TEN REASONS YOU SHOULD LOVE CARDS ON THE TABLE (And Deplore The TV Version)

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.

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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 . . .

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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?

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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.

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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!

56 thoughts on “TEN REASONS YOU SHOULD LOVE CARDS ON THE TABLE (And Deplore The TV Version)

  1. I completely agree with you, Brad, that the book is much better than the adaptation is. And I’m one who likes Suchet very much as Poirot. It’s not that. For me, it was too many fundamental changes in the interactions among the characters. Some of their relationships, too, are not as things are in the book, and it did nothing for the plot. And the book really is good. It’s that nice, quiet murder, if you will, that Christie did so well. And it’s all about the sort of murder it is, isn’t it? I don’t want to say more, for fear of spoiling anything. But I do like the way the crime fits the killer, if that makes sense.

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    1. It makes perfect sense, Margot, and for once I think Christie really got the psychology right! I like the point you make about “quiet murders.” Christie really did do that well, didn’t she?

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      1. She did, indeed, Brad. And I just noticed said ‘quite’ instead of ‘quiet.’ So glad you knew what I meant! *embarrassed*

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  2. “…. but inserting homosexuality into a plot where none existed smacks of sensationalism”
    I agree fully. In fact, to increase the sensationalism, as many as 4 male characters are shown homosexual, of which 3 are main characters !

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  3. Hmm….so you’re telling me to watch the movie before I read the book…….

    Honestly, this is one of the more enjoyable posts that I’ve read ever – very tight and on point throughout. And, Cards On the Table is sitting there, just begging to be my next read….except, I haven’t read Murder on the Orient Express, which it apparently spoils.

    A few considerations on this point:
    1. If Poirot merely mentions the name of the killer, rather than explaining the core trick to the puzzle, that doesn’t matter. I’m not going to remember some random name mentioned in some novel later when I read another novel. My mind doesn’t work that way.
    2. Oh, but somehow my brain would pull off a miracle in this case now that I know there is a spoiler. I would be 10 pages into Orient Express and instantly recognize some name like “Warren Browne” and be like “darn it, that’s the killer”.
    3. I don’t have access to a copy of Orient Express!?!?! Which is sort of strange because I have access to like 50 Christie titles. And, of course, I’ve been somewhat reluctant to jump right to “the popular one”, just because, you know, it’s that popular.

    Anyway, that is what is preventing me from reading Cards on the Table. And now you dangle this in front of me. The cruelty!

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    1. First of all, Poirot doesn’t just mention a name in Cards – he actually gives away the entire solution. You definitely want to read Orient Express first. However, while this 12 year-old jumped out of his seat when the killer was revealed, I fully expect you to not be surprised at all by this solution, for a number of reasons we can discuss after you’re done. And, classic though the book may be, it is one of those Christie titles that tends to drag the Marsh. Just warning you!

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      1. Ugh, I was hoping it was going to be a subtle name-reference, like Carr did in a number of his books. Well, looks like I took the right approach of waiting. Now I just need to track down a copy of Orient Express.

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  4. “Dragging the Marsh”! Love it. Yes, of the later Suchet versions, Hollow and 5 Pigs are excellent. But the rest… Casting Zoe Wanamaker instead of Stephanie Cole, or Patricia Routledge, or… [insert dream casting here] was a mistake. I watched the beginning of Elephants, and she makes the character petulant and peevish – Mrs O is enthusiastic and open-hearted. But the real crime is that they made Mrs Oliver DRINK. It is stated clearly in all the books she appears in that she doesn’t drink alcohol because she doesn’t like the taste. And it is so lazy to combine “older woman” with “alcohol” for a cheap laugh.

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    1. These are the same minds that conceived of Tuppence being an unhappily married alcoholic, or Poirot being morally troubled by the work he does, or Miss Marple befriending a young man whom she should never have met and not recognizing his psychopathy until it was convenient to the plot. ZW was a very sour Miss Marple indeed, small in personality where she should be large, and never funny. There was a great deal that I liked about Poirot, but when they got it wrong, they blew it!

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    2. Don’t forget the Suchet version of Sad Cypress, Lucy! That was good as well but then after that the series began to fall off the wagon with their straying away from the books. There were a few gems such as After The Funeral but the series went downhill. I think Stephanie Cole would have been a great choice as Ariadne Oliver and it’s a shame that we didn’t get an actress who both looked and acted the part. The only book where Mrs. Oliver drinks, much to the insistence of Poirot, is in “Halloween Party” but that’s to calm her nerves after the news of Joyce, the dead girl.

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  5. Interestingly, my distinct memories of this are 1) the middle section, with all the sleuths visiting all the suspects, becomes horribly muddled and drags appallingly, and 2) the absolute, utter, and complete cheat that is the trick used to catch the killer still infuriates me to this day.

    But then, we do tend to disagree on these perceived classics — Death on the Nile being a key example. Ben pointed out that I’ve never declared my top Christies anywhere online, so perhaps it’s time to nail my colours to the mast…but, well, that won’t happen any time soon, as there’s too much else to blog about!

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      1. That is interesting to hear. It’ll be a few years before I get to this again anyway, but I’ll try to remember this when I come back around to it. Thanks for piquing my curiosity…

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    1. If I recall correctly, that list would include The Seven Dials Mystery, which despite a truly stunning set of reversals, feels muddled and draggy to me. Like the Puzzle Doctor, this one gets better and better to me.

      In other news, have reached Chapter Two of The Seven Wonders of Crime.

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      1. I wonder how much of a sucker I am for “Well, that laboured series of events has finally belted me in the face with a kicker of an ending…and I like it!” — I’m generally more amenable towards a lousy journey when the destination springs something lovely and unexpected on me. Dead GAD authors take note! This is how to get me to like your stuff!

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  6. @Brad: I know that you dislike the French television series. But this episode is IMO actually very well done. With the obvious exception of the different detectives in the French series, there is only one major change, an additional murder. Otherwise, it’s very faithful to the book, much more so than the Suchet episode.

    The book was not one of my favourites. I always remembered it as one, where Christie tried to give the characters more depth, but where it didn’t quite the way like in several of the upcoming books. So it had neither an interetsing twsit nor particularly interesting characters for me. But I reread it recently and I don’t think I was quite fair to the book. The two female suspects were very well written (especially Anne), but I don’t care at all for the two males as characters.

    Quote: “Agatha Christie had very simple yet strong notions of justice. A person who commits murder must be punished for their act.”

    Except for the books where this isn’t the case. 😉 On top of my head I can think of six books and one play, where the culprits gets away or where it’s unclear, if the evidence will suffice to arrest them.

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    1. I just gave up my subscription to MHz, so I can’t watch the French version – but you’re not the first to tell me it’s one of that series best episodes.

      I want us to put our heads together on those six books. The play is Unexpected Guest, right? And there’s MOTOE, of course, but in that case the murder is considered “justice.” Let me think about this one . . . I feel another post coming on!

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      1. Spoiler for anyone who hasn’t read these books:

        Yes, I meant Orient Express and Unexpected Guest, of course.

        The murderers in “Why didn’t they ask Evans” and “Men in the Brown Suite” escape to South America. Then of course there’s Five Little Pigs, though one could argue that the murderer gets punished indirectly. In “Bertram’s Hotel” Miss Marple tells the inspector, who the murderer is, but it remains open, if they will find evidence to get them. The sixth one I was thinking about was Sad cypress, but now I’m unsure. I haven’t read it in a while, but I think the killer escapes to Australia. Or do they get arrested while trying to escape?

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  7. An excellent analysis, and I hope your bridge experiences continue to please you! Yes, it does take about 50 years. Just play 100 hands a day against the computer and you’ll get there. As far as the book goes, that really is what happens at rubber bridge when someone is playing a grand slam. Christie had been there and done that, I’m sure. And it’s a good lesson to avoid the cancellation style of score-keeping, not that anyone uses tallies any more.
    I’m hoping that Jamie Bernthal-Hooker reads your analysis and comments; he will have things to say about queering the characters that are more insightful and better founded than mine. I’ll simply say that I think there is evidence in the text that Shaitana is gay, although it’s not conclusive, merely suggestive. I think of him as the anti-Poirot. There is certainly no suggestion, to my mind, that he is suicidal; I think of him as the type of person who is desperate for sensation. The queering of the other characters in the TV version is just … unfounded.

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    1. I wouldn’t be surprised if Christie had intended Shaitana to be gay (if she even thought along those lines), since she takes pains to paint him as malevolent and perverse. I absolutely agree with you, Noah, about him being the “anti-Poirot.” It’s almost a shame he dies so quickly. He would have made a nice Moriarty-like figure!

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      1. And “Shaitana”, as a name, is related to “Satan”, although I’m not sure of the etymological association. Literally the man’s name is “Satan”. Wouldn’t he have been great in The Big Four? LOL

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      2. While Shaitana’s name does resemble Satan, and he seems to be introduced as Poirot’s rival, I don’t think he ends like this at all. Shaitana breaks the stereotype by being ultimately revealed as dumb. He loves playing games with others, and it got him killed. Poirot actually pitied him at the end and called his behaviour an “enfantillage”.

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    2. The one online program I use makes sure that the opposition ALWAYS has the cards needed to stop me – if I have 30 points it has all the voids. Plus, there’s nothing to show/tell me where I went wrong. But I will keep trudging along!

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  8. Excellent review, Brad. I enjoyed Cards on the Table, but not as much as you did, I suspect. One likely reason for that is that I don’t play bridge – and, overall, I suspect that the game no longer inspires the kind of passion it did back in the 1930s, when bridge appears (in so many GA mysteries) to have been a primary source of recreation during the evening hours. All the same, the concept of hiding the murderer among just tour people was brilliant, and I certainly found myself fooled by the major twists and turns.

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    1. I’m a bridge player and I know Christie to have been also, just from this book if nothing else. She is absolutely killingly correct that there is a point in that bridge game when everyone’s attention would have been glued to the table and not looking at their host, and the score sheets give it away; and conversation reveals which suspect caused that intense focus in game terms. More people did play in the 1930s and I think she thought everyone would have been able to understand that … these days it’s quite an esoteric point.
      You’re right that bridge doesn’t inspire widespread passion these days, which is kind of sad. It’s more thought-provoking than World of Warcraft 😉

      Liked by 4 people

      1. WoW can be fun and thought provoking! It depends on with whom you play. But it’s a different kind of fun.

        I do agree with you about bridge. As I read CotT the first time, I remember wondering how people who don’t play would fare wading through the bridge-related clues.

        Of course, the interviews with each suspect in which Poirot is able to determine the character’s focus (based on their descriptions of perceptions throughout the evening) tell the true tale.

        Still, the bridge clues added so much to the story. The hands were interesting as well. Loved Mrs. Lorrimer, butchered in the TV version >sob<

        Liked by 2 people

      2. Hmmm . . . . though-provoking. I don’t think today’s society knows anything about “though-provoking” anymore. Does anyone even use their heads today? I’ll take a game of bridge ANY DAY over World of Warcraft! Now if only I knew how to play bridge . . . .

        Liked by 1 person

    2. I started bridge four months ago, Les, so I can’t credit the game with my liking the book. But I’m like the Puzzle Doctor above: the joys of this one have grown on me due to its economy and elegant structure, among many other pleasures.

      Having struck up some new friendships with long-time bridge players, I think there is still a passionate base out there. The question is: how many younger players exist to keep the game’s popularity alive?

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Brad, I think this is a brilliant post, and it’s great to see this (I think) neglected book get its dues. As Noah guessed, I have strong opinions on the queerness of the characters — and the novel. IMO, Shaitana is deliberately and exotically ‘other’. I wouldn’t necessarily agree that he acts as a catalyst for the plot, so much as a frustration of the frail Englishness that Christie confronts so brilliantly. When he plays the part of the English host, all his respectable guests start airing their skeletons. And to this extent, he is culturally and sexually other. Certainly, Christie uses homosexual codes (such as purring, the expression ‘my dear’, and long boney fingers) but she doesn’t spell it out because Shaitana really exists to upset things. In this way, he is gently paralleled with Poirot throughout. Poirot is an effeminate, European ‘other’ and therefore less ‘foreign’ and exuberant than Shaitana. But in the very last scene, he sits in Shaitana’s chair, closes his eyes, and the most English character of all makes a joke about stabbing him to death…

    One thing I love about Cards on the Table is that all the suspects are guilty of murder (including the one who was, according to most characters, completely justified, and who survives) — reflecting a pretty rotten, insular interwar society. That’s another foreshadowing of AND THEN THERE WERE NONE (something I hadn’t noticed, but you’re dead right!). And I love the self-conscious way this is all predicated on playing a game. If you’re interested, I’ve written about it on my own blog here: https://signofthecrimes.blogspot.co.uk/2017/09/cards-on-table-by-agatha-christie.html and much more extensively in my book, QUEERING AGATHA CHRISTIE.

    And fwiw I could not agree with you more about the changes made in the adaptation. The changes to Shaitana and the murderer are infuriating, but the changes to Anne and Rhoda are heartbreaking. They not only stretch credibility, as you say, but also undo everything Christie does so brilliantly with the damsel in distress motif. And there’s an extra dollop of homophobia: Rhoda is depicted as a violent lesbian.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. SOME SPOILERS HERE!

      Jamie, Thanks so much for your comments. I swear to you that I didn’t know you had reviewed this one yourself on AC’s birthday! Great minds think alike!

      I enjoyed your analysis thoroughly. A couple of thoughts (which i could have easily put on your site and where I intend to visit often!):

      Major Despard turns out to be innocent of murder, but he certainly finds himself drawn to bad women. Rhoda (whom I never thought of as dumpy – one of the things that makes them seem to be a fit to Poirot is her adventurous spirit, and I always assumed she was, unlike Anne, an athletic girl) is his prize at the end, a prize that you are right to say he hasn’t earned. And yet, they live happily ever after. Christie’s inclusion of them in The Pale Horse smacks of a reassurance to her readers of that fact. Despard is the dullest character in the book; frankly, that’s why I figured Poirot doesn’t like him.

      The other thought I had was how much fun it would be to put our heads together and discuss the times Christie takes the “easy” way out by trapping a murderer without benefit of evidence. It’s even more prevalent in Miss Marple! How lucky for her and Poirot that all these murderers confess at the drop of a hat (or the removal of a fishbone! 🙂 )

      Your book sounds wonderful, and like all scholarly texts is more expensive than I can manage at this time. But I look forward to reading more about your thoughts on the subject in your blog. I did read and very much enjoy your essay on Tey in Curtis’ book. I had just finished reading Miss Pym Disposes, which I really loved. Thanks again for visiting. I look forward to more talks!

      Liked by 3 people

  10. The TV version was crap.

    The key murder that Poirot used to trap the murderer . . . never happened. That was the single biggest shock to me of the TV version — how well and truly the actual mystery was butchered. One of Christie’s best, Suchet’s worst, hands down.

    Reversing Ann and Rhoda when Rhoda marries Despard and appears in successive novels…that was a mistake the effin script girl could and should have caught. Horribad! Dumb and pointless change and as it happens, historically inaccurate.

    Completely changing the motivation for the murder?

    The deliberate and ham-handed insertion of homosexual themes into this and several other TV versions (Body in the Library from the terribad “Marple” series, I’m looking at YOU, among others) makes the insinuating writer’s “agenda: quite evident, however someone else’s novel is not the appropriate vehicle for one to use to force one’s own political/social views on a hapless viewing audience.

    To my knowledge the only homosexual couple portrayed (and very loosely) by Christie were Murgatroyd and Hinch. That was a subtle, but obvious relationship, not forced into the story and certainly the fact that these ladies were gay became the focal point of the story. Mr. Pie (Moving Finger) may have had such leanings but Agatha didn’t make a “thing” out of it.

    The one and only adaptation where this change worked and worked well was in Five Little Pigs. Changing Philip Blake’s love interest from Carolyne to Amyus was brilliant and it worked in that story. (Though they changed Carla’s name to “Lucy” ugh…) …but I digress

    The TV production of Cards on the Table is the #1 WORST adaptation. Of the 70+ films in the Poirot series, this was one of four total stinkers. (The others in no particular order: Appointment with Death; MOTOE; Taken at the Flood (oh talk about completely missing the point…).

    The book Cards on the Table was brilliant and snappy, exotic and baffling. I absolutely loved the denouement and what led to it, Poirot was brilliant. The bridge hands were fun clues and so were his interviews with the suspects.

    My advice: Stay away from the TV production. It sucks whether you know the real story or not.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Oh, Marblex, I wish you had stronger views on these matters!

      One could read a lesbian overtones in the killer’s motives in a very late Miss Marple novel. Christopher Wren of The Mousetrap, like Mr. Pye, is presented as queer, with the added unpleasantness that this makes him more likely to be a psychopathic serial killer. In fact, in the play, most of the suspects could be read as gay. Mr. Paravicini is sort of an inverse Poirot, and Miss Casewell is as butch as they come. I think Scott Ratner’s onto something here: it really is a most unpleasant play!

      As I wrote, I agree about Five Little Pigs. It’s the only one where the change works. Looking at something like A Body in the Library, one has to ask exactly what these folks’ agenda was? Turning a loving young mother into a greedy lesbian killer – what does that promote? Switching both killer and motive in The Sittaford Mystery – is this supposed to “improve” that fine early novel? That one – and the execrable By the Pricking of My Thumbs are far worse adaptations than MOTOE or Taken at the Flood, at least in my opinion.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. LOL I know I should try to come out of my shell. I only mentioned those stories where I felt it was obvious without being obnoxious. Yes, all the characters you mentioned may in fact, share that feature. It’s fine, so long as it doesn’t become the focal point of the story because in Christie’s world, sex never was, specifically.

        I overall found the “Marple” series unwatchable. Neither actress playing in the lead role ever captured Marple as Hickson did (Christie saw that Hickson was right for the part years before JH was old enough to play her). In addition to bad casting, the writing was, shall I say, misguided, terrible and practically a literary crime?

        The Sittaford Mystery was a hopeless mass of awfulness with a side of total confusion, bad casting and incredibility. Ugh.

        By the Pricking of My Thumbs was, in a word, an abortion. Making Tuppence Beresford a frustrated alcoholic, let alone, a supporting character in this story was absurd and off-putting.

        Frankly, the show’s terrible tendency, not only to destroy each and every Christie story (except Murder is Announced, which was OK but nothing compared to Hickson’s version) was bad enough. I mean did you watch “Sleeping Murder?” I quit halfway through it, unable to take the butchery any longer.

        Even worse than the untalented rewriting, inserting Marple into other stories where she never appeared just frankly pissed me off. So yes, “Marple” was a terribad, awful series, I just try to forget it.

        And yes, all of “Marple” was worse even than Poirot’s Cards, or MOTOE or Taken at the Flood. My main beef with the latter was making David’s act purposeful and not merely fortuitous…but yes, you are right.

        How can the estate allow this butchery to continue? Gahh where are the author’s moral rights?

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Spoiler for the Mousetrap in the sense that it becomes clear who isn’t the murderer:

        I am in two minds about the Mousetrap in that point. While both Christopher Wren and Miss Casewell are gay stereotypes, I also think they turn out to be the most likeable characters in the end, with maybe the exception of Molly.

        Christopher is very childish in the beginning and sees everything as a big game, but (in contrast to Paravicini) this changes the moment Mrs Boyle is killed. Once he realizes, that there’s really a murderer in the pension, Christopher stops making fun of it.

        In core, he isn’t all that different to the character Randy Meeks from Scream. He’s there to bring the Mousetrap almost to a meta-level. In Scream it was seen as a big innovation, but really, Agatha did it decades ago, even though, I concede that, less sharp than it was done in Scream. And when Molly had her nervous breakdown in the kirchen, Christopher was there caring for her.

        And Casewell went though a lot and hides it behind a bluff manner. Yes, she talks about moving on, but she’s clearly scarred by her terrible passed and tries to hide her feelings. And in the end, it is she who saves Molly’s life convinces the killer to give up, making her ultimately the real heroine of the play.

        Liked by 1 person

  11. Hey, HG:

    The murderers in “Why didn’t they ask Evans” and “Man in the Brown Suit” escape to South America.”

    There are four titles that I have only read once and cannot speak intelligently enough about to satisfy myself: these two titles and the pair set at Chimneys. Frankly, I think I was too young to appreciate them since none are “traditional” whodunits. Suffice it to say, I wasn’t a huge fan when I did read them. I seem to remember that the killer in Brown Suit was such an amusing fellow, and none of the truly horrible things he did (or led) were taken particularly seriously. I don’t remember the ending to WDTAE at all.

    I think the killer in Five Little Pigs is sufficiently, if not legally, punished. That character’s life and essence is destroyed after the murder, and every day is a sufferance, no matter how much wealth and privilege surrounds them. I think it makes for a powerful ending. The murderer in Sad Cypress does not escape punishment, and the sense I get is that the killer in <Bertram's won’t either; we just don’t get to see that part of the denouement.

    Several murderers commit suicide. The only one of these that comes to mind that can be treated sympathetically is The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side. The one in Dumb Witness is used as a mildly clever feint; it’s one of the few clever aspects of that murder plot. The suicide I don’t really get is Roger Ackroyd. Why would Poirot show any sort of sympathy to this truly evil person? Poirot won’t even allow himself to escape punishment after committing murder, and that was an execution of another monster; why should he cut this killer any slack and allow them to escape facing their peers on the dock?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “Poirot won’t even allow *himself* to escape punishment after committing murder”

      While I’m sure that you’re right about ‘Roger Ackroyd’ (it’s been too long since I’ve read it to remember) I suspect that Poirot would be more stringent and severe on himself in this matter than on others: because, after all, he is *Hercule Poirot*.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Out of the four books you mentioned, Seven Dials Mystery is the only one that I truly like. Man in brown suit is partly entertaining. Why didn’t they ask Evans I find obvious, boring and on top of it pretty illogical (why do these other people take part in the scheme, if they inherited so much money during their first coup?). And Chimneys may very well be my least favourite Christie book that she didn’t write either right after her famous breakdown in the 1920s or at the very end of her career, when she was probably very ill.

      About the murderer in Brown Suit: I always wondered if she let him escape, because he was based on a real person she know and didn’t want him to end up badly. His deeds are horrible, even if they were presented in a light-hearted killer.

      But why she let the charming killer in Why didn’t they ask Evans escape is the biggest riddle for me. He’s morally even worse than the one in Brown Suit. He killed at least five persons, among them his brother, and tried to kill three more persons, among them a child.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’ve never loved Christie’s “Edgar Wallace-esque” romps, but as I’ve gotten older my patience for them has . . . slipped even more. Even The Secret Adversary dragged like crazy the last time I re-read it. I’m in total agreement with you about Chimneys; its charms evade me completely. The one I feel like I need to revisit is The Man in the Brown Suit – too many people love it for me to dismiss it without another look!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I think the fact that the heavy in WDTAE “got away” with it seemed more realistic to me than had he been caught. The criminal’s partner was caught, which served some end of justice. Often such scoundrels get clean away with it. In the book, the baddie confesses in a lengthy letter to Frankie. The television production (very good btw) rewrote this as a personal confrontation, which worked well for video.

        The baddie in MITBS was no better or worse than the baddie in Evans. In fact, why does the number of bodies matter? The crime and the intent are and were always the same and perhaps that makes both baddies more morally culpable. Murder for profit is always repulsive.

        But sometimes, the bad guy/gal gets away. . .

        Like

    3. Marina Gregg didn’t commit suicide — her loving husband administered a lethal drink to her. It’s quite unclear whether she was aware or if she consented to this.

      The killer in FLP wasn’t punished at all by society, which deserved to exact punishment. Instead that individual enjoys an exalted position, wealth and power. So what if that individual feels empty, bankrupt? Society would demand that this person suffer these feelings in jail!

      Still I agree… FLP is fiction and the ending as written, satisfies as such.

      The murder in Sad Cypress killed for profit and does not reside imho in the same class as the culprit in FLP.

      Like

      1. I felt like Jason put Marina down, like an animal in pain. Miss Marple approved of what he did. I’m not saying Elsa deserves to avoid prison, but Christie takes pains to show that Elsa is in her own sort of prison and no longer the passionate creature she was. And the killer in SC was exposed in court, so her greedy ways caught up with her.

        Liked by 2 people

  12. Noah and hg –

    What I think is interesting here is that Shaitana isn’t so much dumb as he is egoistic. Thought he’s a victim, he possesses the same ego as a lot of Christie’s murderers do; by a slight re-deal, he could have been a killer, except that he was too exotic to be susceptible to Christie’s efforts at misdirection.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Shaitana thinks of himself as a zookeeper of sorts… collecting “murderers” it is even possible he fancied himself some sort of Ringmaster… never suspecting that he would be a victim. Or, did he? This is one of the aspects that makes him an interesting character.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I do think there was something megalomaniacal about him: he enjoyed playing with people’s lives. All through dinner he tosses off hints. I don’t think he was suicidal; this was Shaitana’s version of drag-racing or bungee-jumping. It gave him a huge adrenaline rush to torment four murderers and then close himself off in a room with them.

        Liked by 2 people

  13. I thought the adaptation so bad as to be almost unwatchable. My goodness, here is a perfectly wonderful plot with intriguing characters and still they had to upset everything with absurd changes that add absolutely NOTHING to the story. That seems, by the way, the on-going rule with Christie – change for changes’ sake and nothing of value added. I often do not see the point of adapting Christie’s plots if all they’re going to do is fiddle with perfection. What is the point? (See the new version of MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS which, from the trailer alone, tells me this is another movie I won’t be seeing.)
    I don’t play bridge, but I’ve always loved CARDS ON THE TABLE and is one of the Christies I read over and over and never tire of. Yeah that Rhoda and Anne switcheroo is an abomination.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Oh, I’ll see the new MOTOE film! I’ll either be pleasantly surprised or, more likely, I’ll be outraged. Either way, I’ll have a post about it. It’s a win-win situation!

      Like

    2. There was nothing wrong with COTT and the book, from the the plot right down to the characters were perfect, so if these screenwriters want to write their own version of COTT then I rather they re-title it something else and remove Christie’s name instead. The changes I’ve seen from these recent adaptations that’s been coming out adds NOTHING to the story. They’re added just for shock value and to appeal to contemporary audiences, because no one wants to see a slow-cooker of a mystery these days. You have to pep it up with sex, action and F-bombs (such as in the recent Witness For the Prosecution) to the mix. Not one iota of that is Christie. So why stamp Christie’s name to it? It’s about money in the end. Not about properly respecting the name and legacy that Christie built from herself. When Rosalind, Christie’s daughter, was alive she was careful which adaptations could cross the grid and the impact it would have on her mother’s legacy. Not so with Mathew Prichard, Christie’s grandson. I don’t understand the need to modernize Christie. Modernize camera angles and all the technical things that go into the business but don’t update Christie’s stories and characters. The stories follow a certain time period, an era, of which modernizing it brings an inauthentic view of the period. Christie wouldn’t approve of the bastardization they’re doing to her stories and I don’t believe if she was still alive her views would change. They certainly didn’t change as she she got older so why now?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Completely agree, Brian. Many of these so-called “adaptations” are essentially plagiarism as far as I am concerned. So many of these fine stories have been butchered on film, I don’t watch them anymore without feedback from reliable sources.

        Also you are correct: Many of Christie’s stories simply would not work in modern settings because the situations they depict grew out of contemporary circumstances and events. These were and are essential, not only to the aesthetics but to the narratives themselves.

        Evidently, the second generation has no regard for their ancestor’s moral rights or the fine works she did.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Agree one hundred percent, Brian. I just refuse to watch, telling myself it’s not really Christie, so why bother. When it comes to the golden age of mysteries and especially Agatha Christie, I am NOT adaptable.

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