Three Act Tragedy (also published as Murder in Three Acts) is a 1934 Hercule Poirot mystery by Agatha Christie. For most of the book however Poirot is very much in the background. This could be a weakness but luckily Christie provides us with some memorable supporting characters who are just about colourful enough to ensure that the reader’s interest does not flag.
It starts with a dinner party given by Sir Charles Cartwright at Crown Nest, his modernist house on a cliff-top overlooking the harbour at Loomouth. Cartwright is a distinguished actor, now retired. At least he’s retired from the stage - he still spends most of his life acting some part or other. Among the guests is a little Belgian detective named Hercule Poirot. The dinner ends in tragedy. An elderly clergyman, the Rev Stephen Babbington, has a sudden seizure and dies after drinking a cocktail. Babbington was such a kindly inoffensive man that no-one, not even Poirot, suspects foul play.
Actually there is one person who does have some slight suspicions - Sir Charles Cartwright. No-one takes too much notice - after all he is an actor and they do tend to dramatise things.
The matter has been all but forgotten until another dinner party ends in an eerily similar tragedy.
Sir Charles and his friend Mr Satterthwaite decide to play amateur detective, with a bit of help from a young lady named Egg. Egg is actually a Miss Lytton Gore but everyone knows her as Egg. The trio’s amateur sleuthing is more successful than one might expect. They do uncover some very important evidence that the police have overlooked. The time will of course come when they will need some assistance from a real detective.
Poirot makes a couple of brief appearances early on but until well past the halfway mark Christie keeps him almost entirely in the wings. This works quite well. The reader is eagerly awaiting Poirot’s entrance but in the meantime the amateur detective provide some entertainment. I personally would have preferred more Poirot though!
Christie had a reputation for not always playing fair with her readers but there’s really nothing to complain of on that score in this tale. On the other hand there is the question of psychological motivation, something that is generally quite important to Poirot. In this instance there is a plausible motive but the callousness of the murderer is a slight problem - it doesn’t quite ring true.
As Poirot realises very early on understanding the reason for the first murder is the key to uncovering the identity of the killer. Which is interesting since there is a tendency in golden age detective fiction to tack on motives as a bit of an afterthought. In this case the whydunit aspect comes before the whodunit aspect and the why is quite ingenious (even if I did manage to figure it out).
Three Act Tragedy is I think lesser Christie but it’s by no means to be despised. In my view a lesser Christie can still be made enormous fun by the sheer joy of Poirot. This one definitely needed more Poirot. Worth a look.