Hercule Poirot #14
In one room: Poirot and his friends play bridge. In the other: Mr. Shaitana and his exhibits play murder.
What makes a Christie masterpiece? When I rank these books out of 10, I’m not necessarily comparing them to all great works of fiction, but on the other hand, it isn’t simply in contrast to crime fiction as a genre. Like any devotee of any subject, one finds their own rating scale, which encompasses the good, the bad, and the in-betweens. I’ll still enjoy one of Christie’s middle-of-the-line thrillers, even if – to a newcomer – it comes across as dry, naive or simply inferior to master thriller writers, for instance. The vast majority of Christie’s books are easy to read; a smaller majority feel tightly constructed; about half of them leave you smiling and impressed that she fooled you so well; and so on…
At the top rungs of Christie’s ladder, though, we go further: the construction of each mystery in the Top Ten is impeccable. All feature fascinating, dimensional characters, a detective (or detectives) whose morals and idiosyncracies affect the investigation, and a sense of foreboding which heightens our need to get to the bottom of the tightly-plotted crime. So, when I use words like “classic” or “masterpiece” to describe one of these works, it has to be with the understanding that this doesn’t mean “masterpiece by any literary standards” but nor does it just mean “masterpiece compared to most crime fiction”. Dame Agatha stands somewhere between the two: readable, humorous, inventive, without ever being pretentious, exhausting or trashy. And this, perhaps, is her all-encompassing appeal.
Cards on the Table sees Christie at the height of her powers, and also at her most self-referential. A hedonistic collector invites four detectives – Poirot,and three of her recurring sleuths, Colonel Race, Superintendent Battle, Mrs. Oliver – to play bridge with four criminals. When their host is, inevitably, murdered, it becomes clear that the four are suspects and, as Christie notes in her introduction, this is no trick: there are four suspects only. Logic and reason will see us to the conclusion. (Well, that and a damn good knowledge of bridge.)
This was the introduction of Ariadne Oliver, Christie’s surrogate character in the canon, and one of her most delightful portrayals. Already bitter about her recurring Finnish detective and his silly quirks, Oliver gets to waffle on at length about detective fiction without ever feeling like she’s hammering home a point. All four detectives are permitted some investigation, which allows Poirot to function as a vital part of the novel, rather than a God. (This is not inherently a flaw – he’ll be in every scene in some of the upcoming novels – but it’s nice to see him rubbing up against other people’s deductive techniques.) The victim is fascinating, the suspects equally so, and – with their backgrounds as alleged killers – the contrivances never feel like anything less than a natural part of the plot. (*coughCat Among the Pigeonscough*)
The David Suchet adaptation – which introduced Zoe Wanamaker as Oliver – took countless liberties with the plot, none of which were necessary but none were disastrous, but was delightful and atmospheric: how can you go wrong with a story such as this? There are no flaws in the story or in the construction, but interestingly this is Christie at her most Conan Doyle-esque. For those of us who aren’t familiar with bridge, the lengthy examinations of the score card are slightly bewildering, but this kind of long-form thinking – not just figuring out that the initials on a handkerchief are in a different language, for instance – comes across as real deductive thinking, the kind of powers that Poirot has always professed separate him from the lower forms of investigators.
Poirot ranking: 4th out of 38
Next time: Poirot’s fourth straight entry in the Top Ten, in one of his most intriguing ‘close confines’ mysteries.