What a mind puzzle this one is! Even before the story begins, Agatha Christie sets us up. In her foreword, she tells us there are only four suspects, and “any one of them, given the right circumstances, might have committed the crime. The twist is,
They are four widely divergent types, the motive that drives each one of them to crime is peculiar to that person, and each one would employ a different method. The deduction must, therefore, be entirely psychological, but it is none the less interesting for that, because when all is said and done it is the mind of the murderer that is of supreme interest.
The premise is simple: Mr Shaitana hosts a dinner party where he hosts four murderers (Dr Roberts, Mrs Lorrimer, Major Despard, and Miss Meredith) and four detectives (Hercule Poirot, Superintendent Battle, Colonel Race, and Ariadne Oliver). Before the end of the evening, Mr Shaitana is killed. Which of the four murderers did it?
(I should note that the four suspects are only alleged murderers. None have been convicted, and in fact, their appeal to Mr Shaitana is that while he believes all four are guilty, none of them have ever actually been accused of the crime.)
As part of my project to solve Agatha Christie mysteries, Cards on the Table is structured perfectly for the task. Each of the four suspects is interviewed in turn, and all four detectives openly discuss their clues and theories with each other. Even the chapters make it easy to keep up: each chapter is titled with the name of the suspect currently being interviewed or the name of a side character giving a new clue. In fact, a major challenge for this project was knowing where to stop before I locked in my final guess.
I accidentally read a fairly pivotal late-chapter reveal that made me rethink my main suspect and motive, but at least Poirot was right there acting as confused as I was. As I write this, I’ve stopped reading, because something else was revealed, and I realize I’m in the end zone. So far, Poirot’s responses seem to be aligned with mine, so that gives me hope that perhaps I’m on the right track. All to say, I’m ready to lock in my answer, and will share my thinking below the SPOILERS tag.
Bahhhh foiled again! At least I was close?
Okay, Dame Agatha, well-played. I had all the cards, but ultimately, I read them wrong.
For anyone keeping track, the score is currently Literary Treats 1, Agatha Christie 2. So I’m on the board, at least, and honestly, this was a lot of fun! I enjoyed the methodical way this case unfolded, and the tricky mind games I kept trying to untangle.
My Theory / My Detective Big Reveal:
I think Major Despard killed Mr Shaitana. He’s a man who acts swiftly and decisively. The murder was done in a room with other people, which speaks of daring. The dagger was inserted quickly and soundlessly, which speaks of skill. Major Despard had both.
Poirot describes the murder as “a sudden dire necessity, a flash of inspiration, rapid execution.” To me, that could describe Major Despard or Dr Roberts. Mrs Lorrimer would’ve planned it out meticulously beforehand, and Miss Meredith strikes me as a killer who uses more subtle means. Both men had opportunity: Major Despard left the bridge table once, which is all he would need to kill him. Dr Roberts left the table three times, which also tracks with his more blustery style.
The Case Against Dr Roberts – After a strong stint as prime suspect in the beginning, he’s been under the radar for so long in this novel that part of me wonders if it actually will turn out to be him. He has motive: he definitely killed Mr and Mrs Craddock, and unlike Major Despard, I think he actually is scared of Mr Shaitana revealing the truth. At the dinner, when Mr Shaitana hinted that doctors can easily poison their patients (which is how Dr Roberts killed both Craddocks), Dr Roberts loudly and immediately joked away the notion. The truth could cost Dr Roberts his license, so I could see him wanting Mr Shaitana gone.
The Case Against Major Despard – Unlike Dr Roberts, I don’t think Major Despard was afraid of what Mr Shaitana may do to him personally. As Poirot learned, he was actually innocent of the murder that Mr Shaitana thought he’d done, and even if he were guilty, I legit don’t think he’d care whatever Mr Shaitana threatened to do. Rather, I think he killed Mr Shaitana out of disgust, possibly as a way to rid the world of a menace. I think he would’ve regarded it as akin to killing vermin.
My guess is that Major Despard noticed how Mr Shaitana made Miss Meredith nervous, and wanted to rescue her. Quick, decisive, and ruthless. I don’t know if he’s actually romantically interested in Miss Meredith, but we see his concern for her when he went to warn her about Superintendent Battle being on his way to interview her. And what cinches this for me is that he seemed sincerely upset when he told Poirot that women seemed scared of Mr Shaitana even though the man was all bluster. Mr Shaitana threatening Mrs Luxmore would’ve have upset Major Despard; he doesn’t care about her at all. Plus, I don’t think Mrs Luxmore would’ve been scared of Mr Shaitana at all; she actually seems the type to be intrigued by him and the drama he brings.
So what decided my final answer?
Ultimately, I think Dr Roberts would’ve somehow demonstrated more panache if he’d killed Mr Shaitana. He killed Mr Craddock by putting anthrax on his shaving brush; he killed Mrs Craddock by tampering with her typhoid vaccine somehow. He could’ve stabbed Mr Shaitana, but it seems too direct to be his style. I also think of what Poirot said about the man who hits a tree by luck when he’s not thinking, but when he tries to do it again, he fails because he has to think. The significance to me of Dr Roberts standing up three times is if he needed multiple attempts before finding the right moment to strike. Poirot’s anecdote suggests that for Dr Roberts to have been successful, he would’ve needed to kill Mr Shaitana the first time, which then doesn’t explain why he’d keep standing up and possibly calling attention to himself. If ever, I can imagine him pretending to ‘discover’ the body; that seems more in line with his blustering personality.
In contrast, this murder was direct, efficient, and effective. That to me speaks of a different kind of daring, and for that reason, I accuse Major Despard.
The Other Suspects
Miss Anne Meredith – Mrs Lorrimer saw her touching Mr Shaitana’s chest and thought that meant Miss Meredith had killed him, but I think Mr Shaitana was already dead at that point. It’s possible that she manipulated Major Despard into killing him for her, but that seems too complex a scheme for her. She’s more likely to kill Mr Shaitana herself, but in a less direct way. She kept bringing up that Dr Roberts would’ve used poison to kill that part of me wonders if she slipped Mr Shaitana some poison herself, and perhaps that’s why Mr Shaitana didn’t make a sound. So it’s possible she had some hand in it.
Now, I do think she killed others. I bet Mrs Lorrimer’s death wasn’t a suicide, but actually murder. And I wouldn’t be surprised if Anne was plotting the death of her best friend Rhoda Dawes, possibly after Rhoda’s aunt dies and leaves her an even bigger fortune, and Anne manages to finagle Rhoda to name her as beneficiary in the will. But Mr Shaitana’s death? I don’t think she would’ve stabbed him.
Mrs Lorrimer – She was my guess for a long time. Like Poirot, she was my top pick for a murderer who’d plot a perfect crime. When Dr Roberts didn’t include the dagger in his listing of everything he remembered in the room, I thought that meant the murderer took the dagger with them to dinner. (Mrs Lorrimer’s false confession later made me realize the murderer could’ve taken it before they sat down to dinner, or before the point at which Dr Roberts looked around the room.) In Chapter 25, she confessed to the murder, and that confused me a lot. Because to my view, she had no reason to kill Mr Shaitana. I don’t think she’s the type to be scared of Mr Shaitana’s threats. He’s known for wild parties and outlandish behaviour; I don’t think he had enough society cred to be an actual threat to her.
I figured her confession must’ve been an attempt to cover for someone, and my guess was Miss Meredith. They’d had tea together recently, and Mrs Lorrimer made a comment about how she was old whereas Miss Meredith was young with her whole life still ahead of her. I could imagine Mrs Lorrimer trying to help a younger woman, and true enough, in Chapters 26 and 27, Poirot got Mrs Lorrimer to admit exactly that, plus the fact that she was motivated by the fact that she was ill and had only months to live.
The Actual Reveal
It was Dr Roberts. Bah. The man made my top 2 list, and then I go and accuse the wrong finalist.
The clue was in the bridge scores, which I wish I could use as an excuse for why I missed it, but there were full chapters where the events of the bridge game were discussed in detail. Basically, Dr Roberts made a bid of a grand slam, which is like 1500 points, and then bid it in his partner, Mrs Lorrimer’s suit, so he could be dummy. Since a grand slam is super exciting in bridge, all the players were focused on the cards, and as dummy, Dr Roberts was able to slip away and kill Mr Shaitana.
From the psychological point of view, the murder of Mr Shaitana was identical to the murders of Mr and Mrs Craddock: all three were public crimes. Dr Roberts openly announced he was going to wash his hands when he tampered with Mr Craddock’s shaving brush; he openly gave Mrs Craddock the shot that killed her; and again, he boldly killed Mr Shaitana in a roomful of witnesses. The key was the public nature of the crime, not the efficiency of it.
I was right, Miss Meredith noticed Mr Shaitana had been murdered; that’s what Mrs Lorrimer saw.
I was wrong, Miss Meredith didn’t kill Mrs Lorrimer; Dr Roberts did. His trained doctor’s eye noticed her failing health, and decided to make her the scapegoat. After the point where I stopped and locked in my answer, Poirot sees Mrs Lorrimer’s body and notices a bruise on her arm, which shows Dr Roberts injected her with something to kill her. I did feel my heart sink when I read about the bruise, because that points more to Dr Roberts than Major Despard, but at that point, I was too engrossed in the book to stop and change my answer.
On the bright side, Major Despard and Rhoda seem like they’re going to have a happily ever after, and Anne Meredith died while trying to kill Rhoda, so with the exception of poor Mrs Lattimer, justice was done in the end.
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