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Dustjacket illustration of the UK First Edition (Book was first published in the US)

Three Act Tragedy is a work of detective fiction by Agatha Christie first published in the UK by the Collins Crime Club in January 1935. The parallel U.S. edition had the title Murder in Three Acts and was published by Dodd, Mead and Company a year earlier. The UK edition was sold at seven shillings and sixpence (7/6) while the U.S. retailed at $2.00.

The book features Hercule Poirot, supported by his friend Mr Satterthwaite, and is the one book in which Satterthwaite collaborates with Poirot. He previously appeared in the stories featuring Harley Quin, in particular those collected in The Mysterious Mr. Quin (1930).

Synopsis

An elderly clergyman dies during a houseparty in Cornwall. At first, even Poirot, who is a fellow guest thinks there is nothing suspicious. But then a few weeks later, there is another houseparty in Yorkshire involving many of the same guests and another one of them dies....

Plot summary

(may contain spoilers - click on expand to read)

Sir Charles Cartwright hosts a dinner party at his home Crow's Nest near Loomouth 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".

Characters

House Party at Crow's Nest

Others at Loomouth

Melfort Abbey and Sanatorium

Police

Others

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". (Note: The killer's motive differs depending on the edition, as detailed in Publication history.)

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

  • 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 2, Chapter 1, Poirot makes a hint to The Mysterious Affair at Styles while talking to Satterthwaite. Poirot says that he was in the Belgian police and was injured during World War 1. He came to England as a refugee and was given hospitality by a kind lady who did not die naturally. This was how his "second" career began.
  • In the end of Act 2 Chapter 3, Satterthwaite tells Sir Charles Cartwright that it's not the first time that he's investigating the crimes and he's just started 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.
  • In Act 3 Chapter 5, Poirot says that he had failed once early in his professional career in Belgium. He told Satterthwaite that "we will not talk about it. This was a reference to The Chocolate Box.

Film, TV or theatrical adaptations

Murder in Three Acts (1986 film)

A 1986 television film was made under the title Murder in Three Acts, starring Peter Ustinov and Tony Curtis. The setting is changed to the 1970s and the action relocated to Acapulco. Hastings replaced Satterthwaite and the motive for the murders is changed.

Agatha Christie's Poirot

Three Act Tragedy (2010) was the first episode in Series 12 of the ITV series Agatha Christie's Poirot. This starred David Suchet in the lead role 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 has 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.

Les Petits Meurtes d'Agatha

A French adaptation Drame en trois actes was made as episode 21 of season 2 of the series Les Petits Meurtres d'Agatha Christie, first broadcast on France 2 on 21 Aug 2018.

BBC Radio 4

A radio production was made for the BBC in 2003, starring John Moffatt as Poirot, Beth Chalmers as Egg Lytton Gore, the heroine, and Clive Merrison as Sir Bartholomew.

Publication history

Dust-jacket illustration of the US (true first) edition.

  • 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

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. 1

International titles

  • Chinese (simplified): 三幕悲剧 (Three Act Tragedy)
  • Czech: Tragédie o třech jednáních (Tragedy in Three Acts)
  • Dutch: Drama in drie bedrijven (Tragedy in Three Acts)
  • Estonian: Tragöödia kolmes vaatuses (Tragedy in Three Acts)
  • French: Drame en trois actes (Tragedy in Three Acts)
  • German: Nikotin (Nicotine)
  • Hungarian: Hercule Poirot téved? (Is Hercule Poirot wrong?), Tragédia három felvonásban (Tragedy in Three Acts)
  • Italian: Tragedia in tre atti (Tragedy in Three Acts)
  • Japanese: 三幕の殺人 (Murder of Three Acts)
  • Portuguese: Tragédia em Três Actos (Tragedy in Three Acts)
  • Spanish: Tragedia en tres Actos (Three act Tragedy or Tragedy in Three Acts)
  • Swedish: Tragedi i tre akter (Tragedy in Three Acts)
  • Romanian: Tragedie în trei acte (Tragedy in Three Acts)
  • Russian: Драма в трёх актах (=Drama v tryokh aktakh, Drama in Three Acts), Трагедия в трёх актах (=Tragediya v tryokh aktakh, Tragedy in Three Acts)
  • Turkish: Üç perdelik cinayet (Three act murder)


Novels
Hercule Poirot novels The Mysterious Affair at Styles - The Murder on the Links - The Murder of Roger Ackroyd - The Big Four - The Mystery of the Blue Train -Peril at End House - Lord Edgware Dies - Murder on the Orient Express - Three Act Tragedy - Death in the Clouds - The A.B.C. Murders - Murder in Mesopotamia - Cards on the Table - Dumb Witness - Death on the Nile - Appointment with Death - Hercule Poirot's Christmas - Sad Cypress - One, Two, Buckle My Shoe - Evil Under the Sun - Five Little Pigs - The Hollow - Taken at the Flood - Mrs McGinty's Dead - After the Funeral - Hickory Dickory Dock - Dead Man's Folly - Cat Among the Pigeons - The Clocks - Third Girl - Hallowe'en Party - Elephants Can Remember - Curtain
Miss Marple novels The Murder at the Vicarage - The Body in the Library - The Moving Finger - A Murder is Announced - They do it with Mirrors - A Pocket Full of Rye - 4.50 from Paddington - The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side - A Caribbean Mystery - At Bertram's Hotel - Nemesis - Sleeping Murder
Tommy and Tuppence novels The Secret Adversary - N or M? - By the Pricking of My Thumbs - Postern of Fate
Superintendent Battle novels The Secret of Chimneys - The Seven Dials Mystery - Cards on the Table - Murder is Easy - Towards Zero
Colonel Race novels The Man in the Brown Suit - Cards on the Table - Death on the Nile - Sparkling Cyanide
Other novels The Sittaford Mystery - Why Didn't They Ask Evans? - And Then There Were None - Death Comes as the End - Sparkling Cyanide - Crooked House - They Came to Baghdad - Destination Unknown - The Pale Horse - Endless Night - Passenger to Frankfurt
Published as Mary Westmacott Giant's Bread - Unfinished Portrait - Absent in the Spring - The Rose and the Yew Tree - A Daughter's a Daughter - The Burden
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