The book features Hercule Poirot, supported by his friend Satterthwaite, and is the one book in which Satterthwaite collaborates with Poirot. He previously appeared in the stories featuring Harley Quin, in particular those collected in The Mysterious Mr Quin (1930).
When a clergyman dies at a dinner party thrown by stage actor Sir Charles Cartwright, it is thought by nearly everyone (Poirot included) to be an accidental death. Shortly afterwards, however, a second death in suspiciously similar circumstances and with many of the same people present puts both Poirot and a team of sleuths on the trail of a poisoner whose motive is not clear.
The solution to this mystery is one of Christie's classic pieces of misdirection and relies on a plot device which has been widely imitated. Poirot reveals that the first murder - in which the murderer could not have predicted who would get the poisoned glass and had no motive to kill the eventual victim - had only been a "dress rehearsal" for the second murder.
Literary significance and receptionEdit
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". (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".
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".
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.”
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."
References in other worksEdit
- Colonel Johnson alludes to the events of this story in part 3, section V of Hercule Poirot's Christmas.
- Poirot refers to the events of this novel in "The A.B.C. Murders" (1936) when he and Arthur Hastings reunite after not seeing each other for several years. Poirot is telling Hastings about his experiences since retiring. He relates that he was almost "exterminated" himself recently by a murderer who was "not so much enterprising as careless".
References to other storiesEdit
- In Act 3 Chapter 5 Poirot says that once he had a failure in his professional career that happened in Belgium, hinting at the story The Chocolate Box. In Act 2, Chapter 1 Poirot makes a hint to The Mysterious Affair at Styles while talking to Satterthwaite.
- In the end of Act 2 Chapter 3, Satterthwaite tells Sir Charles Cartwright that it's not the first time that he's investigating the crimes and he's just started to tell about the events of the story At the "Bells and Motley" when Sir Charles interrupts him and starts to tell his own story.
Film, TV or theatrical adaptationsEdit
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 and changed the motive for the murders.
An adaptation starring David Suchet for Agatha Christie's Poirot was released as the first episode of Season 12, 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 has 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.
- 1934, Dodd Mead and Company (New York), Hardback, 279 pp
- 1935, Collins Crime Club (London), January 1935, Hardback, 256 pp
- 1945, Avon Books (New York), Paperback, (Avon number 61), 230 pp
- 1957, Fontana Books (Imprint of HarperCollins), Paperback, 192 pp
- 1961, Popular Library (New York), Paperback, 175 pp
- 1964, Pan Books, Paperback (Pan number X275), 203 pp
- 1972, Greenway edition of collected works (William Collins), Hardcover, 253 pp, ISBN 0-00-231816-4
- 1973, Greenway edition of collected works (Dodd Mead), Hardcover, 253 pp
- 1975, Ulverscroft Large Print Edition, Hardcover, 351 pp, ISBN 0-85456-326-1
- 2006, Poirot Facsimile Edition (Facsimile of 1935 UK First Edition), HarperCollins, 6 November 2006, Hardback ISBN 0-00-723441-4
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.
- Czech: Tragédie o třech jednáních (Tragedy in Three Acts)
- Dutch: Drama in drie bedrijven (Tragedy in Three Acts)
- Estonian: Tragöödia kolmes vaatuses (Tragedy in Three Acts)
- French: Drame en trois actes (Tragedy in Three Acts)
- German: Nikotin (Nicotine)
- Hungarian: Hercule Poirot téved? (Is Hercule Poirot wrong?), Tragédia három felvonásban (Tragedy in Three Acts)
- Italian: Tragedia in tre atti (Tragedy in Three Acts)
- Japanese: 三幕の殺人 (Murder of Three Acts)
- Portuguese: Tragédia em Três Actos (Tragedy in Three Acts)
- Spanish: Tragedia en tres Actos (Three act Tragedy or Tragedy in Three Acts)
- Swedish: Tragedi i tre akter (Tragedy in Three Acts)
- Romanian: Tragedie în trei acte (Tragedy in Three Acts)
- Russian: Драма в трёх актах (=Drama v tryokh aktakh, Drama in Three Acts), Трагедия в трёх актах (=Tragediya v tryokh aktakh, Tragedy in Three Acts)
- Turkish: Üç perdelik cinayet (Three act murder)