A Christmas Tragedy is a short story by Agatha Christie which was first published in issue 273 (January 1930) of The Story-Teller magazine in the UK under the title The Hat and the Alibi. It is the tenth short story of the Tuesday Night Club story arc.
At the dinner party hosted by Colonel Arthur Bantry and his wife everybody takes turns to present a mystery. The fourth mystery is narrated by Miss Marple. She tells a story about a time when she knew intuitively that a man she had met was about to murder his wife.
(may contain spoilers - click on expand to read)
The ladies are prevailed upon to tell a story and Miss Marple is the one who relates a tale of when she was staying at Keston Spa Hydro just before Christmas. Feeling that older and more experienced people’s feelings and intuitions are too often easily dismissed when such feelings are based on facts and experience, she relates how when she saw a couple called Jack and Gladys Sanders together, she just knew that the husband meant to murder his wife. The motive was money; they were living off her income but could not touch the capital in her lifetime however she could will the money away and had done this in favour of her husband. Miss Marple’s feelings were confirmed when she shared a tram ride with the couple and witnessed Mr Sanders "tripping" on the stairs onto his wife who then fell down but was fortunately saved by the conductor. However, Mr. Sanders had recently told Miss Marple that he was in the Merchant Service, and she works out that the trip was deliberate, as she kept her balance.
The atmosphere of on-coming tragedy was heightened when the hall porter died from pneumonia followed soon after by one of the hydro’s housemaids died of blood poisoning. Miss Marple dates the tragedy from when Mr Sanders overheard her and two other ladies talking about this latter death. His wife was out playing bridge with friends and early in the evening Mr Sanders returned from a trip out with two of his friends and asked Miss Marple and the other ladies’ opinions on an evening bag that he’d bought his wife for a Christmas present. They went up to his room and saw the body of Mrs Sanders on the floor, felled by a sandbag. Immediately suspicious, Miss Marple refused to allow her husband to touch the body and insisted the door was locked and the police called for.
When they arrived, they investigated in the room asking Miss Marple to be present. She noticed that the woman’s hat was lying besides the body now whereas previously she had been wearing it. Prompted by the police, she also noticed that she was no longer wearing earrings whereas she had been when the body was first discovered. Mrs Sander’s other jewellery is missing and the police are certain the thief came back after killing the woman and made entry by means of the fire escape.
Mrs Sanders had been summoned back to the hydro from her bridge game by a mysterious telephone call but her husband had a perfect alibi for all the period in question, that is after she had left the bridge game but before the discovery of the body. It was two days before Miss Marple guessed at the truth and asked the police to try the discarded hat on the dead woman’s head – it didn't fit. She realised that the body they saw and quickly locked in the room when they first discovered it was not that of Mrs Sanders but the dead housemaid who was awaiting collection by the undertakers. Sanders had put the body there during the period when his wife was playing bridge and had then rushed into the grounds after the "discovery", supposedly overcome with grief. There he had met his wife returning from the game, summoned by him on the telephone using an alias, somehow persuaded her up to their room by means of the fire escape, killed her and then swapped the clothes, returning the dead housemaid to her room. The one thing he couldn’t do was put the hat back on his wife’s head as her shingled hair meant it didn’t fit. The cheap hat they found was the property of the housemaid as Mrs Sanders’ hat cupboard was locked at the time her husband was placing the dead girl in his room and a hat was needed to cover the face. Sanders is hanged for his crime.
Guests and staff at the Keston Spa Hydro
Film, TV, or theatrical versions
- 1930: The Story-Teller Magazine (London), issue 273 January 1930 as "The Hat and the Alibi"
- 1932: The Thirteen Problems/The Tuesday Club Murders
- 1932: Collins Crime Club (London), June 1932, Hardcover, 256 pp
- 1933: Dodd Mead and Company (New York), 1933, Hardcover, 253 pp
- 1943: Dell Books (New York), Paperback, (Dell number 8)
- 1953: Penguin Books, Paperback, (Penguin number 929), 224 pp (under slightly revised title of Miss Marple and the Thirteen Problems)
- 1958: Avon Books (New York), Paperback (Avon number T245)
- 1961: Pan Books, Paperback (Great Pan G472), 186 pp
- 1963: Dell Books (New York), Paperback, 192 pp
- 1965: Fontana Books (Imprint of HarperCollins), Paperback, 192 pp
- 1968: Ulverscroft Large-print Edition, Hardcover, 207 pp ISBN 0-85456-475-6
- 1972: Greenway edition of collected works (William Collins), Hardcover, 222 pp
- 1973: Greenway edition of collected works (Dodd Mead), Hardcover, 222 pp
- 2005: Marple Facsimile edition (Facsimile of 1932 UK first edition), September 12, 2005, Hardcover, ISBN 0-00-720843-X
- 1961: Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, vol. 37 no. 1, whole no. 206, Jan 1961, as "Never Two Without Three".
- 1961: Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine (Australia), no. 165 Mar 1961, as "Never Two Without Three".
- 1961: Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine (UK), no. 104, Sep 1961, as "Never Two Without Three; or, A Christmas Tragedy".