Cards on the Table

Alexander Siddig as Shaitana
Granada TV 2005

THE BOOK Fontana, 1969  pp 192

A cover by Ian Robinson rather unexpectedly showing a weasel, presumably a reference to the character of Shaitana? The court cards refer to the four card-playing suspects: two women and two men. Ian Robertson was asked by Fontana to imitate Tom Adams style when the latter was unavailable.

THE STORY 

Mr Shaitana, collector and connoisseur, invites four criminal experts and four successful murderers to dinner, and announces that at the end of the evening he will have a surprise announcement to make. After dinner, he leads the two groups into two card rooms to play bridge. Shaitana sits by the fire in the murderers’ room.

He never gets to reveal his surprise …

CHARACTERS 

The four ‘sleuths’ are a detective super-group: Poirot himself, Colonel Race, last seen in The Man in the Brown Suit, Superintendant Battle, of Secret of Chimneys fame, and the crime-writer Ariadne Oliver, who in later years becomes a replacement Hastings for Poirot. The four apparently-successful killers – Dr Roberts, Mrs Lorrimer, Major Despard and Anne Meredith – are surprisingly un-bloody in character, but, for once in a Swigatha, each has a believable motive and opportunity to commit the crime, and all Poirot has to go on are the bridge score-sheets. Time for him to use his fabled ‘psychology’.  

ATTITUDES AND QUOTES 

Agatha Christie clearly enjoyed herself writing this book. First, she delights in her ridicule of the Anglo-Saxon attitude toward ‘that damned Dago, Shaitana’. His appearance and attire is mannered, almost Dali-esque:

He deliberately attempted a Mephistophelean effect. He was tall and thin, his face was long and melancholy, his eyebrows were heavily accented and jet-black, he wore a moustache with stiff waxed ends and a tiny black imperial …

Every Englishman who saw him longed earnestly and fervently to kick him … Whether Mr Shaitana was an Argentine, or a Portuguese, or a Greek, or some other nationality rightly despised by the insular Briton, nobody knew.

Similar sentiments are expressed by characters in Dumb Witness about Dr Tanios, and the stupidity of such insularity is more obviously mocked. She introduces Ariadne Oliver, a mocking self-portrait of herself, and who had briefly appeared in a Parker Pyne story, into the world of Poirot:

“I’ve written 32 books by now – and of course they’re all exactly the same really, as Mr Poirot seems to have noticed – but no-one else has.”  

Agatha Christie is being unduly modest here. Certainly, some elements in her plots are re-used once or twice but it is incredible how distinct the books written in her prime are from each other.

Her school girl French has come flooding back – in this example, Poirot has just survived a visit to Mrs Luxmore:

“Quelle femme!” murmured Hercule Poirot. “Ce pauvre Despard! Ce qu’il a dû souffrir! Quel voyage épouvantable!”

The most amusing, and gripping, chapters deal with Poirot’s encounter with Mrs Lorrimer: she confesses to the murder and he refuses to believe her. There is a fantastic flow to her writing here:

“The question is”, he said, “can Hercule Poirot possibly be wrong?”
“No-one can always be right,” said Mrs Lorrimer coldly.
“I am”, said Poirot. “Always I am right. It is so invariable that it startles me. But now it looks, it very much looks, as though I am wrong. And that upsets me. Presumably, you know what you are saying. It is your murder! Fantastic, then, that Hercule Poirot should know better than you how you committed it”.
“Fantastic and very absurd”, said Mrs Lorrimer still more coldly.
“I am, then, mad. Decidedly I am mad. No – sacré nom d’un petit bonnehomme – I am not mad! I am right. I must be right…”
Mrs Lorrimer said sharply: “I really believe you
are mad, M Poirot…”

The chapter ends with Poirot wringing the truth out of her:

Usually, on the rare occasion when someone laughs in Agatha Christie they ‘throw back their heads’ in order to do so. In a 50-year career, Poirot himself rarely laughed, and so to find him almost crying with laughter, as here, is unique. What is so funny?  

It had been a challenging case. There were no incriminating clues: any of the suspects might have done it. Poirot had thought that the only way to identify Shaitana’s murder would be via a thorough understanding of each suspect’s psychology, and how they would be most likely to behave in the peculiar circumstances of that evening.

He himself, somewhat laboriously, had used the bridge scores and questions about their powers of observation to build up a profile for each of the suspects … only to discover that someone had actually witnessed the killing.

I think Poirot’s laughter here is an indication of how much the author enjoyed writing this book.1

SWIGATHA RATING  7/10  

Agatha Christie writes in her Foreword to Cards on the Table that it was ‘one of Hercule Poirot’s favourite cases. His friend, Captain Hastings, however, when Poirot describes it to him, considered it very dull. I wonder with which of them my readers will agree’.

The estimable Christie scholar Robert Barnard describes it as ‘on the very top rung.’2 I incline more to Hastings’ opinion than Poirot or Barnard’s. The idea for the setting is, yet again, brilliant: four sleuths and four murderers invited to form bridge fours by a devil-like character, who promises to reveal some secrets when they finish playing … take it away!

But it drags somewhat after that. There is too much padding – the ridiculous circumstance of the murder of Mrs Lorrimer has no place in this story, and looks designed to drag Swigatha over the line to ‘page 192’.

The sleuth super-group is unconvincing, and it seems that Race realises it, because he has disappeared to some ‘remote part of Empire where there’s trouble brewing’ well before the end. I would have gone for 6/10 were it not for Chapter 26.

WHAT HAPPENED NEXT  

The supergroup disbanded. Race met up with Poirot again the following year on the Nile, Battle returned for Towards Zero wondering what ‘keeps putting Hercule Poirot into my head’, and Mrs Oliver re-emerges 16 years later when Poirot investigates the death of Mrs McGinty. Two of the characters, Major Despard and Rhoda Dawes, marry and turn up again with Mrs Oliver in The Pale Horse.

ADAPTATIONS  

Granada TV, 2005. Some of the Granada adaptations seem not to trust the original story too much. This one is a classic example; here are some of the ‘improvements’ in their screenplay: 

Colonel Race and Superintendent Battle are (inexplicably?) replaced by Colonel Hughes and Supt Wheeler
– Dr Roberts apparently murdered to prevent the fact of his homosexuality being made public
– One of Shaitana’s four killers, Anne Meredith, didn’t do anything wrong
– Her friend Rhoda Dawes proves to be a homicidal nutcase and drowns (which explains why she doesn’t appear in any of the ITV productions of The Pale Horse)  
– Mrs Lorrimer survives and turns out to be Anne Meredith’s mother.

It is a difficult story to stretch over two hours, admittedly, but these changes are witless. The character of Shaitana, however, is beautifully captured by Alexander Siddig.

NOTES

1 Another book was being written at the same time (The ABC Murders); in it, Poirot laughs again, on page 1. Agatha Christie was definitely in a good place in 1935 … Thanks to Tp Nowicki for pointing this out on facebook

2 From his Agatha Christie – A Talent to Deceive