Three Act Tragedy (Agatha Christie)

  • By Agatha Christie
  • First published: USA: Dodd Mead, 1934, as Murder in Three Acts; UK: Collins, January 1935

Rating: 3 out of 5.

A Christie which feels more like an Anthony Berkeley, with its cast of socialites, intellectuals and theatricals, its opening murder at a cocktail party, and both the murderer’s identity and his gambit. Throughout, Christie’s writing is witty and sophisticated, and the characterisation of the leading roles is very good. Although Poirot is present when an inoffensive clergyman is poisoned at a cocktail party given by the actor Sir Charles Cartwright, he doesn’t really begin to detect properly until page 117. The murderer’s identity is quite surprising, although his role is one Christie will use several times throughout the 1930s. His plan, though, is improbable and very risky.

The murderer’s motive differs in the American and British versions.

Blurb (UK)

Should clergymen drink cocktails?  Well, after all…  The Reverend Stephen Bablington [sic] decided to try—that is, if his wife would allow him.  He laughed a little gentle clerical laugh—and accepted.  He took a sip.  Ugh!  Still he must be polite.  He took another mouthful with a slightly wry face.  Suddenly his hand went to this throat.  He rose to his feet, swayed to and fro, and collapsed—dead.  This was only the first act in the drama—a three-act tragedy with a mysterious death in every act, and it was Hercule Poirot’s keen mind alone that presented the reasonable common-sense theory that linked these crimes together.

Blurb (US)

The first act took place at the bizarre residence of the famous actor, Charles Cartwright—an isolated cottage perched precariously on the cliffs of Loomouth.  A group of house guests and neighbours had been invited—cocktails were served—and four minutes later Stephen Babbington was dead!

It was incredible that anyone should murder a clergyman.  Even Hercule Poirot, among those present, dismissed that possibility and the death was regretted and half forgotten.

The second act took place sometime later in another part of England but this time there was no question of accident or natural causes.  It was murder—nicotine poisoning.

And the stage was set for the third act, which, as might be expected, was the most cold-blooded, fiendish crime of the three, terminating the drama but not, thanks to the “grey cells” of Hercule Poirot, as the criminal intended.

Agatha Christie invariably has something brand new for mystery readers.  This tale is pretty unique in all its departments, but her totally new contribution is a motive—an ingenious one, a ruthless one; one that will surprise the reader as much as it surprised Poirot.  Murder in Three Acts is as neat, scintillating and airtight a mystery as Agatha Christie has ever written.

Contemporary reviews

Observer (Torquemada, 6th January 1935): It was almost inevitable that the chosen story of the month should be by Mrs. Christie, when she had a real, full-length Hercule Poirot to give to a waiting world.  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 the 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.

New Statesman & Nation (Ralph Partridge, 26th January 1935): JANUARY MURDERS

January is a good month for detective stories. They generally come in spate after Christmas, and, no matter how many there may be, our gloomy climate conduces to reading them all with avidity.  What could be more soothing than to draw the curtains against fog and rain, and then settle down at the fireside with the latest Agatha Christie!  For Agatha Christie can be trusted, as Trollope was by our grandparents, to turn out at least one book a year up to her own impeccable standard.  Three Act Tragedy has given scope for all her art.  The power to wrap up clues in the easiest, most natural conversation; the choice of contrasting characters, each outlined with just sufficient sharpness to give them all individuality; the steady pulse of events in chapter after chapter, the originality of the murder plot itself, and the dramatic suspense of the solution held up until the latest possible minute; these are the characteristics of a Christie novel in the Roger Ackroyd tradition, and it is here that Three Act Tragedy takes its place in the succession, a worthy descendant of Lord Edgware Dies.  For fear of spoiling anyone’s pleasure I must not give a single detail of the plot.  But nothing could be more baffling to any reader or detective than the opening crime; the most harmless and inconspicuous figure at a dinner party takes a cocktail at random from the tray being handed round by the parlour-maid, drinks, and drops dead.  Even Poirot could find nothing to suggest foul play, and he had taken a glass from the same tray himself.  Yet that was Act I, Scene I of the tragedy, only I must leave Poirot and Mrs. Christie to play it out.

Times Literary Supplement (31st January 1935): Very few readers will guess the reader before M. Hercule Poirot reveals the secret.  That secret, of course, the reviewer must not let out.  A smaller secret must, however, be mentioned because the unlikelihood injures an otherwise very good story.  If A wishes to murder B, is he likely to murder C merely to test the method?  It doubles his chance of being caught.  But perhaps the authoress meant us to notice that there was one chance in six that C would be Hercule Poirot, in which case both murders would probably have gone undetected.  The first victim is the parson of Loomouth, who fell dead just after drinking a seemingly harmless cocktail in the seaside home of Sir Charles Cartwright, the actor.  There were eleven suspects, all very unlikely, of whom one was the second victim.

Books (Will Cuppy, 30th September 1934, 420w): Murder in Three Acts is Agatha Christie at top form, which is your gilt-edged guaranty.

Sat R of Lit (6th October 1934, 40w): Not so good.

NY Times (Isaac Anderson, 7th October 1934, 200w): Since this is an Agatha Christie novel having Hercule Poirot as its leading character, it is quite unnecessary to say that it makes uncommonly good reading.

Chicago Daily Tribune (Mortimer Quick, 20th October 1934, 160w): A very readable and amusing story, but, my! how the dénouement does let you down.

Bystander: Agatha Christie, the best of all crime novelists, introduces once more to readers that prince of detectives, Hercule Poirot.

Sunday Times (Dorothy L. Sayers): Mrs. Christie at the top of her form.

Sunday Referee: Sheer entertainment from start to finish.

Time and Tide (Seton Dearden): Brilliant…this is detective writing at its best…  Poirot too is here.  Need one say more?

Woman’s Journal (Margaret Pope): Gloriously thrilling.

New English Weekly (C.E. Bechhofer Roberts): I have been praying for months that Agatha Christie would bring back Hercule Poirot…  Three Act Tragedy is her wittiest novel so far.

Evening News: Shrewd, agile, tantalising, fair, and very exciting.

Daily Express (James Agate): In my opinion, Three Act Tragedy succeeds, because as a hardened reader of crime stories I have ceased to care who murders anybody so long as up to the last chapter the story has held me.  Here Mrs. Christie succeeds abundantly for the simple reason that she is an amusing writer.

E.M. Delafield (Broadcasting): I can imagine that quite a lot of people will suddenly cry aloud, “Oh, good!” at the announcement that the Crime Club have brought out a new story about Poirot.