#1059: “You are one of those people who look so mild, and really wallow in blood.” – Three-Act Tragedy (1934) by Agatha Christie

Having just completed a look at the Murder in the Mews (1937) collection by Agatha Christie, let’s turn our attention to “the Crow’s Nest business” referenced by Mr. Satterthwaite therein.

Having first read Three-Act Tragedy (1934) on holiday in 2010 — I found my boarding pass in the back of this when I took it off the shelf — I came to this second reading aware of the killer’s identity and motive, and so was able, in the way that has proved so enjoyable with these rereads of classic mysteries, to revel somewhat in the littering of breadcrumbs that indicate the solution from fairly early on.

Rather than write this up as a normal review — those happen on Thursdays, don’tchaknow — I thought instead that I’d pick 10 quotes from the novel and share a few thoughts on each one in the context of having now read it twice. How’s that especially different? Well, it’s not, but I don’t just want to write out a piece as I normally would (I have a suspicion that long-form reviewing as I do it on this blog is increasingly unpopular these days, and that most of it goes unread by the very people it’s aimed at) and this is just another way for me to turn my thoughts into content for others to ignore. Oh, plus there will be spoilers.


Also, I’ll go through them chronologically as they appear in the novel, rather than trying to weave some artistic pattern out of disparate points, so be prepared for those spoilers to kick in straight away. Seriously, the killer is named below the first quote here, so caution is advised. That said, let’s begin with…

1. Laughing in the Face of Death

“Well,” said Sir Charles handsomely, “you can have your murder, Tollie, if you’re so keen on it. I make only one stipulation — that I shan’t be the corpse.”

And, laughing, the three men went into the house

Christie has written some exceptionally cold-blooded killers in her time — indeed, the genre is littered with enough clear-eyed psychopaths to give heebie the jeebies — but this, with the benefit of foresight, is the coldest moment I think she’s put on the page to this point in her career. Sir Charles Cartwright has by now invited the guests to Crow’s Nest for dinner, and knows that he’s going to kill one of them in preparation for the murder of his friend Sir Bartholomew ‘Tollie’ Strange. And yet here he is joking with a man whose murder he considers necessary about his own murder that he knows is going to happen in the weeks ahead…it’s phenomenal when you read this back knowing what’s coming. How the hell Christie repeatedly got away with this sort of thing is beyond me.

2. The Etiquette of Detection

“I know medical etiquette, but I’m hanged if I know anything about the etiquette of detection.”

“You can’t ask a professional singer to sing,” murmured Mr. Satterthwaite. “Can one ask a professional detective to detect? Yes, a very nice point.”

In my memory there is much, much more Poirot in this book, and so it almost read like a new novel in just how much time he spends out of things. This line in particular struck me because I just find it amusing that these men are sat around debating the niceties of whether they can ask Poirot to get involved, and you know full bloody well that he’s waiting outside the room, poised on the balls of his feet, just desperate to launch himself into things. I almost wonder if this is a deliberate piece of double ignorance, because the few professional singers I know may well declaim disinterest or reluctance when asked to sing, but in all honesty I think I’ve seen a land speed record or two set when it turns out that the people around them are serious in the request.

3. The Ages of Man

“All the same, Lady Mary, you wouldn’t like your girl to marry a man twice her own age.”

Her answer surprised him.

“It might be safer so. If you do that, at least you know where you are. At that age a man’s follies and sins are definitely behind him; they are not — still to come….”

Firstly this is a nice nod to the follies of Sir Charles’ past which will, somewhat at the last minute — we’ll get to that — be shown as the very root of all the problems which have bedevilled the group at the centre of this plot. Secondly, it’s also a clever indication that one’s sins will always find one out in this genre, especially in this genre, since those follies still exist and can still hold sway over someone’s life whatever their age; an older man has surely just had more time to make more mistakes, and thus, with potentially more to lose, is more likely to resort to unconventional methods of protection. And third, as a man who has achieved an age where I’m expected to be reasonably on top of things, I find it amusing that there’s an assumption people reach an age and just…stop making stupid mistakes. That doesn’t happen, right? Right?

4. L’Histoire d’Hecule Poirot

“See you, as a boy I was poor. There were many of us. We had to get on in the world. I entered the Police Force. I worked hard. Slowly I rose in that Force. I began to make a name for myself. I made a name for myself. I began to acquire an international reputation. At last, I was due to retire. There came the War. I was injured. I came, a sad and weary refugee, to England. A kind lady gave me hospitality. She died — not naturally; no, she was killed. Eh bien, I set my wits to work. I employed my little grey cells. I discovered her murderer. I found that I was not yet finished. No, indeed, my powers were stronger than ever. Then began my second career, that of a private inquiry agent in England. I have solved many fascinating and baffling problems. Ah, monsieur, I have lived!”

This is, I feel, about the most we ever really learn in the canon about Poirot’s past, and it’s only a matter of time before someone rediscovers this paragraph and writes the novel in which Young Poirot solves his first case. I’m surprised that the recent attempts to give him a backstory — c.f. John Malkovich’s version in The A.B.C. Murders (2018), and Kenneth Branagh’s in Death on the Nile (2022) — didn’t mine this, too, since there’s ample opportunity to expand upon what little detail is included here. Interesting, too, since that the kindly lady who was killed is clearly a reference to Christie’s debut The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920), making it sound like Poirot had no interest in being a detective when he came to England, yet he leaps into the fray in that book pretty full-bloodedly as I seem to remember (see quote 2 above).

5. Crude Foreigners

“My missus is a great playgoer. She’s one of your — what do the Americans call it? — fans. That’s it — fans. I like a good play myself — good clean stuff that is, some of the things they put on the stage nowadays — faugh!”

Mainly I’m surprised here that the term ‘fan’ — a shortening, I’ve always presumed, of ‘fanatic’ — is a coarse Americanism, and one that seems to be fairly newly introduced to the English. Horses sweat, gentlemen perspire, ladies glow — so are the English admirers and the Americans fans? How fascinating!

“I have fans.”

6. How a Woman Kills

“Poison is as much a woman’s weapon as a man’s — more so.”

I’m mostly singling this out because I always struggle finding examples in GAD where someone makes this exact point, and I’ve been told in the past that I was wrong to claim it had ever been said. Well, I wasn’t. So there.

7. Dewy-Eyed Romance

Mr. Satterthwaite smiled covertly. Whether Egg wanted to include him or not, he had no intention of being left out. He was fond of mysteries, and he liked observing human nature, and he had a soft spot for lovers. All three tastes seemed likely to be gratified in this affair.

One of the very clever ways Christie hides the truth is in allowing this entire enterprise to apparently follow the lines of a light romantic novel of the sort that I just sort of assume must have been very popular at the time this was written (and has, perhaps, never quite gone out of fashion). The use of Mr. Satterthwaite, who has spent an entire book prior to this having his need for romance and adventure satisfied over and over again by the appearances of Mr. Harley Quin, is ingenious, because it very much sets up the same expectation here: the old man having his own way by knowing that he’s unwelcome in a ménage he’s again simply taking pleasure in seeing unfold. And I can’t help but feel that it’s one of this book’s minor failures that we never get to see his response to this veil being torn away from his eyes in the closing stages.

8. Hidden in Plain Sight

“No, no, it is quite different. In the first case it does not seem as though anybody could have poisoned Stephen Babbington. Sir Charles, if he had wanted to, could have poisoned one of his guests, but not any particular guest.”

The delight of the Golden Age, and of well-written detective fiction in general, is moments like this where the whole edifice lies exposed before you and you sail straight past it. Let anyone who persistently chastises the all-knowing genius detective idiom as something that renders the genre moribund and devoid of intelligence be given this book and then have pointed out to them that it’s the genius detective himself making this point and completely failing to recognise its significance. It must be said that Poirot’s summary at the end really fails to make clear the precise point at which he began suspecting the truth, but it’s clear here that he has no notion of the shape of events, and I do so enjoy a detective having to actually cudgel themselves into shape over the course of a narrative. I’d go so far as to suggest that novels in the genre are about the detective’s journey far more than they are about anyone else in the cast — sure, you get romances and reversals and the heart being ripped out of the social order, but really you should have a detective going from clueless to fully aware by dint of their own damn hard work. That’s what the genre is meant to deliver.

9. That’s How They Get You

“Sir Bartholomew Strange. Sir Bartholomew Humbug. I’d like to know what goes on in that precious Sanatorium of his. Nerve cases. That’s what they say. You’re in there and you can’t get out. And they say you’ve gone of your own free will. Free will! Just because they get hold of you when you’ve got the horrors.”

At times, Christie works into her books little glimpses of this sort of savagery, where she appears either to take issue with some social mores — see, for one, the passage about young women using their looks to gain advantages in They Do It With Mirrors (1952) — or where you feel there’s some real feeling behind the criticism she raises. My blog about classic detective fiction is not the place to get into a nuanced discussion about the wherewithal of commitment to asylums, but I can believe that the issue was one that has seen much keenness of debate, and given its use as a trope in so much fiction to this point (a disturbingly huge amount of the Gothic traditions on which detection is built requires someone to have been quietly packed off to the madhouse…) it’s to be wondered how inured people were to it as a facet of everyday life. I just find it interesting that Christie throws this in here, no doubt as an attempt to round out Captain Dacres a bit, and it feels like there’s some venom behind the lazy assumptions that might have been being made in society back then.

10. Jackknife!

“It must be that there was some obstacle. What could that obstacle be? It could only be the fact that you already had a wife. But nobody ever spoke of you as a married man. You passed always as a bachelor. The marriage, then, had taken place when you were very young — before you became known as a rising young actor.”

Talk all you like about the subtle hints laid along the path to this ending, there can surely be no denying that this motive comes stark the hell out of nowhere, and it’s arguably one of the biggest flaws in what should otherwise be a very successful book. I’m aware that the motive is different in certain American editions — and, since the US edition came first, one wonders if Christie amended the UK edition out of dissatisfaction, or…well, why precisely? I know people say that the point of law for the UK version doesn’t hold in the US, but since the novel is set in the UK, surely it cold be understood that the plot was subject to English law — it’s not like all the use of guns have been taken out of Chandler and Hammett when they’re published over here because it’s not legal to carry firearms in this country, is it? Anyway, but it’s a shame that so little is done to prepare for the motive given some of the superbly open-handed clewing that I’ve celebrated above; that is all.


In Christie-adjacent news, I’d like to recommend to you the YouTube videos of Miles Ledoux, who does excellent work comparing Christie’s novels to the adaptations they inspire. I have no connection with the man, his videos just showed up randomly on my YT homepage and I have thoroughly enjoyed them all — thus, I pass them on to share the joy.

17 thoughts on “#1059: “You are one of those people who look so mild, and really wallow in blood.” – Three-Act Tragedy (1934) by Agatha Christie

  1. Well, I’m sure I’m not alone in enjoying every word of your standard long reviews, but this was a delightful change of pace, especially since Christie tends to leans so hard on her superb dialogue to convey multiple levels of meaning. And loved especially the comparison of Poirot to a professional singer champing at the bit to perform. His living for his talent is one of his most vivid and endearing characteristics—such a big part of what lifts him out of being a vainglorious stereotype.


  2. Brilliant insights from what I consider an otherwise flawed book. I can’t believe that the guests or servants would have been fooled for an instant by the second murder. The deception would have been obvious at least to some.

    Re: How a Woman Kills – In “The Mysterious Affair of Styles” Christie introduces her first use of poison is a female weapon. A quick look and I found the following, “And suddenly I remembered that first conversation at tea on the day of my arrival, and the gleam in her eyes as she had said that poison was a woman’s weapon.”


  3. “I have a suspicion that long-form reviewing as I do it on this blog is increasingly unpopular these days…” Shouldn’t detective fiction have taught you that suspicions are usually wrong? I enjoy your long-form reviews. (Speaking of which: Some of your finest work is your series on late Christie.)

    “It’s only a matter of time before someone rediscovers this paragraph and writes the novel in which Young Poirot solves his first case…” No novel, but there is a computer game: https://store.steampowered.com/app/1573720/Agatha_Christie__Hercule_Poirot_The_First_Cases/


    • I read a lot of Christie on holiday, in part because of how accessible I found her and so ho easy she is to pick up and put down when distracted by other things. This one I read in Australia; I even remember where I was when the ending hit me…

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I enjoyed this format very much. The motive isn’t obvious but if you started to think why would Sir Charles want to kill Tollie now rather than any time in the past thirty years and you looked at his current circumstances that he has fallen properly in love for the first time then it could set you down that path. I do enjoy Poirot having to use a pack of Happy Families cards for his house building and this again plays into the motive.


  5. Like everyone else – I love your long-form reviews, but also think this is an inspired way of looking at a book, and I hope you will do it again


  6. I’d like to chime in and say I also get plenty of enjoyment out of long-form reviews. I liked the approach here though, for a book where there’s no shortage of traditional opinions. It’s great to point out the specifics of just how the unwary reader gets bamboozled.

    I do like to know when the detective I’m reading figures out the answer. I always find it a bit annoying when a book can’t keep straight whether or not the detective knows the answer, like if the detective does something that only makes sense if they know the answer, but then doesn’t do anything to prevent a further crime. John Goddard’s books are great at pointing out when Christie slips up with that, which she does sometimes.


    • Yes, after all, one of the core tenets of detective fiction is, surely, that the detective should detect. The smattering of modern authors I’ve read in recent years have a horrible tendency for their sleuth to just know the truth because they, the person who made the thing up, also know. It’s an irritation of mine — though, as you rightly say, not one that was unknown in the Golden Age or in Christie.


  7. As a fellow blogger and friend, I empathize with your comment about long-form reviews, and I sometimes look for other ways to analyze/comment on a book. I can’t say it ever inspires greater discussion (see my one-act play about this very book), but then I probably try too hard to entertain rather than provoke comment.

    This, though, was a fascinating alternative way to look at the book, and it succinctly raises so many interesting points. I’ll focus on a relatively minor one. Poirot’s participation here is remarkably different than any of the other books of the 30’s. From Peril at End House to Five Little Pigs, Poirot really is the main character, whether it’s because he is consulted early on in the proceedings or because he is on vacation. In the Suchet adaptation of this book, they had to combine Poirot and Satterthwaite into one to give Suchet the prominence he expected; of course, since this was late Poirot, the detective could have the strong emotional reaction to Sir Charles’ guilt that you rightly point out is sadly lacking for Mr. S. in the book.

    It makes me ponder what I see more and more as a weakness of the late Poirots, like Cat Among the Pigeons and The Clocks. In a mystery, the detective is the hero, but he is also generally the outsider, and so he functions differently from a literary hero in that, more often than not, his life and adventures are not embroiled with the other characters in the plot du jour. (Hence, the propensity of modern mysteries to focus as much attention on the sleuth’s private life and circle as on the crimes at hand.) I agree with you when you say “novels in the genre are about the detective’s journey far more than they are about anyone else in the cast.” And so when that journey is as truncated as they are in the Poirots I mention (and others), it cheats the reader out of an important standard of mystery writing.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. For some reason I’ve always enjoyed reading the term “shan’t”. Americans don’t use it (at least none to my knowledge) so I’ve never heard it spoken aloud.

    I find the long-form reviews interesting as they reveal the differences in how facets of the material can strike readers. What particularly jumps out at us varies so much from person to person.


  9. Thanks—I enjoyed this review! A couple of comments:

    #6 – I think Anthony Berkeley has several books that claim poison is a woman’s weapon, and possibly Sayers, but here’s the end of Chapter 10 of Nicholas Blake’s THOU SHELL OF DEATH (detective Nigel Strangeways, having fallen in love with one of the suspects, Georgia Cavendish, has a nightmare in which georgia’s parrot turns into a loud-spaker and speaks): “Poison is a woman’s weapon. POISON IS A WOMAN’S WEAPON!”

    #8 – I don’t have THREE ACT TRAGECDY to hand, but as I recall, it’s when someone (Egg?) tells Poirot she’s going to a address rehearsal of a play that Poirot sees the light—i.e., the reason for the first murder.


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