Cards on the Table (1936) by Agatha Christie
The flamboyant Mr. Shaitana is well-known for his parties, his rather sly sense of humor, and his collections. When he meets Hercule Poirot at an art exhibition, he reveals that in addition to collecting objets d'art he also collects types of people. He is particularly interested in what he considers to be the art of murder and tells Poirot that he knows of several perfect murderers--those who have killed and gotten away with it. He is delighted when the idea for a new party occurs to him. He will invite four of his collection of murderers as well as four experts in crime for dinner and a bridge party. What fun!
In addition to Poirot, Shaitana invites Superintendent Battle of Scotland Yard, Colonel Race (presumably of the Secret Service, though one mustn't say so), and Ariadne Oliver, the famous author of detective novels. The supposed murderers are Dr. Roberts, Mrs. Lorrimer, Major Despard, and Anne Meredith. Shaitana lets certain suggestive statements slip during the dinner and Poirot watches for sudden intakes of breath or widening of the eyes. Then, they all sit down to bridge with the suspected murderers at a table in one room and the sleuths at a table in another. Mr. Shaitana doesn't play bridge and sits down quietly by the fire. When the evening draws to a close and the guests approach their host to say goodbye, they find him dead--stabbed with a stiletto from his collection. One of the suspected murderers has definitely murdered Shaitana. The four detectives take up the case in their own way. Battle follows the dogged order of police procedure; Colonel Race uses his connections to dig up information on Major Despard; Mrs. Oliver uses her author's knack of picturing every possible scenario and her friendly personality to interview Miss Meredith; and Poirot uses psychology, particularly the psychology of the game of bridge, to find the killer.
This particular Christie never comes to my mind when I'm thinking of my favorites--and, honestly, I haven't read it as often as those I do list as favorites. I don't think I've read it since I first read it back in the early '80s. But it really is quite good. Dame Agatha piles on twist after twist. Just when you think we've finally gotten down to who really did it, she shakes the kaleidoscope and we get another view of what happened. Knowing there were still quite a few pages to go didn't prevent me from being surprised (repeatedly).
I really enjoyed the premise of this one--pitting the four detectives against the four possible suspects--suspects whom, if we believe Shaitana, have already gotten away with murder at least once. It was also fun to follow the various detectives and watch them investigate in their own way. It's a shame we didn't get to see more of Colonel Race. He pretty much hands over his report on Major Despard and goes away. But we did get to see quite a bit of Battle and Oliver in addition to, of course, Poirot. A most unusually entertaining mystery. ★★★★
First line: "My dear M. Poirot!" It was a soft purring voice--a voice used deliberately as an instrument--nothing impulsive or unpremeditated about it.
Oh, my dear friend, it is impossible not to give oneself away--unless one never opens one's mouth! Speech is the deadliest of revealers. (Poirot; p. 82)
Mon cher Battle! Does anybody know the truth about anything? (Poirot; p. 82)
Last line: "Let's stab him, Rhoda, and see if his ghost can come back and find out who did it."
Deaths = 7 (one stabbed; four poisoned; one shot; one drowned)