After I turned from poetry and ghost stories to crime, Harlequin finally reappeared; a figure invisible except when he chose, not quite human, yet concerned with the affairs of human beings and particularly of lovers. He is also the advocate for the dead.
For once this month I decided not to leave my Crimes of the Century book until the very last minute. Mr Quin is a lesser known Christie creation who appeared in this short-story collection in 1930, but was apparently written over several years.
Mr Satterthwaite is a quaint and rather womanly old man, very conscious of his own comforts, addicted to his hobbies of hanging around with aristocrats, patronising the arts, and people-watching.
A little bent, dried-up man with a peering face oddly elf-like, and an intense and inordinate interest in other people’s live, All his life, so to speak, he had sat in the front row of the stalls watching various dramas of human nature unfold before him. His role had always been that of the onlooker.
There are hints that he almost had a different life – a scullery maid kissed in a corridor, a proposal of marriage never delivered – but he is resigned to his rather lonely life.
His appearance in the stories collected in this volume is justified by his association with the mysterious Mr Quin, who pops up in the most unlikely places with a magical facility.
Mr Quin smiled, and a stained glass panel behind him invested him for just a moment in a motley garment of coloured light.
Whenever Quin appears, mystery and romance are sure to be on the cards. His encouragement and advice reveal a hidden side to Mr Satterthwaite.
‘He has a power – an almost uncanny power – of showing you what you have seen with your own eyes, of making clear to you what you have heard with your own ears.’
In Quin’s company, Satterthwaite gets the power to solve mysteries. The stories showcase a familiar cast of eccentric and domineering duchesses, handsome but curmudgeonly artists with beards, beautiful but graceless artists with page-boy haircuts and jumpers, glamorous but faded dancers, tedious ghost-hunters and table-turners, fortune hunters and big game hunters. Each story sets up a puzzle, usually some tragedy, that a fresh perspective and Mr Satterthwaite’s eye for human behaviour resolve.
Mr Quin is undoubtedly supernatural and therefore an oddity in Golden Age crime fiction as far as I know. Christie talks in her preface about her youthful interest in the commedia dell’arte and the figure of Harlequin in particular. The stories seem artfully composed in the style of Harlequin tales.
‘They were insured,’ said Miss Nunn dreamily. ‘Not like my opal.’
A spasm of exquisite heart-rending grief fluttered across her face.
Several times, when in the company of Mr Quin, Mr Satterthwaite had had the feeling of taking part in a play. The illusion was with him very strongly now. This was a dream. Everyone had his part. The words ‘my opal’ were his own cue. He leant forward.
‘Your opal, Miss Nunn?
In tone the stories are actually akin to G. K. Chesterton when he was being irritatingly whimsical. I have quite a high tolerance to this, but I think it would send many readers batty.
Moonlight was streaming into the room. The latticed panes gave it a queer rhythmic pattern. A figure was sitting on the low window-sill, drooping a little sideways and softly twanging the string of a ukulele – not in a jazz rhythm, but in a far older rhythm, the beat of fairy horses riding on fairy hills.
An extreme case, but good grief. Interestingly, I had no idea ukuleles were fashionable in the 20s and 30s, but it sounds like they were a thing amongst the fashionable set.
The stories are an oddity in the Christie canon, probably better sampled one-by-one rather than all in a piece. As they progress, Satterthwaite gains in confidence and increasingly looks forward to Quin’s appearances and his chance to make a difference. But he is ultimately a tragi-comic figure. I felt let down by the final story which seems to wrap everything up but leaves him high and dry.
The Mysterious Mr Quin
First published 1930 by William Collins & Sons
This edition Penguin Books, 1953
Previously owned by ‘KMLH’, Baunkyle, Seaton, Devon
Final destination: A keeper