Sunday, 24 October 2010

Three-Act Tragedy

by Agatha Christie

It's a good thing that Poirot doesn't really turn up until the third act. There's a lot of soft psychology going on before then that he is too good for.

Instead of Poirot and Hastings, we have a famous actor investigating the murders, told through the eyes of his society friend, and they speak a lot of amateur nonsense about the way people work.

The choice of an actor for the role is no coincidence. Three-Act Tragedy has fun with the structure of theatre, paralleling and parodying in equal weight. Everyone is a player, and some are more aware of it than others.

Underneath the fun, this lets Christie delve a little further into the less folky areas of psychology that Poirot is so fond of, deftly kept away from becoming a victim of the sort of fun we're having at the expense of those in the shallow end. The ever-present shadow of 'the drama' keeps the whole thing both confined and self-aware, while the fumbling attempts at insight from Satterthwaite and his actor-detective friend, Sir Charles draw all the flak. The best way to avoid being the subject of mockery is to make sure you're already doing the mocking.

There's a reason Poirot isn't playing his normal central role, and it's all about casting. Christie gets to reverse her usual narrator/detective relationship, with Satterthwaite the more knowing assistant, Sir Charles the incompetent (but still egotistic) detective. Without spoiling the whole thing, it's safe to say this book couldn't happen without the roles as they are, and the particular players cast in them. It's impossible to imagine it working with Poirot and Hastings in their stead.

Poirot does get an early mention. He's not in the very first scene, but it's safe to say he is the Chekhov's Gun of the piece. He bumps into Satterthwaite in the south of France, and from that point on we know someone is going to get outsmarted, outplayed, and out-psychologied, in the denouement.

Three-Act Tragedy might be unusual in it's 20% Less Saturated Hercule, but it might be unique in it's flat statement of who Hercule really is. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if Christie wrote the whole thing as a way to make absolutely, abudantly clear, one thing. Poirot is not a romantic. That's Hastings' job.

There are three types of psychologies, he tells Satterthwaite. The showing psychology, which must always be telling the story and playing the part. The watching psychology, like Satters himself, that exists to observe, spot and enjoy the narratives as they occur. But that doesn't include Poirot, oh no. He is the prosaic mind. All he sees are facts. When he goes to the theatre, he sees painted scenery and lots of people doing a bit of old-fashioned pretending. When he sees a beautiful girl sing, he notices Hasting's pupils dilate. Nothing else.

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