quin“It was New Year’s Eve.”

Over sixty years before DC Comics introduced the world to supervillain Harley Quinn, the name had been introduced to the public with Christie’s creation, Mr Harley Quin. Although not nearly as famous these days as his female counterpart, both characters are based on the Harlequin, a typicallly comedic fellow from the Italian Commedia dell’arte. The stock character is typically seen as a clown-like figure, wearing a costume patterned with brightly-coloured checks. As far as personality goes, he’s something of a trickster, witty and light-hearted, usually seen as a servant. He’s physically agile and there’s something a little bit magical about him.

This collection of short stories from Agatha Christie puts a character like this down in the real world. With the name Harley Quin, there’s little to hide the fact that he is indeed a harlequin, or perhaps even the original harlequin. Unlike most everything else Christie wrote, these aren’t necessarily crime stories. In fact, only one or two feature the police.

The stories are actually about elderly Mr Satterthwaite, a man who has spent his whole life on the edges, listening to people and watching the world go by. He knows all the best people and has seen a great many things of note. As such, he has come to learn much about human nature. However, in the first story he encounters Mr Quin who turns up at a house where Satterthwaite’s friends are hosting a party. They’re talking about the unexplained suicide of an old friend, and Mr Quin suggests that looking at the situation from further in the future might make the details clearer. Satterthwaite takes his part and the friends discover the truth about what really happened all those years ago. Quin takes his most mysterious leave.

Over the following stories, Satterthwaite encounters Quin in places as diverse as his local restaurant to the Corsican mountains, each time the man appears just as there is drama unfolding and Satterthwaite believes that Quin is helping save people and solve their problems, while Quin insists that it is all Satterthwaite’s own work. As the mysteries pile up, and Satterthwaite becomes less and less surprised at encountering Quin, the true nature of his fairweather friend becomes more and more obscure. One wonders if he’s even real…

These are clever stories and such a different change of pace from the usual Christie fare. They’re easily the most different of anything else she wrote, being as they are about the supernatural (or implied to be so, at least). They remain top class mysteries, but the crimes and issues being discussed happened long before, and now run on the implication that a later study will make more sense of them, once feelings and emotions have cleared up and the facts can be laid bare.

Mr Satterthwaite is rather an interesting figure, a gentleman and a genuinely nice man who is nonetheless influential in his circles. He knows everybody and everybody knows him, from artists and actresses, to duchesses and countesses. He is floored by Mr Quin, and believes that it is he that is solving all the problems, although it’s clear he’s merely giving the right nudges.

Mr Quin is an marvellously creepy creation. I don’t know if he’s supposed to be that way, but by the end he’s almost malevolent in his manner. His story is never wrapped up and it’s not clear if he is human or something else entirely, prone as he is to simply disappearing whenever he deems his business finished, and the implication at least once that he can speak to the dead, or maybe even bring them back….

My favourite three stories differ from those Christie chose. We both are fond of “Harlequin’s Lane”, but whereas she picks her other two favourites as “World’s End” and “The Man from the Sea”, I’d plump for “The Shadow on the Glass” and “At the ‘Bells and Motley'”. The stories were apparently written over a period of years (indeed, Satterthwaite seems at least ten years older by the end as he is at the start) and were never intended as a blatant series, but there are a couple of references between the twelve that link them together. They’re a curious collection. Christie claimed that Satterthwaite and Quin were probably her favourite characters, and I can definitely see their appeal. Both appear in other unrelated novels, too, so I expect that before long I will run into one of them again.

And drama will unfold once more.

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