Three Act Tragedy

Three Act Tragedy

Dust-jacket illustration of the US (true first) edition.
Author Agatha Christie
Country United States
Language English
Genre Crime novel
Publisher Dodd, Mead and Company
Publication date
Media type Print (hardback & paperback)
Pages 279 first edition, hardback
ISBN 0-00-615417-4
Preceded by Parker Pyne Investigates
Followed by Death in the Clouds

Three Act Tragedy is a work of detective fiction by Agatha Christie first published in the United States by Dodd, Mead and Company in 1934 under the title Murder in Three Acts[1][2] and in the UK by the Collins Crime Club in January 1935 under Christie's original title.[3] The US edition retailed at $2.00[2] and the UK edition at seven shillings and sixpence (7/6).[3]

The book features Hercule Poirot, supported by his friend Mr Satterthwaite, and is the one book in which Satterthwaite collaborates with Poirot. Satterthwaite previously appeared in the stories featuring Harley Quin, in particular those collected in The Mysterious Mr Quin (1930). The novel was adapted for television twice, first in 1986 titled Murder in Three Acts, and again in 2010 as Three Act Tragedy.

Plot summary

A dinner party is thrown by theatre actor Sir Charles Cartwright at his home in Cornwall. His guests include Dr. Bartholomew Strange, Lady Mary Lytton Gore and her daughter Hermione "Egg", Captain Dacres and his wife Cynthia, Muriel Wills, Oliver Manders, Mr Satterthwaite, and the Reverend and Mrs Babbington. Cartwright mixes cocktails, which are passed to guests by a serving girl with a tray. After sipping one of the cocktails, Reverend Babbington collapses and dies. Cartwright is convinced it was murder. Investigation of the glass shows no poison, and the death is ruled natural causes at the inquest. Cartwright is so upset that he informs Poirot he intends to retire to Monte Carlo.

In his home in Yorkshire, Dr Strange hosts a party with many of the same guests at the party in Cornwall, though missing Sir Charles and Poirot. Oliver Manders arrives in an unusual way, as his motorcycle breaks down in front of the manor. Dr Strange has a new, temporary butler named Ellis, who reports that a new patient has arrived at the sanatorium, a Mrs De Rushbridger, called "Mrs D". After dinner, Ellis serves port to all the guests, after which Dr Strange dies. Although no poison is found in his glass, the coroner determines that he died of nicotine poisoning. Given the similarities, Babbington's body is exhumed, revealing that he too died of nicotine poisoning.

Poirot learns of Dr Strange's death from Sir Charles in Monte Carlo. The two return to England, where they investigate the deaths. The serving maid at Dr Strange's manor notes that Dr Strange gave his usual butler a two-month vacation about two weeks before his death and brought on Ellis, now disappeared from the house. She said Ellis seemed to know a butler's duties, although he went about them in a strange way. In Ellis' room, Cartwright finds hidden papers suggesting that Ellis was blackmailing Dr Strange. In London, Emily Wills reports that she noticed something unusual at the Yorkshire dinner. She observed that Ellis had a birthmark on his right hand. Poirot then receives a telegram from "Mrs D" at Dr Strange's sanatorium. When Poirot arrives in Yorkshire, he finds "Mrs D" murdered by nicotine poison hidden in chocolates sent to her anonymously. Returning to Cornwall, Poirot stops Miss Milray before she can destroy chemical equipment hidden in an abandoned building near the vicarage.

Poirot assembles everyone for the denouement. He reveals that Sir Charles Cartwright, his old friend, murdered Rev Babbington, Dr Strange, and "Mrs D". Sir Charles had wanted to marry Egg, but could not do so because he had a wife whom he had married many years ago, who is now in an insane asylum. Under British law, Cartwright could not divorce his wife. Cartwright would not have killed his wife in the asylum. But he would and did murder the only person who knew about her, his childhood friend Dr Strange. (In the American version, this is changed with Sir Charles' new motive being to prevent Dr Strange from committing him to an asylum for his growing megalomania.)

Cartwright used his party in Cornwall as a dress rehearsal for the murder of Strange. His wanted to test his success at switching the glass with the poison, with a glass untouched, all under the nose of Poirot. He ensured that Dr Strange would not drink the poison at the first party because he knew his old friend did not drink cocktails. He ensured Egg did not drink the poison by handing her a glass. The rest of the cocktails were put on a tray to be distributed. It did not matter to Cartwright who died. The lack of any motive to kill Babbington had confused Poirot. Sir Charles convinced Strange to let him play the role of the butler, Ellis.

Sir Charles was in Monte Carlo the day after Strange was killed, which he hoped would be his alibi. He planted the blackmail note from Ellis during the search of his rooms. When Emily Wills spoke up, Sir Charles was prepared to kill her, too. Poirot saw the risk and hid her. Sir Charles killed "Mrs D" because otherwise she would have told Poirot that she had not sent that telegram. Miss Milray was secretly in love with her long-time employer, and thus ready to destroy the equipment Sir Charles used to distill the nicotine poison. Cartwright is arrested and Egg winds up with Oliver Manders.


Literary significance and reception

The Times Literary Supplement of 31 January 1935 admitted that "Very few readers will guess the murderer before Hercule Poirot reveals the secret", but complained that the motive of the murderer "injures an otherwise very good story".[4] (Note: The killer's motive differs depending on the edition, as detailed in Publication history.)

Isaac Anderson in The New York Times Book Review of 7 October 1934, said that the motive was "most unusual, if not positively unique in the annals of crime. Since this is an Agatha Christie novel featuring Hercule Poirot as its leading character, it is quite unnecessary to say that it makes uncommonly good reading".[5]

In The Observer's issue of 6 January 1935, "Torquemada" (Edward Powys Mathers) said, "Her gift is pure genius, of leading the reader by the nose in a zigzag course up the garden and dropping the lead just when she wishes him to scamper to the kill. Three Act Tragedy is not among this author's best detective stories; but to say that it heads her second best is praise enough. The technique of misleadership is, as usual, superb; but, when all comes out, some of the minor threads of motive do not quite convince. Mrs Christie has, quite apart from her special gift, steadily improved and matured as a writer, from the-strange-affair-of-style to this charming and sophisticated piece of prose".[6]

Milward Kennedy in The Guardian (29 January 1935) opened his review with, "The year has opened most satisfactorily. Mrs Christie's Three Act Tragedy is up to her best level"; he summarised the set-up of the plot but then added, "A weak (but perhaps inevitable point) is the disappearance of a butler; the reader, that is to say, is given rather too broad a hint. But the mechanics of the story are ingenious and plausible, the characters (as always with Mrs Christie) are life-like and lively. Poirot does not take the stage very often, but when he does he is in great form."[7]

Robert Barnard commented much later that the "[s]trategy of deception here is one that by this date ought to have been familiar to Christie's readers. This is perhaps not one of the best examples of the trick, because few of the characters other than the murderer are well individualised. The social mix here is more artistic and sophisticated than is usual in Christie."[8]

References in other works

Publication history

Dustjacket illustration of the UK First Edition (1935)

Two recent audiobook versions have been released.

The novel's first true publication was the serialisation in the Saturday Evening Post in six instalments from 9 June (Volume 206, Number 50) to 14 July 1934 (Volume 207, Number 2) under the title Murder in Three Acts, with illustrations by John La Gatta. This novel is one of two to differ significantly in American editions (the other being The Moving Finger), both hardcover and paperback. The American edition of Three Act Tragedy changes the motive of the killer, but not so significantly as to require adjustment in other chapters of the novel. It is helpful to keep this difference in mind when reading the reviews quoted in the section Literary significance and reception.



A 1986 television film was made under the title Murder in Three Acts, starring Peter Ustinov and Tony Curtis, which relocated the action to Acapulco, replaced the character of Satterthwaite by Hastings, made Charles Cartwright an American movie star. However, Sir Charles' motive remained intact.

An adaptation starring David Suchet for Agatha Christie's Poirot was released as the first episode of Season 12 in 2010, with Martin Shaw as Sir Charles Cartwright, Art Malik as Sir Bartholomew Strange, Kimberley Nixon as Egg Lytton Gore, and Tom Wisdom as Oliver Manders. Ashley Pearce, who previously directed Appointment with Death and Mrs McGinty's Dead for the ITV series, also directed this. The adaptation omitted the character of Satterthwaite and changes a number of details but is generally faithful to the plot of the novel.


A radio production was made for the BBC in 2002, starring John Moffatt as Poirot, Michael Cochrane as Sir Charles, George Cole as Satterthwaite, Beth Chalmers as Hermione Lytton Gore (Egg), the heroine, and Clive Merrison as Sir Bartholomew.[10]

The production was broadcast across five weekly episodes, at around Midday. Consequently, in order to reflect the timing of the broadcast, the motive was changed to a much lighter context. Within the adaptation, Sir Charles and Egg are deeply in love with one another, but unbeknownst to her, Sir Charles already has a wife who resides in an Asylum. This prevents Sir Charles from divorcing his wife, which would enable him to marry Egg. However, Sir Charles comes up with a plan to marry her without arising suspicions of bigamy, as there is only one person who knows about his first wife- Sir Bartholomew Strange. Sir Bartholomew is killed by Sir Charles, to prevent him telling the authorities about the latter's first wife, as Sir Bartholomew vehemently believes in adhering to British law and order, and is therefore unable to stand by and watch his friend commit a bigamous marriage to the innocently oblivious Egg. The adaptation remains faithful to the character Ellis the Butler, which disguises Sir Charles from the guests at Sir Bartholomew's party, and to the "dress rehearsal" motive for the killing of Rev. Babbington at Sir Charles' home. The production also keeps the suspicions of Miss Wills and motive for the murder of Mrs D (whose name is expanded to Derushbridger), who was killed to prevent her from telling Poirot and Satterthwaite what she did not know.

Subtle changes made to the story include Sir Charles' travels to the South of France in order to get away from Egg, after initially believing she was in love with Oliver Manders, following a goodnight kiss between the two characters. It is Mr Satterthwaite however who informs Poirot of Sir Bartholomew's death, when the two characters are also visiting the South of France. At the end of the story, once Poirot has revealed the motive and the proof of the first wife, Sir Charles storms out of the room, in order to "choose his exit". It is implied he chooses the quicker option of suicide. A shaken and emotional Egg is taken home by Manders, leaving Poirot and Satterthwaite to contemplate that they could have been the victims to the poison cocktail, at Sir Charles' party.


  1. John Cooper and B. A. Pyke. Detective Fiction – the collector's guide (Scholar Press, new edition 1994; ISBN 0-85967-991-8), pp. 82, 86
  2. 1 2 American Tribute to Agatha Christie
  3. 1 2 Chris Peers, Ralph Spurrier and Jamie Sturgeon, Collins Crime Club – A checklist of First Editions (Dragonby Press, ed. of March 1999), p. 15
  4. The Times Literary Supplement, 31 January 1935 (p. 63)
  5. The New York Times Book Review, 7 October 1934 (p. 20)
  6. The Observer, 6 January 1935 (p. 7)
  7. The Guardian, 29 January 1935, p. 7
  8. Barnard, Robert, A Talent to Deceive: an appreciation of Agatha Christie (Fontana Books, 1990 edition, ISBN 0-00-637474-3), p. 207
  9. Christie, Agatha (1963). The A.B.C. Murders. New York: Pocket Books. p. 14. ISBN 0-671-46477-9.
  10. "Three Act Tragedy: Poirot". BBC Radio 4. Retrieved 19 August 2015.
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