Three Grand Dames of Mystery: “Three Act Tragedy” by Agatha Christie

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Three Act Tragedy by Agatha Christie CoverIn Agatha Christie’s Three Act Tragedy, the 50-something famous actor Sir Charles Cartwright throws a dinner party that doesn’t even have time to get under way before the vicar takes a drink of his cocktail and has a seizure followed by a quick but painful death. After Rev. Babbington has been taken away, Sir Charles discusses with his two close friends, Mr. Satterthwaite and Dr. Bartholomew Strange, his concern that the vicar has been poisoned. However, Hercule Poirot, a fellow guest, thinks this unlikely, as he can conceive of no way for someone to have guaranteed that any given person would take the poisoned drink.

Sir Charles, in a misunderstanding that the young lady he loves, Hermione Lytton Gore, who goes by the curious nickname of Egg, loves a man her own age, Oliver Manders, decides to leave Cornwall to nurse his broken heart in the French Riviera. This is where Satterthwaite discovers Sir Charles when they learn from the newspaper that Dr. Strange has died a death remarkably similar to that of Rev. Babbington while drinking port. This time the coroner orders an autopsy, where they discover pure nicotine, which kills within a minute or two. The new death calls the earlier one into question, giving Sir Charles an excuse to play the role of detective in order to impress Egg. She uses her supposed concern that Oliver will be accused of the murder to manipulate Sir Charles, the man she really wants, to come to her rescue and thus give her a chance to win him for herself. To Egg’s dismay, however, just as she sets up her plans with Sir Charles and Satterthwaite, they receive a visitor in the form of Hercule Poirot, there to offer his assistance in the investigation. Poirot offers Egg some comfort, though, in suggesting that he will take a supporting role to Sir Charles’s lead.

The difficulty in this case is the problem of the order of the deaths. Why should anyone have wanted to murder the Rev. Babbington? If Dr. Strange had died first, then perhaps Rev. Babbington’s death could have resulted from the vicar’s having some knowledge about the murder, but what would have led someone to kill the gentle and innocuous clergyman?

Three Act Tragedy diverges from previous Hercule Poirot books in the fact that Poirot takes a back seat in the investigation to allow someone else play the leading role. At the start of the book, Sir Charles tells Satterthwaite that the last member of his dinner party is the most arrogant man he has ever met, to which Satterthwaite humorously responds to himself that he can’t imagine the existence of someone even more arrogant than Sir Charles himself. Poirot, usually the first to boast about the amazing “little gray cells” that lead to his amazing solutions of crimes, comes across as more humble than usual.

The book also mixes the character of Mr. Satterthwaite into a Hercule Poirot book, the only time Christie put a character from one series into a book of another series. Seen first in 1930’s The Mysterious Mister Quinn and in later stories about Mr. Quinn, Satterthwaite serves as an observer and catalyst to action, while the action revolves around Mr. Quinn. In this book, Satterthwaite once again performs the role of providing a lens through which to view the investigation in a more objective form than in the first person narration of most of Poirot’s cases.

Andrew Sachs performs the narration of this book’s audio version. He does a good job of reading, but given that the other Poirot books use either David Suchet or Hugh Fraser, who play Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings respectively in the BBC series, I would have preferred that the producers stick with one of those two.

The conclusion to this book provides a creative and enjoyable solution. Though the author of so many mystery novels, Christie continues to use a variety of methods of both crimes and solutions, showing why she deserves the title Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. For Three Act Tragedy, I award five stars!

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