Three Act Tragedy by Agatha Christie

Book Details

Originally published in 1934
Hercule Poirot #11
Preceded by Murder on the Orient Express
Followed by Death in the Clouds

Also known as Murder in Three Acts (original US title) though there are apparently some plot differences between the original UK and US editions outlined on the All About Agatha podcast. Beware it will spoil both versions though!

The Blurb

Sir Charles Cartwright should have known better than to allow thirteen guests to sit down for dinner. For at the end of the evening one of them is dead – choked by a cocktail that contained no trace of poison. 

Predictable, says Hercule Poirot, the great detective. But entirely unpredictable is that he can find absolutely no motive for murder.

The Verdict

Very cleverly plotted with some great characterization.


My Thoughts

For the past few years I have maintained on this blog that I have read all of the original Poirot novels. When I started to read Three Act Tragedy however it quickly became apparent to me that might not actually be the case as I remembered next to nothing about the case. Could it be another case of faulty memory? Perhaps. I certainly have heard a radio adaptation of it so I ought to have been able to recall more than I did. Not that it really matters because whether I have read it before or not, it felt entirely new to me and that was a very exciting feeling!

The story begins with the retired actor, Sir Charles Cartwright, about to entertain a group of guests for dinner. There are thirteen in the party so his secretary suggests that she should join the party to prevent any worry from the more superstitious members of the gathering. In the end however tragedy still strikes when the mild-mannered Reverend Babbington drops dead from nicotine poisoning moments after drinking a cocktail. There is no trace of poison in the glass, nor any in the food served at dinner. Adding to the confusion, it is hard to imagine any motive why someone might want the elderly clergyman dead.

There is lots to love about the circumstances surrounding the opening murder. For example, this is a case where Poirot is present from the beginning and while his role elsewhere is rather limited, it does mean that he is not relying on third party observations. He has met all of the players involved and so when he fails to even detect that it might be murder, which of course it is because Agatha Christie didn’t write novels about people dying from heavy smoking (Tuberculosis in Three Acts?), it demonstrates just how clever this puzzle is and how challenging it will be for Poirot to solve it.

One knock that people will often make against Christie’s writing relates to her characterizations. Three Act Tragedy is the perfect evidence to offer to refute that claim. Each of the characters present at Sir Charles’ party, who will either serve as surrogate sleuths for Poirot or make up our circle of suspects, feel dimensional and well-observed. There is certainly little sense that anyone is present just to make up the numbers and flesh out the circle a bit.

Several characters are related to the world of entertainment, which allows Christie a little opportunity to comment on aspects of that profession, and there is also some discussion of life in the Cornish countryside. For instance, Lady Mary Lytton Gore, a woman living in difficult financial circumstances, reflects on how she is not able to take her daughter (who is nicknamed Egg) to the city where she would meet a variety of different men. Instead she likely has two options – either the young mechanic Oliver who is regarded as a communist or the much older Sir Charles.

What struck me most about the attention to characterization here is that it also applies to Poirot himself. While he appears relatively little, we are actually given something of a description of Poirot’s life and career as well as an explanation for some of his quirks as an investigator. Quite why this was the book that did that, I am not sure, but it is interesting and helps to make him seem a little more human and sympathetic than he often appears.

As I suggested earlier, the death of Babbington is simply the opening murder – the first of our three “acts”. I do not intend to identify the victims of the subsequent murders except to say that I think the choice of victims are surprising and that only adds to the sense that this is a particularly baffling crime. Were I less familiar with some of the elements and ideas that recur frequently in Christie’s work I am sure I would have been completely stumped by this one and in understanding the relationships between the three murders.

I previously referred to Poirot’s limited role in this story and the presence of some surrogate sleuths so let’s discuss the manner of the investigation here. In this story Poirot learns of the second death after the fact and at a point where several other characters have decided to undertake their own investigation. One of these, Mr. Satterthwaite, had previously appeared in The Mysterious Mr. Quin short stories a few years earlier. He is not unintelligent but he does have some qualities that mark him as being quite Hastings-like, such as the way he reads the evidence in front of him. Poirot describes him as being like an audience member at the theater and that is not inaccurate – he is highly perceptive and notices details but also rather credulous. I rather liked him by the end of the story, particularly when paired with Sir Charles, and would have liked to have seen him appear again alongside Poirot.

Also investigating the case is Egg who has used it as a pretext to spend time with Sir Charles. The pair conduct interviews with witnesses and while clearly nowhere near as sharp as Poirot, they are quite entertaining to follow. I particularly enjoy a sequence in which Egg uses deception to try and get some answers out of a witness. Did I really expect them to get to the solution themselves? Perhaps not, but I did like the setup with those two characters working together and how it allowed their romance subplot to feel not just entertaining but important to the central mystery plot.

Of course, while Poirot stays in the background content for these other sleuths to divide the work up between them that situation cannot stay forever. Inevitably Poirot eventually takes control of the proceedings and he will be the one to provide the explanation of what happened. The downside of this approach is that we do not spend much time with him but I think the time we do get feels all the more significant as a result, helped by some of the actions he takes once he gets involved (my favorite being the sequence in which he throws a small sherry party).

I have already described the puzzle here as challenging and it remains so right up to the end. While I may have been able to identify the guilty party and even something of their motives, the how of the matter is really quite clever and uses an idea that is used again later in one of my favorite Christie novels, albeit in a slightly different way. Its use here is just as good though and there are some other clever elements that are unique to this novel.

Do I buy everything about that solution? Well, I think that the motive will be problematic for some readers. This resulted in some changes being made for the American edition. I have not read that version of the text myself so I can’t speak to the details other than to say that based on the description it takes something admittedly quite far-fetched and substitutes for it something that seems like it would be quite an unsatisfying ending.

Personally I quite like the explanation we get. It reminded me a little of one of my favorite novels (as well as possessing some similarities to another Christie novel I adore – can’t say which ones without spoiling) and I appreciated how clever and original the method used feels. It is smart, fair and as far as this reader is concerned one of her best puzzles in terms of how it is worked mechanically.

Overall then I found this to be a thoroughly enjoyable read. Perhaps the icing on the cake is the last paragraph which is for my money one of the best and most in character endings to any Poirot novel.

This counts towards the Murder by the Numbers category in the Golden Age Vintage Scattegories challenge.

25 thoughts on “Three Act Tragedy by Agatha Christie

  1. I’m very glad you enjoyed this. I think it’s one of Christie’s better efforts, myself. Have you seen the adaptation with David Suchet? I like him very much as Poirot, but this adaptation made a fundamental change to the plot that I thought didn’t work well at all. If you ever see it, I’ll be interested in your thoughts.

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    1. @Margot Kinberg, have you seen the other TV adaptation with Peter Ustinov? It updated it to the then-present and relocated it to the US and Mexico. I haven’t done a detailed comparison otherwise, and would be curious to hear how the two versions match up.

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      1. I haven’t seen that one, Rinaldo302. But from the description, I don’t think I’d rush to watch it. For better or worse, I’m a purist when it comes to adaptations. I don’t think I’d care for so many fundamental changes. Perhaps I’m cheating myself, but that’s how I feel.

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      2. I understand. We all have our lines that we draw, and each tends to be in a different place. With the 8 US telefilms made for American commercial TV, I can take the modernization as a given of the series (which at the time I thought was the only one we would ever get — ha!), as long as the plot structure isn’t fundamentally changed. But I can acknowledge that for someone else, the displacement of characters from the English society of a certain time and place would be a deal-breaker. (Though the Suchet series itself changed periods, to put everything in the same decade.) And in fact it’s sometimes too much even for me: I always enjoy watching Stephanie Zimbalist, but she was all wrong for The Man in the Brown Suit — the protagonist makes no sense as a modern capable American woman instead of a sheltered English village girl of a century ago. So I guess I take it case by case. I do think a couple of that series are rather good, granted its premises.

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    2. So that’s another problem – I was sure I had seen all of the Suchet Poirot adaptations (just as I thought I had listened to all of the BBC Radio adaptations). If I did I surely don’t remember it. I think I have the discs somewhere so I will have to check it out to see what changes were made.

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  2. This is one of the first Poirots I read and I have always liked it, based on that wonderful final paragraph. I reread it last year and it held up pretty well.

    I wasn’t a great fan of either film adaptation, although I think I liked the Ustinov a bit more (it’s been a long time). Neither alas benefitted from the genius of Sarah Phelps, so neither gave us the real murderer, the one Christie wanted to choose but couldn’t, and maybe that’s why.

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  3. The motives are different in the UK and US versions.

    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.

    An interesting fact: This is the only book where Poirot discusses his past (chapter 1 of act 2).

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    1. That was what I had heard. The US motive as it was described doesn’t sound like an improvement to me.
      I do appreciate that he discussed his past here – it is a nice moment that I think revealed something new about the character.

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    2. Not entirely true – there’s the short story “The Chocolate Box”, which is set in Belgium while Poirot was a policeman.

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  4. Aidan – thanks for the review. I enjoy blog very much.

    I have only read this once. While it doesn’t suffer as much as later Poirot’s (e.g., Elephants Can’t Remember, The Clocks) where most everything is weak, at least the set-up and characters in this one are interesting. What failed for me is the murderer’s conceit and/or assumption that no one would notice something that surely would have been observed made me think, “No way could that person could get away with that.” But your review makes me want to take another look at this book in the future.

    I have seen both the Ustinov and Suchet adaptations and sadly can’t recommend either. Both actors appeared in better Christie productions, but of course I want my adaptations to follow the book with as few changes as possible.

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    1. Thanks Scott. There is definitely an element of risk with the second murder. I think though that if it failed there was a backup story the murderer could employ that would get them out of the situation.
      Thanks for sharing your thoughts on both adaptations. I completely understand that preference for accuracy whenever possible.

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  5. I think the arrangement here with Sir Charles and Egg doing much of the legwork mirrors several of Christie’s mid 30s Poirots – cf. “ABC Murders” and “Death in the Clouds”. I’d assume this was a technique Christie used because she was tired of our Belgian friend.

    The almost contemporary “Murder in Mesopotamia”, “Appointment with Death” and “Cards on the Table” also invent ways to keep Poirot off-stage for as much of the story as possible.

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  6. Re the changes in the Suchet adaptation, I find this a thorny problem in general. Almost without exception the changes made in these adaptations do not improve the final product in any way and certainly annoy Christie devotees to varying degrees. I don’t have a problem with minor changes being made. Certainly, updating some of the unfortunate, “stuck in time” aspects can be worthwhile and appropriate. However, often the Poirot series seemed to suffer from an underlying desire to “spice up” the narrative where this simply was not needed. Cards on the Table is a notable example of this. A shame because as a body of TV adaptations the standard was generally high and Suchet’s performance was outstanding.

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    1. I am currently reading his Poirot & Me book and it is obvious the love he had for the character and the process of creating him. As you say he was outstanding, even when the adaptations themselves were not.

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  7. I re-read this one pretty recently, for some reason. I never thought the majority of characters rose above “types,” but I certainly enjoyed the interplay between the sleuthing team of Poirot, Mr. Satterthwaite, Sir Charles, and Egg. It’s interesting that Christie does this again in the next two novels, Death in the Clouds and The A.B.C. Murders, and despite the vast difference in setting and such, they all feature Poirot from start to finish, they all involve a team, and they all share – shall we say – a common element in their final effect. In fact, I’m realizing that there are similarities that are quite astounding:

    Va obgu Guerr Npg Gentrql naq Qrngu va gur Pybhqf, jr unir n dhvgr punezvat zheqrere jub qbaf n qvfthvfr naq zheqref uvf ivpgvz evtug orsber rirelbar’f rlrf, jub orpbzrf ranzberq bs gur obbx’f yrnqvat ynql, naq jub wbvaf sbeprf jvgu Cbvebg gb haznfx gur xvyyre. (Naq bapr ur uvzfrys vf haznfxrq, “Cncn” Cbvebg znxrf fher gurer’f nabgure zna jnvgvat va gur jvatf gb rnfr gur tvey’f oebxra urneg!!)

    Regarding the adaptations, I dimly recall that the Ustinov/Tony Curtis version, set in Mexico, was kind of rotten. The biggest problem with the Suchet version, for me, is the way Suchet, now a producer, used his influence to create deeper emotional arcs for Poirot in each story. The wonderful insouciance of the final paragraphs of the novel gives way to this tragic moment of betrayal. Blah, blah, blah. I know Ken B loves to insert his comments about Sarah Phelps (God, man, I hope you are always being sarcastic!!!!!!), but she represents this desire of modern producers to expand the darkest elements in Christie in hopes of creating “better” drama. Sometimes this works and/or, at least, proves interesting: I’m looking forward to seeing how Kenneth Branagh reimagined the character of Salome Otterbourne from a tragi-comic alcoholic romance novelist to a Billie Holliday-like singer. People will no doubt complain about this because it’s simply made up, but these sorts of experiments don’t bother me as much as wholesale plot changes (Ordeal by Innocence and The Pale Horse by Phelps, most of the final Suchet adaptations, and a lot of the later Marples).

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    1. Unfortunately I cannot really talk about the adaptations of this as I haven’t seen them (well, I may have seen the Suchet but it has completely escaped my memory).
      Personally I do not mind changes when it enhances or brings out a theme within the book but I recognize that one of the knocks against the Phelps adaptations is that they pull in external ideas.
      I particularly liked the characterization of Poirot here but I think there is a little more observation in some of the supporting characters. I think the discussion of Egg and her future feels richer than the equivalent female characters in Death in the Clouds or The ABC Murders. Similarly I thought Sir Charles was well observed as an actorly type, especially in the idea that he is still playing a part as he reinvents himself in retirement.
      You make some really good points about the similarities with the two books that follow. I would add in that the psychological moment idea, which is so important here, recurs as well. I find it more convincing here than I do in DitC.

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    2. I don’t know about other adaptations but Phelps is always trying to express her contempt for Christie and her readers. I wrote a long comment somewhere citing examples, but I think it’s clear enough on its face and in Phelps’s dismissive comments about Christie. Her adaptations are deliberate, smirking travesties.

      I like your point about Poirot’s character arc in some of the later Suchets. You put your finger on exactly what’s wrong. The series went sharply downhill after it changed companies.

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      1. There were some things I liked about the series with the switch to the movie length format – the longer running time did allow for the subplots and secondary characters to feel more substantial – but there is an increasing sense that the works are becoming heavier and darker. Sometimes that is reflected in the novel – Curtain is never going to be a light and breezy work – but there are some stories it feels distinctly wrong for.
        Agatha Christie’s Marple! also gets it wrong but in a different way. There there is this obsession with campiness and starry casting that gets in the way of the mysteries. I don’t hate the addition of a dead lover in those adaptations though the way some others do. It’s not Christie but it doesn’t feel as bad as some of the Phelps adaptations.
        I quite liked Phelps’ And Then There Were None. The changes were sometimes a little silly – the orgy sequence is not something Christie would have written – but it’s not so out of keeping with the tone and the situation that it felt inappropriate. The S&M boarding house in The ABC Murders though is way, way too much…

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      2. Yes, that’s a good example of Phelps’s contempt at work.
        There is a brief allusion to SM in a Poirot book. One of the minor red herrings is a personal ad, but of course there is nothing more to it than that: Christie was not (as Phelps pretends) a naif unaware of the world, she just didn’t dwell on some things.

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  8. I think Egg is a more interesting character than Jane Grey or any of the women in ABC, and her story arc is more interesting. Yet, imo, I think ABC is a better book than 3Act Tragedy, and Clouds is a worse one.

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    1. Yes to every point you make there. The ABC Murders has long been my favorite Christie and I am really hoping that it lives up to my memory when I get to it soon… (I am keen to reread it which is why I have been powering through the Poirots lately rather than doing any of the standalones).

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