My rating: 3 of 5 stars
To put it simply, the title is exactly what this story is about — the cards on the table. Christie lays out all of the suspects, lays out all of the sleuths, and lays out the crime scene. Christie tells the reader flat out in the Foreward: “There are only four starters, and any one of them, given the right circumstances, might have committed the crime.” Everything in the story hinges on figuring out what the true circumstances of the murderous night are…and then you can figure out the whodunit.
The story opens up with the Mephestophelian character of Mr. Shaitana inviting Hercule Poirot to a dinner party, to which he’s also invited four murderers who have never been caught and three other ‘detectives’: Police Superintendent Battle, maybe-Secret-Service Colonel Race, and mystery novelist Ariadne Oliver. At the party there’s some Bridge (Bridge being the conceit of the whole book) and the murder of the host, Mr. Shaitana.
After that, it’s up to who can play their hand the best–the murderer or the sleuths on the case. Battle, Race, Oliver, and Poirot have different methods which are quite entertaining to watch play against one another. Though the one thing all the interrogators have in common is different ways of playing ignorant. Battle plays the ‘fake memory’ game: “Oh, yeah, that was back in…?” he asks “1932,” answers the suspect. Race digs into their backgrounds via paper. Ariadne Oliver misdirects each suspect toward the others: “Obviously the doctor did it, so you can talk about you, dear….” And Poirot hands them Bridge score sheets and asks them to list items in the room.
In some cases it’s out-and-out hilarious. Especially the character of Ariadne Oliver–popularly considered Christie’s mouthpiece.
There is a lot of reversing and re-reversing in this story, and there are a lot of characters to keep track of. Every one of the suspects has killed someone and there are witnesses and victims for each one of those side-stories. I admit to getting mixed up, especially with military titles thrown in there. Major Despard is a suspect and Colonel Race is a sleuth and I kept twisting them up for some reason.
In the Foreward, Christie mentions this being one of Poirot’s favorite cases though his buddy Hastings “when Poirot described it to him, considered it very dull!” And there is a risk that some readers would find this not-as-exciting as some other Christie books. After all, it is about the psychology of the characters, and to gather the necessary information on the suspects’ respective backgrounds can get tedious. But readers who are entertained by the concept of ‘profiling’ (like me!) will have a good time here.