Murder in Three Acts (Three Act Tragedy ) – Agatha Christie (1934)

MurderInThreeActsA gathering of socialites at the seaside Crow’s Nest ends in tragedy when the local reverend grasps at his throat and drops to the floor dead.  Poison?  Unlikely, since all of the guests were served drinks at random from the same platter.  A few months later though the circumstances repeat themselves at a party with many of the same guests in attendance.  Is there a hidden killer lurking amongst them?

For me, Murder in Three Acts is a story of two halves.  The set up is just gorgeous and I found myself chugging down the pages.  There’s an odd bit of romance between an older man and a much younger woman that somehow managed to tug a bit at the heartstrings (creepy as it may seem to the modern reader).  Plus there’s that delicious set up.  Two very similar crimes that simply can’t be explained.  Are they even related at all?

But then there’s the second half.  It’s fine, but it sagged a bit.  The spark faded out and I was left with a series of interviews that felt a bit more pointless than they should have.  Part of that may have been that I had seen through the illusion.  Somewhere around page 100, I took a break from reading while still very swept up in the plot.  And during that break, I mulled over the mystery, and after about five minutes I became certain that I knew what had happened.

Now, Christie’s a clever author, and I’ll admit that as much I had this one figured out, she kept throwing curve balls that had me second guessing myself.  She was much more successful with this one than in books like Crooked House or Death on the Nile, where once I had figured out the solution everything felt as if it were laid bare.

There are some great characters in this one – a young woman curiously named Egg being the most memorable.  Poirot is involved, although he hangs around the fringes while a band of other characters set upon solving the mystery.  There was a bit of a sense of adventure in that element, which slightly reminded me of the gungho spirit of The Secret Adversary.

As for the ending – well, my feelings on that are a bit tricky to discuss.  I read an edition of the US publication, which was released as Murder in Three Acts about a year before the UK issue as Three Act Tragedy (a better title, but both have their charm).  This particular book is interesting in that the finale differs greatly between the US version and the UK version.  The US ending just doesn’t make much sense.  There is an element of motive where I felt like I had just missed something.  The unmasking of the killer also felt a bit awkward and didn’t quite fit into the story.  The UK ending makes much more sense – I’m guessing that Christie had some time to re-evaluate what she wanted to do with the conclusion.  Granted, I think it’s fair to say that elements of both endings require a bit of suspension of belief to really swallow.  Still it’s a fun explanation, even if elements of it struck me as obvious.

So, this isn’t quite a classic Christie.  It had quite a bit of potential that somehow got squandered.  Still, it’s a better read than most non-Christie mysteries and I enjoyed my time with it.

The TV adaptation

The David Suchet adaptation changes some elements of the story as usual.  In this case, one of the key characters is trimmed, with the role somewhat blended in with Poirot.  I suppose this was to give Poirot a more prominent role in the story.  The portrayal of Egg was excellent, mirroring the character that I had in my mind as I read the book.

There are some elements of the story that didn’t really come through though.  The romance between Egg and Sir Charles might not even be noticed by someone who hadn’t read the book, and there are other traits of Sir Charles’ character that weren’t captured.

The conclusion of the film version is easily the best I’ve seen so far.  It captured a poignancy that I felt just didn’t come through on the written page.

My edition

My 1951 Avon edition has a nice vintage illustration on the cover.  The dressing that comes along with the edition is hilariously spoiler centric though.  The back cover write up features a comment that practically ties directly to the last line of the book.  The inside of the front cover contains a plot summary that describes key events that play out in the final chapters.  The Principal Characters section provides a brief blurb for the characters in the book, and one of the comments contains a bit of information that would immediately point out the killer to anyone who has ever read a handful of Christie books.  Thankfully I’ve stopped reading this sort of content up front, as these sorts of ill thought out spoilers tend to be fairly common.

10 thoughts on “Murder in Three Acts (Three Act Tragedy ) – Agatha Christie (1934)”

  1. One of the problems for me with this book is that all those characters outside of the small central group simply don’t come to life. They’re stick figures, but more than that, there’s simply nothing substantial connecting them to the victims to warrant their being suspects. I liked it well enough the first time (I was naive), but this is not a book that grows on you – quite the reverse. Still, that opener is great – Christie rarely fails us there – and I like Mr. Satterthwaite being a part of something un-Harley Quinnish.

    Since I can’t figure rhyme or reason as to how you’re picking your Christies, I have to ask: which one is next???


    1. Yeah, my reading of Christie must look completely random from outside. There is a bit of logic though. I have one thread where I’m working through Christie’s first decade in order. Murder on the Links is going to be next. I can’t quite explain why I haven’t picked it up yet – I’ve been tempted – since I enjoyed Poirot’s first entry with The Mysterious Affair at Styles.

      Reading the Secret Adversary opened the door to do the T&T novels in order as well, which sounded like a good idea after reading some of your posts on them. So, at some point in the future you’ll probably find yourself with a review of N or M?

      Then I have a stack of Christie novels that tug at my imagination for one reason or another – an interesting title, an appealing vintage cover, or maybe they have a reputation of being amongst the best. Murder in Three Acts was at the top of this stack on account of its cover and title. Other entries that may or may not strike you as odd are There is a Tide, The Boomerang Clue, and Towards Zero.


  2. Wait, there are two different endings depending on the edition? Was this a tie-in with Clue or something?!

    You had here the experience I had with McCloy’s The Slayer and the Slain that I recently wrote about over at Dead Yesterday — once you see through the reveal, the book becomes difficult to judge…and harder to view positively. I, it must be said, had the experience of not seeing through this when I read it and — though I was jet-lagged at the time — remember really enjoying it as a result. I seem to remember that there’s a lot of randomness drawn in towards the end (the secret, er, thing that the person doesn’t want anyone to know about — you know what I mean — in my memory of this comes out of nowhere and involves a lot of ponderous investigating) but the eventual resolution, which you didn’t get at the appropriate time, made it worthwhile for me.


    1. The secret thing that the person doesn’t want anyone to know about is what varies between the UK and US editions. The revelation comes out of nowhere in both editions, but at least the UK version feels like it fits into the story.

      I am curious about how the timing of my reading break affected my enjoyment of this one. Was it that having realized the truth the story lost its luster, or does the story lose some of the romance and adventure in the second half? My own sense is the latter.


      1. @thegreencapsule: I actually reread it this week, knowing the solution full well, and I prefered the first half as well. And this was actually different compared to my first reading. The first time I got annoyed by the lack of screentime for Poirot and wanted him to appear while not caring much for Charles Cartwright as a replacement detective. I still didn’t like Charles as a character all that much this time, but I did enjoy Mr Satterthwaite a lot, which made up for it. I really like the book up until the point when Sir Charles figured out what happened to the butler. But after this it became stale with the focus on characters, that never were very credible suspects. (And still not all that much Poirot in it.)

        That said, I have one Question. When you are saying, that you figured out the truth, did you just mean who did it, but also the Motive for the Babbington murder. Because this is the part of the book that I will never forget.


        1. Thanks for verifying that it isn’t just me who thought the story slipped in the second half. It’s too bad because it really started out well.

          I’ll have to use ROT13 to describe what I mean when I say that I figured things out:
          Vg frrzrq boivbhf gung Fve Puneyrf jnf ernyyl gur ohgyre sbe gur frpbaq pevzr. Vg whfg sryg yvxr n pynffvp Puevfgvr zvfqverpgvba, cyhf gur dhrfgvba bs vqragvgl jnf envfrq ol gur vyyhfgengvba ba gur pbire bs gur pbcl bs zl obbx. Ol gur gvzr gur cncref jrer sbhaq va gur svercynpr, vg frrzrq n fher guvat.

          Ubjrire, V jnf zvfgnxra va grezf bs zbgvir. V gubhtug gung Fve Puneyrf jnf gelvat gb xvyy Byvire Znaqref, naq va obgu zheqref gur jebat crefba jnf ba gur erprvivat raq bs gur cbvfba ol nppvqrag. Gung’f abjurer pybfr gb nf tbbq nf gur erny zbgvir sbe gur svefg zheqre, ohg fbzrjung va gur onyycnex.


    2. SPOILER:

      It’s the motive for the murder of the Doctor that differs between the two versions. In the US Version, he gets killed because the murderer is afraid that the doctor wants to put the Killer into a psychatrie. In the UK Version, the Doctor knows something about the Killer, which is why the Killer has to get rid of him. IMO, the US version almost destroys the plot. Because if the Doctor thought the killer to be mad, then why would he agree to that particular “trick” they are playing.


      1. I wish that in Sir Bartholomew Strange’s diary, the doctor expounded more on his concern for his friend and of course looking at the journal at a mere glance earlier in the story when it was introduced, with an expounded explanation and seeing the initial “M” we would assume that it was Margaret de Rushbridger he was talking about but as we get towards Poirot recounting the solution we would get a more deeper look into Sir Charles’ mental state. Of course all this would have to be camoflauged really well so that readers won’t recognize that the doctor was actually talking about his friend, but at the same time we the readers get more detail about what’s going on in Sir Charles’ mind. Because I’m somewhat frustrated with Sir Charles’ mind. Is he insane? Is he able to shut on and off his messed up mind? It looks to me like he can for he conceals the true nature of it as he leaves the nursing home after a period of 4 years. But if so, I doubt that Sir Bartholomew Strange thought that his friend’s state of mind was harmful or lethal to others or he we wouldn’t have agreed to that practical joke at his home for he would have figured out that his friend was involved in Rev. Babbington’s death.


  3. I believe the explanation for the motive switch is that the UK version (which would have been written first even if it was published afterwards) is based on a situation which did not exist in America. Readers living in a country where (ROT13) gurer jrer srjre yrtny erfgevpgvbaf ba trggvat n qvibepr might not be familiar with English laws on the subject, so Christie and/or her publishers had to invent the highly unsatisfactory replacement motive.


    1. That makes complete sense when you say it, although it seems to be underestimating the reading audience’s ability to adjust to a consideration like that. Perhaps that’s how you sell books though. Still, the US version seems so out of place.


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