Slightly later than promised — or not, depending on your time zone — here’s the long-anticipated spoiler-heavy discussion betwixt Brad, Moira, and myself about Agatha Christie’s bridge-centric mystery Cards on the Table (1936). And, just for added drama, one of us thinks this book doesn’t quite deserve its reputation as a classic…
As well as some healthy disagreement and a lot of spoilers — you probably know the drill by now, but if you’re new here this Spoiler Warning series carries a spoiler warning — we also get a masterclass from Brad in how to play bridge given its importance to the book under discussion. Well, okay, no, a masterclass would take several months, but we get a bit of a rundown on the basic structure of the game, given that it will likely be unfamiliar to all but the most ardent GAD acolytes.
You can listen to the podcast on iTunes here, on Spotify here, or on Stitcher here, or by using the player below.
My thanks, as ever, to Brad and Moira for their time, input, and patience. The music herein is ‘Make Your Day Better’ by DreamHeaven, and is taken from pixabay.com in the genuine belief that it’s free to use.
The next Agatha Christie book to be exposed to our dissection is, as per the vote, A Murder is Announced (1950), the discussion of which will be going up here sometime in July. Regular podcast In GAD We Trust will probably start up for one final series at some point, but I reckon I’ll get the forthcoming Bodies from the Library conference out of the way before restarting that, so watch this space but don’t hold your breath.
Previous In GAD We Trust episodes can be found by clicking here, and previous Spoiler Warning posts by clicking here.
78 thoughts on “Spoiler Warning – Cards on the Table (1936) by Agatha Christie”
As I listened to you reading the bridge play in sultry tones with that pulsing music behind you, the room got warm and I found myself slowly unbuttoning my shirt. Clearly, music DOES help make a podcast more exciting . . .
I think I fall somewhere between the camps of Brad/Moira and J.J. on this one. I like Cards on the Table a lot— it’s in the lower end of my top 10 Christies— but on reflection can think of multiple reasons why I don’t hold it in higher esteem.
One is that, while I appreciate the “elegance” of the plot— it very clearly eschews the baroque, gimmicky quality of many GAD novels— it goes a bit too far in that direction for me. While I’m glad it didn’t go the ludicrous route of the TV adaptation (which I quite agree was horrible), I feel it could have picked up a few more obfuscating plot complications without harm. Sondheim’s The Last of Sheila clearly borrows the initial premise of this novel, and while there’s definitely something classier and less gimmicky about Cards on the Table, I do consider Sheila to have a more intriguing and satisfying puzzle plot solution.
The most effective aspect of this novel for me is its third act shuffling of suspicion, which reminds me of the reader-loyalty volleying of the first part of the Crooked Hinge, or perhaps the false solutions of Death of Jezebel. But I think I agree with J. J. that the switches here are built on less solid ground, though I must confess that has never bothered me much before. And yet the dearth of what I consider meaty clueing has.
I think the “psychological” aspect of the clueing in Cards, while not without interest, at times falls into the Van Dinian province in which “psychological” serves as something of a justifying synonym for “inexact” and “in place of more tangible— and satisfying— clues.” And while I’d say many of my favorite clues in GAD fiction probably qualify as psychological, they are centered in the more solid and satisfying realm of behavioral discrepancy: that someone would light a fire on a hot day turns out to be for a satisfying reason, as does the fact that patients in a ward are uncustomarily restless, or that a woman inexplicably speaks in the conditional tense. Also, while it doesn’t entirely remove all value, the fact that the psychological clueing here is dependent upon specialized knowledge does somewhat diminish its desired sense of inevitability for many— while a denouement-placed lesson in the psychological dynamics of bridge may be edifying, it doesn’t guarantee the sense of “of course! It was before my eyes all the time!” of a knight on horseback’s expression of alarm and astonishment or the suddenly recognized extra meaning of “Everything tastes foul today!”, neither of which require any knowledge other than a basic recognition of expected human nature.
I wouldn’t say I consider Cards a dull book, and I’d call it a good, solid Christie. But for me it doesn’t quite dazzle, somewhat trading its potential fireworks for an air of unadorned respectability.
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Sheesh! I’d hate to think of how you’d treat your number fifteen Christie. In regards to reliance on “specialized knowledge” – read the book again. Poirot describes more than once what the significance is of the bridge scores. You are given all of the information about the game that you need. My nattering on here was just gravy. I also don’t consider lighting a fire on a hot day to be necessarily a “psychological” clue, unless you want to loosely define it as anything having to do with a suspect’s behavior. In that case, nearly ALL mysteries are psychological.
Well, I haven’t seen much approaching perfection, even amongst my favorite works of Christie, Carr, and Brand. That doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy them immensely or consider them many times better than the works of other writers. I’m just not surprised that even the most impressive of a highly imperfect species create highly imperfect art.
As for the specialized knowledge aspect, I’ll grant that the bridge education given by a Poirot does not qualify as info introduced for the first time at the denouement. But merely the reactions of you three towards this book (less highly valued by the non-bridge player, not only more appreciated by those who do, but more highly rated as your knowledge of the game has increased) alone suggest to me that this bridge stuff can’t be lumped in the same category as recognizing behavior inconsistent with ordinary human nature. The “gravy” of which you speak seems to fundamentally affect one’s perception and appreciation of the book.
I view clues that reveal behavior consistent or inconsistent with a presumed understanding of characters— either their individual psychological makeup or their shared values or nature’s— as psychological. For, a clue such as the inexplicable raise in Simon Doyle’s vocal volume or the dismissiveness of Sam Devilla towards Dr. Middlesworth indicates something about their thoughts or intents (or contradicts a presumption about those thoughts or intents), as opposed to the scorch marks on Linnet Doyle’s head, which merely indicate that she was not shot through the stole. Now, I realize that there is a more specific subset of such clues that indicate the specific psychological makeup of individuals, but these are the very clues I often find particularly unconvincing, especially when not bolstered by other clueing. For example, we know that Ann Meredith is generally diffident and not bold— especially in her card playing— but what tells us that when the stakes are much higher than a card game, a desperate Ann Meredith wouldn’t take extremely bold and risky steps? Such clues i find quite welcome as reinforcement of other clueing, but independent of it, they don’t strike me as satisfactorily convincing.
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I embrace wholeheartedly your point that this “very clearly eschews the baroque, gimmicky quality of many GAD novels” — and, indeed, that seems to be the purpose for which it was written, given how good Christie was at basing her conclusios and misdirection on more tangible grounds elsewhere both before and after this title. If one writes three books in a year, one might wish to do something a little different with the third one, hein?
Excellent podcast. Time flew by listening. The three of you are obviously at ease with one another as well as the fact that you offered contrasting views of the book made it all the more engaging.
I only read this once as a teenager but knew nothing of Bridge at the time and found it a middling Christie. I realize now that at least good awareness of the game (e.g., bidding, dummy, grand slam, etc.) enhance the experience. Listening to all of you though makes me want to re-read it to see if my opinion changes.
Finally, the Suchet version is a bit of a train wreck. I agree with all the good points Moira highlighted (e.g., costumes, sets, etc.) and Zoe Wanamaker is a delight as Ariadne Oliver. Unfortunately the mangling of the plot made for poor viewing.
P.S. I think you have far more than “three listeners”. Well done.
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I thoroughly enjoyed disagreeing with Brad and Moira over this one. An hour of three people backing each other up is much less fun to record. Maybe we should look at our selection criteria for future episodes: A Christie I Dislike (That You Probably Love).
And I maintain that an awareness of bridge is insuffucient to save this as a mystery. Yes, you’re more involved in the language — doubtless getting all steamy as it unfolds — but it’s not enough, in my estimation. Maybe I’ll go on to become a Bridge Grandmaster and then come back and rereread this to prove my point 🙂
Great fun, well done you lot. I’m with Jim, never ever understood why this is held in such regards (even by Symons). And I love playing bridge!
Well, good grief — I didn’t expect anyone to actually agree with me 😄
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This really is exciting. What a treat – to hear JJ pronounce Henri Bencolin in yet another different way. I think he’s going for the world record.
I guess the rest of the podcast was pretty good as well!
My opinion also falls between the two camps here. I never felt the book dragged or anything, and despite knowing nothing about bridge (Brad’s belief that we have all played a trick-taking game is misplaced…) I was able to follow the clues as they were explained and understand why they were important. That “as they were explained” thing is key, though, and this is a little of where the book falls down for me. Conclusions are drawn because the author said so, in this book more than other Christies I’ve read. As we get towards the repeated ending twists, which could be seen as exciting, I began to feel the book was falling apart as things became ever more arbitrary.
I have to bring up one other thing JJ said though. He complained that the backstories of most of the characters turned out to be irrelevant. But many of the clues in any mystery novel are irrelevant – they’re called red herrings. How could Christie hope to decieve anyone about a whodunit where we know all the 4 suspects if she didn’t pay any attention to half of them? Even the lack of knowledge about Mrs Lorrimer works for this. The investigators are able to dig up the crimes of all the other suspects, but she’s untouchable. It adds to the mystery around her.
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Hahaha; I always know how to pronounce “Henri Bencolin”, I practice it in my head and it sounds suitably French and correct…and then I open my mouth to say it and…something different goes wrong each time. I like to think it gives people something to look forward to.
But, come come — merely ladeling on details about characters is insufficient to qualify as red herringery. A red herring is there to deceive, not simply inform. You don’t deceive me solely by drawing out details at tedious length — those details must then be put to some purpose beyond a series of false ‘solutions’ overturned for no better reason than “Because I, the sleuth, say so”.
“But many of the clues in any mystery novel, are irrelevant— they are called red herrings.” I’m not sure that’s true.
Let us I say— as I do!— that there are three basic categories of elements that constitute the revealed truth of the solution. The first is what I refer to as “conditions”— that is, the underlying situation that leads to the crime or other incident or circumstance to be explained. These conditions include questions of motive, character relationships and interactions, and even extend to the details of the commission of the crime (including opportunity and means— which is actually a subset of opportunity).
The second category is what I call “indications” (same thing as “clues”)— this consists of all elements that lead toward an understanding of the ultimately revealed truth. Any indication of the true situation (physical, testimonial, behavioral) falls into this category.
Finally there are “obfuscations”— elements that lead AWAY from an understanding of truth. These can be consciously placed deceptions on the part of the culprit, or merely other elements that obfuscate the situation, making the truth less apparent, but lie outside of the conscious will of any character within the fictional world. The “clues” you refer to as “red herrings” fall into this category as, though we may refer to them as clues, they actually lead away from the truth, not towards it.
Note that “indications” and “obfuscations” do not lie outside the solution, they are subsets of it, for the ultimately revealed solution includes an understanding of both the elements that lead to that understanding and the elements that prevent its immediate transparency.
And note also— and here’s the key point I wish to make— that these are often overlapping categories. Take the example of the character of Elsie Holland in Christie’s The Moving Finger (I think that I can discuss this with an absolute minimum of spoiling, but just to avoid objection):
Elsie Holland is neither murderer nor murder victim, but as she is a possible suspect, she falls automatically into the category of “obfuscation”— all non-culprit suspects must be considered obfuscations, as they widen the range of possible truth, and thus diminish the transparency of the one true scenario. But she is also part of the underlying “conditions” of the story— she constitutes a significant part of the culprit’s motive— and is also among the “indications,” as her repeatedly commented upon attractiveness provides a possible (and in this case true) indication of the basis of that motive.
That’s why, when we speak of “red herrings,” we should perhaps be more precise. Certainly as Elsie adds to the suspect pool, she is part of the obfuscation that obscures the truth… as is Partridge, who, while she’s alive, provides one more culprit possibility (indeed, even after she’s dead, if we reckon with the trickiness of Christie), while at the same time also providing key indication (via omission) regarding the solution. But are they red herrings? It depends upon our definition. Certainly they don’t constitute “irrelevant” obfuscating elements, but they are still also, at least to a degree, obfuscations, as do any other possible suspects.
I believe that Aristotle and Chekhov (with those wacky guns of his) would insist that all obfuscations should also qualify as “conditions” and/or “obfuscations”— that no elements should exist in the story merely to distract from the truth. And though that’s an ideal that is probably never reached, I think it’s true that those stories in which obfuscations also serve those other functions are the most highly regarded.
As ARE any other possible suspects. One day I’ll learn to proofread.
Having just survived a three-hour lecture on the musical COMPANY, I know that a song can be both an establishing number AND an “I am” song AND an “I want” song AND a production number . . . God, the instructor almost made me hate Sondheim, who is my musical theatre God . . .
So now we have “obfuscations,” which in olden times – B.S. (Before Scott) – we called “red herrings.” Elsie Holland is both an obfuscation and a condition, while Andrew Pennington, say, is merely an obfuscation, although he is a more effective and important obfuscation in HIS story than Elsie Holland is in hers. (Seriously, we NEVER suspect Elsie Holland, do we?)
Cards on the Table has fewer obfuscations than a longer story like DotN or TMF, but it has three good ones. And it has plenty of conditions as I described in the podcast. I would suspect that your argument is that the clues known as indications are not lively enough? I disagree, but if we take any mystery and try and apply it to reality, I have to admit that it would be hard to prove that ANYONE isn’t capable of an act of desperation. This, however, is a 1936 mystery, and the rules of engagement are narrower than in real life.
No, I think we all have to simply accept that some people find this book engaging and others find it boring. The one argument I’ve heard here that I tend to agree with is that the female characters are more engaging than the male – and this is something we’re going to find in a LOT of Christies, like, for instance, the next book we tackle. Thus, when we get to the rare book where the murderer HAS to be a man – say, 4:50 from Paddington – we find ourselves on a much more uphill climb, and all I can say is, “Thank God for Lucy Eyelesbarrow!”
Obfuscation, at least as I use the term, is a much more widely-encompasssing concept than merely red-herrings, although red herrings are indeed an aspect of obfuscation. Obfuscation entails anything that disguises, obscures or leads the reader away from the truth (just as clues are anything that lead them to it). So yes, a suspicious but plot-irrelevant character is an obfuscation, but so is the central alibi device of the culprits in Death on the Nile, as is their apparent enmity, as is Andrew Pennington (by his mere presence, widening the field of possible culprits), and as are as his efforts (providing an unintended alibi for the culprit). Even the preconceived notion that a narrator, detective, or apparent intended victim can’t be the culprit is an obfuscation. As they sing in the very worst productions of “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown”:
Obfuscations are anyone
Or anything at all
That hide the truth!
(“You’re a good man, Philo Vance!”)
I admire your positive impression of the mysteries you’ve read, Scott — there are plenty of book I could name where characters and events are thrown in not as obfuscations but simply to fill out the pages and make the story technically qualify as a novel on length alone 🙂
Separated by a few years now, I think Cards on the Table is one of the more forgettable Christie’s that I’ve read, although my limited reading slants towards her better works. The only part that really stood out in my memory were some of the suspicion reversals late in the story, plus the fact that there surprisingly (for Christie) wasn’t that satisfying of an ending. I didn’t even recall who the killer was, which may be the first time I’ve realized this happened with a mystery that I’ve read. Part of the disappointment was that I was thinking there was going to be some clever solution to a semi-impossible crime, but then it just turned into “someone just went up and killed the guy and nobody noticed.”
Listening to this was worth it for Brad’s explanation of bridge alone. It was much more understandable than the wikipedia article that I vaguely recall reading some time back. I don’t know that it helps my appreciation of the book though… Like Brad, I didn’t know who Mrs Oliver was when I read this and so assumed she was fair play as a suspect.
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Thanks, Ben! I haven’t played in a few months – too busy with other things, plus, I don’t love playing online – so I didn’t quite know what was going to come out of my mouth. I impressed myself a little bit with how much of the basics of bridge is ingrained in me.
I also never want to push my own opinions of something onto someone else, especially when it comes to something as inconsequential as taste in books. Still, it does seem a little unfair to ding this one for not being an impossible crime story when it never promised to be one or presented itself as one. Nobody is ever in conflict over HOW Shaitana was killed, and I would maintain that since this is, in reality, a very public crime with no secrets as to its basic execution, the circumstances around it form major clues in a book that everyone here seems to be complaining contains too few clues. Who had the guts to stand up and push a knife in the guy sitting next to you PLUS had the smarts to create the circumstances where he could do it with the maximum “privacy? he could manage? Only Dr. Roberts. I think that’s quite clever.
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You can’t ding it for not being an impossible crime for sure. But still – there’s that element of cleverness that you get with Evil Under the Sun, Murder at Hazelmoor, A Murder is Announced… even something like The Hollow – where your’e like “I hadn’t considered that”. None of those are impossible crimes, but it’s that (perhaps unfairly) expected Christie twist that I felt was lacking with Cards on the Table.
Notice how they were able to spot the butler coming in, too? I thought that would play a part, given how keen Christie (and GAD overall) was on The Servants being Not Seen and Not Heard.
Brad’s comparison at the end might illustrate Ariadne Oliver’s confession that she keeps reusing the same plot, but nobody spots it.
I remember that when I first read this book I expected that bridge would not really matter, and that the simplistic psychology that points to Robers as the killer would be revealed as flawed. Neither turned out to be true. I don’t think knowing bridge would really mean you spotted the killer, but in a book with few clues, the grand slam clue is one of the better. I guess I also had not appreciated how much of the plot and dialogue would be difficult to follow if you did not know bridge. (As most people did when the novel was published.) I think the grand slam clue could be have been even better if all the players managed to recall something about the play of the hand, except Roberts.
This time when I read it I expected timetables to be important, and started making notes during the interview between Dr. Roberts and Mrs. Lorrimer. They got up for the first time after about an hour, I think, but contradict each other as to whether Shaitana was awake. I expected the detective to try to figure out who got up first, but it leads nowhere, and neither does the story anyone else tells of their movements. Anne Meredith must have gone over to Shaitana after Roberts killed him, so after he got up during the grand slam hand, but I don’t think it is established before the conclusion that she got up after Roberts.
I agree with the view that it is enjoyable but not one of Christie’s best.
I was tempted to go back and try to establish who was dummy when and when they might have been walking around…but that seemed too tedious a task after not especially enjoying the book, and would have proved fruitless in trying to get Brad and Moira to see sense 🙂
But, yes, it would be interesting to look at that, even if it wouldn’t make good copy in a book of this nature — which is, I suspect, why Christie herself refrained from doing so. She wasn’t interested in telling that type of story, I suspect, having already done two such books (broadly, before anyone gets too excited) in 1936. I applaud her desire for diversity, but I feel the intent was lost somewhere in the writing here.
It has been a very tiring day, so having this to look forward to in the evening was just what I needed. Informative and hilarious as always!
I’m somewhat in the middle as well. I do agree, that there are some very interesting and entertaining parts, especially regarding the female characters. And also that it foreshadowes other storys like Five Little Pig and And Then There Were None.
But the ending never quite clicked with me. Both the solution and the way to the solution are okay but not outstanding. And while I appreciate the idea of cutting the number of characters to dive into their past, at least the two male suspects remained uninteresting to the end and do not deserve to have that much pagetime given to them.
Making sweet “innocent” Anne that ruthless proves that Christie isn’t sentimental in this regard (and good for her), but she already proved this back in one of her first novels, where a similar if less developed character is the culprit. I do think Anne works and she works better than the earlier character, though. I really disagree with JJ about Mrs Lorrimer. I think she works best *because* Christie only hinted at things and kept her a mystery.
Does Christie even hint with Mrs. Lorrimer? We know she’s good a bridge and…she tells us she killed her husband. My contention is that everything else is filled in by the positive percetion of the reader — there’s nothing else to go on.
Doesn’t Poirot say, that Mrs Lorrimer is that strong, that she even refuses to mention her motivation and that she was justified in killing her husband. This suggested to me that the otherwise indeed terrible Suchet episode wasn’t far of the mark in making the husband an abuser. Either that or he was very ill and it was a mercy kill.
But that’s…shorthand for an author not having provided any information, surely? “Aha, I admire your restraint in not telling us the relevant details that might complicate this investigation” 😄
I don’t think Poirot says she was justified in killing her husband, only that other women who had murdered their husband would justify themselves.
Ah…. Cards on the Table, the absolute classic. Well, I don’t like it that much either, JJ. I’ve always felt the novel was more of a short story stretched to cosmic lengths. I don’t hate it, but I think the lack of dynamism hurts it quite a bit.
When you work with such a static setup, it’s essential to add tension to the mix …and that’s where she failed, IMO.
Yeah, the little flashes where Christie succeeds in making this intrguing — “Was she an untidy woman?” — highlight the failures elsewhere for me. Why on earth Shaitana couldn’t just have papers about the murders somewhere in his study, and three chapters later their bona fides are established and we move on to a more interesting story that actually does on the page the things Brad sees in this I don’t know.
I’m reminded of The Sittafird Mystery — a lot of interviews, a lot of char, a lot of sitting — but at least the ending of that one came as a surprise (to me, at least) and built on some of the things you had been shown before.
I was really anticipating this one and I am happy to say y’all didn’t disappoint. It was an entertaining conversation and I enjoyed the points of (very civil) disagreement.
I had hoped that I’d get around to rereading this one before you posted the podcast but it was not to be. It has been well over a decade since I read the book though I have regularly revisited the BBC Radio adaptation (which is a favorite and possibly colors my view of the source material).
I remember enjoying the psychological angle – the idea that people’s attention to the game will indicate whether they were thinking of something else – and I love the brazeness of the murder itself, taking place during the game.
A common theme in the enjoyment of this one is the perception of the psychology. I suppose those of us unwilling to accept it as being as sharp as it claims are never going to be convinced, and those who see the genius in why it must be Dr. Roberts are never going to be swayed. Is this the [INSERT RELEVANT POLITICAL DIVISION OF THE AGE] of GAD?!
I consider this to be one of Christie’s absolute greatest accomplishments, but I must confess to a bit of bias, as it was both my second Christie and my first Poirot, so it is a bit nostalgic for me. Still, I think it holds up remarkably well on rereading. Indeed, I liked it even more, because, in between now and the first time I read it, I’ve learned a lot of card games, so the terms that mystified me when I was ten make sense now. (I also started studying bridge in anticipation of this reread, and it’s an absorbing game. I’m a little worried about how much of my time it’s going to take up down the line…) I was surprised because I got the identity of Mr. Shaitana’s killer completely wrong. I had thought that I remembered it all perfectly, but Christie fooled me the second time as well as the first.
This book reminds me a lot of The Problem of the Green Capsule, not just for its focus on the psychology of the suspects, but for the similarity of the leadup to and the circumstances of the murder. Both Mr. Shaitana and Marcus Chesney have somewhat theatrical tendencies, both take an interest in psychology, and both stage displays that end in their respective deaths (Shaitana for the pleasure of observation and Chesney to prove a point). Furthermore, both are killed in front of witnesses who could have noticed the killer’s identity but didn’t because their attention was directed elsewhere. The other book that I was reminded of was Death in Five Boxes, and I won’t say why to avoid spoiling a great novel for those who haven’t read it, but I’m sure you know what I’m talking about.
I think I might have an explanation about the hat paint, although it’s just a guess. I thought it was a bit odd, as I couldn’t imagine someone consuming that much paint without noticing and stoping well before ingesting a lethal dose, not to mention that it would have to be some very toxic paint. My first thought was lead paint, but lead white looks nothing like syrup of figs. But, lead acetate (the specific lead compound that makes lead paint taste sweet) was also used as a drying agent in some paints and a fixative in some dyes, so my guess is that the hat paint in question must have been made using lead acetate, which explains both the taste and the color. The one hole in my theory is that the dangers of lead paint were well understood by the early 1900s, so I don’t know if lead acetate was still used in those applications during the timeframe of this book. (As a side note, and horrifyingly enough, before its dangers were known it had been used as a substitute for sugar.)
I agree wholeheartedly about how awful the CotT adaptation was. It made very little sense and I was left wondering just how the writers thought that their changes improved the story one bit. I’m not sure why they felt the need to change it in the first place, as it’s a story that seems like it would translate very well to television.
This really was an excellent discussion. It’s brought to light so many fine points that I had missed, and, even with CotT being one of my three or so favorite Christies, I’ve come away with a new appriciation for it. I look forward to the next one, although I’ll have to actually read A Murder is Anounced before I can listen.
(And I’m quite looking forward to both your talks at Bodies From The Library. Being able to attend for once is one of the few benefits to this blasted pandemic.)
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That’s a fascinating idea bout the paint — thanks for sharing.
The Problem of the Green Capsule is an interesting comparison — as, and you’re correct to say no more, is Death in Five Boxes — mainly because of how it would have been great to see CotT to play out. Green Capsule does a wonderful thing with the inverse of this problem: everyone is looking so closely that you just know they’re going to miss what they were supposed to see. That is already more interesting than the “We were all so engaged in the game…” oversight, and it would have been great to see more done with it than just “Yup, we were looking elsewhere and so the guy was stabbed in front of us”. It’s a god starting point for a mystery, but by 1936 — and especially by Christie in 1936 — it was fair to expect better.
I really don’t see anyone here describing Cards on the Table as anything approaching a bad work, and I note admiration even among those who hold it in less high esteem than do others. But some clearly don’t consider it among her most remarkable works, and I think I can recognize a commonly shared reason why.
Though Christie had many strengths, she is still most highly regarded for the power of her solutions. However, Cards on the Table work is the rare Christie work in which I would argue that the initial premise is significantly more remarkable than the solution (and certainly, from what has been suggested in these comments and even from one of the podcasters, more memorable).
Why is that so? Well, I’d say that nearly all of the most memorable Christie solutions hinge upon the reversal of a fundamental presumption, allowing for a paradigm shift. This presumption is sometimes a matter of culprit possibility (e.g. the presumption that the detective, narrator, victim, apparent-intended-victim, child, etc…cannot be the culprit), but at other times a matter of other (often more subtle and, IMO, less fragile) presumptions: the presumption that a man is leaving his wife for another woman, that a much maligned victim was a femme fatale, that a series of murders was the irrational work of a madman, that a secret society is necessarily a malevolent force, that the second among two deaths is a consequence of the first, that an estranged couple is adversarial in their intents, that the murderer of a man aboard a train is ONE of the other passengers…
This fundamental presumption reversal is something I feel Cards on the Table lacks. We are told that the culprit is one of four people, and this proves to be true. We are told that the probable motive is a fear of exposure, and that also proves to be true. There is an admirable shifting of suspicion among the suspects, and indication of the solution in terms of bridge-playing psychological evidence. But there is no major presumption overturned by the solution, nothing that turns the reader’s world upside-down. Which to me suggests a solution that is solid, but somewhat plain.
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Scott K – Brilliantly said.
For me, the best GAD works are those where I have been hoodwinked by the author via any of the scenarios you list above triggering me to think, “whoa … I did not see that coming.” While there are many reasons why GAD appeals to me, my favorites invariably are those that pull the rug out from under me.
Clearly CotT has positive qualities given that there are 30+ comments in the discussion resulting from JJ’s/Moira’s/Brad’s podcast, but a surprise solution is not one of them.
Absolutely correct, Scott(s): there is no surprise twist, no “you should have looked amongst your own team, Poirot” moment (which the adaptation tried to slough off on us) to place this title in the upper echelon of titles. Perhaps that’s why I regretfully couldn’t fit it in my own top ten and why my growing appreciation of the book comes my own maturation, which led me to understand and appreciate how well the novel goes about doing exactly what it sets out to do. And it does so with great elegance and amusement; my bafflement during the podcast was that JJ saw neither quality.
Christie wrote many novels where she didn’t resort to a big twist, including one of her finest, Five Little Pigs, which spreads the suspicion evenly around, then provides a fine false solution before giving us the real, best solution. There’s no sixth pig, although I will agree with Scott K. that there’s a brilliant bit of clueing around the means of murder which isn’t found in Cards. Still, I like the way Poirot goes about solving Shaitana’s murder; I think it’s sufficient if not as shiny as other examples, or full of twists like those Scott listed above. What 5LP also provides that CotT lacks is emotional power; like Carr’s He Who Whispers, you’re left gasping on the final page by something that has nothing to do with the solution. Cards is funnier; Pigs is better. (And JJ is bored by both!) 😢
The emotional impact of 5LP is undeniable — it’s wonderful — but that middle section is just a repetition of the first and so…very…boring. Doubtless we’ll get to it at some point, always assuming we’re still talking to each other after A Murder is Announced and After the Funeral.
Indeed, it was so much fun disagreeing over something, I’m tempted to make at least one of us not liking something a requirement for all future episodes…
Brad, I agree that 5LP provides the emotional power that CotT lacks, but I think it is also superior to it in the other primary respect as well— it DOES entail a fundamental paradigm shift. Indeed, it is the kind of paradigm shift that I like the most— not the (more fragile, in my opinion) twist of culprit possibility, but the overturning a fundamental presumption regarding the underlying situation (the “conditions” as I referred to them above):
In fact, perhaps more clearly than in most nearly all other Christie novels, Poirot states it as just such an overturning of presumption:
‘There is always a danger of accepting facts as proved which are really nothing of the kind. Let us take the situation at Alderbury. A very old situation. Two women and one man. We have taken it for granted that Amyas Crale proposed to leave his wife for the other woman. But I suggest to you now THAT HE NEVER INTENDED TO DO ANYTHING OF THE KIND.“
This is Poirot’s “if we looked at it in from another angle, all becomes clear” statement upon which this solution hinges— it’s perhaps not as showy a twist as a Rodger Ackroyd or Orient Express, but it really is a twist as well. Add that to superior clueing (IMO) AND the emotional power, and I feel that you have a solution that is superior to CotT’s in three different (and important) ways. As I’ve mentioned before, although I agree FLP is one of Christie’s greatest triumphs in emotion and characterization, I feel its puzzle plotting is at least as much a contributor to its greatness.
And I believe JJ fully appreciates the greatness of the solution— I think it it merely the exposition of the puzzle information that he finds turgid.
While I think that in general people fully appreciate the character complexity and emotional resonance of Five Little Pigs, I don’t think either the clueing or plot deception of the novel are given their full due.
Beyond the primary incorrect presumption that Amyas is intending to leave Caroline for Elsa, there are multiple elements which reinforce it:
⁃ There is the reason Amyas does not correct that presumption (based on both his character as presented and our generalized understanding of an artist’s priorities)
⁃ There is the reason that an overheard argument between Amyas and Caroline— which might otherwise help to correct that presumption— is misunderstood (due to a concurrent conflict regarding Angela’s schooling). It is a linguistic misinterpretation, but one made highly credible by circumstances… and yet still entailing inconsistencies which allow it to be viewed retrospectively as unlikely.
⁃ There is the reason Caroline does little to deny or disprove her guilt, based in turn on…
– Reasons that Caroline assumes Angela’s guilt (an agglomeration of reasons, based both on the events of the day and on Caroline’s understanding of both Angela and herself).
Add to this the clever (yet rarely grasped prior to explication) ambiguity of “Everything tastes foul today!”— IMO one of the most rewarding clues in GAD history— and you’ve got a strong, effective conflicting network of both indications and obfuscations.
Well, I’m gonna have to hold off on commenting until I’ve reread 5LP. This sounds fascinating, but my memory is…rusty 🙂
As bad as the televisation sounds, I’d’ve even accepted some sort of “He killed himself with four killers in the room” variation just so there was something beyond the steady, unconvincing, repetitious folowing of leads to no consequence.
It has its successes, I agree, but as I say in the podcast, the overall scheme feels very dashed off and minor.
Spot on Scott. Why is why I admire Green is for Danger. Christianna Brand managed to surprise me even with a limited number of suspects.
Anyone who loves a good “Oh, hell!” revelation from a limited pool of suspects is greatly encouraged to check out The Decagon House Murders by Yukito Ayatsuji. That will be one of my favourites for a good few years yet,
Thanks for the recco JJ.
I find Brand’s Death of Jezebel even more impressive in that respect, though lacking the emotional resonance of Green for Danger (which has perhaps the most touching closing page of any work I’ve ever read).
Agreed. The closing page of Death on the Nile is pretty touching, too.
Yes, very much so. And both have a very similar “but life must go on…” aspect to them.
Yeah, I think you’ve nailed this, Scott.
What does everyone think of Death in the Clouds? I think it’s quite underrated. It also deals with a limited pool of suspects and still manages to surprise and deliver that feeling “of course” in retrospect. Much better than CotT.
Come, now! If we start talking about every Christie here, we’ll run out of titles and have to podcast about Carr! (I’m speaking, of course, about Glyn Carr and those mountain climbing mysteries.)
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I’ve tried reading three of the Glyn Carr books; I wouldn’t do a podcast on them even if we started charging for it.
I’m unable to comment as I’ve not read it for years. I remember solving it — and feeling very smug for doing so, too, it being an early Christie for me — but beyond that…
I like Death in the Clouds, but for me though the culprit stretches credibility too far assuming others would not notice what that person did to accomplish the murder. The second murder in Murder in Three Acts pushes the boundary of credibility too far in a similar way.
Haha Brad. I think it would take years for you guys to reach Death in the Clouds and climate change will have happened by then.
Scott, I agree the thing in the plane is too much. But I was surprised by the killer’s identity and I think Christie is very clever in the way she makes us not consider the character as a suspect. Murder in Three Acts is a good comparison as she uses a similar device there. But does anyone thing she completely gave the game away in MiTA by her opening paragraph of the novel?
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Okay, since we probably won’t get to this one for another ten years . . . At the beginning, Poirot examines everyone’s luggage (detailed stories provide) and announces that he knows who the killer is. I think this is an incredibly clever and effective clue, and I also like Poirot’s trap for the killer. Christie also has some fun letting us in on the killer’s thoughts. All that said, I consider this one much more “second tier” than CotT. My reasons will be carefully delineated in our podcast episode . . . in 2027.
IMO Three Act Tragedy is more credible than Death on the Clouds for two reasons: 1.) The killer has been recognized, even if it happened several days later and 2.) Even if someone had recognized him at the party, it could have been brushed off as a big joke. The only thing the killer really had to fear was being recognized after the murder, and then he escaped as soon as possible.
I think “presumption reversal” is a very good term, and something that CotT lacks. That was exactly why I thought Roberts could not have done it when I read it the first time! If you are known for the having the most unlikely killers, having the most likely one for once is a surprise in of itself, and I am glad she went for it once.
But the Most Likely Suspect device is one she used far more than just this one— indeed, she began her career with it— and also in far more famous instances than Cards on the Table.
There’s a Most Likely Suspect from the 1940s that made me want to throw the book across the room. Rereading that one could be fun…
I don’t think Roberts is a very good example of the most likely killer. At the beginning, all four had the same opportunity and all had the same possible motive and we didn’t know enough about them to draw any real conclusions. There was no most likely and no least likely suspect.
There are much better examples in Christie of the most likely suspect being the killer. Some of them are already mentioned here, but the list includes her first one, a very famous Poirot novel from the thirties, another Poirot one from the fourties and I would argue even her best selling novel of all time.
Well, there’s an important distinction to be made between whether the Most Likely Suspect ploy is an author deception or a culprit deception. That is, whether the author allows overt suspicion to fall upon the culprit so that the reader will dismiss that character from his focus, or whether the culprit deliberately places suspicion upon himself as part of a complex misdirection tactic. The latter, if not carefully handled, can seem motivationally unconvincing, IMO.
At any rate, I usually think of The Most Likely Suspect ploy specifically in terms of those examples entailing reverse psychology as their primary deception. That is, to have a Most Likely Suspect “cleared” through an unshakable alibi may technically qualify, but what I mean by Most Likely Suspect ploy is an example where a character is exonerated in the mind of the reader solely (or at least primarily) BECAUSE he is apparently the Most Likely Suspect. Therefore, I don’t feel that Christie’s all-time bestselling novel qualifies as a Most Likely Suspect ploy, but I do feel that her famous play (based on a 20’s short story) DEFINITELY does.
I really enjoyed episode one of Brad Friedman’s Bridge for Dummies! I knew enough of bridge to understand the brilliant clue in the scores but was not familiar enough to spot it myself. The stockings scenes, as Brad says, are also excellent. An alternative, least likely suspect, ending, which I’ve mentioned somewhere before would be for Despard, the non-historical killer, to have killed Shaitana for some unrelated reason. Coincidentally I watched the Suchet version recently and it is a mess – where was the window cleaner – I was looking forward to that final scene. Changing the Anne/Rhoda roles may have been a piece of reverse casting as Honeysuckle Weeks would have been well known as sidekick Samantha from Foyle’s War.
The idea that they’d change roles on account of casting a certain actress rather than cast that actress in the appropriate role is — as someone who has watched none of thea Suchet adaptations but listened amazed to some fo the chages wrough — all too feasible.
I would have liked the butler ti kill him, when he brough the drinks in, or when he came to clear the glasses (unobserved, of course, because who notices servants?). Knowing there are four killers in the room, he takes his chance to be rid of an awful employer…and is finally free of those bridge parties!
I like it!
Sorry JJ for reposting here and also for being completely off-topic. Just wanted to urge people to watch the Hindi movie Baazigar which is loosely based on A Kiss Before Dying. It’s available on Youtube with English subtitles. It stars superstar Shahrukh Khan in his pre-romantic-image days and it’s a really good watch. Please someone watch it so that we could discuss it here.
Though, fair warning, it gets very melodramatic at the end.
Great movie. A milestone for Hindi cinema, being among the first to have an anti-hero protagonist, played with staggering intensity by an up and coming SRK. That pre-interval rooftop scene still shocks. Gotta say though, never thought I’d see it randomly pop up in the comments section of a GAD dedicated blog lol.
I did leave this comment under JJ’s post on A Kiss Before Dying but realized it would gain more traction if I commented on a recent post. I don’t know anyone whose interests revolve around Bollywood overlapping with GAD and I do so want to discuss it.
Would you really say it was among the first though to have an anti-hero protagonist? I mean Deewar was there.
You know, I somehow completely forgot about Deewar, it’s been so long since I last saw it. Still, Khalnaayak aside, not sure if there were many others in the intervening period between it and the aforementioned SRK film, at least not as high profile and met with as much mainstream success. Which aspects did you find particularly praiseworthy about Baazigar? I haven’t seen the film adaptation of A Kiss Before Dying, but the plot summary suggests Baazigar is a straight up remake that substitutes insane, amoral ambition with a more sympathetic motivation more likely to play with the sensibilities of the Indian audience, namely avenging one’s family.
First of all, I am delighted that a podcast that was dismissed as irrelevant last time is garnering so much discussion!!! Take that, Christie naysayer!
Next, I’m with hg in terms of how CotT falls in terms of the “most likely suspect” trope. And here . . .
Christie knows that a lot of readers will cross Dr. Roberts off the list because Mrs. Oliver said he did it. She had presented Oliver as a figure to mock slightly (although she goes about transforming Ariadne as the novel goes on into someone more worthy of our respect), so we immediately doubt her judgment. Nobody believes in women’s intuition, right? And yet, this happens to Mrs. Oliver more than once (Dead Man’s Folly). Christie performs a similar trick in And Then There Were None by having one suspect (Lombard) make a case against another. The thing is, his argument is very sound, and it turns out he was correct. But it’s not really a case of the most likely suspect; one of the best aspects of the book is that the five people left for consideration by the police are all viable suspects. (Emily Brent would be as well – religious mania – if her death hadn’t been recorded.)
That play Scott referenced is the best example of this trope, but as we’ve all discussed, Christie premiered with it and used it with great variety over and over again. She also used least likely suspect many times in many ways. Here she uses something rare for her – equal suspicion among all parties – which immediately eliminates the potential of at least one great reversal. This has caused many to lower their esteem for the book – a matter of taste but not of fairness.
Still, JJ’s annoyance with the book did not stem from that in our discussion. He felt the whole thing was just boring – the clues were nonsense and the investigation was tedious. These, I think, are harder for us to discuss here, as you either agree with him or you agree with me that the book is charming and interesting. Contrast this with a later book, The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side: that book has a glorious reversal (if you don’t catch on due to your knowledge of Hollywood history), but the investigation is pretty lackluster: it lacks good suspects or a believable false solution; instead, it pads matters out with two extraneous murders (TWO blackmailers in ONE house???) and kind of meanders until the killer has the good grace to die. Cards may never shock us, but it performs its tasks efficiently, in a series of well-written scenes, with humor in good supply, and it manages to take its small cast and spread the suspicion around from beginning to end.
Brad, I entirely agree with your assessment of the virtues of Cards on the Table, but I hope I made it clear that the distinction I make between that novel and other Christie works is not a matter of power or magnitude of surprise, but rather the categorical nature of that surprise. That’s why I brought up Five Little Pigs. It certainly does not hold a surprise of the magnitude of say, The Murder of Rodger Ackroyd or Murder on the Orient Express, but just as with those novels, it hinges upon the reversal of a single, fundamental presumption, thus suggesting that our understanding of truth is ultimately a matter of a paradigm shift. This is the essence of my beloved SRI.
And this reversal of fundamental presumption is certainly not made impossible by a work in which suspicion is shared evenly by all the characters, as culprit identity is not the only possible locus of this type of reversal. Five Little Pigs is an example of this (even if one might argue that suspicion is not evenly spread among the suspects, it certainly could have been, as the central presumption is not concerned with the level of suspicion placed upon the culprit). And such a presumption can be large or small— subtle or monumental. Even a work such as Dial M for Murder, which is arguably 95% inverted mystery, entails such an element— I say 95% percent because the plot hinges on the 5% that is left to presumption (I.e. that Swann followed Wendice’s imstructions to the letter, and thus they key Wendice found in Swann’s pocket is Margot’s). But while there is detail that the reader doesn’t know about the truth of Cards on the Table, there is no presumption that keeps them from truth and which removed instantly presents events in a new light. This, what is missing is less the “Ah!” Than the “of course!”
That’s not in any way to take away from the admitted strengths of Cards on the Table, but rather to demonstrate how SRI is indeed a highly valued and often eagerly anticipated aspect of the genre, and the reason a work lacking it, no matter how strong in other elements (intrigue of premise, shifting of suspicion, etc…), will suffer for some readers from that lack.
For some readers, yes . . . and I like a good reversal as much as the next reader. For some of us, however, the occasional foray into something else, as we have here (elegance of plot, humor, nice array of backstories, shifting suspicions and false endings, and appeal to special knowledge) can be enough of a substitute to constitute placing that work in high esteem. Ellery Queen created some jaw-dropping reversals, but I prefer Calamity Town and Cat of Many Tails, despite the fact that I couldn’t help but know the solution to the first, and I don’t find the solution to the second surprising so much as inevitable. I liked them both for the deep emotions they engendered as I read them and for the fine evocation of an American village and large city, respectively. I think Carr’s The Punch and Judy Murders has a wonderful reversal, one I was not expecting, but I was already sold by the hilarity of the adventure that comprised most of that novel. But I can’t disagree that some readers find a lack of that twist disappointing in this or any mystery they read. In lesser writers, I would come down hard. My understanding is that Brian Flynn excelled at reversals and surprise villains, but after one sampling of his prose, I’m not sure I can muster up the enthusiasm to experience these twists.
I don’t disagree with any of that— and I quite agree that there’s a wide array of factors that can satisfyingly compensate for the lack of SRI. I just think I’ve always compared Cards on the Table to The Last of Sheila, due to the similarity of their initial premise (sadistic host bringing together his blackmail victims for a party at which one of them kills him). Cards admittedly has the advantage of being classier and less gimmicky, but Sheila has a fascinating presumption reversal, as well as a best-hits-of-GAD-devices solution that brings to my mind Christie’s Curtain. But note that Sheila’s primary presumption reversal is not related to culprit identity, either— suspicion is spread as evenly amongst its suspects as it is in Cards. I think I’ve always wished Cards had something like that— a revelation that Shaitana wasn’t really such a bad guy, or that he was murdered for a very different reason… something like that.
Of course, Calamity Town does have its own fundamental presumption reversal (though unfortunately it’s just a slight variation on the one so many GAD authors had overused— whodunit trick 1A, I call it). I don’t think you could say Cat of Many Tails has one, but it compensates in plotting with one of the most fascinating clues of all time (I don’t know about you, but I think the reason that married women are not among the victims is the most interesting thing in the whole book). That clue actually reminds me of the blunt instrument clue of Tragedy of Y, which I consider MUCH more interesting than that books central twist.
And you’re right that Cards on the Table is not an example of the Most Likely Suspect trope but, as with And Then There Were None, it is an example of what I refer to as “exoneration by mere acknowledgement of possibility.” However, both of these devices are based on the same psychological principle (for which, it goes without saying, I have a name), The Deception Expectation Principle. Namely:
In a genre in which deception and an effort at surprise is expected (which describes the detective story well), possibilities overtly proposed or acknowledged are more likely to be dismissed and less likely to be believed than those that remain unacknowledged, hidden, or overtly denied.
The Most Likely Suspect Trope is merely the most extreme use of this principle, by which acknowledgedment of possibility breeds disbelief.
Somewhat late to the party, despite this being my favourite Christie. The shame!
Entertaining podcast. Can’t remember the last time I heard JJ be so relentlessly wrong in his assessment. Oh well, it had to happen sooner or later. Our agreement on the quality of just about every other title we’d both read just wasn’t sustainable. The lurid reading of the Miss Lorimer’s play-by-play had me in hysterics.
At first I enjoyed CotT because of the hook, which I still think is one of her best. Then I learnt a bit about Bridge, which allowed me to appreciate the clewing (which would definitely fly over the head of a layman), the genius of the culprit in orchestrating a window of opportunity for himself, and the finesse with which Christie integrated the mechanics of the game into the plot. The investigation, which boils down to the posing of two apparently innocuous but actually rather cunning questions designed to reveal the psychology of Shaitana’s murderer, is simply brilliant. I even like the Columbo-ish entrapment of the killer come the end, which given the lack of tangible clues struck me as a rather inevitable outcome.
But yes, listening to this only reinforced my affection for this book and that I must re-read it soon.
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Well, I hope you still get as much joy out of it on rereading now that all the book’s flaws have been laid so unflinchingly bare 🙂
I find it interesting how many people have come in on the middle ground here, because I honestly believe it to be universally loved. I knew my reputation — ha, reputation — was going to take a dive, and I had imagined it being far worse than this.
The window cleaner, however, is something I’ll never forgive. That smacks of an author desperate to just get the bloody thing over and done with. Christie was far, far better than cheap tricks like that.
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