Three Act Tragedy, with David Suchet as Poirot, was shown on ITV1 last night and proved to be the best Agatha Christie adaptation I’ve seen in quite a while. The novel was one of the first mysteries I ever read, and stands out in my memory as a truly enjoyable read, so I was delighted that the screenplay by Nick Dear stayed as faithful to the original as one could reasonably hope.
The story opens at the Cornish home of a famous actor, Sir Charles Cartwright, played by Martin Shaw. Poirot is present at a party which turns to tragedy when a local vicar dies suddenly. An inquest rules out foul play, but Sir Charles is not satisfied – and neither, of course, is the typical Christie fan. A month later, in Monte Carlo, he shows Poirot a news report of the apparent murder of Bartholomew Strange (Art Malik, who seems to appear sooner or later in every detective series) at his Yorkshire home – in the middle of a party with an almost identical guest list. Sir Charles and Poirot hot-foot it to Yorkshire to investigate, and suspicion falls on an enigmatic butler, who has disappeared in mysterious circumstances. But can he really be the guilty party?
The locations in this story may not be quite as exotic as those in the Christies set in the Middle East, but they were equally sumptuous. As usual, the supporting cast, which included Jane Asher, was first-rate. It goes without saying that Suchet was great, but Martin Shaw, I thought, was as at his very best – he obviously relished the role. I was glad that the book’s excellent last line, one of Christie’s best, was retained.
The book tends not to be ranked along with Christie masterpieces, and I suspect this is because most of the characters have no compelling motive to kill either the vicar or Strange. They were equally lightly sketched in Nick Dear’s otherwise very effective screenplay (which omits altogether Mr Satterthwaite, who acts as a sidekick in the novel.) But I think the concept behind the book is marvellously cunning – especially in the way the first murder is explained – and as far as I know it is original to Christie. A clever mystery, turned into splendid Sunday evening viewing.