Three Act Tragedy
Dust-jacket illustration of the US (true first) edition.
|Publisher||Dodd, Mead and Company|
|Media type||Print (hardback & paperback)|
|Pages||279 (first edition, hardback)|
|Preceded by||Parker Pyne Investigates|
|Followed by||Death in the Clouds|
Three Act Tragedy is a work of detective fiction by British writer Agatha Christie, first published in the United States by Dodd, Mead and Company in 1934 under the title Murder in Three Acts and in the UK by the Collins Crime Club in January 1935 under Christie's original title. The US edition retailed at $2.00 and the UK edition at seven shillings and sixpence (7/6).
The book features Hercule Poirot, supported by his friend Mr Satterthwaite, and is the one book in which Satterthwaite collaborates with Poirot. Satterthwaite previously appeared in the stories featuring Harley Quin, in particular those collected in The Mysterious Mr Quin (1930). The novel was adapted for television twice, first in 1986 as Murder in Three Acts, and again in 2010 as Three Act Tragedy.
Sir Charles Cartwright hosts a dinner party at his home in Cornwall. His guests include: Hercule Poirot; Dr Bartholomew Strange; Lady Mary Lytton Gore, and her daughter Hermione; Captain Dacres and his wife Cynthia; Muriel Wills; Oliver Manders; Mr Satterthwaite; and Reverend Babbington and his wife. When Babbington suddenly dies after sipping one of the cocktails being served, Cartwright believes it was murder. An investigation finds no poison in his glass. After his funeral, Poirot travels to Monte Carlo, where he is met with news from Satterthwaite and Cartwright that Dr Strange is dead. While holding a dinner party at his home in Yorkshire, Strange suddenly died after drinking a glass of port wine. The coroner rules he was poisoned with nicotine, despite no trace of it in his glass. With the exception of the three men, Strange's guests are the same ones who attended Cartwright's party. Due to the similarities, Babbington's body is exhumed, whereupon police find he died from the same causes.
Both Satterthwaite and Cartwright return to England to investigate the murders on Poirot's behalf. Through them, he learns that prior to the party, Strange had sent his usual butler away for two months. A temporary replacement he hired named Ellis has since disappeared. Both Satterthwaite and Cartwright later find evidence that shows he was blackmailing Strange, while a serving maid recalls Ellis acted strangely for a butler. When Wills is interviewed, she recalls noticing something odd at the party, and that Ellis has a birthmark on his right hand. Sometime later, Wills disappears. When Poirot returns to London to offer counsel on the case, he receives a telegram from Mrs De Rushbridger, a female patient at Strange's sanatorium in Yorkshire, who arrived on the day he died. Poirot and Satterthwaite go to meet her, only to find that she had been murdered with nicotine before their arrival. The poison had been concealed in some chocolates she had received anonymously. Learning that Cartwright's servant, Miss Milray, is hastily heading to Cornwall, Poirot follows her to find out why.
Upon his return, he assembles everyone, and denounces Sir Charles Cartwright as the killer. Cartwright wants to marry Hermione, but already has a wife who resides in an insane asylum. As he cannot divorce her under British law, he decided to conceal this knowledge by murdering Dr Strange, the only witness to this marriage. After his party, Cartwright convinced Strange to let him assume the role of his butler, and then secretly poisoned him during his party. He left false evidence to suggest the motive was blackmail, and travelled to Monte Carlo the day after to establish his alibi. The first murder was a dress rehearsal for the second - Cartwright wished to test if he could switch the glass containing the poison. The murder of Mrs De Rushbridger was purely to create a false lead.
Poirot reveals that the nicotine poison came from distilling equipment Cartwright hid near his Cornwall residence; it was found by him, when Miss Milray went to destroy it. His suspicions about Cartwright were based on a few facts. Strange didn't drink the poisoned cocktail because he disliked cocktails, while Cartwright ensured Hermione didn't drink it; he didn't care who else amongst his guests drank it. Mrs De Rushbridger's telegram to Poirot was sent by Cartwright himself. Milray knows he is the murderer; her actions showed she sought to protect him. Wills also suspected him when she spoke up about Ellis; Poirot hid her away before Cartwright could murder her. Cartwright is promptly arrested. Hermione is paired up with Manders. In the aftermath of the investigation, Satterthwaite remarks how he could have drunk the poisoned cocktail, to which Poirot remarks there was a more terrible possibility - "It might have been me".
- Hercule Poirot - Renowned Belgium detective. A friend of Sir Charles, involved in investigating the case after the murder of Dr Strange.
- Sir Charles Cartwright - The killer of the case. Well-known stage actor, and Poirot's assistant in his investigations; his role has similar traits to that of Dr Sheppard in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.
- Mr Satterthwaite - A sociable and observant man. Assists in initially investigating the case on Poirot's behalf.
- Reverend Babbington - First victim of the case. A local vicar in Cornwall, murdered during a cocktail party organised by Sir Charles. Initially believed to have died of natural causes.
- Dr Bartholomew Strange - Second victim of the case. Nerve specialist and long time friend of Sir Charles, and head of a sanitarium near his home in Yorkshire.
- Mrs De Rushbridger - Third victim of the case. Patient at Strange’s sanatorium, recently arrived on the day he is murdered.
- Hermione Lytton Gore - An attractive, young, single woman, known by the nickname of "Egg". The love interest of Sir Charles, and one of his guests at his cocktail party.
- Lady Mary Lytton Gore - Mother of Hermione, and a guest at Sir Charles' cocktail party. She seeks a suitable husband for her daughter, and currently faces difficult financial circumstances.
- Captain Dacres - A gentleman gambler, and a guest at Sir Charles' cocktail party.
- Cynthia Dacres - Wife of Captain Dacres. A successful dressmaker, and a guest at Sir Charles' cocktail party.
- Angela Sutcliffe - A well-known actress, and a guest at Sir Charles' cocktail party.
- Mrs Babbington - Reverend Babbington's wife, and the local curate of his church. One of the guests at Sir Charles' cocktail party.
- Muriel Wills - A playwright, known also as Anthony Astor. One of the guests at Sir Charles' cocktail party.
- Oliver Manders - A young motorcycle mechanic, in love with Hermione. One of the guests at Sir Charles' cocktail party.
- Miss Milray - Long time servant to Sir Charles. She is secretly in love with him.
- Ellis - Mysterious new butler at the home of Dr Strange. Disappears shortly after his employer's death; later revealed to be Cartwright in disguise.
Literary significance and reception
The Times Literary Supplement of 31 January 1935 admitted that "Very few readers will guess the murderer before Hercule Poirot reveals the secret", but complained that the motive of the murderer "injures an otherwise very good story".
Isaac Anderson in The New York Times Book Review of 7 October 1934, said that the motive was "most unusual, if not positively unique in the annals of crime. Since this is an Agatha Christie novel featuring Hercule Poirot as its leading character, it is quite unnecessary to say that it makes uncommonly good reading".
In The Observer's issue of 6 January 1935, "Torquemada" (Edward Powys Mathers) said, "Her gift is pure genius, of leading the reader by the nose in a zigzag course up the garden and dropping the lead just when she wishes him to scamper to the kill. Three Act Tragedy is not among this author's best detective stories; but to say that it heads her second best is praise enough. The technique of misleadership is, as usual, superb; but, when all comes out, some of the minor threads of motive do not quite convince. Mrs Christie has, quite apart from her special gift, steadily improved and matured as a writer, from the-strange-affair-of-style to this charming and sophisticated piece of prose".
Milward Kennedy in The Guardian (29 January 1935) opened his review with, "The year has opened most satisfactorily. Mrs Christie's Three Act Tragedy is up to her best level"; he summarised the set-up of the plot but then added, "A weak (but perhaps inevitable point) is the disappearance of a butler; the reader, that is to say, is given rather too broad a hint. But the mechanics of the story are ingenious and plausible, the characters (as always with Mrs Christie) are life-like and lively. Poirot does not take the stage very often, but when he does he is in great form."
Robert Barnard commented much later that the "[s]trategy of deception here is one that by this date ought to have been familiar to Christie's readers. This is perhaps not one of the best examples of the trick, because few of the characters other than the murderer are well individualised. The social mix here is more artistic and sophisticated than is usual in Christie."
References in other works
- Colonel Johnson alludes to the events of this story in part 3, section V of Hercule Poirot's Christmas.
- Poirot refers to the events of this novel in The A.B.C. Murders (1936) when he and Arthur Hastings reunite after not seeing each other for several years. Poirot is telling Hastings about his experiences since retiring. He relates that he was almost "exterminated" himself recently by a murderer who was "not so much enterprising as careless".
References to other stories
- In Act 3 Chapter 5 Poirot says that once he had a failure in his professional career that happened in Belgium, hinting at the story The Chocolate Box. In Act 2, Chapter 1 Poirot makes a hint to The Mysterious Affair at Styles while talking to Satterthwaite.
- In the end of Act 2 Chapter 3, Satterthwaite tells Sir Charles Cartwright that it is not the first time that he is investigating crimes. He is just starting to tell about the events of the story At the "Bells and Motley" when Sir Charles interrupts him and starts to tell his own story.
- 1934, Dodd Mead and Company (New York), Hardback, 279 pp
- 1935, Collins Crime Club (London), January 1935, Hardback, 256 pp
- 1945, Avon Books (New York), Paperback, (Avon number 61), 230 pp
- 1957, Fontana Books (Imprint of HarperCollins), Paperback, 192 pp
- 1961, Popular Library (New York), Paperback, 175 pp
- 1964, Pan Books, Paperback (Pan number X275), 203 pp
- 1972, Greenway edition of collected works (William Collins), Hardcover, 253 pp, ISBN 0-00-231816-4
- 1973, Greenway edition of collected works (Dodd Mead), Hardcover, 253 pp
- 1975, Ulverscroft Large Print Edition, Hardcover, 351 pp, ISBN 0-85456-326-1
- 2006, Poirot Facsimile Edition (Facsimile of 1935 UK First Edition), HarperCollins, 6 November 2006, Hardback ISBN 0-00-723441-4
Two recent audiobook versions have been released.
- 2003, BBC Audiobooks released an unabridged reading by Andrew Sachs.
- 2012, HarperAudio released an unabridged reading by Hugh Fraser.
The novel's first true publication was the serialisation in the Saturday Evening Post in six instalments from 9 June (Volume 206, Number 50) to 14 July 1934 (Volume 207, Number 2) under the title Murder in Three Acts, with illustrations by John La Gatta. This novel is one of two to differ significantly in American editions (the other being The Moving Finger), both hardcover and paperback. The American edition of Three Act Tragedy changes the motive of the killer, but not so significantly as to require adjustment in other chapters of the novel. It is helpful to keep this difference in mind when reading the reviews quoted in the section Literary significance and reception.
A 1986 television film was made under the title Murder in Three Acts, starring Peter Ustinov and Tony Curtis, which relocated the action to Acapulco, replaced the character of Satterthwaite by Hastings, made Charles Cartwright an American movie star. However, the killer's motive remained intact.
An adaptation starring David Suchet for Agatha Christie's Poirot was released as the first episode of Season 12 in 2010, with Martin Shaw as Sir Charles Cartwright, Art Malik as Sir Bartholomew Strange, Kimberley Nixon as Egg Lytton Gore, and Tom Wisdom as Oliver Manders. Ashley Pearce, who previously directed Appointment with Death and Mrs McGinty's Dead for the ITV series, also directed this. The adaptation omitted the character of Satterthwaite and changes a number of details but is generally faithful to the plot of the novel.
A radio production was made for the BBC in 2002, starring John Moffatt as Poirot, Michael Cochrane as Sir Charles, George Cole as Satterthwaite, Beth Chalmers as Hermione Lytton Gore (Egg), the heroine, and Clive Merrison as Sir Bartholomew.
The production was broadcast across five weekly episodes on BBC Radio 4 and stays predominantly faithful to the novel, with only very subtle changes being made. Sir Charles travels to the South of France in order to get away from Egg, after initially believing she was in love with Oliver Manders, following a goodnight kiss between the two characters. At the end of the story, once Poirot has revealed the motive and the proof of the first wife, Sir Charles storms out of the room, in order to "choose his exit". It is implied he chooses the quicker option of suicide. A shaken and emotional Egg is then taken home by Manders, leaving Poirot and Satterthwaite to contemplate that they could have been the victims to the poison cocktail, at Sir Charles' party.
- John Cooper and B. A. Pyke. Detective Fiction – the collector's guide (Scholar Press, new edition 1994; ISBN 0-85967-991-8), pp. 82, 86
- American Tribute to Agatha Christie
- Chris Peers, Ralph Spurrier and Jamie Sturgeon, Collins Crime Club – A checklist of First Editions (Dragonby Press, ed. of March 1999), p. 15
- The Times Literary Supplement, 31 January 1935 (p. 63)
- The New York Times Book Review, 7 October 1934 (p. 20)
- The Observer, 6 January 1935 (p. 7)
- The Guardian, 29 January 1935, p. 7
- Barnard, Robert, A Talent to Deceive: an appreciation of Agatha Christie (Fontana Books, 1990 edition, ISBN 0-00-637474-3), p. 207
- Christie, Agatha (1963). The A.B.C. Murders. New York: Pocket Books. p. 14. ISBN 0-671-46477-9.
- "Three Act Tragedy: Poirot". BBC Radio 4. Retrieved 19 August 2015.