When the Reverend Babbington collapsed after drinking a cocktail at Sir Charles Cartwright’s dinner party, only the host thought that it was murder. But there was no indication of poison in the glass and no way that the poison could have been delivered. Even the great Hercule Poirot, in attendance, believed the elderly vicar had died of natural causes.
And then, at another party with a large number of guests in common, someone else – the psychiatrist Sir Bartholemew Strange – drops dead in the same circumstances. Cartwright, along with Mr Satterthwaite and “Egg” Lytton-Gore begin an investigation, and are soon joined by Poirot, who has changed his mind. A murderer is at large, and is only on their second act…
So we come to the tenth Poirot novel (if you call The Big Four a novel) and one that I haven’t read for years – this is the first time that a review for it has appeared on the blog. Before we get to the book though, let’s take a look at the title.
It’s not the only case of the US publication having a different title to the UK one, but which one should we use? The US was the first edition, so should Murder In Three Acts be the proper title? Maybe, but hereafter I’m going to go with Three Act Tragedy, as, well, I’m British, and so was Agatha… But the title isn’t the only difference between the two publications. But I’ll come to that in a bit.
The majority of the book is the same, and it’s the first real instance of Poirot being in the background for most of the book. He is at the initial party but doesn’t do much, and even once the second death takes place, he still lets Cartwright and his merry band of sleuths take the lead. It’s only at the end of the tale, after a third death, that he finally twigs exactly what was going on.
And this is one of the problems of the book, the lack of a decent replacement for Poirot. The focus is more Mr Satterthwaite rather than Cartwright, but while the book ticks along well enough, the occasional appearances of Poirot do lift it.
The other problem is the murderer’s plan is ridiculous – absolutely batsh*t crazy. Not the motive for the first crime, I can go with that, but the risks taken elsewhere are utterly bonkers. However, you can excuse that (a bit) if you’re American.
Let me explain – as I said, there is a difference beyond the title difference between the two versions. The books are mostly the same, with the same killer, but the motive is different. You can read more about this on Wikipedia as I don’t want to spoil it, but I’ve been mulling over this quite a bit in the last few days as to which I think works better.
I think it’s the American resolution that I prefer – having re-read that version for this review, I can’t be sure of what I’m about to say, but I think the existence of someone comes out of nowhere in the final chapter. Certainly that’s the case in the Suchet adaptation which seems fairly faithful elsewhere. What I thought was odd in the US version (which by the way suits the UK title better) is that Christie really underplays the pointlessness of the whole scheme, writing it off in a paragraph or two, when there’s a lot of stuff to work with here. There’s a real tragedy in this version, but I think that Christie does waste the opportunity to do more with it.
Now let’s finish with a theory of mine that I’d really like your opinion on, dear reader. Was this book originally planned as a Poirot mystery at all?
At this stage of her writing, Poirot was Christie’s only series sleuth in novel form. Miss Marple had only sorted out The Murder At The Vicarage, Superintendent Battle had cropped up in The Secret Of Chimneys and The Seven Dials Mystery (although these are more Bundle Brent stories, no?) but she had written some standalones – The Man In The Brown Suit, The Sittaford Mystery and Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? Mr Satterthwaite had appeared before, in the collection of short stories The Mysterious Mr Quin, as the investigator who is assisted by the mysterious Harley Quin who pops up once the legwork has been done. The structure isn’t a million miles away from here – Poirot is in the background for most of the story and once he appears, he does still do a bit of Wolfe/Priestley back-stage detecting before getting off his bottom towards the end. So my question is this – was this supposed to be a Harley Quin novel? The theatrical setting would presumably suit this character. Was Christie persuaded by her publishers to include Poirot to cash in on his popularity? It’s quite possible given the wording on the UK first edition – “Hercule Poirot in Three Act Tragedy” and the US tagging it as a “Poirot Mystery Story”.
I’ve always been a little confused that given Christie’s antipathy towards Poirot that starting from this book, the next eight books are all Poirot stories, so I’m guessing that her publishers persuaded her that the little Belgian was the character to stick with. But did they persuade her to change this book from a Harley Quin book and stick with her money-making sleuth? Is there any evidence one way or the other?
Anyway, back to the review rather than my pondering. It’s not at all bad – I do like the motive for the third murder and the misdirection it involves – but suffers from a blooming obvious villain and some wasted opportunities. So where does this rank?
I think it’s somewhere in the vicinity of Lord Edgware Dies for me, probably just under it, methinks. So the ranking so far is:
Ranking Poirot (So Far)
- The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd
- The Mysterious Affair At Styles
- Peril At End House
- Murder On The Orient Express
- Lord Edgware Dies
- Three Act Tragedy
- The Murder On The Links
- Poirot Investigates
- The Mystery Of The Blue Train
- The Big Four
- Black Coffee
Next up (soonish) – Death In The Clouds
I would put Murder on the Links just above it actually as I remember just finding it to be more fun. Good theory about Quin. But you know what? I think Christie exaggerated about her dislike for Poirot – I think she was just worried a “funny foreigner” was becoming rather an antiquated conception for a detective, certainly once the was was over. But she was very money-minded after all, so …
I’ve read the American version many times over many years, and I had heard there was a different motive in the British version without being aware of the details. The implication whenever I encountered this was always that the American version was inferior. When I finally read the British version last year, I was surprised to find that I actually prefer the American.
I personally prefer this one to Lord Edgware Dies, I just like the characters and plot more.
According to Mark Aldridge’s Poirot, Christie stated a preference for the US motive.
I didn’t trust my own judgment because when you’ve experienced a book that many times, a significant change is bound to be disconcerting.
I do not like the US motive. For me, it opens up a pretty big plothole. Rot 13 for spoilers:
Vs Qe. Fgenatr unq n fhfcvpvba, gung gur xvyyre jnf penml, guna jul qvq ur unir uvz ehaavat nebhaq va uvf ubzr, cbfvat nf n ohgyre?
V nyfb arire unq zhpu ceboyrzf jvgu gur ivyynva’f qvfthvfr, juvpu V nffhzr vf gur evfx gung lbh gnyxrq nobhg. Vs fbzrobql unq erpbtavmrq uvz cevbe gb gur zheqre, gurl whfg jbhyq unir cergraqrq vg gb or n ovt wbxr. Fb ab unez qbar. Naq nsgre gur zheqre, ur rfpncrq nf fbba nf cbffvoyr, fb gung abobql jbhyq erpbtavmr uvz. Gurer’f bs pbhefr na hayvxrylubbq vaibyirq, ohg V qba’g guvax vg’f jbefr guna va gur znwbevgl bs zlfgrel abiryf gung qrcraq ba n snxr naq vatravbhf nyvov. Va snpg, V svaq guvf bar zber oryvrinoyr guna gur qvfthvfr va lbhe irel arkg Cbvebg.
I had the same issue but there are a couple of paragraphs that do clarify this – the simple fact is that Strange didn’t and the murderer’s concern was all in their head – hence my allusion to “Tragedy” being more appropriate for the US motive. But I do think that Christie should have made this clearer – I only caught it on my second reading of the last chapter.
But the whole Ellis thing is just daft from beginning to end… I don’t agree about the next book, but it is at least more believable than Murder In Mesopotamia…
That’s interesting. I have only read the british version and only heard about the US-motive. But this does make it a lot more plausible.
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Despite the colourful characters, this will always be a weak Christie for me and one I am unlikely to re-read. I cannot accept the risks the culprit took for the second murder and I am American 🙂 There is no way that would have ever worked. The others there would have seen through the deception immediately. A similar plot device unfortunately weakens both Lord Edgeware Dies and Death in the Clouds.
It really surprises me that this and Death In The Clouds have another plot similarity too.
With regards the second murder, I struggle with the idea of “if someone spots me, it’s just a jolly jape” as surely when they disappear, people will think about what happened and possibly recognise them. I don’t mind the similar deception in the other two – they are brief and risky but might work, whereas this is a prolonged risk.
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I’m not certain the deception would have been seen through immediately. Rot13 for spoilers:
V jbex va gur BE jurer rirelbar jrnef n pnc. Zbfg bs hf unir rkcrevraprq ehaavat vagb crbcyr bhg va choyvp jub jr bsgra jbex naq lrg abg erpbtavmvat gurz. Gur xvyyre abg bayl punatrq uvf culfvpny nccrnenapr ohg jnf nyfb n cebsrffvbany npgbe.
The circumstances I found very difficult to believe were those in Murder in Mesopotamia.
It’s not so much that the guests at the dinner didn’t recognise them. I have issue with none of the staff being able to recognise him later on when out of disguise.
I love the motive for the first murder, although I’ve seen it in a book published a few years before this (I won’t mention which for sake of spoilers, but I see that you haven’t reviewed it). I read the US version and didn’t care much for the ending. The David Suchet adaptation does a better job with it.
I’ve never heard of a Christie book having a different motive in the US version. That’s crazy. What do you think the reason for that was, to better explain it to Americans?
Apparently, it’s also the case in The Moving Finger. In this case, it might be as it hinges on an obscure aspect of British law that might not have been the case in the US. Admittedly, not many people in the U.K. would have known it either…
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