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At an exhibition of snuff boxes Hercule Poirot meets Mr Shaitana, a foreign man who is consistently described as Mephistophelean in his appearance and manner. Shaitana jokes about Poirot's visit to the exhibition, and claims he has a better "collection" which Poirot would enjoy. He arranges a dinner party to show off this collection; Poirot is, however, apprehensive.
Upon arrival at Shaitana's house on the appointed day, Poirot is joined by three other guests: mystery novelist Ariadne Oliver, Scotland Yard's Superintendent Battle, and Colonel Race of His Majesty's Secret Service. Soon four other guests join them: Dr Roberts, a hearty, florid man; Mrs Lorrimer, a dignified widow of late middle age; Major John Despard, a dashing Army man and world traveller recently returned from Africa; and Anne Meredith, a nervous yet pretty young woman. Having brought them all to dinner, Shaitana skilfully manipulates the topic of conversation to possible motives for murder. He makes allusions to crimes being committed with the murderers going free. The mood of the dinner party quickly changes.
Shaitana invites his eight guests to play contract bridge in the adjoining rooms; he as the odd man out, does not play. Roberts, Meredith, Lorrimer, and Despard play in the first room, while Poirot, Oliver, Race, and Battle play in the next; Shaitana settles himself in a chair in the first room. Some time later, Poirot and the others prepare to leave and find that Shaitana has been murdered, stabbed in the chest with a jewelled stiletto. Since none of the detectives left the room while they were playing, the killer must be one of the other four guests. Each guest admits to having left the table at one point or another, either to stoke the fire or drink something. As the stiletto was so sleek and sharp, any of the suspects could have handled it with ease and Shaitana would not have made much noise when being attacked, especially if he was caught off-guard. With very little forensic evidence to go by, the detectives must rely on the testimony of the suspects. Poirot states that the psychology of the murderer will be essential in solving the crime. He takes particular interest in the bridge sheets, claiming that they offer insight into the minds of the suspects. Dr Roberts frequently takes risks as he plays, winning the game more often than not. Anne Meredith writes on both sides of the score card, indicating that, despite being well-dressed, she is acquainted with poverty.
Poirot, Battle, Race, and Oliver decide to find out the past history of the other four invited guests whom they believe had murdered before and gotten away with it.
Dr Roberts was discovered to have had a patient who was obsessed with him, a Mrs Craddock. Despite his secretary's insistence that Dr Roberts always behaved appropriately with his female patients, it is heavily insinuated that he was having an affair with Mrs Craddock. During a house call, Roberts and Mr Craddock had a loud argument, overheard by the maid. Craddock accused Roberts of having an affair with his wife. Roberts denied it, saying Mrs Craddock was hysterical and unstable. Mr Craddock died not long after when he contracted anthrax from an infected shaving brush. This wasn't regarded as suspicious at first because a great deal of shaving brushes imported from other countries were found to be infected with many diseases, including anthrax. After her husband's passing, Mrs Craddock went abroad on vacation, became ill and died during her holiday.
Despard shot a man named Professor Luxmore while acting as a guide during an expedition in South America. The dead man's widow, who had also been on the expedition, claimed that she and Despard fell in love during the trip and that Despard had shot her husband in the heat of an argument. During questioning, Despard admits to shooting the man, but tells a very different story. During their time in the jungle, Despard and the Luxmores succumbed to a devastating fever. In a fit of delirium, the Professor began stumbling towards the river. Despard, fearing the man could drown, aimed his rifle to shoot Luxmore in the leg and prevent him from wandering into the water. Mrs Luxmore, mistakenly believing Despard meant to kill her husband, attempted to grab the rifle from his hands. The gun went off, shooting Luxmore in the back by accident and killing him. Despard and Mrs Luxmore buried him in the jungle and lied to the natives, claiming the man had succumbed to his illness. When later telling this story to the other investigators, Poirot states he believes Despard's version is the truth. Despard is an honest man and, conversely, Mrs Luxmore is the type of woman to exaggerate or romanticise things.
Anne Meredith served as a companion for several families, always earning good references as a friendly, if unremarkable young woman. She was always mild-mannered and performed her duties most capably. A relative of one of her former employers applauds Anne for her work ethic when her charge was such a messy, disorganised woman. Anne's friend Rhoda Dawes pays Mrs Oliver a visit and tells her an interesting story. For a short time, Anne was a companion to an ailing older woman named Mrs Benson. During Anne's time with the family, Mrs Benson suffered a particularly painful bout of her illness. A bottle of medicine was fetched from the cabinet and Mrs Benson drank from it, realising too late it was the wrong bottle. Sometime ago, Anne had had a conversation with Mrs Benson, saying they were running low on hat paint. Mrs Benson said that Anne should pour the remaining hat paint into one of the many spare medicine bottles she had. During her fit, Mrs Benson was given the bottle filled with hat paint and she died from poisoning. Everyone in the family believed it to be an honest mistake and Anne left her post with no suspicion attached.
The detectives find out very little about Mrs Lorrimer's history. Of all the guests at the party, she appears to have the least to hide. Poirot notes that she is the best bridge player out of the group, playing very strategically.
The four sleuths gather and compare notes. While all the guests' backgrounds are suspicious, there is no clear evidence that incriminates any of them for Shaitana's murder. Meanwhile, Poirot sets a trap for Anne Meredith. When she pays him a call at his request, he shows her a table on which many packets of the finest silk stockings are piled up, apparently carelessly and with no regard as to how many pairs there are. Poirot lies to her, claiming that he needs a woman's opinion on which items would make good Christmas presents for his fictitious nieces. After Anne makes her gift suggestions and leaves, Poirot discovers that two pairs of the stockings are missing, confirming his suspicion that Anne is a thief. Due to her impoverished upbringing, Anne began to covet the finer things in life and, in Poirot's mind, began stealing money and trinkets from her employers. This went undetected when she served as companion to the disorganised woman; it was assumed that whatever Anne had stolen had simply been lost. Mrs Benson, meanwhile, was an organised woman and Poirot believes that Anne killed her when her thievery had been discovered.
Mrs Lorrimer contacts Poirot with surprising news. She confesses to Shaitana's murder and explains that she took the stiletto impulsively after he mentioned poison as a "woman's weapon" at dinner. Shaitana was right about her, she says; twenty years earlier, she killed her husband. She does not go into further detail about the crime. Poirot objects that Mrs Lorrimer's explanation for Shaitana's killing does not match her unflappable personality. He believes she would only commit murder after much careful planning and consideration. This spur-of-the-moment crime does not fit her psychology at all, considering how successful her last murder was. After Poirot rejects her confession, Mrs Lorrimer reveals that Anne Meredith is Shaitana's killer. During a lull in the bridge game, Mrs Lorrimer happened to look up and saw Anne bending over Shaitana's chair, her hand at his chest. She begs Poirot to let her take the blame for the crime: she is ill and will die soon anyway, and Anne will be free to live her young life.
Poirot is confused by this confession, and fears that there may be more trouble to come. His guess proves correct when Mrs Lorrimer is found dead the next morning, having apparently committed suicide after writing three copies of a letter confessing to the murder of Shaitana and sending them to the other suspects. Dr Roberts rushes to Mrs Lorrimer's house upon receiving the letter, but is unsuccessful in his attempt to save her. A conversation with Mrs Lorrimer's maid reveals that Anne Meredith paid a visit the night before. Poirot and Battle race to Anne Meredith's cottage, fearing that she might strike again. Despard, who has been visiting Anne and Rhoda, both of whom fancy him, is a few steps ahead of Poirot and Battle. At Anne's suggestion, Anne and Rhoda are on a boat in a nearby river. Poirot and Battle see Anne suddenly push her friend into the water. Alas for Anne, when she knocks Rhoda into the water, she also falls in herself. Despard rescues Rhoda; Anne drowns.
Poirot gathers Oliver, Battle, Despard, Rhoda, and Roberts at his home, where he makes several surprising announcements: neither Anne Meredith nor Mrs Lorrimer were Shaitana's killer. When Mrs Lorrimer saw Anne standing over the body, she assumed she had witnessed the crime. In reality, Anne had just discovered Mr. Shaitana had been stabbed by the true murderer. Not wanting to bring suspicion upon herself, Anne lied about Mr. Shaitana being dead and returned to her seat. This led to Mrs Lorrimer's mistaken confession to Poirot, hoping to take the blame for the crime.
The true murderer of both Shaitana and Mrs. Lorrimer is Dr Roberts. Fearing that the investigation was closing in, he wrote the three copies of Mrs Lorrimer's false suicide note, mailing a copy to himself. He was able to imitate her handwriting since she was his bridge partner on the night of the murder. When he arrived at Mrs Lorrimer's house, she was not dead, but asleep. After ordering the frantic maid out of the room, he injected Mrs Lorrimer with a syringe full of a lethal dose of anaesthetic.
Dr Roberts rejects the implication, saying there is no evidence that proves it. Poirot brings in a window cleaner who happened to be working outside Mrs. Lorrimer's flat earlier that morning. He testifies that he saw Dr Roberts inject the sleeping Mrs. Lorrimer just as Poirot claims. Battle chimes in that they can bolster any prosecution with the true story of the deaths of the Craddocks. Roberts confesses. After being arrested, Poirot reveals that the window cleaner is actually an actor. There was no witness to Mrs. Lorrimer's murder. It was a trick to get Roberts to confess, as there truly was little to no evidence against him.
When asked how he knew Roberts was the killer, Poirot draws everyone's attention to the bridge sheets. On the night of the murder, a grand slam occurred during the third rubber. The grand slam came into play by way of Roberts. This was another instance of him taking dangerous risks. Due to the rarity of a grand slam in bridge, this intense play would keep the others focused on the game — Roberts was dummy at that point and would be up from the table — while he used the opportunity to stab Shaitana.
- Plot summary
- Characters in "Cards on the Table"
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