Cards on the Table is a work of detective fiction by Agatha Christie and first published in the UK by the Collins Crime Club on November 2 1936 and in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company the following year . The UK edition retailed at seven shillings and sixpence (7/6) and the US edition at $2.00.
The book features the recurring characters of Hercule Poirot, Colonel Race, Superintendent Battle and the bumbling crime writer Ariadne Oliver, making her first appearance in a Christie novel (she previously had a role in the Parker Pyne short story The Case of the Discontented Soldier.
At an exhibition of snuff boxes, Hercule Poirot meets Mr. Shaitana. The extravagant Shaitana claims that he collects items that may be of interest to Poirot. When the Belgian detective inquires what these items are, Shaitana responds that he collects the finest specimens in the world of crime: the people who commit a murder and get away with it. Shaitana proceeds to invite Poirot over for dinner in order to meet his 'collection'.
Upon arrival at Shaitana's house, Poirot is met by a number of other guests. Mystery novelist Ariadne Oliver, Scotland Yard's Superintendent Battle, Colonel Race of His Majesty's Secret Service, Dr Geoffrey Roberts, Mrs Lorrimer, Major John Despard, Miss Anne Meredith and Poirot converse as dinner is prepared. At the dinner table, conversation turns to the topic of murder. Shaitana discusses the thought that if he were to commit a murder, he would make it simple: a domestic or a shooting accident. He also mentioned that poison was a woman's weapon and about a doctor's opportunities. These comments leave many guests uncomfortable and the party adjourns to a game of contract bridge.
Dr Roberts, Anne Meredith, Mrs Lorrimer and Major Despard sit down to a game in a small room, while Shaitana leads Poirot, Mrs Oliver, Race and Battle into an adjoining room where the four begin a second game of bridge. Shaitana claims that bridge is not his preferred game and returns to the first room. The evening progresses and when Poirot and his company prepare to leave, they move to say farewell to their host, who is sitting in his chair in the first room. Upon inspection, it is quickly discovered that he has been murdered, stabbed with a small stiletto. It becomes apparent that no one has entered the first room since the bridge games began, immediately pointing to the four members of Shaitana's 'collection' of murderers as the suspects.
The four 'sleuths' (Poirot, Oliver, Race and Battle) interrogate the four suspects, all of whom, to their belief, have killed before. Upon finding very little from their interviews, the 'sleuths' prepare to go about their own ways to determine who murdered Shaitana.
The Four Detectives
The Four Suspects
The Times Literary Supplement of November 14, 1936 stated favourably in its review by Caldwell Harpur that, "Poirot scores again, scores in two senses, for this appears to be the authoress's twentieth novel. One of the minor characters in it is an authoress of thirty-two detective novels; she describes in several amusing pages the difficulties of her craft. Certainly Mrs. Christie ought to know them, but she continues to surmount them so well that another score of novels may be hoped for.
In The New York Times Book Review for February 28, 1937, Isaac Anderson concluded, "The story is ingenious, but there are one or two loose ends left dangling when his explanation is finished. Cards on the Table is not quite up to Agatha Christie's best work..
In The Observer's issue of November 15, 1936, in a review section entitled "Supreme de Poirot", "Torquemada" (Edward Powys Mathers) said, "I was not the only one who thought that Poirot or his creator had gone a little off the rails in Murder in Mesopotamia, which means that others beside myself will rejoice at Mrs. Christie's brilliant come-back in Cards on the Table. This author, unlike many who have achieved fame and success for qualities quite other than literary ones, has studied to improve in every branch of writing in each of her detective stories. The result is that, in her latest book, we note qualities of humour, composition and subtlety which we would have thought beyond the reach of the writer of The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Of course, the gift of bamboozlement, with which Agatha Christie was born, remains, and has never been seen to better advantage than in this close, diverting and largely analytical problem. Cards on the Table is perhaps the most perfect of the little grey cells.
The Scotsman of November 19, 1936 said, "There was a time when M. Hercule Poirot thought of going into retirement in order to devote himself to the cultivation of marrows. Fortunately, the threat was never carried out; and in Mrs Christie's latest novel the little Belgian detective is in very good form indeed. The plot is simple but brilliant." The review concluded by saying, "Mrs Oliver, the novelist, is one of Mrs Christie's most amusing creations.
E.R. Punshon of The Guardian reviewed the novel in the November 20, 1936 issue when he began, "Even in a tale of crime and mystery humour is often of high value." He went on to say that, "In this respect…Agatha Christie shows herself once again…a model of detective tales. There are delightful passages when Poirot anxiously compares other moustaches with his own and awards his own the palm, when his lips are forced to utter the unaccustomed words 'I was in error', when Mrs. Oliver, famous authoress, discourses upon art and craft of fiction. But all that never obscures the main theme as Poirot gradually unravels the puzzle of which four bridge-players had murdered their host." He concluded, "Largely by a careful study of the score, Poirot is able to reach the truth, and Mrs. Christie sees to it that he does so by way of springing upon the reader one shattering surprise after another.
Robert Barnard: "On the very top rung. Special opportunities for bridge enthusiasts, but others can play. Superb tight construction and excellent clueing. Will be read as long as hard-faced ladies gather for cards.
The book was adapted as a stage play in 1981, although without Poirot. This followed Christie's trend of adapting Poirot novels as plays, but without Poirot as a detective, as she did not feel that any actor could portray him successfully.
ITV adapted the story into a television programme in their series Agatha Christie's Poirot starring David Suchet as Hercule Poirot and Zoë Wanamaker as Ariadne Oliver, which aired in the US on A&E Network in December 2005 and, in the UK, on ITV1 in March 2006. The solution strayed from the source material slightly, however, incorporating homosexual elements into the story.
The book was first serialised in the US in The Saturday Evening Post in six instalments from May 2 (Volume 208, Number 44) to June 6, 1936 (Volume 208, Number 49) with illustrations by Orison MacPherson.