First Published: Serialized in the Saturday Evening Post in 1936.
I Read: Cards On The Table. New York, William Morrow, 2011.
Detectives: Poirot, Superintendent Battle, Colonel Race, Adriane Oliver
Summary: “The four murderers and the four sleuths-- Scotland Yard. Secret Service. Private. Fiction. A clever idea.” (pg. 60)
This is the basis for Cards On The Table where four notable sleuths must work together to investigate the murder of Mr. Shaitana, a man who enjoyed cultivating the image of being a Mephistophelian figure who ferreted out one secret too many and baited a killer into action.
Review: I know I say this a bunch, but I really loved this book! For me it is on par with The Moving Finger, Murder Is Easy or Towards Zero. What made this mystery so memorable is each of the suspects was guilty of a death before they ever came to the attention of the four investigators (I am not spoiling anything you know this by page 4). You spend the rest of the book sifting through what motivates each suspect using diverse investigative methods, which gives you a highly entertaining read. Incidentally if you are not overly fond of Poirot (there are some who are not as keen on him which I totally get), Cards gives you a Poirot mystery which isn’t overly Poiroty. If you know what I mean.
This book heralds the very last appearance of Superintendent Battles, which I am saddened by as I love reading how criminals completely underestimate him, by design. Battles takes advantage of the notion that police detectives are an unimaginative and slightly stupid lot which lulls suspects into complacency until he strikes. Making up for this exit was my first encounter with Colonel Race, who brought a shrewd brain and action oriented personality to the investigation, which pleased me to no end. I do love a detective who dashes about....
The other introduction made in Cards which I was tickled with was Ariadne Oliver who injected a fair bit of humor and cleverness into this case, helping to diffuse the seriousness of the other male leads in the book without ever seeming like a dingbat or a brainless twit. “...I only regret one thing--making my detective a Finn. I don’t really know anything about Finns and I am always getting letters from Finland pointing out something impossible that he’s said or done.” (pg. 66) Substitute "Belgian" for "Finn" and you hear Christie speaking about Poirot and her exasperation about writing his mysteries! Which is why reading Ariadne so much fun to read! The resemblance between Christie and Ariadne in the area of writing is often very funny - through Adriane, Christie is able to voice humorous anecdotes from her life as a writer. Since Ariadne herself penned a series of detective novels with a Finnish detective, she was the perfect foil for Christie.
In Cards, Adriane lamented about fans writing her about inaccuracies in her books, beyond the mistakes written about Finland. Both of which did happen to Christie in real life, one very famous example of getting a detail wrong comes from Death In The Clouds. A blow pipe was featured as a possible murder weapon on the plane where the crime took place. The issue here is real blow pipes are over six feet long and Christie wrote hers a as being about eighteen inches in length! Fans took her to task about her mistake, apparently repeatedly.
I was delighted to read about both these new-to-me characters of whom I will learn more about in the coming weeks.
“The stupid little man! Oh, the stupid little man,” murmured Hercule Poirot. “To dress up as the devil and try to frighten people.” (pg. 26)
Interesting Fact: Early on in the story Poirot comments to Shaitana, “You have then a private ‘Black Museum’.”(pg. 4), which made me wonder what Poirot was referring to. If you live in the UK you probably already know this, but for those of you who do not, it turns out that Poirot is referencing Scotland Yard’s Crime Museum known for years as The Black Museum. The name was coined by an irritated newspaper reporter denied access in 1877. “The cup used by the Brighton murder, the jimmy of a celebrated burglar...”(pg. 4), here Shaitana scorned the fabled repository, boasting his living exhibits were far superior to the Yard’s bric-a-brac, since all his specimens were the most successful kind of murderer - the ones who’d gotten away with it.
It makes complete sense that Poirot had heard of the Crime Museum and it is equally obvious why I had not. Out of the around 240 museums located in London this particular one has never been open to the public. Opened for training purposes, it houses items from famous/notorious cases Scotland Yard has handled over the years. In order to visit the exhibits you need to make an appointment, be a member of the police force and fill out an application (I think, their website wasn’t overly clear on the finer points). However these prerequisites aren’t always followed as the Black Museum has invited dignitaries, royalty, Gilbert & Sullivan, Houdini, and Laurel & Hardy among others into its private domain.
According to the Yard’s website one of the most commented on pieces in the exhibit are the death masks cast from people hanged at Newgate Prison. Back in the day, death masks were often cast (using wax and plaster) for identification purposes before photography was invented or commonplace. This type of mask has been around for ages, King Tutankhamen, Oliver Cromwell, Napoleon Bonaparte, Peter the Great, Pascal, Voltaire and Abraham Lincoln were all casted after death. On a complete side note to creep you out...Purportedly CPR Annie, the dummy used to teach CPR, facial features are based off a famous death mask from the late 1880’s. The model is an unidentified woman dubbed L’Inconnue de la Seine; she was found drowned in the Seine River in Paris (she’s thought to have committed suicide). According to legend, a pathologist believed her face was so lovely, he had to commemorated it by casting a mask (that’s the story which may or may not be true, but either way the mask and a photograph exist). I do admit there a strong resemblance between her and Annie, I will never look at CPR dummies the same way again...
Back on point. Besides the death masks the Crime Museum is said to display artifacts from Jack the Ripper, Crippen, the Great Train Robbery, the Millennium Dome Heist and other grisly crimes. Pressure has been steadily building on Scotland Yard to open the museum to the public, especially with their scheduled move in 2015 to new digs. Some in the public domain feel one way to fill budget shortfalls that all government agencies seem to have would be to open full scale exhibits for general perusal. Citing the fact that the Yard has handled some of the most famous cases in the world, charging admission inspect evidence in classic cases seems like great money making scheme. On the other side, families of the victims feel it would be profiteering off of suffering of others and oppose the move. Scotland Yard thus far has steadfastly refused to open to the public, but have not categorically denied the possibility.
While Shaitana scoffed at the museum, I wonder how Poirot felt about the collection or for that matter what Christie thought of it. The Scotland Yard website does not mention Christie as ever having visited the museum (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle did). I wonder if she did and her visit isn’t mentioned (as there aren’t any females on the list) or her name wasn’t recorded in their guestbook (as was known to happen) to protect her reputation from being tarnished (which is silly). If Poirot weren’t fictional I think it would be probable that he would have visited at some point.
Would I visit it? Now there’s a pickle. It reminds me of exhibits in wax museums depicting scenes of torture from the inquisition and witch trials - they give me the heebie-jeebies but possess a certain macabre fascination. I haven’t a burning desire to see The Black Museum but If I was invited I think I would go (not that I ever see that happening). If the museum was opened to the general public, I would skip it. I do not want to stand next to that guy who indulges in an inappropriate line of commentary while walking through the museum and you know there would be someone like that there.
Cheating: “Cards on the table. That’s the motto for this business. I mean to play fair.” (pg. 157) and I am still playing fair as well. The four amigos may have been talking about solving a crime, but I think the quote is relevant in my continued abstinence from cheating!
My 52 Weeks With Christie: AmberMiner©2014