Cards on the Table by Agatha Christie

A new year means the start of a new Agatha Christie challenge! Read Christie 2023 is hosted by the official Agatha Christie site and this year the focus is on methods and motives. The theme for January is jealousy and the chosen book is Sad Cypress. However, I read that one quite recently so I’ve gone with one of the alternative suggestions for this month, Cards on the Table.

Published in 1936, this is a Poirot novel, but it also features three of Christie’s other recurring characters, all of whom work together to solve the mystery. They are Superintendent Battle, the Scotland Yard detective; former Army officer and intelligence agent, Colonel Race; and Ariadne Oliver, the famous crime author. All three, along with Poirot, are invited to a dinner party hosted by Mr Shaitana, a wealthy man known as a collector of rare objects. He tells Poirot that he will also be inviting a collection of criminals – four people he believes have committed murder but never been caught.

During the party, the eight guests divide into two groups and sit down to play bridge. Several hours later, Mr Shaitana, who wasn’t participating, is found dead in his chair by the fire – stabbed with a small dagger by one of his guests while the others were engrossed in their game. The four sleuths can obviously be ruled out, but any one of the other four could be the murderer. To get to the truth, Poirot and his friends must investigate the background of each suspect to see whether Shaitana was correct and each of them had already killed before.

Cards on the Table begins with a foreword in which Christie explains that unlike most crime novels where the least likely suspect is usually the culprit, this book has four suspects who are all equally likely. They have all (allegedly) committed murder in the past, so all have a motive – fear that Shaitana will expose their previous crimes to the other guests. There’s Dr Roberts, who may or may not have been responsible for the death of at least one of his patients; Major Despard, whose expedition to the Amazon is shrouded in mystery; young Anne Meredith, who tries to cover up her reasons for leaving a previous job; and Mrs Lorrimer, an expert bridge player whose secrets prove particularly difficult to unearth. I suspected all of them at various points, but every time I thought I’d worked it out, Christie threw another twist into the story and I had to think again!

I loved the idea of having four different detectives working together in the same novel (it’s a shame Miss Marple and Tommy and Tuppence hadn’t been invited to the party too!) and each of them has a chance to contribute to the solving of the mystery. Colonel Race has a disappointingly small part, but we see a lot of Battle and Mrs Oliver – who is often described as a self-parody of Christie herself and provides an opportunity to comment on the writing of detective novels. Of course, it’s Poirot who correctly identifies the murderer in the end!

I enjoyed this book, but I think I would have enjoyed it even more if I’d had more knowledge of bridge, which is a game I don’t play and don’t really understand. Part of Poirot’s investigation revolves around the score cards and an analysis of each suspect’s playing style, so this meant very little to me. Luckily, though, it’s not completely essential to be able to follow all of this and there are other clues to piece together as well.

February’s Read Christie theme is ‘a blunt object’ and the group read will be Partners in Crime, which again is a book I’ve already read. I’ll wait until they reveal the alternative choices for the month and see if any appeal to me.

The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding by Agatha Christie

The December prompt for Read Christie 2022 is ‘a story containing precious jewels’ and the book chosen for the group read is Hercule Poirot’s Christmas. I read that one a few years ago, so decided to try The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding instead. This is a collection of six short stories and although only the first one contains precious jewels and has a festive theme, I thoroughly enjoyed reading all six of them!

Agatha Christie herself selected the stories for this collection and the first five in the book are Poirot mysteries. In the title story, The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding, Poirot joins the Lacey family at their country house, supposedly to experience a ‘typical English Christmas’. However, unknown to the family, he has another motive for attending their Christmas celebrations – he is hoping to track down a precious ruby stolen from a foreign prince. Although I felt that the title gave away part of the mystery – it’s obvious that the pudding is going to have some significance – there are still some twists before the full solution becomes clear. And I loved the Lacey children who decide to present Poirot with a murder as a special Christmas treat!

The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding was apparently inspired by Christie’s own memories of spending Christmas at Abney Hall, her sister’s home in Cheshire (presumably without the stolen jewels and murders). The other four Poirot stories in this collection are not set at Christmas, but are equally enjoyable to read. The Mystery of the Spanish Chest, in which a dead body is found in a chest after a party, is excellent. I had no idea who the culprit was or how the crime was carried out and I loved watching the plot unfold. The Under Dog, where Poirot investigates the death of a man who has been hit on the head with a club, is another good one. It’s quite complex and involved and I think it could easily have been developed into a full length novel.

The next two stories are quite unusual. In Four and Twenty Blackbirds, a man who usually dines in the same restaurant every Tuesday and Thursday without fail suddenly turns up on a Monday and asks for food he has never ordered before. Poirot is intrigued, particularly when he hears three weeks later that the man has died after an accidental fall downstairs. I found part of the solution easy to guess, but again there’s more to this story than it would seem at first! Then, in The Dream, Poirot is summoned by an elderly millionaire who is having a recurring dream in which he shoots himself with a revolver. When the old man does actually die a few days later in exactly the manner he has described, Poirot is called back to investigate. I loved this one – it’s very cleverly done!

After all of these Poirot mysteries, it was nice to see Miss Marple make an appearance in the final one, Greenshaw’s Folly. In this story, the elderly Miss Greenshaw, the current owner of the house known as Greenshaw’s Folly, is murdered in the garden just after making a new will. Miss Marple is brought into the mystery by her nephew Raymond West, whose niece has been working at the house, and through her usual methods – a knowledge of human nature and trying to decide who the various suspects remind her of – she proceeds to solve the mystery.

Overall, this is a great collection and I hope I’ve managed to give you a taste of each story without spoiling them too much. I’m looking forward to taking part in Read Christie 2023 next year!

The Murder on the Links by Agatha Christie

The May theme for Read Christie 2022 is “a story set in Europe” and The Murder on the Links is the perfect choice as the story takes place almost entirely in France.

First published in 1923, this is a very early Poirot novel (just the second in the series, in fact) and one of several to be narrated by Captain Arthur Hastings. Hastings, a close friend of Poirot’s, is on his way home to England from France when he meets a girl on the train who introduces herself only as ‘Cinderella’. For Hastings, it’s love at first sight, but when they part ways he doesn’t expect to ever see her again.

The next day, Hastings learns that Poirot has just received a letter from a Mr Paul Renauld requesting him to come to his home in France as soon as possible because he believes his life is in danger. The two set off at once, only to discover that Renauld had been murdered the night before, his body found on the new golf course which is under construction near his house. There are several suspects, but when Cinderella reappears and seems to have some involvement in the murder, Hastings will have to choose between his love for her and his loyalty to Poirot.

I enjoyed this, although I don’t think it’s one of the better Poirot novels I’ve read. None of the characters are particularly memorable or appealing; her characterisation would be stronger in later books in the series – maybe at this early stage she was still concentrating on developing the character of Poirot himself. In this book he has a rival – the French detective Monsieur Giraud – and we can see the contrast between their detecting methods. Poirot refers to Giraud as ‘a human foxhound’, someone who ‘sniffs out’ clues like footprints and cigarette ends while failing to see the bigger picture or to consider motive and psychology as well as physical evidence. Meanwhile, Giraud is equally scornful of Poirot’s approach to crime-solving. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you which of the two detectives will eventually solve the mystery!

I usually like the books narrated by Hastings, who is a sort of Watson to Poirot’s Sherlock Holmes. He provides a viewpoint close to Poirot, while also being as mystified as we are by Poirot’s methods and deductions. I did find him slightly irritating in this book, with his tendency to instantly fall in love with every young woman he meets, but the romantic subplot does have a purpose as it leads to Hastings departing for Argentina, only to make occasional reappearances for the rest of the series.

Overall, this is a typically clever and entertaining Christie novel, but probably not one that I’ll be tempted to re-read. As a final note, don’t be put off by the many covers of this book that show people playing golf – apart from the golf course being the location of the dead body, golf has absolutely nothing to do with the plot!

After the Funeral by Agatha Christie

This month’s theme for the Read Christie 2022 challenge is ‘a story Agatha wrote abroad’. After the Funeral, a Hercule Poirot mystery first published in 1953, doesn’t include any travel and is set entirely in England, but it was written while Christie was away on an archaeological dig with her husband Max.

After the Funeral begins, as the title suggests, just after the funeral of the wealthy Richard Abernethie with the family assembling to hear the reading of the will by his lawyer, Mr Entwhistle. As he has no surviving children of his own, it seems that Richard’s fortune is to be divided between his brother and sister, two of his sisters-in-law, and several of his nieces and nephews and their spouses. After hearing the terms of the will, Cora Lansquenet, Richard’s sister, remarks that her brother was murdered. This is not something that has occurred to anyone else, as they have all accepted that Richard died of natural causes, so Cora’s comments are not taken seriously. The next day, however, Cora herself is found dead, having been brutally murdered in her bed.

Mr Entwhistle, the lawyer, is convinced there must be a connection between the two deaths and begins to interview the family members, hoping that they will all be able to prove themselves innocent and avoid bringing shame on the family. As the mystery deepens, he decides that he needs to call in an expert – and so he contacts his friend, Hercule Poirot, who listens to the facts and agrees that an investigation is required…

This is maybe not one of the better known Poirot novels, but it’s one that I particularly enjoyed. After a confusing start – Christie throws a huge number of characters into the opening chapters and it takes a while to straighten out their relationships and remember who they all are – I became completely absorbed in this fascinating mystery, having a few guesses at the identity of the culprit and getting it wrong every time! It’s one of those mysteries where literally any of the characters (apart from Poirot, of course) could have been the murderer and the solution relies on a wonderful twist, which I don’t think many readers will have seen coming. Well done if you did, but I certainly didn’t.

Poirot himself doesn’t have a large part to play in the novel until the second half; before that, it’s actually Mr Entwhistle who is trying to investigate the deaths, by questioning suspects, speaking to doctors and establishing alibis. During that first half of the novel, I couldn’t help thinking that it wasn’t really essential for Poirot to appear in the story at all as Mr Entwhistle seemed to be doing such a good job! However, it’s Poirot’s ‘little grey cells’ that are necessary to spot that final crucial clue and solve the mystery.

Next month’s theme for the Read Christie challenge is ‘a story featuring adventure’. There are plenty of those to choose from!

Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie

This month’s theme for Read Christie 2021 is ‘a story set on a mode of transport’. There are plenty of those to choose from and I’ve already read a few of them – Murder on the Orient Express, Death in the Clouds and The Mystery of the Blue Train – but I decided to read a book I’ve never read before, one of Christie’s most famous novels, the 1937 Poirot mystery Death on the Nile.

When Linnet Ridgeway, a beautiful heiress, is found shot dead in her cabin during a cruise along the Nile, there are two suspects with obvious motives. One is her husband, Simon Doyle, who will inherit her money on her death; the other is Simon’s former fiancée Jacqueline de Bellefort, who was left heartbroken by Simon and Linnet’s marriage and has followed them on to the steamer Karnak, threatening revenge. However, both Simon and Jacqueline have alibis, so Hercule Poirot, also touring the Nile on the same cruise, is forced to turn his attention to the other passengers – many of whom, it seems, are hiding secrets of their own and could also have reasons to want Linnet dead.

As it happens, another of Christie’s detectives, Colonel Race (whom I recently met in Sparkling Cyanide), soon arrives onboard the Karnak, on the trail of a man suspected of terrorism. Although it seems unlikely that this will be the same person who killed Linnet, Race joins Poirot in the search for the murderer. It was interesting to see them working together – this is Poirot’s book, of course, and he is the one who solves the mystery, but Race makes some useful contributions and his presence in the story means that Poirot can share some of his theories and thought processes with him (and therefore with the reader).

Knowing that this is one of Christie’s most popular books, I expected to love it but, although I did enjoy it, I don’t think it’s a favourite. That’s partly because I thought the characters, with only one or two exceptions, were a particularly unpleasant, privileged and entitled group, so I didn’t have much sympathy for either the victim or any of the people who found themselves under suspicion! Also, I guessed who had committed the crime almost immediately – before it happened, in fact – which took away some of the fun. I don’t think it was necessarily a particularly easy mystery to solve; I feel as though I’ve read another book recently (maybe not a Christie one) based on a similar idea and once I had that idea in my head, it seemed quite obvious who had done it. What I couldn’t work out was exactly how it was done, so I was still kept in suspense waiting for Poirot to explain it.

Next month’s Read Christie theme is ‘a story set after WWII’. This will mean any Christie novel published after 1945; I’ve already read a lot of them, but any suggestions are welcome!

Book 8 for R.I.P. XVI

Evil Under the Sun by Agatha Christie

August’s theme for the Read Christie 2021 challenge is ‘a story set by the seaside’, which seemed the perfect opportunity to pick up an unread Poirot novel, Evil Under the Sun. It’s set on an island off the coast of Devon, where Hercule Poirot is on holiday at the exclusive Jolly Roger Hotel.

Christie begins by introducing us to all of the people staying at the hotel, including Arlena Stuart, a beautiful former actress. Arlena is described by one of the other characters as ‘the personification of evil’ – and she certainly seems to be causing plenty of trouble. Fellow guest Patrick Redfern can’t take his eyes off her and Arlena appears to be encouraging his attentions, regardless of how hurtful this is to Patrick’s young wife, Christine. Arlena’s own husband, Captain Marshall, claims he hasn’t noticed her behaviour, but is he telling the truth? Meanwhile, Marshall’s teenage daughter from a previous marriage hates her stepmother and resents the way she has come into the family home, bringing scandal and unhappiness with her.

When Arlena’s dead body is found at Pixy Cove, a secluded part of the island, almost everyone becomes a suspect. It’s fortunate that Poirot is already on the scene and can begin investigating immediately! In fact, as he later tells his friend, Captain Hastings, he had begun even before the murder took place…

Hastings said, staring: “But the murder hadn’t happened, then.”

Hercule Poirot sighed. He said: “But already, mon cher, it was very clearly indicated.”

“Then why didn’t you stop it?”

And Hercule Poirot, with a sigh, said as he had said once before in Egypt, that if a person is determined to commit murder it is not easy to prevent them. He does not blame himself for what happened. It was, according to him, inevitable.

Having just read three Miss Marple novels in a row for Read Christie, it made a nice change to get back to Poirot for this month’s read. I usually prefer the Poirots to the Marples and Evil Under the Sun – first published in 1941 – is another good one. Setting the story on a private island, for the use of the hotel guests only, is not just an atmospheric setting but also a clever one as it immediately limits the suspects to those already on the island at the beginning of the book. With his understanding of the kind of person Arlena was, Poirot is quickly able to pick out one suspect as the most likely culprit, but due to timings and alibis it seems impossible that this person could have committed the crime. As the novel progresses, more clues emerge, along with the usual red herrings and misdirections Christie likes to throw in our way!

I didn’t manage to solve the mystery, but once the solution was revealed I could see how perfectly all of the clues fitted together – like a jigsaw puzzle, as Poirot describes it. It did seem that the way in which the crime was carried out depended on a lot of good luck and on people behaving in a certain manner, but I still think Christie was fair with the reader and I have no complaints. I’m now looking forward to September’s book, which will be Crooked House.

Murder in Mesopotamia by Agatha Christie – #1936Club

This is the second book I’ve read for the 1936 Club (hosted by Karen and Simon) and an obvious one for me as I’m also taking part in Read Christie 2021 this year. The monthly prompt for Read Christie is ‘a story set before WWII’, which makes Murder in Mesopotamia, published in 1936, the perfect choice!

Murder in Mesopotamia is a Poirot mystery and one of several to feature a first person narrator – usually Captain Hastings, but in this case Nurse Amy Leatheran. At the beginning of the novel she agrees to travel to the site of an archaeological dig near Hassanieh in Iraq to nurse the wife of the expedition leader, Dr Leidner. Louise Leidner is being blamed by some of the other archaeologists for causing tension on this year’s dig, but when Nurse Leatheran arrives at the site what she finds is a nervous, frightened woman who claims to be receiving threatening letters from a former husband. A few days later, Louise is found dead in her bedroom, having been hit on the head by a blunt object. It seems impossible that a stranger could have entered the site without being seen, therefore the murderer must be someone on the dig…but who?

When I first began to read, I couldn’t help making comparisons with They Came to Baghdad, one of my favourite Christie novels, which features lots of colourful descriptions of Iraq. The sense of place in this one isn’t quite as strong – and in fact, we see very little of Iraq beyond the confines of the dig site – but there’s still plenty of atmosphere. The descriptions we do get of the dig and the various roles of the members of the expedition are fascinating and feel authentic, which is to be expected as Christie herself was married to an archaeologist, Max Mallowan, and often accompanied him on digs. Not only could she draw on her own personal knowledge and experience in the writing of this novel, she also apparently based some of the characters on people she knew.

Nurse Leatheran is a very opinionated narrator who doesn’t hold back on her views of ‘Foreigners’ (including Poirot), but apart from that I quite enjoyed her narration. We get to know the other participants in the dig through her eyes and, because she is an outsider, meeting all of these people for the first time, we can never be completely sure whether or not she is giving us an accurate impression of them. Poirot himself appears halfway through the novel, conveniently passing through Hassanieh after working on a case in Syria – and we are told that a week later, after solving this mystery, he will go on to investigate the Murder on the Orient Express.

As usual, I didn’t manage to solve the mystery myself. I came up with a few theories, but none of them were correct, which isn’t surprising as the final solution is so far-fetched I don’t think I would ever have thought of it! The method by which the murder is carried out seems unlikely, if not impossible, but the motive relies on us accepting something which I found impossible to believe. Still, this was an entertaining read and another great 1936 book.