Daily Archives: March 27, 2012

Silly Mr. Shaitana

Book Review: Cards on the Table, by Agatha Christie

A keeper? Meh. Annoying fluff.

Oh, that Mr. Shaitana! A notorious figure in London society – bizarre clothes, long, long waxed mustache and little pointy beard, mysterious but certainly unBritish origins, and an unnerving, sinister sense of humor. Almost as famous as Hercule Poirot – or maybe even more famous.

Mr. Shaitana is a collector: of artworks, of knowledge, of people. And the more bizarre and sinister his collection, the better he likes it – especially his specialty, collecting murderers. For he appreciates artistry in murder – the killers who walk safely among us because no one realizes their victims were murdered. He explains to Poirot, slowly and carefully so that our little middle class Belgian retired policeman will be able to understand, how dull and conventional it would be to subject these rare specimens to arrest and punishment. Then Mr. Shaitana invites Poirot to a very special bridge party, featuring the finest in detective skill and the finest in unsuspected killers.

Poirot has his own opinion: Mr. Shaitana is stupid, as stupid as the kind of drunken youngster who climbs into the tiger cage at the zoo.

But he comes to the party, with Mrs. Oliver, the silly-feminist detective novelist (who would be completely, instead of mostly, unbearable if she didn’t seem to be meant as a parody of Christie herself); Superintendent Battle, the wooden-faced policeman; and Colonel Race, the handsome spy. (And there you have all the characterization you need; every bit as much as Christie bothered with.) And there are four more guests: man-of-the-world Dr. Roberts, charming elderly Mrs. Lorrimer, handsome Major Despard, and timid little Miss Meredith. Again, this is about as much characterization as you’re going to get.

The evening crawls quietly along, through hand after hand of bridge, till the “detective” group prepares to leave – and finds that Mr. Shaitana has been stabbed to death! It must have been one of the people at the “killer” table. But which one? And who had they each killed, before? (Or was Mr. Shaitana mistaken, or joking, and could one or all of them be innocent?)

The police and the Secret Service, of course, intend to use standard methods to investigate. Mrs. Oliver will rely on the superiority of women’s intuition and be “comically” wrong every time. And Poirot? He announces that this is a crime of psychology, as demonstrated by the way each of the four suspects kept score during the bridge game!

The investigation proceeds in the usual thirties detective story style, with conversations among the various suspects and tracing of clues by the detectives. Gradually it becomes clear what the backstory of each suspect is – and clear that someone who has murdered once or twice might very well murder again.

Poirot and Battle arrive just in time, twelve pages before the end of the book, to prevent another death. After the arrest, the remaining characters gather to hear Poirot explain how he figured everything out – or is this meeting really for another purpose?

Well, yes, it is. Nine pages before the end, Poirot accuses someone else of killing Mr. Shaitana, and brings in a witness who says he was washing windows and saw this final suspect committing another murder. How did Poirot know? Well, it was all psychology, you see; no particular evidence. No, not even the window cleaner; it turns out that bit of testimony was completely invented, by Poirot, and the “window cleaner” is a hired actor. Come on.

This would be a middle-grade Christie if she had left off the last twelve pages. It gets pretty tiresome to hear Poirot blather about how these cardboard characters reveal their nonexistent psychology by writing down bridge scores. And there’s only so much I can take of 1930s social stereotypes. Even so, she does a good job of gradually building the case against the first of the two killers (the one who did not kill Mr. Shaitana, but killed just about everyone else in sight).

Unfortunately, then she expects us to accept the complete flipflop – based on Poirot’s notions and faked testimony – that frames a completely different person for Mr. Shaitana’s death. When it came to trial, I have to wonder if the final arrestee was acquitted. In any case, the combination of bridge-score detection and the “extra” conclusion irritated me enough that I don’t think I’ll keep this one.