A 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 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.