‘Three Act Tragedy’ a.k.a ‘Murder In Three Acts’ – Hercule Poirot #12 by Agatha Christie

This is one of Agatha Christie’s ‘magic trick’ books, written to make the reader look anywhere except where they should be looking. Like all magic tricks, it’s only fun if the magician has charisma and a good line of patter and you can’t see the wires or, better yet, are so engrossed in the trick that you don’t want to look for them.

Christie, of course, is a master magician and kept me entertained throughout.

I was less interested in the puzzle – who killed whom and how and why – than in the way the story was presented and the characters who populated it. I rather liked that Poirot spent most of the novel off-stage. I liked it even more when I found out why he was absent. I think it shows the elegance of Christie’s design that having Poirot off-stage kept the storytelling fresh by allowing other characters to come to the fore, allowed the action to take place in multiple locations and saved us from Poirot’s endless references to little grey cells and method, while also being a key structural element in the execution of the conceit at the heart of the magic trick.

The beginning of the story, where Christie assembles and introduces the cast of potential victims and suspects, creaks a little, but she lubricates it by having the exposition done by three male characters, two of whom have known one another from childhood and one, Satterthwaite who is an outsider but an astute and compulsive observer and assessor of people. This gave the whole story more texture. Having Satterthwaite, described as an ‘old Victorian’, lead us through the relationships between the parties is clever as it gives the leading lady ‘Egg’ a context beyond energetic ingenue.

As the story progresses, Satterthwaite becomes the main pair of eyes through which we see the action. I liked that he was so different from Hastings: astute, secretive, insightful and immune to the charms of young women while being fully sensitive to how those charms are being used. His quiet curiosity lifted the tone of the book for me.

The two other main characters. Cartwright, a revered (especially by himself) and rich actor in his mid-fifties and Egg, a twenty-something daughter of impoverished gentlefolk and equipped with the boundless energy of the young and the unquestioning self-confidence of the cherished were the main sources of both the charisma and the humour that kept the magic act running along.

I can’t say that I liked either of them but I believed in both of them. If I didn’t know that this book was published twenty-six years before he was born, I’d have sworn that Christie had based Cartwright on Kenneth Branagh. I struggled a little with Egg. I could see I was supposed to like her, I just couldn’t see why. She is ruthless and dishonest in her pursuit of Cartwright and she habitually manipulates the men around her (which is largely their fault for letting her get away with it).

The pair also surfaced my own prejudices with regard to age-gap couples. Actually, this isn’t a gap, it’s a chasm. It’s the Grand Canyon of age differences. it’s a difference of three decades. I just can’t make myself see that as anything but a consensual delusion. So I rather liked that Christie didn’t try to sell it, she just put it out there as part of the routine of the magic trick. What magic trick would be complete without the pretty young assistant to distract and entertain the audience?

I was impressed by the mechanics behind this magic trick. It’s a very clever puzzle. So challenging that no solution seems possible yet, when the solution is furnished, everything makes sense.

My enjoyment of the book was increased by its quiet humour. I loved the scene where Poirot, who was born poor and is now rich and successful, is confronted by his own ennui when, looking out over the Mediterranean from Monte Carlo, he hears a bored child say to its mother. “I’ve looked at the sea Mummy. What do I do now?” and realises that he has no answer to that question.

This was an entertaining quick read if you’re in the mood to be dazzled by Christie’s cleverness and distracted by the foibles of the rich, leisured and self-absorbed who live lives untroubled by the collapsing economy of England in the 1930s.

I listened to the audiobook version, narrated by Hugh Fraser, who did his usual good job. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear a sample.

2 thoughts on “‘Three Act Tragedy’ a.k.a ‘Murder In Three Acts’ – Hercule Poirot #12 by Agatha Christie

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