Cards on the Table

Title: Cards on the Table
Author: Agatha Christie
Pages: 213
Reading Level: 14 & up
Star Rating: ★★★★

Hi there! As of October 2013, I have upgraded to a new site – The Blithering Bookster – where I have posted all of my old reviews and continue to post new ones. Hoist yourself over to join the fun!

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The little Belgian with the mustachios returns.

The Story.

An interesting man, Monsieur Shaitana. A man most enamored of himself – a man who derives an obsessive delight from his bizarre collections. He is an eccentric – not a benevolent one, but a dangerous one. A scheming one…

His newest collection, he informs Monsieur Poirot, is a collection of murderers. He now has four of them who frequent his home for parties and dinners. They are not professing murderers, no, no nothing so obvious as that. But he, Shaitana, great perceiver of the sins of others, he can tell. And he has an idea for a little game.

He invites Monsieur Poirot and three other detective friends – Ariadne Oliver, Colonel Race, and Superintendent Battle – to join him for a dinner. His four murderers – Dr. Roberts, Mrs. Larrimer, Major Despard, and Miss Meredith – will be there as well. Together they can enjoy an exciting evening together.

All eight guests duly arrive at Shaitana’s mansion. As they visit over dinner, it is hard to imagine that half of the guests are murderers. But it is not until the guests are divided to play bridge that the real adventure of the night begins. Because when the games are over, Monsieur Shaitana is found – murdered.

All of Shaitana’s pet murderers – and no one else – were present in the room from the moment that Shaitana seated himself near the fire to the time that his corpse was discovered. But which of these murderers has returned to the game of murder?

Discussion.        

As Christie herself says in the Foreword to Cards on the Table, it is easy to approach a mystery novel from the perspective that the ‘least likely’ person to have committed the murder is probably the murderer. I admit to having operated that way myself – Who is the author trying to keep in the background of this scene? Who hasn’t been mentioned in a while? So-and-so hasn’t appeared for several scenes. I bet SHE’S the murderer!

But Cards on the Table rebelled against such a simplistic reading. It is a story which boasts four suspects – suspects who have each murdered before, who each had opportunity to commit the murder, and who each had a desperate motive for killing the victim. The solution of this case lies, not in the discovery of clues, but in the background and psychology of each of the suspects. I don’t know that I’ve ever felt so uncertain when trying to pin down the murderer. But Poirot managed to. Magnificent little man!

I really enjoyed meeting Mrs. Oliver. She’s hilarious. She is reputed to be a tongue-in-cheek portrait of Christie herself, and I can easily believe it. I have included a quote from Mrs. Oliver later in my review, which I am sure is straight from the heart from Christie. Now, Mrs. Oliver is an interesting character. She is reputed to be a “hot-headed” feminist, and she does occasionally vociferate upon the superiorities of women. But her character – a combination of down-to-earth bluntness and dunder-headed oblivion – almost mocked at her position. While she occasionally blunders upon an important piece of evidence or a freakishly accurate character assessment, she usually is far wide on her predictions.

The question of justifiable murder pops up several times in this story. Mr. Shaitana, the early victim of the story, calls murder “an art” and says that he believes that a “really successful murderer” should be celebrated. Monsieur Poirot, although agreeing that there are some people who deserve to be murdered, nevertheless, disapproves of all murder because of the effect that it has on the murderer. He believes that it is dangerous for a man to “exercise the right of private judgment” in the punishment of a crime because then one has “usurped the functions of le bon Dieu.” [pg. 134]

Quotes.

What I love about Poirot is that although he is a proud little man of great brain, he behaves and speaks exactly like a child on some occasions.

“We all make mistakes, Monsieur Poirot.”

“Some of us,” said Poirot with a certain coldness possibly due to the pronoun the other had used, “make less than others.”

Despard looked at him, smiled slightly and said:

“Don’t you ever have a failure, Monsieur Poirot?”

“The last time was twenty-eight years ago,” said Poirot with dignity. “And even then, there were circumstances – but no matter.” [pg. 106]

: ) Quite. Others are less impressed with Poirot’s skills. This after Poirot summons Anne to an interview.

“I don’t see why he wants to see me.” Anne was obstinate.

“To put one over on the official police, of course,” said Rhoda impatiently. “They make out that Scotland Yard are all boots and brainlessness.”

“Do you think this man Poirot is clever?”

“He doesn’t look a Sherlock,” said Rhoda. “I expect he has been quite good in his day. He’s gaga now, of course. He must be at least sixty. [pg. 160]

When Superintendent Battle points out a few inaccuracies in Mrs. Oliver’s latest novel, Mrs. Oliver responds thus.

“As a matter of fact I don’t care two pins about accuracy. Who is accurate? Nobody nowadays. If a reporter writes that a beautiful girl of twenty-two dies by turning on the gas after looking out over the sea and kissing her favourite Labrador, Bob, goodbye, does anybody make a fuss because the girl was twenty-six, the room faced inland, and the dog was a Sealyham terrier called Bonnie? If a journalist can do that sort of thing I don’t see that it matters if I mix up police ranks and say a revolver when I mean an automatic and a dictograph when I mean a phonograph, and use a poison that just allows you to gasp one dying sentence and no more. What really matters is plenty of bodies! If the thing’s getting a little dull, some more blood cheers it up. Somebody is going to tell something – and then they’re killed first! That always goes down well. It comes in all my books – camouflaged different ways of course. And people like untraceable poisons, and idiotic police inspectors and girls tied up in cellars with sewer gas or water pouring in (such a troublesome way of killing anyone really) and a hero who can dispose of anything from three to seven villains singlehanded. I’ve written thirty-two books by now – and of course they’re all exactly the same really, as Monsieur Poirot seems to have noticed – but nobody else has; and I only regret one thing, making my detective a Finn. I don’t really know anything about Finns and I’m always getting letters from Finland pointing out something impossible that he’s said or done. They seem to read detective stories a good deal in Finland. I suppose it’s the long winters with no daylight. In Bulgaria and Roumania they don’t seem to read at all. I’d have done better to have made him a Bulgar.” [pg. 55-56]

Cautions.

Mild innuendo – several of the previous murders committed by the suspects were related to romantic situations, but nothing along those lines happens within the story.

‘Damn’ is used seven times, ‘hell’ twice. Several versions of God’s name are used a total of four times.

Conclusion. Fun, fun, fun, and (I thought) cleaner than most of Christie’s stories.

Cousins in the Castle

Title: Cousins in the Castle
Author: Barbara Brooks Wallace
Pages: 152
Recommended Ages: 11-14
Star Rating: ★★★★

Hi there! As of October 2013, I have upgraded to a new site – The Blithering Bookster – where I have posted all of my old reviews and continue to post new ones. Hoist yourself over to join the fun!

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Welcome to a world where nothing is as it seems, and most of the time it’s much worse than you could imagine…

The Story.

Amelia Fairwick lived a life of ease and joy. Although bereft of her mother at an early age, she was pampered by her father and was soon to gain a new mother in the lovely and kind Felicia Charlton. Amelia could not have been happier. Then tragedy struck.

One day, Amelia received news that her father died in a hotel fire while on a business trip in America. Because her Papa had not yet married Felicia, she must be sent to live with her new guardian – a man named Cousin Basil whom she has never met or heard of before. To meet him she must journey to America. America?!?

It is Cousin Charlotte who comes to bring Amelia back to the States. Amelia is scared – if Cousin Basil is at all like his sister, Cousin Charlotte, then she is headed towards a grim existence. But it seems that Amelia is not destined to meet Cousin Basil, for as soon as they have docked, Cousin Charlotte disappears into the crowds, leaving Amelia behind on the dock.

As Amelia faces criminals and kidnappers, she wonders – who has planned out these events in her strange new life? And will she ever find her Cousin Basil?

Discussion.

Ms. Wallace’s story was very well – I repeat, very well – crafted. It was full of twists and turns and read like an actual piece of literature rather than a children’s no-brainer. The characters and setting of Cousins in the Castle actually reminded me a great deal of Dickens’ works – mostly his Nicholas Nickleby and The Old Curiosity Shop. Ms. Wallace’s world is a world in which ninety percent of humans are sly, conniving, grasping, sinister creeps. (That may explain why the story reminded me of Dickens.) This portrayal of adults could have been a stereotype, but I thought it was handled well. It is made obvious from the beginning of the story that some adults are good people and that Amelia loves and respects these.

However, for most of the story, Amelia is having to outwit and escape the evil adults who are trying to kidnap, imprison, and eliminate her. She is helped in this adventure by a young friend who has also been mistreated by those over him.

So here’s the situation. Amelia is placed in the custody of Cousin Charlotte, a grim-faced, harsh, non-relational old battle-axe. She gives strict instructions to Amelia directing her conduct and attitude. These Amelia initially resolves to obey – she is too scared to consider not obeying – but as she considers their unreasonableness and is tempted to disobey them, she decides that she need not listen to Cousin Charlotte.

Now, Cousin Charlotte in an authority figure in Amelia’s life. Granted, she is cruel and disinterested in Amelia’s welfare or best interests. Granted, in the end she turns out to be a bad guy. But at the time that Amelia is disobeying Cousin Charlotte, she does so, knowing that she is under Cousin Charlotte’s authority. This theme was not defiling, and may be used to discuss the correct response to unjust leaders.

While on board ship, Amelia makes friends with a little girl named Primrose who is part of an entertaining troupe. Later, in New York, when Amelia is lost, she finds Primrose again and asks for her help. At this time, Primrose reveals that she is a boy who dresses up and sings like a girl in order to make enough money to stay alive. His idea on how to protect Amelia is to dress her up like a boy and tell an untrue story to his managers about who she is. (If they knew who she really was, they would try to ransom her.) Amelia agrees and they proceed with their plan, although it eventually fails.

Conclusion. As an older reader, I enjoyed Cousins in the Castle immensely. If found its plot to be fresh and engaging while its characters were lively and real. However, the above cautions should be taken into consideration before giving Cousins in the Castle to young readers.

Murder on the Orient Express

Title: Murder on the Orient Express
Author: Agatha Christie
Pages: 212
Recommended Ages: 14 & up
Star Rating: ★★★★★

Hi there! As of October 2013, I have upgraded to a new site – The Blithering Bookster – where I have posted all of my old reviews and continue to post new ones. Hoist yourself over to join the fun!

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In April of 2011, I read a collection of Miss Marple short stories. It was my first exposure to Agatha Christie’s writings. I was expecting modern junk writing. Instead, I was greeted by the sophistication of British literature. Since then, I have read eight of her novels – two of them I loved, and the others were just okay. Murder on the Orient Express was one of the ones that I loved.

The Story.

Hercule Poirot has just successfully wrapped up a case for his good friend, a General of the French Army, and is looking forward to a peaceful trip back home from Syria. He might even lounge through a few days of tourism in Stamboul. What he does not expect is to land in the midst of a fantastical murder case in which it seems that no one could possibly have committed the murder!

Here is how it stands – a man was murdered, stabbed to death, in Compartment 2. When Poirot examines the berth he finds a note which contains the words “—member little Daisy Armstrong.”

Poirot knows immediately what it means; it means that this murdered man, this man who called himself Ratchett was a murderer himself. He was the evil man Cassetti who murdered Daisy Armstrong, the little daughter of a famous American actress. There were many men who wanted Cassetti’s blood after that event, but none of them were able to find him. Until now, until here on the snowbound Orient Express. But who among the passengers could have possible committed this murder?

As alibis criss-cross and evidence shifts, will Poirot be able to ferret out the murderer of the murderer?

Discussion.

I have never read a more magnificent full length mystery novel. As a detective, I prefer Holmes over Poirot, but as a story, Murder on the Orient Express trumps any of Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective novels.

I entered into Murder on the Orient Express entirely unsure of what my opinion of it would be. You know how sometimes you’ll begin to read a book knowing you won’t like it? Or knowing that you will like it? Well, I hadn’t got a bloody clue what my thoughts would be on this book. I was entirely taken aback. As I mentioned earlier, I’d read seven Agatha Christie novels; I really liked one of them and thought that the others were nifty. But I was not prepared for the mastery of this novel.

The murder happens. It’s a key part of the story – obviously it’s the centerpiece. But it is not dwelt upon. There are no gory descriptions or hair-raising details. It simply happened. From then on out, Poirot is engaged in cross-examining the witness, sifting through the details, and weighing the evidence. And you get to join in on his mystifications.

I’ve never been so stumped by a mystery. I looked and looked for loopholes and could find none. It truly seemed that no one could have committed the crime. And then suddenly, a seed fell into my mind. I simmered over it for a few minutes, then it burst into full bloom. I had picked my theory about thirty pages before the announcement of the murderer. Did I pick correctly?

I had! In the most outrageous plot twist and original conclusion that I’ve ever experienced, Poirot pieced together the details in a stunning finale that left me gaping, gasping, and grasping for more. Oh, if only I can ever find another mystery to equal this!

Cautions.

During the questioning time, it comes out that one woman accidentally went into Ratchett’s room on the night that he was murdered. She was embarrassed by her mistake and outraged by the comment that he made. “You too old.” (Implying that she had entered purposely and for dubious reasons.)

At the end of the book, Poirot and his companions M. Bouc and Dr. Constantine sit down to formulate theories. Here is Dr. Constantine’s chain of thoughts.

“He is queer, this little man. A genius? Or a crank? Will he solve this mystery? Impossible – I can see no way out of it. It is all too confusing. . . . Everyone is lying, perhaps. . . . But even then, that does not help one. If they all are lying, it is just as confusing as if they were speaking the truth. Odd about those wounds. I cannot understand it. . . . It would be easier to understand if he had been shot – after all, the term ‘gunman’ must mean that they shoot with a gun. A curious country, America. I should like to go there. It is so progressive. When I get home I must get hold of Demetrius Zagone – he has been to America, he has all the modern ideas. . . . I wonder what Zia is doing at this moment. If my wife ever finds out-” [pg. 168-169]

I was unsure what this last thought meant until Poirot asks each man if they have come up with anything.

“I, too, have reflected with great earnestness,” said the doctor, unblushingly recalling his thoughts from certain pornographic details. “I have thought of many possible theories, but not one that really satisfies me.” [pg. 169]

Ick. And the strange thing is that this just pops up out of nowhere! Parents could easily just blot out the work ‘pornographic’ and the paragraph be made innocent, if a little senseless.

‘Damn’ is used three times, while ‘hell’ and ‘God’s sake’ are each used once. ‘Por Dio’ is also used a few times.

Conclusion. One of the best mysteries I have ever read. I do not give a blanket recommendation of Agatha Christie’s writings, but Murder on the Orient Express is worth reading at least one or twenty times. =) Purchase a copy here.