Contemporary readers will almost certainly equate the harlequin with either the lurid covers of the ubiquitous romance series or the mischievous comic book counterpart to the Joker. The character, however, has a storied history rooted in the theatrical traditions of medieval passion plays and the Italian commedia dell’arte. Though disparate in their venerational and irreverent tones, respectively, both traditions use stock characters and standard plots to stage highly ritualized, stylized productions. As a literary British Harlequinade, a derivative of commedia dell’arte, Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Mr. Quin blends these forms to create a drama of crimes of the heart, recasting the buffoonish harlequin as an enigmatic figure who rectifies the plights of aggrieved lovers.
This compilation of twelve short stories chronicles the transition of Mr. Satterthwaite, an elderly gentleman, from mere observer to major player in the various dramas of human life, as Mr. Quin guides him to examine the facts and determine his own conclusions regarding the various crimes committed in the stories. Beginning with his New Year’s Eve arrival at a party attended by Mr. Satterthwaite, the strange Mr. Quin fulfills the superstition that a dark man crossing the threshold will bring luck. For Mr. Satterthwaite, this luck is his increasing involvement in solving the many investigations and mysteries he encounters. Whether these situations involve a woman’s reputation tainted by scandal, an innocent man framed for murder, or a woman impoverished by a greedy relative, Mr. Satterthwaite progresses from an extra, waiting in the wings, to playing the principal role of “arbiter of other people’s destinies.”
Christie’s cryptic Harley Quin is far from the clown portrayed in commedia dell’arte, but she extends the commedia’s social critique by caricaturing the popular literary tropes of her time. Her stock of characters, which includes British expatriates, American tourists, haughty countesses, jealous husbands, big game hunters, psychic mediums, and cast-off lovers, populate such varied settings as country houses and inns, Spanish villas, the French Riviera, and the Royal Opera House. In debasing these bourgeois attitudes and upscale locales with murder, theft, and suicide, Christie criticizes a corrupt human nature concealed by a British class system of titles, inheritances, and land holdings.
By focusing on the trials and sufferings of wronged lovers, rather than those of Jesus Christ, Christie updates the medieval passion plays to suit a secular reading audience. Yet, as in the original pageants, the ultimate theme of Christie’s passion play is one of redemption for the injured parties. Despite the destructive emotions of fear, jealousy, greed, and lust that drive our appetites, damaged relationships are not irreparable. Indeed, Christie cautions only against detachment, which is the most detrimental response to life’s dramas, as evidenced by Mr. Satterthwaite. To observe but not act leads to regret, sorrow, and despair, and although Mr. Satterthwaite learns to see that which others cannot, he has largely resigned himself to a life devoid of love.
As the collection anthologizes stories that were originally standalone pieces, the standard plotting borrowed from both theatrical traditions can feel predictable, as the reader knows Mr. Satterthwaite will solve each crime. Its appeal, however, is the author’s embrace of the macabre, fusing the traditional intellectual approach to crime fiction with the supernatural appearance of Mr. Quin. Quin’s identity remains inconclusive, leaving the reader to question if he exists as an apparition, recalling the devilish ancestry of the demon hellequin in French passion plays, or within Mr. Satterthwaite’s imagination, a consequence of his years of self-imposed aloofness.
The Mysterious Mr. Quin, then, is much like the house that lies at the end of his “Lover’s Lane” in the book’s final chapter. In this ruined cottage, one can see either a dream house or a rubbish heap. Likewise, one reader may receive the novel as an innovative synthesis of literature and theatre while another, preferring Christie’s more traditional works, may regard it as a failed experiment that denies explanation and thereby deceives expectations. This reviewer, for one, revels in Christie’s mystery as a book that bears revisiting. Under Mr. Quin’s tutelage, Mr. Satterthwaite observes, “Time does not dispose of a question—it only presents it anew in a different guise.” The same could be said for The Mysterious Mr. Quin. Although it never answers the riddle of Quin’s presence, Christie’s novel certainly yields a new discovery with each reading.
The Mysterious Mr. Quin: 320 pages; William Morrow Paperbacks, reprint 2012.
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