Human beings are complex creatures. One moment we’re happy and the next, we’re blue. And sometimes we find ourselves at war with our emotions. Take me, for instance. Today, I’m a jumble of mixed feelings.
I’m feeling good about bridge. You see, last summer, I decided to learn a game that had always seemed fascinating to me from a distance. By distance, I mean from books and movies! Nobody in my family played bridge. My maternal grandparents loved cards, especially poker, gin, and pinochle. One of the wonderful things about my Grandpa was that he never let us win – we had to earn it. I grew up playing gin and hearts and in my thirties developed a passion for euchre. But bridge always seemed like it might be, well . . . too much. As it turns out, it is “too much” – only in the 1960’s sense of being pretty wonderful. It’s complex and elegant. It feels both old-fashioned and new. (Evidently, the Bridge Powers-That-Be change it up every so often.) It seems to be a game that can make you friends. (And possibly set off a war.) And – God help me, but I am getting older – it makes you think!
So I’m feeling good about bridge. I get to play today after school. And I feel I’ll be really good at the game in about fifty years. But I’m feeling bad as well. I feel bad about Ben.
By Ben, I’m referring to that erudite creator of The Green Capsule blog. Ben is currently branching out from his preferred taste for locked room mysteries in general and, most specifically, John Dickson Carr. He has taken his first tentative steps along the career path of Agatha Christie, my favorite mystery author, and so far, things are going . . . okay.
On the one hand, it seems like Ben is having a good time. He has enjoyed both the novels he has read. The problem is that, in terms of case-solving, he’s batting “2/0”. And since he has selected two titles known for their surprise endings, it’s disheartening to glom onto the twists from the start. (He describes how it feels so well here and here.) I certainly know that feeling. This was exactly my experience with The Emperor’s Snuff Box! And, like Ben, I would rather be fooled a hundred times than beat the detective at his game even once.
I feel like it’s my fault. I’m the one who guided him toward choosing these titles. Now I wonder if I should have steered Ben in a different direction. Agatha Christie isn’t all about shocking twists and surprise endings. The qualities Ben has admired about her so far which, as far as I can tell, have to do with plotting and writing style, can be brought to bear on fine stories that don’t depend on a jaw-dropping finale and can still satisfy. Freed from the burden of having to shock the reader at the end, the author can still create a story with a strong set-up and a satisfying ending, filling the in-between with misdirection and wit. I thought I’d look at such a title today, 1936’s Cards on the Table. I hope you’ll all take this trip with me and offer your comments below, but this in-depth list of ten reasons to read and like Cards on the Table is for Ben. I won’t spoil the book for you, Ben, but I also intend to discuss the egregious ITV adaptation that starred David Suchet. I suggest you skip that final section until after you have read the book. (And if you plan on watching the adaptation, I suggest you first learn the rules of JJ’s drinking game.)
REASON NUMBER ONE: It’s vintage Christie.
If the period between the Wars is considered the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, the 1930’s were definitely Christie’s GAD. From 1930 to 1939, she wrote eighteen mystery novels, dozens of short stories and novellas, two Mary Westmacott books, one autobiographical travel book, three play adaptations of her own work, and a radio play that would eventually boost her already considerable fame for generations to come.
Twelve of the eighteen mystery novels were Hercule Poirot adventures. Several of these are sure to be found on many fans’ list of favorites: Peril at End House (1932), Murder on the Orient Express (1934), The A.B.C. Murders (1936), and Death on the Nile (1937). Many of the 30’s titles contain some brilliant surprises (which I fear Ben will regularly explode). But some titles, notably The A.B.C. Murders and Cards on the Table, are different. Their plots twist about without necessarily pulling the rug out from under you in Roger Ackroyd fashion. In their reliance on a powerful set-up with strong follow-through and a more even-handed approach to their characters, these two novels foreshadow the 1940’s, where trickery is at least partially supplanted by psychology, with rarely a hiccup in Christie’s power to misdirect.
REASON NUMBER TWO: Its structure is a model of elegance and simplicity.
Cards has a powerful set-up that benefits from a pleasing sense of parallelism in its opening scenes. Two striking figures meet at a museum exhibit. Poirot is – well, what can I say? He’s Hercule Poirot! His acquaintance, Mr. Shaitana is also a personage of deliberate exoticism:
“The whole of Mr. Shaitana’s person caught the eye – it was designed to do so. 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. His clothes were works of art – of exquisite cut – but with a suggestion of the bizarre.”
If there is an outward resemblance between the two men – an attention to personal appearance, a love of fine food and fine things – Poirot and Shaitana also stand in opposition to each other. Poirot’s raison d’etre is the solving of puzzles, the uncovering of truths with the purpose of bringing evildoers to justice. Shaitana also likes to uncover secrets, but he could care less about justice. He uses the information he gathers both to amass power and, more shockingly, for his own amusement. Poirot’s life has purpose that serves the common good. Shaitana gives parties and collects objects. That some of these objects are human beings merely underscores Shaitana’s perversity. Shaitana invites Poirot to dine and meet his latest “collection”: four perfectly lovely people who have committed murder and gotten away with it.
REASON NUMBER THREE: The case is investigated by Christie’s own team of “superheroes”, her version of The Fantastic Four.
To balance his guest list, Shaitana has also invited four people who, to varying degrees, represent the art of detection. Superintendent Battle is the official policeman. Poirot is a proven commodity in the private sector. Colonel Race is a counter-intelligence agent for MI5, and Mrs. Ariadne Oliver is an author of detective stories. These four comprise one of the rare instances where Christie creates a larger universe than what one usually finds in her novels. Battle and Race each have solo cases to their credit (one of Battle’s adventures, Towards Zero is A+ Christie) as well as problems they have solved with Poirot. Mrs. Oliver started her career with Mr. Parker Pyne and helps out the youthful sleuths in one non-series title, The Pale Horse. To my mind, she out-Watsons Captain Hastings every time in the half dozen cases she shares with Poirot. People have long suggested that Christie should have teamed her top sleuths, Poirot and Miss Marple, together. That would never have worked. This is a wonderful consolation prize.
REASON NUMBER FOUR: The suspect list epitomizes the phrase “Waste not, want not!”
Some authors work with large casts, while others keep it small. Done with panache, a mystery with three or four suspects can be brimming with suspense. (John Dickson Carr often excels at this.) The advantage of a larger group is the author’s ability to spread the wealth of suspicion. Christie generally cast this wider net. Her travel books (i.e. Murder on the Orient Express, Death on the Nile) feature as many as a dozen suspicious characters. The challenge is to make this many people matter to the case and to the reader. I would argue that Three-Act Tragedy contains too many characters, which unfortunately makes it even easier to spot the villain. Some complain that there are too many family members in Hercule Poirot’s Christmas. Arguably, you need a cast of this size to make the final trick work, but I’ll admit that the characterization of most of those sons and their wives are pretty thin.
Christie considered working with a small cast a particular challenge, and she directed her audience to this aspect of Cards in a special Forward:
“There are only four (suspects) and any one of them, given the right circumstances, might have committed the crime . . . each of (them) has (allegedly, already) committed murder and is capable of committing further murders. They 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 . . . When all is said and done it is the mind of the murderer that is of supreme interest.”
The suspect list initially resembles a partial roll call of Christie’s beloved “types”: the bluff, hearty doctor, the bright young thing, the intelligent but emotionally closed-off widow, and the cool, dashing military man. We’ve seen them before, and we’ll see them again; Christie’s pantheon of killers includes some of each type. Christie’s aim here is to spread the suspicion, not divert it. Ackroyd and Crooked House shock us at the denouement, but if you are expecting the same thrill here, you will be disappointed.I myself read Cards after having tackled some of Christie’s most juicy surprise endings, and I spent much of the novel certain that one of the detectives would be Shaitana’s killer. Thankfully, this is not the case. Christie is not out to bamboozle in a showy way. She lays out her four suspects and then has fun manipulating her readers to accuse one after another until the very end. This challenge that she set out for herself is one of the greatest merits of the novel.
REASON NUMBER FIVE: There can be no Dragging the Marsh Effect.
Every aspect of this novel eliminates the fear that the case will degenerate into a series of boring interviews. First off, the suspect list is too small to lead to that deadly middle section one finds in nearly every Ngaio Marsh mystery. Secondly, after the initial investigation, each detective is “matched up” with a different suspect to investigate. This creates welcome diversity in the methods by which information is gathered. Some parts, especially those featuring Mrs. Oliver, are quite funny.
Thirdly, the plot is a fine hybrid of trying to solve a contemporary murder with a search for both why Shaitana included each suspect in his collection of murderers and, later, a deduction about whether the victim was correct in doing so. This uncertainty broadens Christie’s characterization of her suspects. They all are presented as basically nice people, yet if they are murderers, something must be off about them. But are they indeed all murderers? The possibility that one or more may be innocent adds to the complexity of the investigation. So does the fact that, although all the suspects ostensibly share the same motive for killing Shaitana (self-protection), the sleuths must figure out who, if anyone, each person killed and for what reason. This, in and of itself, makes for an unusually interesting case.
REASON NUMBER SIX: The bridge game matters.
I actually wasn’t sure if this was true until I started playing bridge four months ago. Believe me, since I began learning the game, I have thought about this book more than once! Christie was quite proud of how much she based the clueing of this novel on psychology. Even her biggest fans will admit that sometimes the author’s understanding of the workings of the human mind was a bit wonky. You don’t really need an understanding of bridge to enjoy the book, but now I feel you would appreciate it more if you do play. There’s a mindset among bridge players that explains a lot about what happens in Shaitana’s drawing room after dinner. The bridge scores, touted as an important clue, actually are an important clue.
REASON NUMBER SEVEN: Justice is served.
I don’t want to belabor this for fear of spoiling any plot points. Agatha Christie had very simple yet strong notions of justice. A person who commits murder must be punished for their act.. Here she is dealing with a more complex situation, and she handles it with great cleverness. Nuff said!
REASON NUMBER EIGHT: The book is an all too rare example of Christie’s attempts at continuity in her universe.
As I mentioned in reason number three above, this is a rare occasion when individual good guys cross paths. But there are other wonderful reminders here that the lives of Christie’s characters are not relegated to a single story. The germ of this plotline is openly stated by Poirot himself in The A.B.C. Murders when he describes this very murder as a perfect crime to solve. Poirot’s success in solving the A.B.C. crimes earns him a strong reputation in Cards and is mentioned there. A gigantic – and rare for Christie – spoiler is present in an interview Poirot has with Rhoda Dawes, the roommate of suspect Anne Meredith. Here, Poirot ruins Murder on the Orient Express, so be aware! (Further warning: Christie goes one better in her next novel, Dumb Witness, when she has Poirot rattle off a list of half a dozen names, all of them murderers in previous cases.)
The legacy of this book is also a powerful one. Mrs. Oliver, who will not return till 1952, will then seldom leave the landscape, becoming one of Christie’s most beloved characters. Her successful, but fictional, novel The Body in the Library, will be the title of one of Christie’s most beloved real books of the 40’s. And a pair of Card’s characters will reappear in a mystery novel of the 60’s. Perhaps even more significant to the novel’s legacy is . . .
REASON NUMBER NINE: Good as it is, Cards on the Table is a dress rehearsal for even better things.
A group of people who have all committed murder invited to a gathering by a mysterious host. Murder ensues. Sound familiar? One could even argue that certain characters in And Then There Were None are extensions of the four suspects in Cards. Certainly Anne Meredith qualifies as a poor girl’s Vera Claythorne, and Dr. Roberts and Dr. Armstrong share certain qualities. I would much rather spend an evening with Mrs. Lorrimer and Major Despard than Emily Brent or Philip Lombard (although if Philip Lombard looks like Aidan Turner . . . let me get back to you.)
The concept of past murder cases informing a present-day murder returns to great effect in Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, one of Christie’s best 50’s titles and one of her funniest books. And several of the methods used to kill in Cards will return in at least two other books, both of them involving serial killers.
NOTE: Ben and other folks who have not yet read Cards on the Table should skip this last one! SPOILER ALERT!!!
REASON NUMBER TEN: The book is so much better than the TV adaptation.
Someone could argue that this is not really a legitimate reason to read Cards on the Table. To you, my friend, I say, “Who cares? I wanna kvetch, and that is what I’m gonna do!” Christie shows most plotters how it’s done! What could the point be for messing unforgivably with her stories?
The ITV adaptation of this novel starred David Suchet and was written by Nick Dear. Mr. Dear wrote six episodes of Poirot, including the excellent The Hollow. Most of his screenplays occurred late in the series, which meant that he needed to capitulate to Suchet’s evident desire for more emotional resonance in Poirot’s character. Thus, in Three Act Tragedy, Mr. Dear eliminated Mr. Satterthwaite and provided Poirot with a more emotional investment in the case and its aftermath. Mrs. McGinty’s Dead and Dead Man’s Folly were more or less recognizable from the novels, while Elephants Can Remember hijacks the original set-up and makes the rest unrecognizable and distinctly un-Christie-an. Cards on the Table, Mr. Dear’s second effort for the series, is unusual in that it follows the novel closely enough that you would think Mr. Dear admired the original plot. And yet he changes things, and each change he makes distances the screenplay ever further from Christie’s style and intent – all to absolutely no purpose.
I’ve described Mr. Shaitana above. He is malevolent and interesting, but he really acts as a catalyst to move the story forward into the investigation by the four detectives of the four suspects. For unfathomable reasons, the screenplay makes bizarre alterations to Shaitana’s character. In an effort to either humanize him or to try and find a “rational” explanation for Shaitana setting up his own death, Dear makes him suicidal. It’s not enough that he likes to toy with people for the sadistic pleasure it brings him. Setting himself in a closed room with four murderers playing bridge is truly a “dead man’s folly,” but it is how a man as distinctly alien as Shaitana finds excitement in modern London. The filmed Shaitana is weary of the life of meaningless parties, meaningless sex, and endless drug-taking. He actually dopes himself with sleeping pills because he fully expects (nay, hopes?) that he will be killed, and he doesn’t want to feel any pain.
Mr. Dear also makes Shaitana homosexual. This actually happened with some frequency in the ITV adaptations of both Poirot and Miss Marple. I can only assume the purpose was to “update” Christie for modern audiences, but this is ludicrous. I’m not crazy about Christie’s actual depictions of homosexuality, but they are her own. To try and cast her true gay characters in a more positive light for modern audiences makes some sense, but inserting homosexuality into a plot where none existed smacks of sensationalism. The only time it works for me is in the adaptation of Five Little Pigs, where one could argue that the character’s homosexuality actually stems from a considered reading of the original text; in a way, the man’s gayness actually enriches his motivations and our perception of him, since he’s rather a brute in the book but here gains our sympathy from having secretly loved the victim.
Shaitana’s sexuality becomes central to the adaptation’s plot. Mr. Dear waves his wand and – poof! – the murderer is queer as well. In fact, this is how Shaitana met the killer. All of the murderer’s motivations from the book are thus reversed sexually: rather than having killed a woman’s husband so that he could have her for himself, he kills the wife so that he can love the closeted husband.
This is bad enough, but Mr. Dear takes it even further. As I stated above, in the novel the division between the four sleuths and the four suspects is clear. The film adaptation muddies the waters by replacing Superintendent Battle with an original character, a closeted Scotland Yard detective who has also had an affair with Shaitana. Not only that, he allowed Shaitana to take “compromising” pictures of him. This not only makes no sense in terms of character, it lowers Christie into a cesspool of sexual intrigue into which she would never have wallowed. She didn’t need to. She could intimate horrible things without spelling them out. The lady had class!
The other major plot change made in the adaptation for no earthly reason is that the characters of Anne Meredith and Rhoda Dawes are essentially switched. Whether or not she killed Shaitana, Anne in the novel resembles the dark angels of noir: pretty on the outside, yet rotten to the core. Rhoda not only adds to Anne’s shield of respectability, she also possesses money and connections from which Anne derives benefit. The scene in the novel involving the stockings is a great moment where Poirot begins to determine Anne’s true nature; from there on, her layers of nastiness are progressively exposed. Anne’s innate badness not only provides a nice contrast to Despard’s basic decency but once again showcases one of Christie’s strengths, that of not caving in to romantic sentiment and eliminating young lovers. As with Anne, Rhoda provides a pointer to the Major’s true nature when he makes his choice over which drowning girl to save. This is Christie at her most subtly tricky without having to be showy.
What purpose does it serve to make Rhoda the monster? Is Mr. Dear trying to surprise longtime fans of Christie? To do this at the expense of the author’s careful plotting, even of the story making sense does no service to the material or to fans’ loyalty. Shaitana has already made one mistake with Despard. To get two out of the four cases wrong is so careless as to weaken the whole set-up of the story.
Up till the end of this, I have tried very hard to avoid spoilers. That, as longtime readers may know, is not my wont, but I hope that what I have written will lure newer Christie readers – especially you, Ben – to step away from her Tales With a Major Twist and sample some strong if slightly more traditional novels. For those of you who would like to discuss Cards on the Table in greater detail below, please make sure that any SPOILERS are so marked to warn off the new folks!