Long before DC introduced us to Harley Quinn, a variation of the traditional harlequin character, Agatha Christie created her own Harley Quin, and introduced him to the world in a collection of short stories first published in 1930. This Harley Quinn is a tall mysterious man who appears at prime opportunities in the story, and then leaves just as abruptly.
The Coming of Mr. Quin sees the ageing socialite Mr. Satterthwaite attending a small gathering, when talk turns to the suicide of a friend some ten years previous. Just as the discussion begins, Mr. Quin, whose car has broken down arrives on the doorstep, claiming to be an old family friend. He has them recall the events those ten years previous, and soon after his questions, points Satterthwaite and the rest to the true cause of the suicide, and fanning the flame of a dying romance before tale’s end. Quin is described on occasion, when the light hits just right, to be dressed in motley, and may even have a mask across his eyes, but these impressions only last the blink of an eye, and while not suggesting any supernatural aspect to the character, he seems to be a little more than natural.
In fact, he’s almost a meta character, he realizes his purpose in the story and even comments on it a few times.
The Shadow on the Glass features a double murder, the perfect suspect and a haunted window. A weekend at a friend’s gathering turns deadly as Satterthwaite shares a ghost story and comes across a murder scene. Happily Mr. Quin arrives shortly after and helps everyone recall impressions of the day, which leads them to the truth of the event, the real killer and another love story given birth to.
At the Bells and Motley sees the two characters coming across each other at a local inn/pub while Satterthwaite waits for his car to be repaired. Over a dinner the two reminisce about a disappearance that rocked the area some years before, and the pair come up with an explanation that could cover it.
The Sign in the Sky sees the pair discussing, again over dinner, a court case that Satterthwaite has been following. Quin points out that the verdict and sentencing bothers the elderly socialite and they begin to puzzle over the case. Resolving with time to save the falsely accused and all thanks to a little mental recall and the laying out of images and facts.
The Soul of the Croupier is a bit more love story than mystery as the pair share drinks with a pair of visiting young Americans, a down on her luck Countess with a secret, and a croupier with a story and a romantic soul.
The Man from the Sea. This time the story is set on a Spanish island and once again eschews a lot of the mystery in exchange for Satterthwaite interacting with a couple of characters who are thinking about ending their lives and how their encounter with him and peripherally Quin change that. I was troubled by the fact that the story opens with a dog dying, but love the hint of a supernatural ending with Quinn’s departure.
The Voice in the Dark delivers a tale of inherited titles, seances and a ship wreck. Quin again makes a truncated appearance and the bulk of the story rests easily on Satterthwaite shoulders as he investigates a young woman’s story. This one was an easy one to figure out, there was only one possibility from the get-go. Still it was cool to have a slightly supernatural tinged story.
The Face of Helen has me now thinking that Quin is a figment of Satterthwaite’s imagination. He appears, helps the elderly man reason something out and then is gone. This time a chance meeting at the theatre has Satterthwaite helping out a young couple and a disgruntled suitor which leads to a dramatic (theatrical?) end.
The Dead Harlequin is about a painting from an up and coming artist that catches Satterthwaite’s eye as he knows the location depicted as well as the fact that the two harlequins in it look very familiar. The evening takes an unusual turn as two people would like painting and it also ties in to a supposed suicide long unresolved, until Satterthwaite (and Quin) begin to reason it out.
The Bird with the Broken Wing is perhaps the most ethereal and supernatural of the tales in this collection. Satterthwaite heads to a family estate after hearing its name delivered to him during a table rapping. There he meets an enchanting young woman and her ukulele. There are rumours of love affairs and engagements and before dawn, she will be murdered. Will Satterthwaite discover the killer and will Quin make a physical appearance? Again the story suggests he’s preternatural, and aware of his purpose in the story.
The World’s End takes to a remote part of Corsica as Satterthwaite travels with a duchess, meets a young, troubled artist, a forgetful actress and her latest husband and a magic trick’s resolution which changes a life. All with Mr. Quin lurking about perceived as he really is by the artist.
Harlequin’s Lane combines Russian ballet, the theatre, romance, and Quin as Death in this last tale, that sees Satterthwaite and his friend meeting at a home the elderly man likes to visit, where a discussion ensues about a lost Russian ballerina, a love story, a rubbish tip, and once more, a bit of a supernatural tinted encounter with the mysterious Harley Quin.
This was an entertaining collection, and an interesting experiment by Christie, playing with the rules of theatre and its stereotypes within the confines of a mystery story. Next time, however, I meet one of her other famous creations, as I join Miss Marple for the Murder at the Vicarage!