All the Cards Were Comin’ From the Bottom of the Pack*

Card GamesIt’s just a friendly game of cards. A nice way to have a social evening with friends or loved ones. Or perhaps it’s a way to pass the time on a long trip or in the hospital room. What could be the harm in that, right? Wrong.

As crime fiction clearly shows us, cards may seem innocent enough, but the stakes can be deadly. And even when the result isn’t murder, card games really can be dangerous. Just consider these examples from the genre, and you’ll see what I mean.

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Solitary Cyclist, Sherlock Holmes gets a visit, and a very interesting problem, from Violet Smith. She’s been engaged as a live-in piano teacher at Chiltern Grange. The arrangement with her employer is that she spends the week in the country with her young charge, and the weekends in London with her mother. All went well enough at first. But then something odd happened. Violet began to notice a strange man on a bike following her on the way to and from the train station. He doesn’t approach her or attempt to speak to her, but it still makes her nervous. And she’s curious about who the man is and what he wants. Holmes and Dr. Watson agree to investigate, and they make the trip to the country. In the end, they find that it all has to do with a card game.

Agatha Christie mentions cards quite a lot in her stories. Popular among those card games is bridge. In Cards on the Table, for instance, an eccentric man named Mr. Shaitana invites eight people to a dinner party. Four (including Hercule Poirot) are sleuths. The other four are people Shaitana suspects have got away with murder. After dinner, all of the guests settle in for bridge. One of those guests, Mrs. Lorrimer, is particularly glad about that. Here’s what she says:

‘I simply will not go out to dinner now if there’s no bridge afterwards! I just fall asleep. I’m ashamed of myself, but there it is.’

At some point during the game, someone stabs Mr. Shaitana. The only possible suspects are the four people who were playing in the same room with him. Poirot and the other sleuths now have to look into the backgrounds of each one to see who the murderer is. What’s interesting is that any one of them could have committed the crime. I know, I know, fans of The Hollow.

When many people think of card games, they think of poker. Different forms of poker are played all over the world, in places like Monte Carlo, Bangkok, Hong Kong, and of course, on river boats. One place you see a lot of poker is, of course, Las Vegas. There are lots of novels and short stories that feature Las Vegas card games; I’ll just mention a few. In Michael Connelly’s Trunk Music, LAPD homicide detective Harry Bosch investigates the murder of second-rate filmmaker Tony Aliso, who’s killed execution style, with the body found in the trunk of his car. The trail in this case leads to Las Vegas, and to a seedy casino. It also leads to Eleanor Wish, former FBI agent who has left the force and become a professional card player/gambler. Fans of this series will remember that she met Bosch in The Black Echo. When they reunite in Trunk Music, they develop a relationship that ends in marriage and a daughter, Madeleine ‘Maddy.’

Forensic accountant Ava Lee encounters her share of cards and card games in Ian Hamilton’s The Disciple of Las Vegas. In that novel, wealthy Philippines banker Tony Ordonez hires Lee’s employer to track down and return $50 million he lost in a bogus land deal. Lee is an expert at finding lost money, so she gets to work on the case. She soon finds that the trail leads to Las Vegas, and to poker champion David Douglas. He’s played against the best all over the world, and Lee is fairly certain that he knows more about what happened to the money than he’s saying.

In George V. Higgins’ Cogan’s Trade, New England Mob enforcer Jackie Cogan gets a new assignment. Someone’s been hijacking Mob-run card games, and the Powers That Be in the organization are not happy about it. So they hire Cogan to find out who’s responsible and ‘take care of matters.’ Needless to say, those card games do not end up being friendly pastimes.

And there’s Dead Man’s Hand, a collection of short stories edited by Otto Prenzler. This collection features stories by Michael Connelly, Walter Mosley, Laura Lippman, and Sue DeNymme, has as its theme card playing (especially poker) and gambling.

And of course, I couldn’t have a post about card-playing without mentioning John D. MacDonal’s Travis McGee. He refers to himself as a ‘salvage consultant,’ and his specialty is returning money property that his clients have had stolen from them. McGee isn’t a professional card-player, but he’s been lucky at least once. He lives on a boat, The Busted Flush, that he won in a poker game…

Card games such as Bridge, poker and canasta can be a lot of fun. And even in today’s world of electronic games, they can be great opportunities to spend time with family and friends. But if you do play this weekend, be careful. A friendly game doesn’t always stay that way.

This post was inspired in part by a plot point in a novel that I’m beta-reading for a friend. For obvious reasons I can’t give title or author. But if you’re reading this, you know who you are. I’m really enjoying the story!



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from AC/DC’s  The Jack.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, George V. Higgins, Ian Hamilton, Laura Lippman, Michael Connelly, Otto Penzler, Sue DeNymme, Walter Mosley

21 responses to “All the Cards Were Comin’ From the Bottom of the Pack*

  1. I’m the kind of card player who enjoys the game while I’m playing it, but I can never remember the rules and need to be told them all over again the next time I play. So I suppose I always play like a beginner.
    At least no one can feel threatened by me and think murderous thoughts…
    Incidentally, author Eva Dolan is a poker player – I’ve noticed quite a few crime writers seem fond of poker.

    • I didn’t know that about Eva Dolan, Marina Sofia – that’s really interesting! About poker and crime writers in general? There is just something about poker and crime. I don’t know what it is, as most people I know who play poker are quite law-abiding. It’s just…something about the game, I suppose. And it’s funny about card games in general. There are some where I remember the rules quite well. And then there are others where I am hopeless.

  2. Margot, I have more memories of cards and card games in the movies than in crime or other fiction, and it usually has to do with gambling and a shootout, and one or more dead bodies. As an aside, computer Solitaire, or Patience as I know it, takes the fun out of playing the game with a real pack of cards. In the olden days it was time well spent.

    • You know, I was thinking along the same lines, Prashant, when I was writing this post. Computer solitaire and online games such as poker may allow more flexibility (e.g. you can now play poker with people from all over the world). But they don’t give that same feeling as you get with a group of people sitting around a table playing. There are all sorts of personal dynamics that are different. And yes, there’s something about the feel of real cards…

  3. I’ve always believed playing cards is a dangerous thing since reading the Sherlock Holmes story ‘The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot’, where in the evening the family all sit down to play whist together and by morning they are all either dead or insane. Mind you, playing with my uber-competitive siblings sometimes had a similar effect on me in my youth… 😉

    • 😆 I have siblings, too, FictionFan. I know just what you mean! And thanks for mentioning The Devil’s Foot. It is a great story based around whist, and a good reminder of just how risky card-playing is…

  4. I think bridge players are much more dangerous than poker players. Trump your partner’s ace and the consequences can be deadly! 😀

  5. I always like it when the professional gambler is a woman. I always want to pay attention, to see if she pulls it off!

    You know it’s funny. We’ve been watching this Wild West Technology series

  6. Lots of great suggestions for this topic, Margot. I want to read Ian Hamilton’s The Disciple of Las Vegas and also Christie’s Cards on the Table.

    • I think both are good stories, Tracy, and worth reading. They’re quite different in style and pace. In that sense, they complement each other in the way they look at card playing. I’ll be interested in what you think of them.

  7. Hi Margot. Terrific topic. I recall an early Fifties novel by Jack Waer titled Seventeen and Black set in a casino in Mexico City. I’m not familiar with the story so I don’t know how prominently cards figure into it. There’s also the novel, later made into a movie, The Cincinnati Kid by Richard Jessup, in which poker is the basis for the entire story.
    Then there’s that British secret service agent in novels – and the movies – who always seems to get the best of the bad guys in card playing showdowns.

  8. Col

    Tom Kakonis has a recurring character Timothy Waverly who is a pro-poker player. James Swain and Pete Hautmann also have books with characters based around gambling, one a casino sleuth the other an ex-cop who has to work off a debt incurred by losing.

    • Oh, those are great examples, Col. I think it might be really interesting to have a sleuth who’s a professional poker player, actually. It’s an absolutely fascinating premise.

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