Agatha Christie obsessive in my teens, and I’m pretty sure I’ve read every single novel and short story she’s ever written, in Russian translation. Even now that I can see the flaws in her writing more clearly, her knack for plotting and the ability to construct an elegant puzzle of a mystery – and doing it fifty times over – is pretty phenomenal. When I’m in between books and don’t feel like digging into something brand new, I’ll often reach for an Agatha Christie detective novel for a quick and easy detour. It’s hard to pin down exactly what, among all the other crime fiction I’ve read, makes them so uniquely re-readable despite knowing the identity of the murderer. It’s part nostalgia, part the very simplicity of Christie’s writing, uncluttered and efficient and not without its own charm and wry humour. Hers is a cosy, old-fashioned world that is just nice to visit from time to time.