Three Act Tragedy is a work of detective fiction by Agatha Christie and first published in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company in 1934 under the title of Murder in Three Acts and in 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).
The book features Hercule Poirot and Mr. Satterthwaite. This is the one book in which Satterthwaite collaborates with Poirot. He previously appeared in the stories which feature Mr. Harley Quin, in particular those collected in The Mysterious Mr. Quin (1930).
When a clergyman dies at a dinner party thrown by theatre actor Sir Charles Cartwright, it is thought by nearly everyone (Poirot included) to be an accidental death. Shortly afterwards, however, a second death in suspiciously similar circumstances and with many of the same people present puts both Poirot and a team of sleuths on the trail of a poisoner whose motive is not clear.
The solution to this mystery is one of Christie's classic pieces of misdirection and is a plot device that has been widely imitated. Poirot reveals that the first murder - in which the murderer could not have predicted who would get the poisoned glass and had no motive to kill the eventual victim - had only been a "dress rehearsal" for the second murder.
Literary significance and reception
The Times Literary Supplement of January 31, 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 October 7, 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 January 6, 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 part 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 of January 29, 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 admitted, “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: "The strategy 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
Colonel Johnson alludes to the events of this story in part 3, section V of Hercule Poirot's Christmas.
References to other stories
In Act 3 Chapter 5 Poirot convinced that once he had a failure in his professional career that happened in Belgium, hinting the story The Chocolate Box. In Act 2, Chapter 1 Poirot makes a hint to The Mysterious Affair at Styles while talking to Mr. Satterthwaite. In the end of Act 2 Chapter 3, Mr. 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 his meeting with Mr. Harley Quin in the story At the "Bells and Motley" when Sir Charles interruptes him and starts to tell his own story.
Film, TV or theatrical adaptations
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. The character of Mr Satterthwaite was replaced by Hastings.
A radio production was made for the BBC in 2003, starring John Moffatt (Poirot), Beth Chalmers (Egg Lytton Gore, the heroine) and Clive Merrison (Sir Bartholomew).
An adaptation starring David Suchet for the series Agatha Christie's Poirot was filmed as Season 12's season premiere, 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 directs this installment. The adaptation omits the character of Mr. Satterthwaite and changes a number of details, but is generally faithful to the plot of the novel.
- 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 0-85-456326-1
- 2006, Poirot Facsimile Edition (Facsimile of 1935 UK First Edition), HarperCollins, November 6, 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 June 9 (Volume 206, Number 50) to July 14, 1934 (Volume 207, Number 2) under the title Murder in Three Acts with illustrations by John La Gatta.
- John Cooper and B.A. Pyke. Detective Fiction - the collector's guide: Second Edition (Pages 82 and 86) Scholar Press. 1994. ISBN 0-85967-991-8
- American Tribute to Agatha Christie
- Chris Peers, Ralph Spurrier and Jamie Sturgeon. Collins Crime Club – A checklist of First Editions. Dragonby Press (Second Edition) March 1999 (Page 15)
- The Times Literary Supplement January 31, 1935 (Page 63)
- The New York Times Book Review October 7, 1934 (Page 20)
- The Observer January 6, 1935 (Page 7)
- The Guardian January 29, 1935 (Page 7)
- Barnard, Robert. A Talent to Deceive – an appreciation of Agatha Christie - Revised edition (Page 207). Fontana Books, 1990. ISBN 0-00-637474-3
- Three Act Tragedy at the official Agatha Christie website
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