Same Story, Different Death

The Books

Three Act Tragedy (Hercule Poirot #11)

Three Act Tragedy book cover

Author: Agatha Christie

Genre: Mystery

Publisher: Dodd, Mead, and Company

Published: 1934

Number of Pages: 279

When a dinner party ends in death, not even Hercule Poirot suggests the cause is murder. After all, Reverend Babbington had no enemies, no money, no scandals, and wasn’t he getting on in years? Surely just a heart attack.

Weeks later, when preeminent nerve doctor Bartholomew Strange drops dead at another dinner party, things start to look suspicious. Especially since many of the guests that night were also present for Reverend Babbington’s death.

Now everyone wants to get to the bottom of the mystery, before the curtain falls on a new victim.

Death in the Clouds (Hercule Poirot #12)

Death in the Clouds book cover

Author: Agatha Christie

Genre: Mystery

Publisher: Dodd, Mead, and Company

Published: 1935

Number of Pages: 304

Eleven passengers board a plane in Paris, but only ten touch down safely in London. The death of French moneylender Madame Giselle makes headlines on both sides of the channel. After all, death by poisoned blow dart sounds like something out of a detective story. Among the passengers on that fateful flight is a certain Belgian investigator. Don’t let the extravagant mustaches fool you—if anyone can solve this puzzling murder it is Hercule Poirot.

The Ties That Bind

Warning: Major spoilers follow for both Three Act Tragedy and Death in the Clouds.
Due to the nature of these stories, it is impossible to point out the connections
between them without including these details.

Okay, I know this is a strange pick. I mean, of course these books are similar—they’re in the same genre. They’re written by the same author and in the same series for crying out loud! Here’s the thing though—these books, though distinctively different stories, are almost eerily alike.

In Three Act Tragedy, a dinner party guest dies suddenly. Naturally, Hercule Poirot was there. Among the other witnesses are Charles Cartwright and Hermione “Egg” Lytton Gore. Charles is a retired stage actor and Egg is young “modern woman” who, though high-born, grew up with little money in a small town. Though they are attracted to each other, they have not yet begun an official relationship. However, as the case progresses and someone else dies, they decide to investigate together. Poirot eventually joins them.

In Death in the Clouds, an airplane passenger dies suddenly. Naturally, Hercule Poirot was there. Among the other witnesses are Norman Gale and Jane Grey. Norman is a dentist and Jane is a hairdresser’s assistant. Though they are attracted to each other, they’ve only just met. However, at the inquest, Norman asks Jane out to tea and the two soon begin a relationship. While out to dinner one night, they decide to begin investigating the murder themselves. Poirot soon joins them.

You see the parallels? The really interesting thing for me was the ways that Agatha Christie played with those parallels. In “Tragedy,” the case hinges on a psychological moment when everyone’s attention was occupied. In “Clouds,” it seems there must have been a similar moment for the murder to be successful, yet this did not happen. In “Tragedy,” the lovers are both upper class, with the man in his fifties and the woman in her twenties. Poirot steps back from the case at first and allows Charles and Egg to investigate on their own (with the assistance of Mr. Satterthwaite), only returning near the end to help clarify their discoveries and to point them in a certain direction. In “Clouds,” the lovers are both young working professionals. When Norman and Jane begin investigating the case, Poirot steps in almost immediately. Furthermore, rather than staying back, Poirot takes the lead and asks them to assist separately, even taking Jane with him to France. It’s almost like Christie is experimenting with different paths to get from the murder to the solution. Even those “solutions” are eerily similar.

LAST CHANCE TO AVOID MAJOR SPOILERS!

In “Tragedy,” Poirot reveals that the person who killed Reverend Babbington, Bartholomew Strange, and Mrs. De Rushbridger was Charles Cartwright. His motives all center around Egg. Charles loves her and wants to marry her, but in his younger days, Charles Cartwright (under the name Charles Mug)  married a woman who is now a patient in an asylum. Since he cannot legally divorce a woman who is considered insane, Charles decides to kill the only living person who knows about his first marriage: his long-time friend Bartholomew Strange. The other two murders were committed in order to confuse anyone looking into Dr. Strange’s death.

In “Clouds,” Poirot explains that the person who killed Madame Giselle and Anne Morisot (and possibly a young woman in Canada) is Norman Gayle. Norman was in a relationship with Anne and learned that she, as the daughter of Madame Giselle, stood to inherit quite a bit of money. With plans of marrying Anne for her inheritance, Norman planned and executed a method of killing Madame Giselle. At this point, Norman found himself in love with Jane Grey. In an effort to have it all, Norman marries Anne (under the name James Richards), instructs her to claim her inheritance, then kills her with an overdose that appears to be suicide. Thus leaving Norman in a position to inherit Anne’s money, but be free to marry Jane.

Even in these final scenes, Christie plays with parallels. In “Tragedy,” Egg is present for Poirot’s “You-Done-It” speech and hears firsthand how Poirot deduced that her lover was the very killer she was trying to catch. The other listeners to this speech are Mr. Satterthwaite and Charles himself. After the speech, Poirot lets Charles leave with the understanding that the actor will commit suicide to avoid going to prison. In “Clouds,” Jane is not there when Poirot explains how he figured out who the killer was.  She has to learn of it after-the-fact and does not come to terms with the situation and forgive Poirot for several weeks. Those who did hear Poirot’s speech were Inspector Japp, the mystery writer Daniel Clancy, and Norman. Japp arrests Norman immediately after Poirot concludes his speech. I find these particular parallels interesting because I think the differences here have less to do with Christie experimenting and more to do with the characters themselves. Although Charles would rather take his own life than go to prison, Norman would doubtlessly use any chance he got to escape. Also, although Egg breaks down into sobs, Jane would be unlikely to do the same—it’s possible she may have even tried to defend Norman, at least at first.  This explains the switch from having a lover in the audience for “Tragedy” to a police inspector in “Clouds”. Satterthwaite and Mr. Clancy, on the other hand, substitute for each other nicely. Each man is intelligent and observant enough to understand Poirot’s methods, but inexperienced enough in practical detective work to be impressed. Another thing to take into consideration is that “Clouds” is set not long after “Tragedy.” It is possible that Poirot regrets some of his actions in the first case and is trying to correct them this time around. For example, he steps between a young woman and her killer boyfriend much sooner, and even physically separates them by whisking her away to France and encouraging her to spend time with a different young man. Rather than force this young woman to hear her lover’s misdeeds laid out unsympathetically one-by-one, Poirot does not invite her to the final explanatory speech. Perhaps he is trying to soften the blow. 

On a whole other level, it is helpful to look at where Agatha Christie was in her own life while writing these books. By the time Three Act Tragedy was published, Christie was married to her second husband. Christie’s first marriage does not appear to have been a very happy one, though it did produce her daughter Rosalind. It ended in 1927 after her husband announced that he was in love with another woman and Agatha afterward disappeared for almost two weeks. It is telling that both books depict a young woman who falls head-over-heels in love with what is eventually revealed to be a terrible man. In both cases, the women are gently guided away from a murderer and toward a steadier, more healthy, and presumably happier relationship. In “Tragedy” the heroine’s mother recalls her own unhappy marriage and reflects that young women, no matter the generation, will often fall in love with a terrible man. In “Clouds” Poirot encourages the heroine toward an archaeologist, the profession of Christie’s second husband. It’s almost as if Christie is trying to save these women from her own terrible first marriage.

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