Poirot (Classic): S12E01 “Three Act Tragedy”

“Could you please tell him Chief Inspector George Gently would really like to talk to him?”

Viewers of Poirot on Blu-Ray will instantly recognize that line, delivered by Martin Shaw in a clip excerpted from the George Gently series that plays EVERY SINGLE TIME one loads up a new disc; it’s part of an unskippable intro to Acorn’s other British series collections they want you to buy.

I bring it up because Martin Shaw is a key player in this week’s episode, and having heard that line more times than I can count at this point, it was supremely distracting to hear that voice and NOT hear him ask someone to relay a message from the esteemed Gently. But enough about me; on with the show!

The Setup:

George Gently Sir Charles Cartwright, a retired actor dating a young woman who goes by the name of “Egg”, has invited people to his house for the weekend; among these are his friend and psychologist Dr. Strange (not that one) and assorted others, including the local vicar and his wife. Of course, Our Belgian wouldn’t miss it for the world, being an old friend of Cartwright’s.

The Crime:

Roundabout the time drinks are served, the Vicar Babbington chokes and falls dead on the floor, though no traces of poison are found in his glass. Sir Chuck is insistent that it’s been murder, though both Poirot and the local plod say there’s no evidence to suggest anything other than heart failure. Fair enough, until a month later when Dr. Strange (still not that one) hosts another party inviting all the members of the first party to his house… and he chokes and falls dead on the floor, again with no traces of poison in his glass.

Cue the investigation, as Poirot and Chuck set out to investigate the suspects, find motives, and generally faff about good-naturedly. Chuck, having once played a Poirot knock-off to some acclaim, fancies himself better at being a detective than he actually is, which Poirot takes in stride (and Shaw plays with a self-awareness that’s most welcome).

The Suspects:

Aw geez, where to start? Here’s the thing: there’s a lot of people here, but not a lot of suspects; nearly everyone spends the whole episode lacking any sort of discernible motive for the two (eventually three) murders. There’s Egg, of course, whom people suspect of being a gold-digger and gets a suspiciously prominent opening montage of her sailing in Chuck’s boat. There’s a ne’er-do-well who mysteriously crashes his motorbike into Strange’s front gate during his party. Oh, and a missing butler of Strange’s, conveniently new to the household and vanished the night of Strange’s death.

And a bunch of other people who sort of swan in and out of the proceedings without so much as a hint of motive (which, honestly, isn’t a complaint; it’s pretty much the same problem Poirot and Chuck have, too, so… points for being on brand).

Wot I Liked:

The whole episode really leans into its theatrical theme, stylistically, and it’s terrific. Suspects are introduced isolated and posing in a black background, murders are punctuated with a focus spotlight, and much of the episode is blocked and staged like a play, almost as if Suchet and Shaw were performing a two-hander in front of an audience. I for one loved the conceit, especially when it’s made literal with it opening with curtains and closing with Poirot on a stage.

Shaw is, of course, marvelous, playing Chuck with just the right pomposity and dignity of a beloved former actor while still being able to pull off profound moments of sadness and humanity. Sir Chuck is comfortable in his wealth, but there’s a deep loneliness at his core that slips out every so often talking with Egg or his friend Poirot. Shaw sells it to the cheap seats, his weary hangdog expression and dry professorial voice doing the heavy lifting. He and Suchet immediately have an easy, lived-in chemistry that keeps things enjoyable to watch – especially during the somewhat slow and confusing first half of the episode.

And no quibbles here with the crime, indeed a three act tragedy consisting of a dress rehearsal, a performance, and a hasty encore to cover the killer’s tracks. The motive is another one of those “only in 1930’s England would you need to kill someone for this reason” kind of things, revolving around a secret marriage and divorce laws, but I don’t care; the sheer theatricality of the explanation and indeed the entire on-stage Denouement makes it absolutely worth it when it’s revealed that


Sir Chuck himself is the killer, (deep breath) the vicar’s death being a completely random dress rehearsal for the death of Dr. Strange, whom Chuck needed dead because he was the only one who knew Chuck had been married earlier, except Mrs. Chuck is in an insane asylum so Chuck can’t divorce her, which meant Strange had to be killed so Chuck could marry Egg, and also Chuck killed a rando patient at Strange’s sanatorium after he’d used her as a red herring and oh yeah Chuck was also the missing butler, having been acting the part that night at Strange’s party under the pretense of pulling a joke on the guests and committed both murders by snatching up the poisoned glass and replacing it with a non-poisoned one during the commotion of the nicotine poisoning (exhale)

. Whew.

Special nod to “Appointment with Death”, as well, as one of the scenes here has Egg reading a book called Travels in Arabia by none other than Dame Celia Westholme! (Christie did this sort of thing all the time in her books, making oblique references to her other novels in conversation, and I’m sort of surprised it hasn’t happened more in the series if I’m honest.)

Wot I Not Liked:

I mean, ultimately there’s a lot of people in this episode that just don’t matter at all, and the fact that hardly anyone outside of Sir Chuck and Egg have any real character to speak of means that there’s little pleasure to be had in divining whodunnit from basically a pool of two plus a missing butler.

And aside from the initial two murders kicking things off, it’s a slow episode (despite the frequent location changes) for most of its running time; one starts to wonder how serious Poirot is even taking the investigation (and more importantly, why Chuck is so vehemently convinced there’s been murder committed). There’s also one coincidence too many near the end involving Chuck’s beleaguered housekeeper.

But it’s a relatively small price to pay for what’s a well-played mystery with some great co-starring character work from Shaw, a great ending scene from Suchet, and a deliciously stylish episode to watch, so on balance I enjoyed this one a lot and would recommend it to anyone.

Next Week, on Poirot: ‘Tis the season for ghouls, ghosts, and goblins, and the local village is celebrating! Come for the tricks and treats, but be careful you don’t go telling tales about witnessing a murder, otherwise you might spend too much time bobbing for apples at the… “Hallowe’en Party!”