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Literature / Cards on the Table

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Cards on the Table is an Agatha Christie detective fiction murder mystery first published in 1936. The mysterious Mr Shaitana, who boasts of being a "collector of murderers", hosts a dinner party to which he invites four "specimens" of his collection along with the famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, crime novelist Ariadne Oliver, Superintendent Battle of Scotland Yard, and Secret Service man Colonel Race. After some provocative discourse on the subject of murder, Shaitana invites his eight guests to play Bridge, while he retires to his armchair by the fire, where he is promptly murdered. In investigating the murder, Poirot uncovers some dark secrets in the lives of all four suspects.

The book was made into a stage play in 1981, and adapted for the TV series Poirot in 2005, the latter of which strayed considerably from the original story. Tropes for the 2005 adaptation are listed on the page for the TV series.


The 1936 novel provides examples of:

  • Abhorrent Admirer: Major Despard attracts the ditzy, dreamy Mrs Luxmore and, to a lesser extent, the pretty but timid Anne Meredith when he'd prefer her more adventurous, tomboyish flatmate Rhoda.
  • Accidental Murder: The killing of Professor Luxmore turns out to be an attempt at Percussive Prevention gone wrong, but the surrounding circumstances made it look very bad.
  • Affably Evil: The killer has a bluff and hearty manner. He also killed two patients (at least) and never shows any sign of hesitation, doubt or remorse. When he's revealed to have killed both Shaitana and Mrs Lorrimer at the Summation Gathering, he surrenders with the grin of someone who's been fairly beaten at his own game, rather than someone who's been caught for at least four murders.
  • After-Action Villain Analysis: Double Subverted. At the beginning of the Summation Gathering, we are falsely led to believe that Shaitana's killer is Anne, who has just drowned, before Poirot announces that the true killer is in the room. Poirot begins his analysis of this person after they are taken into custody.
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  • Author Avatar: Ariadne Oliver is an obvious self-parody of Christie herself, complete with her own extremely popular and quirky foreign detective, the lanky vegetarian Finn Sven Hjerson. One of her novels is titled The Body in the Library; six years later Christie wrote a Miss Marple novel with that title.
  • Betty and Veronica: Flatmates Rhoda Dawes and Anne Meredith swiftly fall for Major Despard. Zigzagged as the former is tomboyish and down-to-earth but also the more assertive and worldly of the two, while Anne is shy, mysterious, and seemingly rather sheltered and in need of protection — but is one of Shaitana's collection of supposed murderers. Anne solidifies her position as the jealous Veronica when she tries to Murder the Hypotenuse as she senses Despard's attention moving toward Rhoda; however, Anne also realizes that Rhoda is the only person who knows about her connection to the murder of her former employer, which also serves as motive for the murder.
  • Bluffing the Murderer: Poirot hires an actor to play the part of a window cleaner who claims to have witnessed the final murder through the window. He didn't really, of course — Poirot accurately reconstructed the scene from what he already knew entirely in his imagination.
  • Bond Villain Stupidity: As noted under Bullying a Dragon below, Mr. Shaitana's decision to flaunt his knowledge and power, all while making coy references to the secrets he'd gathered about his "collection" of murderers, was an incredibly moronic thing to do.
  • Bullying a Dragon: Poirot makes perfectly clear at one point that he thinks what Mr. Shaitama did, which was to take a bunch of people he knew well had committed murder and place them in a room with a bunch of expert detectives just to see them squirm, was just asking for one of them to snap and decide to kill him.
  • …But He Sounds Handsome: There's an element of this in the way the killer comments about how much nerve would be required to commit a murder in that fashion at the very beginning of the novel.
  • Call-Back: Poirot gives Rhoda the knife the killers used to send Cassetti where he belonged and outright spoils the Twist Ending of that story.
  • Canon Welding: Superintendent Battle previously appeared in the two novels starring Bundle Brent, while Ariadne Oliver first appeared in the Parker Pyne stories, and appeared along with Rhoda Dawes and Major Despard in the 1961 novel The Pale Horse, which also featured the vicar's wife from the Miss Marple novel The Moving Finger.
  • Card Games: The murder takes place during a game of Bridge.
  • Closed Circle: The only people in the room when Shaitana dies are the four successful murderers he "collected".
  • Collector of the Strange: Mr Shaitana "collects" murderers — striking up acquaintances with the successful ones, those who managed to get away with it. More recently, he's also started collecting famous detectives. The story begins with the extremely ill-advised idea of putting them all together at a party... which leads to one of the murderers striking again, with Shaitana stabbed to death before the night is out.
  • Creator's Favorite: Of a sort. Christie says in her foreword that this is one of Poirot's personal favorite cases he ever solved — though when he described it to Hastings, the captain found it rather dull.
  • Deadly Doctor: As part of Shaitana's "game" of tormenting the four murderers, he suggests that Dr Roberts is this; Roberts facetiously replies that when he poisons his patients it's entirely by accident. Not so when it comes to Mr. and Mrs. Craddock, though.
  • Didn't Think This Through: Poirot repeatedly points out how stupid it was of Shaitana to go around deliberately taunting successful murderers. Later, when one of the suspects confesses to shield the real murderer, Poirot points out how short-sighted such a move really is, as it will only encourage the killer to keep using murder as a means of solving problems.
  • The Dreaded: People, particularly women, are afraid of Mr Shaitana without entirely knowing why. He does certainly possess a great deal of mysterious knowledge, and moves in influential circles. Perhaps he was relying on his reputation to protect him from his collection of murderers. It doesn't.
  • "Everybody Laughs" Ending: The book ends with a joke about killing off Insufferable Genius Poirot to see if his vengeful ghost comes back to solve the case.
  • Everyone Is a Suspect: Invoked, both in universe and out of it. The foreword to the novel specifically states that the trope is in place: four of Shaitana's guests are invited on the premise that they are all murderers who managed to get away with it, with Shaitana all but blackmailing them with what he knows.
  • Explain, Explain... Oh, Crap!: Played with when Rhoda and Anne discuss are discussing the latter's tenure with Mrs. Benson, which Anne had conveniently "forgotten" to mention to the police. Anne, already on edge, remarks that it's not a big deal: "No one knows but you! one knows...but you." Since Anne killed Mrs. Benson, it means that Rhoda just made herself a prime target for murder.
  • Face Death with Dignity: Mrs. Lorrimer receives a diagnosis of a terminal illness in the middle of the novel, but does not panic in the slightest, instead stoically accepting the news and preparing to die quietly. This diagnosis is part of what motivates her to confess to Shaitana's murder and save Anne: since she is already not long for the world, she might as well go protecting someone.
  • Forged Message: The suicide notes Mrs Lorrimer supposedly sent out to each of the other suspects turns out to have been forged by Dr Roberts.
  • Gentleman Adventurer: Major Despard, a soldier, hunter, and wilderness guide in Darkest Africa, described as dashing in the text — but also one of Shaitana's murderers. Since it turns out that said murder was actually a genuine accident, the trope is only fully realized by the book's end.
  • Goodbye, Cruel World!: Mrs Lorrimer sends out identical confession/suicide notes to the three other suspects. Subverted — the letters were actually forged by Dr Roberts, who also faked her suicide.
  • Graceful Loser: Downplayed with the killer's calmly delivered final line: "I throw in my hand. You've got me!"
  • He Knows Too Much:
    • While it's unclear how he knows what he knows, Shaitana poses a danger to the murderers he has "collected", and ends up dead after introducing them to his collection of detectives.
    • Rhoda's innocent knowledge about Anne Meredith's brief tenure working for a woman who died makes her a target. Anne specifically poisoned her former employer, Mrs Benson, when the latter was about to turn her in for stealing.
  • Information Broker: Mr. Shaitana has built his infamous reputation by "collecting" secrets and gossip about all manner of people. Unlike most examples of this trope, he doesn't buy or sell the info he collects, but instead acts vague and mysterious to deliberately intimidate others and create an aura of fear for himself. It's promptly deconstructed when one of the people he has dirt on promptly decides to kill him.
  • The Ingenue: Anne Meredith appears to be a shy but very sheltered and innocent girl whom the sleuths couldn't help feeling sorry for, but she's one of the murderers that Shaitana had "collected" for his party.
  • Inspector Lestrade: Subverted with Superintendent Battle, who presents an appearance of being rather slow and stupid at first, but his 'wooden' stolidity is a careful act, and his investigative methods, however 'plodding', do prove effective (though, of course, Poirot is Always Someone Better).
  • Irony: Despard shot at a Professor Luxmore to save his life when he was about to deliriously wander to his death by drowning; the shot was only fatal due to the misguided intervention of Mrs Luxmore.
  • Just One Little Mistake: Subverted. At first it seems that Dr Roberts was seen killing Mrs Lorrimer, but Poirot reveals that this was a bluff.
  • Karmic Death: Anne Meredith tries to kill her flatmate Rhoda by pushing her into the river, but ends up falling in herself and drowning.
  • Late-Arrival Spoiler:
    • Don't read this book before Murder on the Orient Express, since Poirot gives away the solution.
    • Similarly, don't read The Pale Horse before reading this one. If you do, you'll know that Major Despard isn't the guilty party, as he's married to Rhoda and has been promoted to colonel.
  • Louis Cypher: Mr Shaitana (whose name is derived from Shaitan, the Arabic spelling of Satan) cultivates a deliberately 'Mephistophelian' image, from his immaculately tailored clothing and well-appointed home right down to the Van Dyke mustache and goatee. He even has a collection of damned souls of sorts, in the form of undetected murderers he's gathered over the years, and is arrogant enough — proud as the devil, in other words — to invite them all to a party with his other collection, four famous sleuths. Subverted in that Shaitana ends up being the murder victim. As Poirot warns him, he is not the devil, only a man, and Mr Shaitana's hobbies are far more dangerous to himself than to anyone else.
  • Make It Look Like an Accident: Dr Roberts's original murder: infecting Mr Craddock's razor with anthrax, then administering a bacteria-infested inoculation to his wife when she started kicking up a fuss after her husband's death. Her death weeks later was blamed on the conditions in Egypt.
  • Mama Bear: Mrs. Lorrimer ends up developing a strong motherly fondness for Anne Meredith, and decides to falsely confess to Shaitana's murder to protect the younger woman.
  • Meaningful Name: Mr. Shaitana, whose surname is a cognate of "Satan", enjoys presenting himself as a devillish figure who torments people with his psychological games.
  • Murder the Hypotenuse:
    • One-time murderer Anne tries to get rid of her romantic rival Rhoda by shoving her into the river while they're boating together. It backfires, however, as the boat tips, causing both to fall in. Anne drowns while Rhoda is rescued by Major Despard.
    • Mrs Luxmore believes Major Despard murdered her botanist husband to get him out of the way. Subverted in that Despard never liked her and was in fact trying to shoot the delirious Professor Luxmore in the leg to stop him before he fell in the river and drowned. In trying to stop him, Mrs Luxmore actually threw off Despard's aim at the last moment, making the shot unintentionally fatal.
  • Needle in a Stack of Needles: Shaitana claimed all four of the people who eventually become suspects for his own murder had also committed previous murders, meaning any of them were theoretically capable of killing again. Poirot notes that Shaitana was only likely to be wrong about, at most, one of them. He turns out to be right, as Major Despard only committed at most accidental manslaughter.
  • Never One Murder: Four people were murdered before the novel began: Dr Roberts' patients Mr and Mrs Craddock, Mrs Lorrimer's husband, Anne's former employer Mrs Benson, and Professor Luxmore, the botanist Major Despard worked for as a guide in Africa. Knowing this and baiting the killers with that knowledge is what leads to Mr Shaitana being murdered. Mrs Lorrimer is later killed to serve as a scapegoat for Shaitana's murder.
  • Never Suicide: Mrs Lorrimer's death is set up to look as if she committed suicide out of remorse for killing Mr Shaitana. In reality, Dr Roberts killed them both.
  • Nonspecifically Foreign: Nobody is actually sure where Mr Shaitana comes from — apparently all Englishmen who know him regard him as a "dago" whom they want to kick, but they have no idea "whether [he] was an Argentine, or a Portuguese, or a Greek, or some nationality rightly despised by the insular Briton..." It's later stated that he has family in Syria, although whether he himself is actually from there isn't stated.
  • Not What It Looks Like: It turns out Mrs Lorrimer caught a glimpse of Anne Meredith hovering suspiciously over Mr Shaitana in his chair. This ends up being the reason why Mrs Lorrimer falsely confesses to killing Shaitana herself, to protect a young girl with her whole life ahead of her who was forced into what Mrs Lorrimer saw as justifiable homicide. Shaitana, however, had actually already been stabbed at the time, and the reason Anne hesitated to speak up was not because she'd killed him, but out of fear that suspicion would come to rest on her based on the murder Shaitana had implied she'd committed over dinner.
  • Obviously Evil: Subverted. Mr Shaitana deliberately plays up his 'Mephistophelian' image, but never does anything criminal — just stupid.
  • Percussive Prevention: Despard attempted to save the delirious Professor Luxmore from drowning by shooting to wound him before he could fall into the river, but it went horribly wrong.
  • Police Are Useless: Zigzagged throughout the novel. For starters, entire premise of the story is that four people have managed to literally get away with murder by outwitting the police. However, when one of those murderers strikes again, Superintendent Battle, his team of officers, and Secret Service agent Colonel Race are able to gather a good deal of information about two of the suspects. Then again, they're completely unable to determine Anne Meredith's criminal history; it takes some amateur sleuthing from Mrs. Oliver to learn the facts about that incident, although Battle at least has the good grace to admit that Mrs. Oliver was able to outsmart him.
  • The Profiler: A prominent example of Poirot's use of "the psychology" to solve the crime — the eponymous "cards on the table" refer to contract bridge, and Poirot is able to discern a great deal about the four murderers' respective characters from their playstyles, along with the exact manner of their crimes as compared to the murder of Mr Shaitana.
  • Red Herring: Mrs Lorrimer and Anne Meredith, both previously successful murderers, are set up to look like Shaitana's killer. Neither one is. One of Shaitana's other murderers, Major Despard, turns out not to have murdered anyone at all.
  • Redemption Equals Death: The night before being murdered, Mrs Lorrimer confesses to Shaitana's murder, both to protect Anne Meredith and to atone for her own successful murder of her husband years earlier.
  • Refuge in Audacity: The crime had to have been committed in the middle of a card game in plain view of the other players, none of whom noticed. This is how Poirot comes to fix on the real murderer — regardless of the actual method used, it was a murder that called for swift and sudden action, spotting an opportunity and taking a considerable risk, and being willing to bluff. This fits Dr Roberts' style of bridge to a tee: overcalling his hand, skillfully playing the cards he's dealt, and getting quite lucky along with it. While not a strictly medical murder, Shaitana's murder was committed at the spur of the moment and in public, much like Roberts infecting his previous two victims in their own home during appointments with them.
  • Rescue Romance: Despard saves Rhoda from drowning, which kickstarts their relationship.
  • Sadist: Of the psychological kind. Shaitana enjoys tormenting his "murderers" with his knowledge of what they did — such as by inviting them to a bridge party with four separate sleuths.
  • Same Story, Different Names: Ariadne Oliver is asked if she's ever reused a plot, and Poirot instantly mentions "The Lotus Murder" and "The Clue of the Candle-Wax" — which from the descriptions are her versions of The Murder on the Links and "The Adventure of the Submarine Plans". Also used as part of the investigation: the goal is to find a crime in one of the suspects' pasts that has the same pattern as this one.
  • The Scapegoat: Mrs Lorrimer chooses to take the blame for the murder of Mr Shaitana, believing that Anne Meredith only killed him out of desperation and needs to be protected. Dr Roberts seizes the opportunity to frame Mrs Lorrimer for the murder which he actually committed, making it look like she killed Shaitana and committed suicide out of remorse.
  • Secret Test of Character: Poirot presents one to Anne under the pretense of asking her advice on which of a range of expensive stockings to send to his (fictitious) nieces and grand-nieces as Christmas presents. What he actually wants to know is if she's a kleptomaniac. He deliberately arranges the stockings in a haphazard fashion on a table after taking a careful count of them, then recounts after Anne has left. Sure enough, several pairs of stockings are gone, proving that she cannot resist stealing small but expensive items when she thinks she can get away with it.
  • Self-Deprecation: Ariadne Oliver is a fountain of this: she outright calls her many successful novels "tripe" and frequently makes jabs about herself and her writing habits. Since Oliver is a clear Author Avatar of Christie herself, it also counts as Leaning on the Fourth Wall.
  • Self-Fulfilling Prophecy: Mrs Luxmore's misapprehension that Despard was about to shoot her husband dead leads her to thwart his attempt at Percussive Prevention and turns what was intended as Only a Flesh Wound into a fatal shot.
  • Sickbed Slaying: The elderly Mrs Lorrimer, who has recently learned she is dying, is found dead in her bed of an apparent suicide — actually staged by the real killer.
  • The Smurfette Principle: Ariadne Oliver is the only woman among the four "sleuths" that Shaitana invites to his party. It's somewhat justified in that he deliberately sought out experts in their fields, and in 1936 London, there simply weren't that many opportunities for women be involved in criminal investigations on the professional level (as noted when Mrs. Oliver points out that the majority of the females on Scotland Yard's police force are park rangers).
  • Sticky Fingers: Anne is revealed by Poirot to be a kleptomaniac. She was caught stealing by her employer Mrs Benson, whom she then poisoned to cover her tracks.
  • The Stoic: Mrs Lorrimer is notably difficult to read, calm, collected, and not likely to lose her head — which makes her an exceptional bridge player and the only one of Shaitana's captive murderers who never cracks — Poirot admits he cannot prove she killed her husband or why, but what impresses him most is that she never gives in to the temptation to deliver a Motive Rant about why she was entirely justified. Poirot regards her as something of a Worthy Opponent.
  • Too Dumb to Live: Zigzagged. Shaitana was clever enough to recognize his collector's pieces as murderers when no one else knew, but unsurprisingly, his dangerous hobby of collecting successful murderers gets him killed when he chooses to make them squirm for his own amusement rather than simply turning them in.
  • Trademark Favourite Food: Ariadne Oliver buys bags of apples and eats them one after another while she writes.
  • Unreliable Expositor: Mrs. Luxmore tells Poirot a highly colorful and romanticized tale of forbidden love between her and Major Despard culminating in the latter killing her husband in self-defence, after which they decided that they had no choice but to part ways for good. It turns out she's an unstable Drama Queen whom Despard always disliked, and who was herself indirectly responsible for her fever-stricken husband's Accidental Murder.
  • The Unreveal: We never learn how or why Mrs. Lorrimer killed her husband. The only thing we know for certain is that he was poisoned: when Shaitana lists off four possible murder methods at the beginning of the novel, he names a shooting accident, a domestic mistake, a doctor's opportunities, and poison as a "woman's weapon." Since the first three correspond to Despard, Anne Meredith, and Dr. Roberts, respectively, we're left with the conclusion that Mrs. Lorrimer's crime relates to the last method.
    • The exact nature of Mrs. Lorrimer's fatal illness is never made clear. All she says is "I shall not play very much more bridge, Monsieur Poirot" and remarks that she's been given a few months to live at most.
  • Viewers Are Geniuses: Christie structured the puzzle so that readers who had a good understanding of bridge would have an edge on guessing the solution.
  • Who Murdered the Asshole?: Mr. Shaitana invites people who literally got away with murder to a party calculated to make them squirm. Christie plays with this one, as Poirot immediately points out that this is not a safe hobby. Much of the book is spent trying to find out what murders the suspects previously committed. As a further sign of Shaitana's arrogance, very late in the book, it is revealed that one of the so-called "murderers" was actually innocent of their supposed crime and did not deserve to be put through Shaitana's mind games in the first place.
  • Women Are Wiser: In-Universe, Ariadne Oliver is a firm believer in this trope: she constantly praises "women's intuition" and remarks that if a female was in charge of Scotland Yard, crime would disappear in a manner of weeks. It's largely Played for Laughs, especially because Mrs. Oliver is such a bumbling figure, but she is able to gather incriminating information on Anne Meredith when the police couldn't, so there may be something to her theories after all.
    • Played straighter with Mrs. Lorrimer, who Poirot remarks is the only one of Shaitana's four "murderers" to truly intimidate him. The other three are, to varying degrees, Obviously Evil (or at least obviously criminal), but Mrs. Lorrimer never loses her cool and stays collected in every circumstance. As such, Poirot believes that she is the only "successful" criminal out of the group.