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In "Three Act Tragegy" we are invited to a powerful performance in which murder, deceit and romance all take a starring role and Poirot proves that he does not have to appear at all times to be on the centre stage. Beginning at an unobstrusive dinner party hosted by a retired actor named Sir Charles Cartwright, the evening begins as a pleasant diversion for Cartwright and his guests, who include the enigmatic Mr Satterthwaite (one of the few characters to cross over into different Christie "worlds") and Hercule Poirot. Yet matters take a distinctive turn for the worst when one of the guests, the Reverend Stephen Babbington collapses and dies whilst drinking a cocktail. The sudden and unusual circumstances of his death lead Sir Charles Cartwright to suspect murder and he and a couple of others ask Poirot if he wil lhelp them in their enquiries. Poirot refuses, considering that the matter is regrettable, but not suspicious and leaves soon afterwards. Yet when another of the guests of that party, one Sir Bartholomew Strange, dies unexpectedly shortly after another meeting, Poirot is forced to admit he has made a mistake. Tempted back from retirement and Monte Carlo by the subtle temptations of Mr Satterthwaite, Poirot takes it upon himself once more to assume the role he is best suited for, that of detective. With Sir Charles Cartwright, Hermione "Egg", Lytton -Gore and Mr Satterthwaite all working to find the murderer as well the scene is set for an indepth and intriguing performance.
One of the factors which is noticeable in this novel is the unusual situation of Poirot not dominating the events within it. Unlike the majority of the other stories that he features in, the detective in this case is absent for a great deal of it. This, therefore, has the useful effect of allowing us to compare his methods with others, since a significant proportion of the story is concerned with the investigative abilities of Cartwright, Satterthwaite and Egg. Whereas Poirot is concerned more with the psychological analysis of the case, considering words and events in his head before reaching his conclusion, the other three investigators prefer to adopt more physical methods, searching rooms for clues and examining what they view as useful evidence. Whilst, of course, the credit of the discovery of the killer lies ultimately with Poirot, due consideration must be given to the work especially of Mr Satterthwaite, whose quiet observations of the other characters lead him towards making a couple of astute points which enable Poirot to find the murderer.
The characters within this novel are varied and, as though they are reflecting many a play, there are only a handful of main ones, the rest being supporting roles. Egg reminds us strongly of Tuppence Beresford, or Bundle Brent, with her willignness to take risks in order to gather more information and Satterthwaite is, in many respects, like a male version of Miss Marple. Quiet, unassuming and with an excellent grasp of human nature, Mr Satterthwaite is a born - and an expert - observer of other people and their characters. Nondescript in the world of the story and yet significant within the description of events, he is almost what Poirot might have been if he had been stripped of his egocentricity and had one decided to enter into formal detective work. Sir Charles Cartwright, unmistakeably, plays a highly prominent role within the story, battling for the position of lead actor along side Poirot. Dramatic at all times and acutely conscious of the impact he has upon his audience, Cartwright never forgets that he was born to play an act and that every word and deed is done with the awareness that others will be noting it.
The plot of "Three Act Tragedy" is one which, initially, appears to be reasonably straightforward and the reader is prepared for a pedestrianised series of events. Yet, in that characteristic style that Christie is so adept with, matters take on a far more complicated turn and, as we reach the conclusion, it becomes evident that we have been observing an act the entire time. In ways similar to "The Murder of Roger Acroyd" we find that those we presumed could be trusted can not and that nothing should be taken for granted. Poirot is the only one not to be taken in by the deception the murderer imposes upon everybody else and, because he (Poirot) is absent from a large part of the narrative, we may extend the analogy of the play and think that he is waiting in the wings, observing and thus seeing matters that the audience do not.
The murders within this story vary considerably in their execution and, in at least one case, are almost certaintly unique in their motives comapred to other Christie works (though to say which ones and why would mar the story). Once the motives for the murders is known it becomes clear that the murderer has a contempt for human life that is so strong we are not shocked at the fact they have been able to kill and maintain a convincing air of innocence. Cloaking themselves in respectability and congeniality they manage to deceive almost everyone.
Whilst this is a good piece of work by Christie, ironically it fails to reach her highest standards because of what was almost certaintly a deliberate decision on her part. The omittance of Poirot for a large section of the narrative serves its purpose to an extent, but it also results in a rather hurried piece of detective work on the part of that investigator. We see little of his quesioning ,his surmises, his gradual build up before the final denouement. They are present, of course, but to a lesser extent than normal and thus this feels less of a Poirot tale and more of a story in which he features.
In conclusion, this is an interesting story and one which presents us with an interesting insight into the psychology of the main characters. It is not one Christie's best works, but it stands firmly amidst some of the strong ones. If all the world's a stage, then Poirot enters and exits with his usual dramatism and the curtain falls upon an enjoyable performance.
A facsimile first edition hardback of one of the best 1930s Poirot books, published to mark the 80th anniversary of his first appearance. Thirteen guests arrived at dinner at the actor's house. It was to be a particularly unlucky evening for the mild-mannered Reverend Stephen Babbington, who choked on his cocktail, went into convulsions and died. But when his martini glass was sent for chemical analysis, there was no trace of poison -- just as Poirot had predicted. Even more troubling for the great detective, there was absolutely no motive! To mark the 80th anniversary of Hercule Poirot's first appearance, and to celebrate his renewed fortunes as a primetime television star, this title in a collection of facsimile first editions is the perfect way to experience Agatha Christie. Reproducing the original typesetting and format of the first edition from the Christie family's own archive, this book sports the original cover which has been painstakingly restored to its original glory.