While not the most watertight or plausible Christie mystery, Three Act Tragedy is a fun Poirot outing, though it’s also one of the novels where Poirot himself is absent for most of the story. What makes the book memorable is the murderer’s motive, not only unique for Christie but also unlike anything I’ve encountered in crime fiction. When it’s revealed, it’s both outrageous and true to the psychology of the character.
The book is also unusual for being something of a crossover before Marvel made it cool, prominently featuring Mr Satterthwaite, who previously appeared in Christie’s Harley Quin stories (that’s Harley Quin with one ‘n’ who is definitely not Joker’s crazy girlfriend). Mr Satterthwaite is one of Christie’s best-drawn characters and makes up quite nicely for the lack of Poirot. He’s a benevolent Victorian snob with a keen interest in people, one of life’s observers who has a great sensitivity for atmosphere and people’s feelings, without touching any of that mucky emotion himself.
Faithful to its title, the novel is split into three acts – Suspicion, Certainty and Discovery – with the first act taking place in Cornwall at the picturesque home of Sir Charles Cartwright, a retired actor with a great deal of personal charm. During a seemingly respectable party, a local pastor collapses and dies after sipping on his cocktail. The idea that anyone would want to off such a harmless, loveable old man is so outlandish that no one, including Poirot, suspects foul play, especially after an investigation finds no trace of poison in the glass. No one, that is, except the party host, and Cartwright’s suspicions seem to be correct when another death happens in strikingly similar circumstances. The two incidents are clearly connected… but how?
Poirot, of course, never fails to appear at crucial moments to deliver his brilliant insights, but the bulk of sleuthing is done by the amateur detective club headed by Cartwright, and including Mr Satterthwaite and Hermione “Egg” Lytton Gore, a headstrong young girl that Cartwright is over-the-head in love with. The romantic subplot here is one of Christie’s better ones, which is just as well since the book spends quite a bit of time on Cartwright and Egg’s romantic machinations.
Not all of Three Act Tragedy hangs together well; while Christie’s skill at misdirection is as great as ever, some of the minor details of the crime aren’t terribly convincing once you start thinking about it. There’s still plenty to enjoy though, from Mr Satterthwaite’s amusing inner observations to the final reveal. The book also ends with what probably is the funniest final line in any Christie story.
P.S. I’ve already made comic book references in this review, but it also made me chuckle that this novel has a Doctor Strange as one of its characters.