In which we meet dashing actor Sir Charles Cartwright, who falls for the lovely young Miss Hermione Lytton Gore (known, bizarrely, as Egg) and together they amateur sleuth their way through a series of deaths, aided by the redoubtable Mr Satterthwaite and one Hercule Poirot. Whilst the amateur detectives make many useful discoveries it is of course Poirot who finally discovers the reason for the death of an apparently harmless old clergyman and identifies the killer of a respected doctor. And if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to tell you whodunit!
Christie dedicated the book to “My friends, Geoffrey and Violet Shipston”. Unfortunately she doesn’t mention the Shipstons in her autobiography so I can’t tell you anything else about them! The book was originally published in the US in magazine format in the Saturday Evening Post during June and July 1934 under the title Murder in Three Acts; in novel format, again in the US, it first appeared later in 1934 under the same name. Christie’s British audience had to wait until January 1935 for it to be published as Three Act Tragedy – I have kept with that year in my title, as I am British! Interestingly this is one of two Christie novels where there are some significant differences between the British and American editions; the American version ascribes a different motive for the killer from that in the British version.
When I came to re-read this book I couldn’t remember any details of it at all, but as it progressed, elements of it started to come back. For whatever reason, this isn’t a book that stays in your mind very long, even though it’s very enjoyable, amusingly written, with some interesting characters and a “three act” structure all of its own. Halfway through I made a stab at remembering whodunit – and it turned out, I was right. To be honest, I don’t think it’s that difficult to work out. Christie is, as usual, very cunning with this structure, in that some vital pieces of information are withheld from the reader, that would make it much more obvious to work out the identity of the criminal. If you’re sleuthing this one, have a think much more about what you’re not being told than what you are being told! She never lies to the reader – but she is economical with the truth.
Christie takes the opportunity to flesh out the characters of Poirot and Satterthwaite, so that we understand them a little more. This is only our second meeting with Satterthwaite (after The Mysterious Mr Quin five years earlier) – and we won’t get to meet him again until he appears in a short story, The Harlequin Tea Set, which wasn’t published in the UK until 1991 – so it’ll be a long time before I get around to reading that one.
My memory of Satterthwaite is that Christie implied from his great understanding of women that he was perhaps a little effeminate. That’s not the case in this book, where she describes him as “a manly man”. For the first time, we get to visit him at home: “Mr Satterthwaite’s house was on Chelsea Embankment. It was a large house, and contained many beautiful works of art. There were pictures, sculpture, Chinese porcelain, prehistoric pottery, ivories, miniatures and much genuine Chippendale and Hepplewhite furniture. It had an atmosphere about it of mellowness and understanding.” This very much emphasises his artistic and refined character and is exactly what we would expect.
In his conversation with Lady Mary, ostensibly to question her about her knowledge of the Babbingtons, he gets sidetracked with talk of love, being a hopeless old romantic. We discover a little more about his one love affair: “he told her about the Girl, and how pretty she was, and of how they had gone together to see the bluebells at Kew. He had meant to propose to her that day. He had imagined (so he put it) that she reciprocated his sentiments. And then, as they were standing looking at the bluebells, she had confided in him… He had discovered that she loved another. And he had hidden the thoughts surging in his breast and had taken up the role of the faithful Friend. It was not, perhaps, a very full-blooded romance, but it sounded well in the dim-faded chintz of Lady Mary’s drawing-room.”
There’s also an implication that Satterthwaite and Poirot are old acquaintances. When Satterthwaite spots Poirot at Sir Charles’ dinner party, “Mr Satterthwaite had recalled himself to M. Hercule Poirot’s memory. The little man had been very affable. Mr Satterthwaite suspected him of deliberately exaggerating his foreign mannerisms. His small twinkly eyes seemed to say, “You expect me to be the buffoon? To play the comedy for you? Bien – it shall be as you wish!”” But there is no reference in the earlier works to Satterthwaite and Poirot ever having met. Poirot is not mentioned in The Mysterious Mr Quin, for example.
But he’s right about Poirot’s speech mannerisms, that they are sometimes an affectation. At the end of the book he confronts Poirot on the subject: “I will explain. It is true that I can speak the exact, the idiomatic English. But, my friend, to speak the broken English is an enormous asset. It leads people to despise you. They say – a foreigner – he can’t even speak English properly. It is not my policy to terrify people – instead I invite their gentle ridicule. Also I boast! An Englishman he says often, “A fellow who thinks as much of himself as that cannot be worth much.” That is the English point of view. It is not at all true. And so, you see, I put people off their guard. Besides,” he added, “it has become a habit.” So Poirot admits that many of his more bizarre affectations are assumed in order to play up to the traditional image of the little-Englander. The typical Brit would have a degree of xenophobia as part of his make up; Poirot uses it to his own advantage.
Although it had only been less than a year since Poirot’s previous appearance in a Christie novel (Murder on the Orient Express), we found out precious little extra about the Belgian detective in that book, and consequently are treated to a quick re-introduction to his back story, as we would call it today, and his attitudes and aspirations. Mr Satterthwaite gets him to reveal: “as a boy, I was poor. There were many of us. We had to get on in the world I entered the Police Force. I worked hard Slowly I rose in that Force. I began to make a name for myself. I made a name for myself. I began to acquire an international reputation. At last, I was due to retire. There came the War. I was injured. I came, a sad and weary refugee, to England. A kind lady gave me hospitality. She died – not naturally; no, she was killed. Eh bien, I set my wits to work. I employed my little grey cells. I discovered her murderer. I found that I was not yet finished. No, indeed, my powers were stronger than ever. Then began my second career, that of a private inquiry agent in England. I have solved many fascinating and baffling problems. Ah, monsieur, I have lived! The psychology of human nature, it is wonderful. I grew rich. Some day, I said to myself, I will have all the money I need, I will realise all my dreams […] My friend, beware of the day when your dreams come true.” This little piece of Poirot history is a potted version of The Mysterious Affair at Styles.
At one point, to highlight the difference between Poirot and Sir Charles, Christie refers to the detective as “the little bourgeois”; which I suppose is an accurate description, although I’m not sure if it would still have carried the same pejorative overtones that it does today. Sir Charles is a very well drawn character, but often comes across as self-indulgent and lacking grace. I doubt whether Poirot would have appreciated his calling him “Moustachios”; but then again, he might have taken it as a bizarre compliment. Sometimes it’s hard to see what Egg sees in Charles. There’s a moment where Satterthwaite was about to talk about a previous occasion where he was investigating crime: “once when my car broke down and I was staying at lonely inn –“ only to be interrupted by Sir Charles reminiscing in a high clear voice about when he was touring in 1921. Presumably Satterthwaite was going to tell the story of At the Bells and Motley. His story is left hanging in mid-air.
Poirot often has an interesting outlook on crime, or a philosophy that he likes to share. In this book, he has an observation on crime statistics between married couples. Egg is annoyed that Poirot could even contemplate that Mrs Babbington might have been involved in the murder of her husband: “”But they were devoted to each other,” cried Egg indignantly. “You don’t understand a bit.” Poirot smiled kindly at her. “No. That is valuable. You know, but I do not. I see the facts unbiased by any preconceived notions. And let me tell you something, mademoiselle – in the course of my experience I have known five cases of wives murdered by devoted husbands, and twenty-two of husbands murdered by devoted wives. Les femmes, they obviously keep up appearances better.” “I think you’re perfectly horrid,” said Egg.”
There are a few references to check out. The playwright Miss Wills had previously written One-Way Traffic, which brought her success and esteem. It’s a great name for a play but it doesn’t appear to exist in real life. However, her next play, that will star Miss Sutcliffe, is The Little Dog Laughed. This was to be the name of a play by Douglas Carter Beane that first appeared in the West End in 2006. When Mr Satterthwaite judges Sir Charles to be acting the role of detective, he sees him as Aristide Duval. As I was reading the book, I thought Duval was a genuine fictional detective from a contemporary writer – but no, he’s a creation of Christie’s. It would be a great name for a detective!
There’s a poetry quote: “Of more than twice her years, Seam’d with an ancient swordcut on the cheek, And bruised and bronzed, she lifted up her eyes And loved him, with that love which was her doom.” Its source? The clue is in the chapter title, “A Modern Elaine”. It’s from Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, and describes Elaine’s love for the older Lancelot. Satterthwaite is being ironic about Egg though: “Egg […] did not look at all likely to perish of love and drift about rivers on a barge. There was nothing of the lily maid of Astolat about her.”
Superintendent Crossfield is a little star-struck when he first meets Sir Charles, as he had seen him play Lord Aintree’s Dilemma at the Pall Mall Theatre. No such play – although it’s a perfect Wildean/Shavian title – and no such theatre either. Captain Dacres takes Egg to the Seventy-Two Club; again it’s an invention of Christie, although it sounds rather swish. At one stage Sir Charles is described as resembling Lord Eaglemount, scornfully looking at his solicitor. He was a character in The Hermit in London published 1819, so even when this book was written that strikes me as being a rather obscure allusion. However, the mongoose who likes to find out, to whom Miss Wills is likened, is clearly children’s favourite Rikki Tikki Tavi, written by Rudyard Kipling in 1893 as part of The Jungle Book.
Much of the action of the book takes place in Loomouth, in Cornwall (although I believe in Nemesis it’s situated just twelve miles from St Mary Mead, which would put it in Kent or Sussex). Loomouth, of course, doesn’t exist, but there is Looe in Cornwall, fifty miles from Falmouth, so the imagination sets that part of the story on the south Cornish coast. Melfort Abbey in Yorkshire is said to be site of Bartholomew Strange’s sanatorium, and is where the second dinner party is held; Melfort is a village in Argyll and Bute, so one can only presume this is another Christie invention. The Babbingtons originally lived in Gilling, in Kent, and Egg visits Mrs Milray there. In real life there are the villages of Gilling West and Gilling East in Yorkshire, but I am sure Christie’s Kentish Gilling is based on Gillingham, even if the directions she gives won’t take you there.
When Superintendent Crossman gives Sir Charles the names and addresses of the party guests, they all have their addresses provided. Lord and Lady Eden live at 187 Cadogan Square (in real life the numbers don’t go that high); Sir Jocelyn and Lady Campbell live at 1256 Harley Street (ditto); Angela Sutcliffe at 28 Cantrell Mansions (does not exist); Captain and Mrs Dacres at 3, St John’s House (ditto); and Miss Muriel Wills at 5 Upper Cathcart Road, Tooting (tritto). Mrs Dacres’ posh shop is located in Bruton Street, which does exist, and you could probably imagine a well-to-do couturier establishment in the locale.
Regular readers will know I like to convert any significant financial sums into what their equivalent would be today – just to get a better feel for the amounts involved. There are only a few mentioned in this book, and they’re all relatively small. The largest, £1,000, the amount that Ellis, the missing butler, is seeking as part of his blackmail scam, today would equal just under £50,000. The average price of a dress at Mrs Dacres’ posh shop (£50-60) would set Egg back £2500-£3000. That was never going to happen, especially as her entire wealth was assessed at £15 12/-, or in today’s language, about £775.
Oliver Manders arrives unexpectedly at Sir Bartholomew’s dinner party because he has a car accident outside his house. Flashback to Frankie having a car accident outside Bassington-ffrench’s house in Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? Frankie’s accident was fake; Oliver’s probably was too. I hope Christie doesn’t play this accident card too often….
Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for Three Act Tragedy:
Publication Details: 1935. Fontana paperback, 8th impression, published in August 1971, priced 25p. Tom Adams’ deceptively attractive cover illustration takes a garden setting, with a yellow flower (I presume a dying nicotiana) propped up in a wine glass, with its thorns showing. It’s a picture that gets less and less bucolically romantic the longer you look at it.
How many pages until the first death: 13. It doesn’t take long for this enjoyable story to really get going.
Funny lines out of context: A little bit more luck here than in recent books.
“I like men to have affairs,” said Egg. “It shows they’re not queer or anything.”
When Poirot is building a house from a pack of cards: “Egg looked more closely at the erection on the table. She laughed.”
Memorable characters: Christie gives us a few smart one-liners that quickly paint a strong picture of a character.
Sir Charles, describing his secretary/housekeeper Miss Milray: “She says she’s got an invalid mother. Personally I don’t believe it. That kind of woman never had a mother at all. Spontaneously generated from a dynamo.”
Egg, with Mrs Dacres, discussing a suitable selection of dresses for her to buy: “”I simply adore dressing a young girl. It’s so important that girls shouldn’t look raw – if you know what I mean.” “Nothing raw about you,” thought Egg, ungratefully. “Cooked to a turn, you are.””
Sir Charles is very well described, with his pompous ways and his theatrical styles; Egg is a little like Christie’s other bright young things, except she’s not quite a bright nor as independent. She doesn’t have the derring-do of Tuppence, or Bundle, and she resents Poirot quite strikingly, primarily because she thinks he is going to get in the way of her and Sir Charles Getting it Together.
Christie is on record saying how much of a favourite character Mr Satterthwaite was; and it shows, by the strong part he plays in this story.
Christie the Poison expert:
Nicotine poisoning is the method of choice for this murderer, and there are few observations where people wonder if the victims might have been heavy smokers. But it’s also pointed out that it is used in sprays for roses – Mrs Babbington uses it – and it’s an odourless liquid. When Poirot is hosting his sherry party he points out that the glasses used by Sir Charles and Sir Bartholomew are heavy cut crystal, which means it is easier to hide a small amount of colourless liquid. Oddly, Tom Adams’ cover depicts a plain glass with no lead cut design.
There’s also a dramatic suggestion that someone might have jabbed Mr Babbington with a hypodermic containing the arrow poison of the South American Indians; but that’s just Mr Satterthwaite teasing Egg.
Class/social issues of the time:
There aren’t very many observations of this type in this book. Satterthwaite can’t quite put his finger on what it is about Oliver Manders that is “different”, until Egg describes him as a “slippery Shylock”; then “”of course,” thought Mr Satterthwaite, “that’s it – not foreign – Jew!”” But Manders is, on the whole, portrayed in a kindly light in this book, so, for its era, I would not say there’s any element of anti-Semitism in it. However, when Poirot contradicts Satterthwaite about Egg’s emotions and aspirations, he gets surprisingly annoyed, and a little xenophobia comes out. Poirot starts this conversation: “”I wonder now,” he said. “I do not quite understand – “ Mr. Satterthwaite interrupted. “You do not understand the modern English girl? Well, that is not surprising. I do not always understand them myself. A girl like Miss Lytton Gore – “ In his turn Poirot interrupted. “Pardon. You have misunderstood me. I understand Mss Lytton Gore very well. I have met such another – many such others. You call the type modern; but it is – how shall I say? – age-long.” Mr Satterthwaite was slightly annoyed. He felt that he – and only he – understood Egg. This preposterous foreigner knew nothing about young English womanhood.”
There’s an enjoyable scene where Beatrice, Sir Bartholomew’s Upper Housemaid, is questioned by Sir Charles and Mr Satterthwaite, which strongly brings out the class-consciousness of the servant. Beatrice talks fondly of Miss Sutcliffe, and particularly so of Lady Mary, and of Egg; less so of Mrs Dacres, and she visibly stiffens when asked about Miss Wills. When pressed, she admits: “”well, she wasn’t quite the “class” of the others, sir. She couldn’t help it, I know,” went on Beatrice kindly. “But she did things a real lady wouldn’t have done. She pried, if you know what I mean, sir, poked and pried about.””
There are a couple of impassioned speeches about the Church; first by Egg: “You see Mr Satterthwaite, I really believe in Christianity – not like Mother does, with little books and early service, and things – but intelligently and as a matter of history. The Church is all clotted up with the Pauline tradition – in fact the Church is a mess – but Christianity itself is all right. That’s why I can’t be a communist like Oliver. In practice our beliefs would work out much the same, things in common and ownership by all, but the difference – well, I needn’t go into that.” Later by Manders, as recounted by Lady Mary: “”Oliver made a rather ill-bred attack on Christianity. Mr Babbington was very patient and courteous with him. That only seemed to make Oliver worse. He said, “All you religious people look down your noses because my father and mother weren’t married. I suppose you’d call me the child of sin. Well, I admire people who have the courage of their convictions and don’t care what a lot of hypocrites and parsons think.” Mr Babbington didn’t answer, but Oliver went on: “You won’t answer that. It’s ecclesiasticism and superstition that’s got the whole world into the mess its’s in. I’d like to sweep away the churches all over the world.” Mr Babbington smiled and said, “And the clergy, too?” I think it was his smile that annoyed Oliver. He felt he was not being taken seriously. He said, “I hate everything the Church stands for. Smugness, security and hypocrisy. Get rid of the whole canting tribe, I say!” Manders’ feeling as though he is not being taken seriously is not that different from Bobby’s relationship with his vicar father in Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? Manders’ self-consciousness about being the child of unmarried parents also reflects on the mores of the time.
Classic denouement: Yes indeed. Unusually, perhaps, there is no indication of who the murderer is before Poirot’s final chapter, so the surprise (if it is a surprise) comes even more compact and controlled than usual. But it’s a delightfully dramatic end to the story.
Happy ending? Surprisingly difficult to judge. On the one hand, justice is seen to be done. On the other, one person is left shocked by the actions of someone they thought they knew very well indeed. Any future relationship this person has – and the text implies that it is possible – will have a lot of problems to overcome.
Did the story ring true? On the whole, yes, but with some reservations. On a practical level, if Miss Sutcliffe is opening in Miss Wills’ new play in the next few days, it is very unlikely that they would have had the time to attend Poirot’s sherry party. Whilst one can accept the explanation of the whole Ellis the butler and his disappearance mystery, again on a practical level one wonders how realistic it really is. That aside, the book is relatively credible for Christie!
Overall satisfaction rating: 9/10. Even though I guessed whodunit and there are a few ragged edges to this book, I found it a very entertaining and exciting read, and found the second half of it un-put-downable. And you can’t ask for more than that.
Thanks for reading my blog of Three Act Tragedy and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge, we have another Hercule Poirot novel with Death in the Clouds. If I remember rightly, a lot of this takes place on an aeroplane, which I would imagine would have had its own charm and excitement back in 1935. I have a feeling I will quickly remember whodunit, although at the moment I can’t recall any other aspect of the story. As always, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!