Three Act Tragedy

The latest selection by my book club is Three Act Tragedy by Agatha Christie. Apart from a collection of Sherlock Holmes stories that I read while still in high school, I haven’t read many crime stories — or “whodunits” — before. I had friends who were really into this genre, but it never interested me. I was more of a fantasy/sci-fi person back then.

As such, I approached Three Act Tragedy with caution — I figured there would be red herrings all over the place, so I didn’t want to jump the gun and place all my suspicions on anyone too early. Eventually I decided I didn’t want to even try to guess the murderer (the crime in question was murder), and just go along with the story. However, a friend told me that half the fun of whodunits was trying to solve the mystery before the characters do, so I got back on the trail again.

In the end, I did not guess correctly. It was quite a surprise who the culprit was. I was going to try to write this post without spoilers, but I don’t think I can, so please be warned that there will be spoilers

The novel is so called because there are three successive murders: first a priest, then a doctor, and lastly a patient at a sanatorium. The first death initially appears to be natural and unsuspicious, but two characters in the novel are troubled about the circumstances of the death, and discuss with others the possibility of it being a murder. However, it is eventually shrugged off, and everyone moves on with their lives.

Some time passes before the doctor dies, and it is then believed to be highly suspicious, as it occurs in a very similar manner to the first death — both happened at dinner parties which had very similar guest lists. Then the hunt really begins.

For the bulk of the investigation, the reader is led to believe that the culprit must be one of the mutual guests. Logically it would have to be someone present at both dinner parties, right? But it didn’t seem quite right to me, even with my great dearth of experience in solving murder mysteries. It just felt like we didn’t have enough information about them, even after the informal interviews and interrogations.

The third murder comes later, apparently as an attempt to silence someone who could have shed some light on the death of the doctor.

What was actually funny (and here’s the spoiler) was that the murderer turned out to be one of the characters who had suspected foul play after the first death. It is funny to me because I had speculated at the start that it could have been one of them. I had thought that they were trying to insist on the possibility of it being murder in order to throw everyone else off their trail. It’s a cunning strategy, no?

But then they started helping the investigations for the second murder, and that was probably when I started thinking that I should stop trying to put the pieces together, and just let them fall into place.

The other reason the outcome is funny to me is because I once tried to write a whodunit with a similar premise. This was a long time ago — maybe while I was still in school or uni. I was going to write a story about a seemingly normal guy who discovers the body of someone he knows. He is suitably shocked by the death, not realising that the crime was committed by his hands, under the influence of alcohol. Christie used a similar strategy in Three Act Tragedy. Why would anyone insist on investigations being carried out, and then help with the investigations if they were the guilty person?

I never finished writing this story because I wasn’t that interested in writing it — just thought it would make a good story. Little did I know, it does make a good story! But now it makes me wonder: if I, as an amateur writer, can think up a plot similar to one developed by a renowned author of whodunits, is there a finite number of whodunit formulas? If you read enough of the genre, would you be able to solve all whodunits before the characters do?

To me, it is a tricky genre to write in because you have to reveal enough information so that it is possible for readers to connect the dots, but you can’t reveal too much so that they solve the crime too quickly. Besides that, you also have to make it original so that readers don’t see a pattern from other stories. That’s probably part of the reason why I never finished writing the story I started — it was just too hard.

As much as I appreciate the skill in this kind of writing, I don’t think this has been enough to make me a fan of the genre. I was more interested in how my brain evaluated each suspect and the information provided. I guess I’ll go back to my usual reading until the next book club meeting.

5 thoughts on “Three Act Tragedy

  1. I studied Agatha Christie Miss Marple mysteries in college. I don’t know about this novel but it sounds very *Christie* to me. I’ve gotten away from mystery books over the years, but I cannot tell you why. Perhaps it’s time to read one again!

    • Would you recommend the Miss Marple mysteries to a novice sleuth?
      For some reason I’m not overly excited by crime mysteries. But I wouldn’t want to write off an entire genre because of a couple of books, so I reckon I ought to at least try reading other ones

      • Miss Marple is dated in that it is England in the 1930s but I adored her wise way of sizing up people. And people still behave the same way now, so yes. If nothing else, the Miss Marple series is a way to distract yourself from today’s realities. In a cozy, charming way.

      • Also, if you’re looking for complete brain candy mysteries, try the Agatha Raisin series by M.C. Beaton. They are modern. Agatha is an annoying woman who gets to the bottom of things in her own over the top way. Delightful, and the mysteries are interesting enough to be worth reading.

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