Dust-jacket illustration of the US edition.
|Publisher||Dodd, Mead and Company|
|Media type||Print (hardback & paperback)|
|Pages||279 (first edition, hardback)|
|Preceded by||Parker Pyne Investigates|
|Followed by||Death in the Clouds|
Three Act Tragedy is a work of detective fiction by British writer Agatha Christie, first published in the United States by Dodd, Mead and Company in 1934 under the title Murder in Three Acts equivalent to $38in 2019 and approximately equivalent to £27in 2019 respectively).and in the UK by the Collins Crime Club in January 1935 under Christie's original title. The US edition retailed at $2.00 and the UK edition at seven shillings and sixpence (7/6) (approximately
The book features Hercule Poirot, supported by his friend Mr Satterthwaite, and is the one book in which Satterthwaite collaborates with Poirot. Satterthwaite previously appeared in the stories featuring Harley Quin, in particular those collected in The Mysterious Mr Quin (1930). The novel was adapted for television twice, first in 1986 as Murder in Three Acts , and again in 2010 as Three Act Tragedy.
Sir Charles Cartwright hosts a dinner party at his home 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 there being 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 cause.
Both Satterthwaite and Cartwright return to England to investigate the murders. They learn 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. Satterthwaite and Cartwright later find evidence showing that Ellis hoped to blackmail someone, while a serving maid recalls that 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 one hand. Some time 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 Strange 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, Poirot assembles everyone, and denounces Sir Charles Cartwright as the killer. Cartwright wants to marry Hermione, but already has a wife who resides in a lunatic 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 flees, but Poirot doesn't expect him to get far. 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 an even more terrible possibility: "It might have been me".
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".
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."
Two recent audiobook versions have been released.
The novel's true first 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.[ citation needed ]
A 1986 television film was made under the title Murder in Three Acts , starring Peter Ustinov and Tony Curtis, which relocated the action to Acapulco, replaced the character of Satterthwaite by Hastings, made Charles Cartwright an American movie star. However, the killer's motive remained intact.
An adaptation starring David Suchet for Agatha Christie's Poirot was released as the first episode of Season 12 in 2010, 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 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.
A radio production was made for BBC Radio 4 in 2002, starring John Moffatt as Poirot, Michael Cochrane as Sir Charles, George Cole as Satterthwaite, Beth Chalmers as Hermione Lytton Gore (Egg), the heroine, and Clive Merrison as Sir Bartholomew.
The production was broadcast across five weekly episodes on BBC Radio 4 and stays predominantly faithful to the novel, with only very subtle changes being made. Sir Charles travels to the South of France in order to get away from Egg, after initially believing she was in love with Oliver Manders, following a goodnight kiss between the two characters. At the end of the story, once Poirot has revealed the motive and the proof of the first wife, Sir Charles storms out of the room, in order to "choose his exit". It is implied he chooses the quicker option of suicide. A shaken and emotional Egg is then taken home by Manders, leaving Poirot and Satterthwaite to contemplate that they could have been the victims to the poison cocktail, at Sir Charles' party.
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