Agatha Christie: Three-Act Tragedy

The Appointment with Agatha group’s January 2022 book; a reread for me and a reminder how comparatively early in Christie’s career essentially her entire pantheon of recurring characters had come into being. Of course 14 years, all told, would not be anywhere near “early” in most every other writer’s career, but this is Christie we’re talking about; and I’d never before paid attention to this book’s publication date, nor that of its de-facto prequel, the short story collection The Mysterious Mr. Quin, and had somehow always associated them with a later part of her career. So one of the side effects of reading all of her novels in publication order has been a renewed appreciation of her quickly-developing sense what type of personality would add to her literary world for more than one book (and just how comparatively early she had read reached the point where she had determined “that’s it — these and no others”):

  • Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings (1920, The Mysterious Affair at Styles)
  • Tommy and Tuppence Beresford (1922, The Secret Adversary)
  • Colonel Race (1924, The Man in the Brown Suit)
  • Bundle Brent and Superintendent Battle (1925, The Secret at Chimneys)
  • Miss Marple (1930, The Murder at the Vicarage)
  • Quin and Satterthwaite (1930, The Mysterious Mr. Quin)
  • Parker Pyne (1934, Parker Pyne Investigates)
  • Ariadne Oliver (1936, Cards on the Table)

I remember how pleased I was to meet Mr. Satterthwaite again here when I read the book for the first time; I’d rather liked him in The Mysterious Mr. Quin, which (for once) I had actually read before Three-Act Tragedy — and if there’s one regret I have about the screen adaptation it’s that his role is eliminated and largely replaced by an expansion of Poirot’s there. I understand why it may have seemed necessary to the producers of the TV series, and I still like the TV version a lot, not least because Martin Shaw makes for such a perfect Charles Cartwright. But I loved to see Mr. Satterthwaite embody Christie’s own sensibilities about people in the written original (and even go meeting Mr. Parker Pyne halfway, who in turn would come into being that same year, too).

Both of the murders in this book strike me as particularly callous, which (though this is precisely the point that Christie wanted to make) is one of the reasons why I will never count this among my absolute favorites, though I absolutely acknowledge the skill of its construction — it’s as if in the first 20 years of her career as a writer, and particularly so in the Hercule Poirot books (and the odd nonseries novel), Christie had set out deliberately to prove that there is not a single element of the traditional murder mystery template that you can’t turn on its head, and she only got better and better at it. I’m not sure that she is playing entirely fair here — the solution rather seems to depend on a logical leap that would only occur to a brain like that of Hercule Poirot, but things do come out right at the end; and I’m very glad that the ending of the TV adaptation, too, is word-perfect faithful to that of the book. Quelle catastrophe à imaginer, véritablement, M. Poirot!

2 thoughts on “Agatha Christie: Three-Act Tragedy

  1. It’s strange how we find both the same and different aspects of the novels interesting. I rather like this one because of the cold-bloodedness of the murders. This is not a cosy mystery at all even if it feels like it when one looks at the setting etc. This one is darkness in disguise.

    1. It certainly is. I wondered, too, why the equally heinous nature of the crimes seems to bother me less in „The ABC Murders“, which as MR observed turns on a very similar sleight of hand on the part of the murderer, and which has consistently been in my top-howevermany list of favorite Christies. I think the answer is that „The ABC Murders“ my controlling emotional response is empathy with the scapegoat picked by the murderer (as well as profound kudos to Christie for getting PTSD right before it was a thing, or even widely known as a condition) — whereas I couldn’t give a rat’s rear end about the murderer; in fact, it’s pretty much par for the course for the murderer to commit these crimes, and they heartily deserve their comeuppance and then some. Here, OTOH, in the TV version of the book at least, the murderer is someone I want to be able to like, and I can’t— and that, to a certain extent, has colored my response to the book, too (where the murderer isn‘t portrayed half as sympathetically, as I well realize).

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