The Members of Book Club (in order of appearance)
(Scene: Miss Dresden’s parlor. A small fire plays merrily in the grate. There is a comfortable settee, draped over with a lovely antimacassar, and three oddly assorted armchairs, on each of which rests a cat. The walls are covered with framed photographs of Miss Dresden’s many nieces and nephews. An ornately framed, badly painted portrait of Colonel Dresden, the lady’s late father, holds a place of grim prominence over the fireplace. One can hear the ceaseless twittering of birds from cages hung in the room’s four corners; the sound causes the ears of each sleeping cat to give an occasional twitch.)
Miss Dresden: (off) Right this way, everyone.
(Enter the Book Club, led by Miss Dresden, small, thin, so birdlike that one might almost imagine the twitterings to emanate from her. Mrs. Russet-Tate strides in behind her and looks over the room with evident distaste. She is a woman of solid physicality and mean disposition, with small glittering eyes and a hawklike nose that gives the impression of forever sniffing out her prey. At this moment, her eyes alight on the three armchairs and she scowls.)
Mrs. R-T: Miss Dresden . . . . . . Cats!!!
(Miss Dresden gives an apologetic squeak and gently ushers the none-too-pleased felines off their resting places. They leave the room in a resentful file. Mrs. Russet-Tate chooses the largest, most comfortable chair for herself, and the other members of Book Club follow suit. Arthur Mimms takes the settee. He is a tall, rubicund man of sixty. His clothes, though well-tailored, do little to hide his paunch. He leans heavily on a cane of thick polished wood and steps lightly on his gamey foot. He is accompanied by Gracie Mimms, his “niece.” She is as merry as Arthur is grave. Her figure is encased in a polka-dotted dress that clings to all the right places. Never has hair been so perfectly peroxided; never have lips been so unabashedly scarlet. She curls on the settee next to her “uncle” and gives him a chaste peck on his florid cheek.
(The final two members of Book Club could not be more different in appearance although they are about the same age. Mr. Panagotacos commands the attention. He wears a violently-checked sports jacket, tight grey trousers, and his patent-leather shoes are as pointed as his beard. He smiles often, showing off a huge set of blindingly white false teeth. Oswald Ginch seems to fade into the scenery. He is a mild-mannered man of youthful middle-age, whose owlish spectacles give him a benign professorial appearance. Behind those glasses are eyes that gleam with intelligence, and indeed – when Oswald speaks, he commands attention.)
Mrs. R-T: As this is our first in-person Book Club meeting in over a year, I suggest we get started. I’m sure we are all grateful to Miss Dresden for allowing us to hold this session in her little flat –
Dresden: (twittering delightedly) I’m so happy to host, Mrs. Russet-Tate. And just think: our first title ever by the wonderful Agatha Christie is being discussed in my home. And such a wonderful book, don’t you think? I found it all quite thrilling and cannot wait to discuss –
Mrs. R-T: As you say, Miss Dresden. I suppose it was only a matter of time before we had to tackle one of Christie’s books. I must confess, however, that the only thing I can say about the woman was that she was prolific. (There is an audible gasp around the room.)
Oswald: Bite your tongue, Mildred. You’re talking about the Queen of Crime and my favorite author!
Mrs. R-T: (snorts derisively) “Queen of Crime” indeed! A misnomer then and now, Mr. Ginch. She was admittedly successful, but she did not have the keen, satirical eye of a Helen Reilly, the je ne sais quoi of the great Mary Roberts Rinehart, or the glorious variety of puzzlement of a Ngaio Marsh –
Oswald: With all due respect, Mildred, that is utter crap! (Mrs. Russet-Tate bridles.) None of the ladies you mention could hold a candle to Christie on an off-day, and with Three-Act Tragedy, we’re talking about some delightful bamboozlement.
Dresden: Oh, yes, Mr. Ginch, I quite agree. Why, I was absolutely perplexed throughout until the great detective, M. Hercule Poirot, put all the pieces together for us.
Panagotacos: It was quite a good run for our friend Poirot in the 1930’s, was it not? Fresh from the affair on the Orient Express, he tackles this mystery oh so theatrical and then moves on to solve the baffling murder spree of the criminal known as ABC.
Oswald: So true. To be frank, the 30’s offer such a wealth of treasures featuring Poirot that this one seemed to slip through the cracks a bit for me. But I found it highly entertaining even on this third read.
Dresden: Your third read? My, how impressive. I feel we must consider dear Mr. Ginch our resident Christie expert.
Mrs. R-T: Nonsense!
Panagotacos: (to Miss Dresden) But, dear lady, you do not have a seat of your own. Please allow me to offer you this chair. (He starts to rise.)
Dresden: Oh, no, dear Mr. Panagotacos, I wouldn’t think of it. I’ll fetch a stool from the kitchen. I’m so eager to begin discussing –
Mrs. R-T: Go fetch that stool, Miss Dresden. And tea all around would be nice. (Miss Dresden flutters out, her cheeks pink.) Tiresome woman. (The others flinch as Mrs. Russet-Tate has spoken this last quite loudly.) Now I trust that everyone has read the book.
Arthur: No, I have not. This has been a difficult month for me. Nothing but complaints from residents at all three of my properties. It got me hopping around so much that it aggravated my gout! (He winces.)
Gracie: Poor Uncle Arthur. Your tenants take such advantage of you. (to the others) Heworks so hard, poor love. (She takes his hand and kisses it. The rest of Book Club look at each other knowingly.)
Arthur: That’s as may be, my girl. I do my best. But all the same, I had no chance to finish the book, so I would ask of you all today to hand down no spoilers during our discussion, if that would be possible.
Mrs. R-T: (coldly)That will not be possible, Arthur. We are a mystery reading club, and we came to discuss a puzzle mystery. I, for one, will not be held back. Rest assured, from this point on – THERE WILL BE SPOILERS! (Arthur tries to rise and hits his gouty foot against the side table. He cries out in pain. Gracie covers his face in sympathetic kisses.)Now then, I will start –
Oswald: Shouldn’t we wait for Miss Dresden? She was most anxious to join in the discussion.
Mrs. R-T: Nonsense! Some of us have lives, Mr. Ginch. Some of us have other plans for the evening. We will begin at once, and Miss Dresden can join us when she returns. Now I think the theatrical metaphors here are all too obvious –
Panagotacos: (stroking his beard) Obvious? What do you mean by that, dear lady?
Mrs. R-T: Well . . . take the division of the book into three “acts” or the introduction that lists the main players in “theatrical” roles. (She reaches into her capacious bag, pulls out a copy of the book and declaims loudly and sarcastically:) “Directed by Sir Charles Cartwright, Assistant Directors: Mr. Satterthwaite, Miss Hermione Lytton-Gore, Clothes by Ambrosine Ltd. – “
Oswald: I thought all of that was quite clever. I especially liked the last part: “Illumination by Hercule Poirot.”
Panagotacos: (nodding in agreement) A charming – how do you say? – play on words. (Both men nod in agreement. Gracie’s cute-as-a-button nose furrows in puzzlement.)
Gracie: Wait – I don’t get it. Play on words?
Panagotacos: “Illumination” – it suggests, does it not, the lighting of the stage, as in a theatre, and yet here it also refers to the way M. Poirot “illuminates” our understanding of the murder plot with his little grey cells.
Gracie: (thinking a minute and then opening her eyes wide) Oh, yes! Fancy that!
Mrs. R-T: Yes, dear. Fancy a foreigner explaining an obvious double-entendre to you! (She forges on, recharged by the discomfort in the room that she has caused.) We meet these people at Crow’s Nest, the seaside home of Sir Charles Cartwright, as he plans a cocktail party with his guest, Mr. Satterthwaite, and his doctor friend, Sir Bartholemew Strange. And I must say – (smugly) that here we’re treated once again to a distinct lack of characterization on Mrs. Christie’s part.
Oswald: Do you think so? I have to say that, with this re-read of the novel, I liked the characterizations a lot more. Sir Charles seems fully rounded to me: a successful thespian who is, for once, trying to carve some real happiness for himself, but who cannot help but let the instincts of an actor hold sway. (Mrs. Russet-Tate snorts.) And Mr. Satterthwaite is a delightful observer, one ofthe few characters Christie allowed to transcend those literary universes she had created but kept separate. I rather wish the author had utilized him more often.
Mrs. R-T: Hmmph! I imagine you would! Mr. Satterthwaite is another one of those, er, “sensitive” men, like yourself.
Oswald: (turning a hard eye toward her) If you are referring to my own personal life, Mildred, I think you will find that you’re mistaken. (He reaches for her copy of the book, and she reluctantly hands it to him. He turns to the opening of Chapter Two.) “The principal interest of Mr. Satterthwaite’s life was people. He was on the whole more interested in women than in men. For a manly man, Mr. Satterthwaite knew far too much about women. There was a womanish strain in his character which lent him insight into the feminine mind. Women all his life had confided in him, but they had never taken him seriously. Sometimes he felt a little bitter about this. He was, he felt, always in the stalls watching the play, never on the stage taking part in the drama. But in truth the role of onlooker suited him very well.” (Oswald closes the book and hands it back to Mrs. Russet-Tate.) Again, Christie makes use of the theatrical metaphor while also describing the perfect “Watson” figure for this novel, a most different sort of fellow from Captain Hastings . . . but all man, I assure you, Mrs. Russet-Tate. (All eyes turn to that good lady, who squints back at them and sniffs.)
Mrs. R-T: Oh . . . very well.
Arthur: He’s got you there, Mildred.
Mrs. R-T: (with a vicious smile) So tell me . . . did any of you suspect at this early stage that Sir Charles himself was the killer? (Arthur snarls, then winces as his foot kicks against the side table once more. Gracie pats his hand comfortingly and glares at Mrs. Russet-Tate.) Moving on . . . we come to the first murder at the cocktail party, where we are bombarded with characters and end up with a dead parson.
Dresden: (dismayed as she stands in the doorway with a large tray of tea things) Oh, dear! You started without me? (The others jump guiltily. Oswald rises to help Miss Dresden, who directs him to set the tea on a table in the corner.)
Oswald: Good lord! What a heavy tray!
Dresden: It was fashioned out of a Chinese brass gong that my dear papa brought back from his travels. Set it down right there, Mr. Ginch. I’ll pour.
Panagotacos: (kindly) We had only just begun, Miss Dresden, with a discussion of the first murder when you arrived.
Dresden: (pouring and serving tea) Such a wonderful scene, all so amusing until the moment of horror when dear Reverend Babbington takes ill.
Mrs. R-T: (contemptuously) Ill? The man was poisoned!
Dresden: And so cleverly, too, with the poisoned glass disappearing as if by magic. And all for what? Oh – (she blushes) – but I mustn’t give anything away if, er, someone has not finished –
Arthur: (glaring at Mrs. Russet-Tate) Spoil away, woman. Somebody beat you to the punch anyway.
Dresden: (dubiously) Well . . . the motive for the first murder is . . . so clever! One of the cleverest that Mrs. Christie ever devised – er, in my humble opinion.
Mrs. R-T: Hard to swallow, if you ask me.
Oswald: Oh, no! It’s quite in keeping with the theatrical theme here. Actors in Christie’s books all seem to possess three qualities: great talent to play other people, utter ruthlessness, and a moral code that totally ignores the needs and rights of others. It’s funny – for someone who would go on to be a successful playwright herself and who very much enjoyed the company of theatre people, Agatha seemed to view their theatricality as a sort of madness – at least, in her books. Why, I could name at least three other –
Mrs. R-T: (briskly) Yes, I’m sure you could – and would, if we let you go on and on – but we mustn’t spoil other books for poor Mr. Mimms, must we? Do others agree with Mr. Ginch’s statement as to the cleverness of the motive? (The others tentatively raise their hands.)
Gracie: Imagine! Killing someone as a dress rehearsal for another murder! Only in books, Uncle! (Arthur nods in sad resignation that all will be spoiled for him.)
Mrs. R-T: Which leads us to the main murder, that of Sir Bartholomew Strange. And I must say I thought it rather lazy of Mrs. Christie not to allow us to witness that scene. “Show not tell” – that is what our teachers always say.
Panagotacos: It would have been difficult, madam, for the author to take us to that scene, given the way the events of that murder twist and turn.
Mrs. R-T: (savagely) She’s “The Queen of Crime,” isn’t she? If she’s as good as you say, she could have figured it out!
Oswald: I agree with Mr. P.. Here we have another example of Mrs. Christie’s ability to misdirect. The notion most of us will make is that Strange’s murder is a direct result of Babbington’s death, since, as a rule, readers tend to assume the first murder is the most important one.
Dresden: Yes, Mr. Ginch, that is certainly true. One finds Mrs. Christie playing with our perceptions in this way over and over again. (She laughs almost girlishly) She fooled me completely here!
Mrs. R-T: That wouldn’t be hard, Miss Dresden, but she couldn’t fool me! I saw completely through her tricks.
Oswald: You guessed the true identity of the mysterious butler Ellis?
Mrs. R-T: Certainly, I did. It was a piece of cake. (Leaning toward Miss Dresden) Aren’t you going to serve the cake, dear? (With a trembling lip, Miss Dresden cuts a slice of luscious carrot-ginger cake and offers it to Mrs. Russet-Tate.) No, thank you – it looks awfully rich, and I must pick and choose where I get my calories. (Miss Dresden serves cake to the others as the discussion continues.)
Panagotacos: Did you read the novel yourself, Miss Mimms?
Gracie: Well, yes I did, and I quite enjoyed it. Of course, it doesn’t help when Uncle can’t read along with me. I get so muddled over these complicated plots! But I did love the many different women in the book. I think Agatha Christie writes women so well, don’t you? Egg Lytton-Gore is a real heroine, don’t you think? You want her to find happiness with the right man, and Mrs. Christie certainly confuses us as to who that man might be. Oliver Manders is so silly and temperamental, even if he is frightfully attractive. And Sir Charles is so virile and interesting – but then older men always are, don’t you think, Arth –Uncle Arthur?
Arthur: (shoveling cake in his mouth, indistinctly) Haven’t the least idea what any of you are talking about. Wonderful cake, Miss Dresden. Think I’ll have another slice.
Gracie: (doubtfully) Do you think you ought to have any more – with your foot?
Arthur: Don’t nag at me, girl! (Holding out his plate) Cake!
Dresden: I’m so glad you like it, Mr. Mimms. It’s one of my dear grandmama’s recipes. Always turns out light as a feather. But really, Gracie, do go on about the women in the book. I long to hear your insights.
Gracie/Mrs. R-T: (in unison) Really?!?
Gracie: (blushing from the attention) Weeeell . . . I think all the women are so varied and interesting. The relationship between Egg and her mother, Lady Mary, is perfectly lovely – not at all like the one I have with my mother. Such a harridan, and she is so demanding of poor Uncle Arthur.
Arthur: Hmmph . . . back to the book, my dear.
Gracie: And then there’s Miss Sutcliffe, so grand – now there’s an actress completely innocent of larceny for once, Mr. Ginch. (She titters) And Cynthia Dacres – she reminds me so much of Nadine Gladstone, who works with me in the shop. Nadine knows a thing or two about clothes, let me tell you! And Muriel Wills is such an interesting creature, not at all feminine in appearance perhaps, but possibly the most intelligent person in the room.
Oswald: I hate to gossip, but –
Dresden/Gracie: (together, eagerly) Oh, do!
Oswald: I have heard that Christie based Miss Wills on the author Josephine Tey. I know that Tey is not everyone’s cup of tea here –
Mrs. R-T: Another cup of tea here, please, Miss Dresden!
Oswald: But I have very much liked the books of hers that I have read. Our discussion of The Franchise Affair may have been fraught –
Panagotacos: Loved it!
Mrs. R-T: Hated it!
Oswald: – but as long as one understands that Tey is going for something very different – and different every time! – from the classic mystery format, one can enjoy her special charms. Now I’m not sure Christie’s portrayal was particularly nice, but it was interesting all the same.
Mrs. R-T: (with a sigh) All of them blurred for me, as Christie’s characters tend to do. I take milk in my tea, Miss Dresden. You seem to have forgotten . . .
Dresden: Oh, dear me. (She rushes to correct her mistake.)
Panagotacos: I for one would like to state how very much I enjoyed this book and Mrs. Christie’s cleverness throughout. We have mentioned the many books she wrote in the 1930’s about Poirot. This is the first of several where the great detective teams up with others to solve the crime, whether they be fellow professionals or amateurs who are invested in the proceedings. And then, in the end – voila! Poirot unmasks one of his co-conspirators as the killer. (He laughs and strokes his beard.) Ha-ha! I remember reading these books in the order of their having been written, and by the time I got to Cards on the Table, I felt so sure of the author’s trickery that I suspected none other than Colonel Race of the crime! More fool, I, to be taken in once again by the great Agatha Christie!
Mrs. R-T: Then you’re a bunch of fools! I wasn’t taken in, not for a minute.
Gracie: (her face a naked display of dislike) No, you’re very clever, aren’t you?
Dresden: (dreamily) Well, I was fooled completely, and – do you know? – that’s exactly how I like it! The utter shock when someone you have trusted completely throughout the story is unmasked as a villain, and then the simply wonderful way that M. Poirot goes through the clues, leading you to finally see the truth and the utter inevitability of it all.
Oswald: Well said, Miss Dresden. And this time the truth stung. We have spent a great many pages in the company of Sir Charles. He is charming and intelligent, and we all root for him to find happiness with the delightful Egg. And then he is revealed to be not only a killer, but the worst kind of ruthless egoist. His first murder done as mere practice for the main event, and then there’s the third killing –
Panagotacos: (shuddering) Yes, it made my heart chill to think that a man could murder a perfect stranger merely to – how do you say it? – to take one off the trail . . .
Oswald: Exactly, Mr. P.! We ask ourselves – why poison Mrs. de Rushbridger? What possible connection could she have to this case? Her murder certainly accomplished its purpose with this reader, even if it couldn’t fool Hercule Poirot!
Mrs. R-T: Didn’t fool me!
Arthur: Yes, you’ve told us that several times.
Oswald: To be honest . . . I like being fooled. I love the moment of shock when all the theories you’ve formulated in your head are turned upside down. The best of Christie does that for me, along with the best of Carr and Queen and Christianna Brand . . .
Mrs. R-T: That is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. Haven’t you read Sherlock Holmes, Mr. Ginch? “The game’s afoot,” the detective cries, and that is how I approach reading mysteries. It’s a game, a challenge to the reader! I look at the clues, and I solve the mystery. And I am right . . . every . . . single . . . time!
Dresden: (staring at her, aghast) Well . . . then you’re cleverer than I am, Mrs. Russet-Tate. I understand what Mr. Ginch is saying. I wish I was more like him. I do like to try and figure out the ending, but then the author manages to slip the rug right out from under me nearly every time –
Mrs. R-T: That’s because you are a stupid woman, Miss Dresden. I cannot understand how you can enjoy reading mysteries when you fail so miserably at solving them. But then, everything about you, your inane commentary, your hot stuffy little room and the incessant twittering of those birds whom I would throttle if I had half the chance bears witness to your hopeless insipidity. I’m sure my dress is covered in cat hair! I shall have to take it to the dry cleaners tomorrow, even though it is brand new. I should send you the bill. In fact, I just might do so. Now, if I could trouble you for a little more tea, and if you can keep enough thought in your head to remember the milk this time, I would appreciate it.
(There is a silence in the room. Even the birds have stopped tweeting. Miss Dresden, trembling, approaches Mrs. Russet-Tate and takes the teacup from her outstretched hand. She moves to the corner table, picks up the teapot, and pours fresh tea in the woman’s cup. Then she sets the teapot down on the table – careful to place a doily under the pot – removes the cream and sugar and cake from the brass tea tray, carries the heavy tray over to stand behind Mrs. Russet-Tate’s chair, raises the tray, and brings it resoundingly down upon Mrs. Russet-Tate’s head. The lady lets out a low groan and slides down into her chair.
(In the moment that follows, the birds begin to tweet again. The shocked members of Book Club rouse themselves. Oswald rises and approaches Mrs. Russet-Tate’s chair. He raises her hand and checks for a pulse. He turns to the others and slowly shakes his head. Arthur Mimms snorts – it sounds almost like a guffaw, but surely that could not be! He slowly rises from the settee and places his gamey foot upon the floor, testing it gingerly. Then he stands firmly on both feet and tosses his cane to the floor.)
Arthur: Well . . . let’s see. (He eyes the other two men.) I noticed, Miss Dresden, that you have a lovely garden out back with several fine flowerbeds. (Miss Dresden, standing in shock, nods her head.) That’s fine. Gentlemen, I propose that we find a shovel in Miss Dresden’s shed and dig a hole. (He examines Mrs. Russet-Tate’s figure.) It must needs be a large hole. Gracie, my darling, would you fetch some brandy for Miss Dresden and make her comfortable, and then go upstairs and see if you can find an extra bedsheet in the linen cupboard. Cover up Mrs. Russet-Tate with it for now, and then we shall use it to move the body. Now . . . does anyone have objections to my plan? (They all look at each other and slowly nod their heads in agreement. Gracie rushes up to Arthur and gives him a not-so-chaste full kiss on the lips.) There, there, my girl. Plenty of time for that later. Fetch the brandy and see to that fine lady there. (He strides vigorous to the door, whistling, and then stops to address the other members of Book Club.) By the way, I think I will enjoy this book when I get to it, and I hope we shall read a lot more of Mrs. Christie’s work in future. However, may I propose that next month we select something a little different . . . perhaps an inverted mystery?
4 thoughts on “BOOK CLUB DOES THREE-ACT TRAGEDY: A One-Act Comedy”
This is absolutely brilliant! Inspired! Thanks for sharing.
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Thank you, Margot!
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What a fun read! And I am so glad that you found this book to be such a good read. It has been one of my favorite Christies for a long time, a title that never gets the attention I think it deserves. I actually re-read this recently and, though I was less convinced by some of the characterization this time around, I think it is one of Christie’s most devious and ingenious plots. It deserves to be recognized up there with ABC Murders and Hercule Poirot’s Christmas as a book just shy of being a stone-cold classic.
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“Just shy of a classic” . . . That’s very apt. It falls flat on the minor characters for me; in fact, in the end Poirot dismisses all of the “suspects” in one sentence. None of them really has anything to do with Bartholomew Strange or Sir Charles other than through acquaintance. It really works best as a cat and mouse game, and I can’t help thinking that, with a few adjustments, it would make a really good episode of Columbo!