Three Act Tragedy

THE BOOK Fontana, 1970 pp 192

This is the original 1970 Fontana edition I got from the Bromley South Station bookstall. A bored Poirot reads the newspaper report of Bartholomew Strange’s death on a beach in France; I remember reading that passage on the beach in Brighton. I was never bored with a new swigatha to hand.

The photo on the right is a mock-up from our garden: waste of a glass of rosé? Pas du tout!


Poirot is invited to a drinks party by retired actor Sir Charles Cartwright, where the gentle, likeable cleric Stephen Babbington dies after drinking a cocktail. Sir Charles is alone in suggesting foul play, and seems to be justified when, weeks later, another of his guests dies elsewhere in similar circumstances. From then on, Sir Charles directs and stars in the investigation.


The character of Sir Charles Cartwright dominates the story. Throughout it, he is playing different parts, from “retired Naval Man, can’t mistake the type”, to thwarted lover, to amateur sleuth, and directing the attentions of his companions to what he wants them to see and think. When I first read this, I kept seeing Charles Laughton as Cartwright.

Mr Satterthwaite, who had appeared as amanuensis in the Harley Quin stories, re-appears here in his usual role as onlooker. He watches his friend’s play-acting with amusement, but is nevertheless taken in.

Cartwright has a love-interest, known to all as Egg. She discovers that Cartwright is his stage name and that he was born Mugg. At one stage, she would have welcomed a marriage proposal from Sir Charles; It did not occur to her that, should that transpire, her name would be Egg Mugg.

Most of the other characters are bit-parts there to fill the pages, apart from the playwright Muriel Wills (“the chiel’ among ye taking notes”) and the unfortunate Mrs de Rushbridger, who doesn’t appear in person in the book and is murdered because she doesn’t know anything.


Agatha Christie’s seemingly equivocal toned-down-from-the-1920s attitude towards Jewish people re-appears in this story:

Egg Lytton-Gore’s voice rang out: “Oliver – you slippery Shylock!”
“Of course,” thought Mr Satterthwaite. “That’s it – not foreign – Jew!”

This exchange would sound excruciating to us today, but Egg is being affectionate, and at the end she and Oliver depart the story arm-in-arm: Oliver had poached Egg …

Mr Satterthwaite, that ‘dried up little pipkin of a man’, summons up a quotation from Tennyson’s Lancelot and Elaine when considering the relationship of Egg and Sir Charles:

Of more than twice her years
Seam’d with an ancient swordcut on the cheek
And bruised and bronzed, she lifted up her eyes
And loved him, with that love which was her doom

There’s an amusing interchange as Poirot mocks the awkwardness of the correct use of English personal pronouns and retreats into French.

Miss Milray came out. She started when she saw Poirot.
Poirot smiled. “Me! Or is it I? Enfin, moi!”


A rattling good yarn that drags a bit in the middle. The motives for the murders are superbly original. None of the three murdered people had ever knowingly done anyone any harm, or threatened to, which adds a darker side to the book: their deaths are a tragedy.

Once again we have a swigatha in which, logically, the only person who could possibly have done it is right at the centre of events throughout, but there will not be many readers who are not taken in. Fantastic mis-direction, in this case effected by having the actual killer direct the show.


Mr Satterthwaite and Poirot teamed up again for one of the stories in Murder in the Mews.

In the summer of 1970, my boyhood friend David Hatton and I conspired to write a swigatha of our own: The Little Dog Laughed. We got the title from the name of the Muriel Wills play that is being rehearsed in the third act of this tragedy. It is the mention of the dress rehearsal for Little Dog Laughed that inspires Poirot to work out what must have happened. 

Also, and somewhat incredibly, the crossword in the July 1, 2016 issue of the Times Literary Supplement had the following clue:

Dress circle to see Babbington in three act tragedy? (6).

God knows what the American academics that make up much of the TLS readership made of that! No doubt some came up with the answer, ‘cleric’, an anagram of ‘circle’; the reference is to the first murder victim, Rev Stephen Babbington. 


The 2010 ITV UK adaptation was pretty close to the original, but dispensed with a couple of characters (including ‘and’ Mr Satterthwaite, presumably to give Poirot a larger role). It is such a pity that some of Agatha Christie’s favourite repeat characters, such as Mr Satterthwaite and Mr Goby, are never included when adaptations of the books in which they appear are made.   

A US production was made using the US title: Murder in Three Acts, starring Ustinov’s Poirot and Tony Curtis as Cartwright: the casting alone gives the game away …