Three-Act Tragedy (1934) by Agatha Christie

This is a Christie whose killer and motive I remember from my first read, but a text which I otherwise have few memories about after the opening death. Equally other than Poirot no particular characters sprung to mind for instance, which is slightly surprising given that Mr Satterthwaite once more dons an amateur sleuth/spectator role in the piece. However I am getting ahead of myself…

It all kicks off at Sir Charles Cartwright’s posh country bungalow in Loomouth, Cornwall. Cartwright is a retired actor, who according to Satterthwaite is ‘a better actor in private life than on the stage! Charles is always acting. He can’t help it – it’s second nature to him.’ His friends are surprised he has stayed in the country so long, but then we meet Miss Hermione (Egg) Lytton. She is much his junior but it is easy to tell he is smitten. The book begins with a cocktail party at Charles’ home, which includes Satterthwaite, Egg and her mother, an actress, a doctor, a playwright, a wannabe journalist, a well-known egg shaped headed detective, (wonder who that can be?), and even a local reverend. Yet no one would have predicted that it would be the last of these who would die that night… Three Act Tragedy has an odd structure in that for various reasons this first death, well dies a death. It is only when a second body crops up that the sleuthing bug goes on the rampage with several of the characters looking into things. Poirot of course also makes his way into the case, though in the main he prefers a backseat role.

Overall Thoughts

I have to admit this was not such a rewarding re-read. I don’t think it is just because I knew the ending, as I have re-read other Christie novels and not had the same issue. I’ve still found lots to enjoy. Yet I found my attention wandered a lot during this read. The structure of the mystery is a little irregular and its ambiguity over whether it is a thriller or a detective novel may be part of my problem with it, but in the main I think it was the characterisation of the central amateur sleuths, which didn’t quite carry the story as well as I would have liked them too. In particular I am thinking of Charles and Egg. Egg is no one’s Bundle from The Seven Dials Mystery, nor is she from the Tuppence Beresford mould. In some ways she feels like a poor man’s Frankie Derwent from Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? She’s frequently unpleasant and self-absorbed, with quite a touch of naivety. Her emotions ride her, so she equally comes across as immaturely vulgar. I don’t feel she is a character you can really warm to, nor get engaged in. She even *brace yourself* says Poirot is a has-been, ‘a back number.’

Satterthwaite is probably the only character, aside from Poirot who has real depth and in many ways these two feel like personality doppelgangers. This passage on Satterthwaite could so easily apply to Poirot in some respects:

‘The principal interest of Mr Satterthwaite’s life was people. He was on the whole more interested in women than men. For a manly man, Mr Satterthwaite knew far too much about women. There was a womanish strain in his character which lent him insight into the feminine mind. Women all his life had confided in him but they had never taken him seriously. Sometimes he felt a little bitter about this. He was, he felt, always in the stalls watching the play, never on the stage taking part in the drama. But in truth the role of onlooker suited him very well.’

These two in the main get on well with each other, though at times their superior belief in their own ideas on human nature, means they do grate against each other occasionally. Is it bad to say that it seems excessive to have both Poirot and Satterthwaite in the same story, given how much their roles overlap? Though I did enjoy their final two lines of dialogue at the close of the book.

ONLY READ THE BELOW PARAGRAPH IF YOU HAVE READ THE BOOK ALREADY

I think this book contains a number of interesting concepts, but I don’t think they’re quite pulled off as successfully as they could have been. This story of course is a variant of The A. B. C. Murders, with one death being concealed amongst others. Both killers are also required to publicise their deeds, though in the case of this story, the killer has to convince everyone that the first two deaths are linked, in order to create the illusion of a lack of motive for killing the first victim. The dress rehearsal idea is a neat one, as is the glass switching device, both fitting in with the criminal’s mental makeup, as is their role of investigating their own crimes. Though in fairness you feel like he would have done better to leave things well alone. The missing butler, is another trope which Christie plays around with, but I don’t think her final handling of it produced the best results. The reader is supposed to think the butler is the least likely suspect being used too obviously and can therefore disregard them, but then the killer and this other character are paralleled a little too much for the reader not to draw a few conclusions. Maybe this was a device that needed a little tweaking.

Rating: 3.5/5

Just the Facts Ma’am (Gold Card): Vicar/Religious Figure

Calendar of Crime: April (9) Church/Minister/Religion has a major role

P. S. Comic book fans may also find it amusing that Christie has a character called Doctor Strange (though in fairness he is usually known as Sir Strange).

See also: Martin Edwards, Jose Ignacio and Nick Fuller

24 comments

  1. I understand a few of your reservations, Kate. Most of the characters here are cardboard thin. However, I do like the sketches of the women: Muriel Wills, Angela Sutcliffe, Miss Milray, and especially Egg’s mother are all interesting and varied. They’re just under-utilized. Ultimately, that makes the book bog down with the investigation of the suspects. But I agree with Nick in that Mr. Satterthwaite’s observations make for witty prose, and the motive IS very very VERY special!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The US version has a different motive from the UK version. In terms of characters, can I put in a word for Oliver Manders?

    Excellent review, but Sir Bartholomew Strange would be referred to as Sir Bartholomew – never “Sir Strange”!

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      • There were some criticisms regarding the weakness of the motive in the original solution. Christie reread, agreed and reworked a new motive, which was adapted by the US editions while the British editions retained the original solution. Thus according to Christie herself, the US version was better than the UK version.

        Liked by 1 person

    • In my opinion, Oliver Manders is, with the exception of Satterthwaite, by far the best character in this book. And yes, that includes Poirot, who IMO is not at his most interesting or even enjoyable in this book.

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  3. I have a soft spot for this book, because of the clever Motive for the Babbington murder and the way it is clued. But yes, the middle part drags, and having Poirot absent for a large part is not a good idea in this case. Because Sir Charles IMO isn’t interesting enough to by the main sleuth. Poirot is comparatively weak in this book, too, but that may be because of the lack of screentime.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Totally agree on Sir Charles – he just doesn’t have the capacity to carry the book, which is unfortunate given his significant role. I think if Poirot had been more in charge from the offset, the middle would have picked up more.

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  4. When I re-read this recently, it occurred to me for the first time that there is an anomaly in the ending. Poirot has said on more than one occasion that he does not approve of murder, and certainly there are no extenuating circumstances in these crimes – yet apparently Poirot has not told the police about his deductions!

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      • In the US version (Murder In Three Acts), there is a Scotland Yard Inspector and two doctors waiting for the culprit in the adjoining room and he is arrested.

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