Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Three Act Tragedy (1934)

Plot: A famous actor enlists Poirot and Satterthwaite's help to investigate a series of baffling murders.

Poirot may never have teamed up with Miss Marple (Christie claimed they'd annoy each other – which is THE WHOLE POINT), but he cheerfully twins the Belgian Brain with the Love Detective to solve what looks like a drawing room crime mystery.

Called in by famous thesp Sir Charles, the crimes suit both detectives – for Satterthwaite there is a love to bring about, and for Poirot there is a cunning crime. And Sir Charles himself isn't beyond playing the detective.

The whole book is staged – Christie admits so by providing a cast list and credits at the beginning (and even a hint of the solution). As Charles Osborne points out in his book on Christie, this is a book where the murderer, once you fix on them, is quite blindingly obvious (indeed, the recent TV adaptation has to go to Utterly Extraordinary Lengths to try and overcome this, leaving you shouting “Why aren't they showing XXX in shot? Why?”). And, it is worth mentioning, this is one time when the Butler did it. Well, kind of. But this is after all, a staged mystery.

Satterthwaite works very well with Poirot. His first observation of the man has him “suspecting him of deliberately exaggerating his foreign mannerisms”, an admission that Poirot later makes himself.

Poirot is content to background himself (“It is Sir Charles who must have the star part” he says) – except for at the remarkable curtain line (“It might have been ME.”). This doesn't prevent him from being as playful as the murderer – the scene where he stages a murder of his own is, when you read it a second time, extraordinarily inventive, and sees Poirot actually taking the murderer on at their own game.

Poirot isn't the only one making acute observations and impersonations. Christie's ear for servant dialogue shows itself again. There's Mrs Leckie who gets an entire page of dialogue with barely a pause for breath, and marvellous it all is (“good girls they are, every one of them – not that I'd say that Doris gets up when she should do in the morning,..).

Fittingly, the book includes an author in peril – a shy mousy, malicious woman who is content to observe life and knows more about what's going on that she lets admits. If it is a Christie self-portrait, it's an odd one. Literary theorists will be delighted to discover that the last chapters of the book feature a race by the detective to save the life of the author, for in reality, the poor dear is as much a victim as one of her own creations as the characters elsewhere in the book. Er, discuss.

NEXT: Hitler's secret son! Hippies destroy the world! It's Passenger To Frankfurt!

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