The Passion of the Christie: The Mysterious Mr. Quin’s Theatre of Crime

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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.

For more information about Agatha Christie, follow @maidensofmurder on Instagram.

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Pleasantville takes electoral politics to trial

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When Dennis Lehane collaborated with HarperCollins to create an eponymous imprint, his first selection for Dennis Lehane Books was Attica Locke’s The Cutting Season (2012). As with Lehane’s Bostonian novels, Locke’s story about a Louisiana plantation manager’s extralegal investigation of a murdered woman found on the property is one in which place is as much a character as people. Although her most recent novel, Pleasantville (2015), is published under Harper Perennial, Locke once again personifies the South as Lehane does Boston, using an isolated crime to deconstruct the institutions — familial, racial, legal, social, and political — that undergird community infrastructure.

Locke’s Pleasantville, an historically black Houston neighborhood formed in the 1950s, is positioned between two decisive political events: an impending runoff election for the Houston mayor’s office and a class action lawsuit of Pleasantville v. ProFerma Labs represented by lawyer Jay Porter. Fifteen years after his introduction in Locke’s debut novel Black Water Rising (2009), Jay is struggling to resume his law practice and raise his two children while coming to terms with his wife’s death. After Alicia Nowell, a teenage campaign worker is abducted and murdered, Jay becomes even more overburdened, tasked with defending the obvious fall guy, Neal Hathorne, the campaign manager and nephew of mayoral candidate Axel Hathorne and grandson of self-appointed “mayor of Pleasantville” Sam Hathorne. For both Jay and the reader, Neal’s innocence is unquestionable, and thus Pleasantville’s real mystery is whether a candidate or a corporation aims to profit from this Machiavellian frame and the subsequent mockery of a trial.

As with Lehane’s Mystic River, Locke could have drafted the single story line of a murdered girl and produced a fine crime novel. In both novels, however, an expanded, and thus enriched, scope portrays not only the micro consequences of such a senseless tragedy, as grieving parents and shocked neighbors attempt to process the events, but also the macro deterioration of an illusory American Dream. For Locke, this fiction is of a representative, transparent body politic, which she intricately analyzes and dissects in the bureaucratic machinations that exploit a young woman’s death and unapologetically implicate an innocent man.

That these events occur in Pleasantville is significant, as the neighborhood has proven in real-life elections that one precinct of educated and engaged black voters can decide, or potentially disrupt, state politics. The first half of the novel is slow to develop, a consequence of foundational chapters that provide a necessary understanding of the municipal forces that formed Pleasantville, from segregation to integration to black activism against industrial encroach, thereby making it such a determinative electoral precinct. In the novel’s shocking last quarter, however, Locke probes the disconcerting possibilities of how far-reaching the corruption of a single voting district can be.

While Thoreau preached civil disobedience as the people’s empowerment against such corruption, current American political movements that protest systematic inequalities, such as Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter, seem to have gained little traction in redressing injustices. Perhaps more effective, then, is a course of civic disillusionment that questions a suspect political process. Pleasantville does so by exposing the calculated cronyism that privileges corporations at the expense of citizens and communities, and is thus an exceptionally relevant read for the current election year.

Unlocking The Tokyo Zodiac Murders

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In his 1950 essay “The Simple Art of Murder,” Raymond Chandler dismisses Sherlock Holmes as “mostly an attitude and a few dozen lines of unforgettable dialogue.” Chandler’s criticism stems from a larger argument about what he characterizes as the implausible and illogical nature of the classic detective story. This judgment notwithstanding, Conan Doyle’s creation has irrefutably inspired scads of continuation stories, revisionist novels, adaptations, and pastiches. As such, Holmes’s attitude is now one of the most recognizable tropes of detective fiction.

How, then, does the Sherlock figure translate when taken out of 19th-century Bohemia and resituated in 1979 Japan in Soji Shimada’s The Tokyo Zodiac Murders? Despite its overt homage to Conan Doyle, The Tokyo Zodiac Murders (originally published in 1981; reissued in 2015 by Pushkin Vertigo) is no mere recasting of Holmes and Watson as Kiyoshi Mitarai and Kazumi Ishioka. Rather, by blending the intellectual puzzle of the locked-room mystery with an arcane mysticism and a self-reflexive narrative, Shimada creates a unique form of logic problem known in Japan as shin honkaku, or new orthodox, mystery.

While the subject of the novel hearkens to Golden Age detective fiction, as Kiyoshi and Kazumi attempt to piece together the events that led to the murder of artist Heikichi Umezawa and his six daughters and stepdaughters, Shimada’s form embraces Chandler’s criticism of the detective story as unrealistic by conducting an exercise in postmodernity. From the listing of the dramatis personae to the foreword in which Kazumi posits the book as a factual recounting of his own investigation with Kiyoshi, The Tokyo Zodiac Murders winks knowingly at the reader, daring one to be perceptive enough to read between the lines and unravel the mystery before the solution is revealed. As Kazumi is an avid reader of mysteries, his numerous allusions to the detective tradition create a rich intertextuality for the reader, while diagrams, charts, and maps mimic the feel of an actual investigation.

A prologue serves as the last will and testament of Umezawa, in which he claims to have been possessed by a devil that tempts him to build the perfect woman from the body parts of six virgins with different zodiac signs. Some readers may find the prologue’s 40-page length and dense alchemical language off-putting, but it is crucial for laying out the problem of both Umezawa’s death, as he is found alone in his studio, the door locked from within, and the six murders that Kiyoshi and Kazumi aim to solve.

Their subsequent investigation unfolds in a five-act format that appeals to an elementary knowledge of dramatic structure while calling attention to the artificial construction of narrative. Further collapsing the illusion of realism are two entr’acts in which Shimada himself interrupts the narrative to taunt the reader’s deductive powers, for if all necessary clues have been so clearly provided, then why do questions still remain? Even after the murderer is named in the falling action of Act IV, Shimada still tasks the reader to deduce the identity and motive for the killer’s actions before Act V’s resolution.

As an impossible solution novel, The Tokyo Zodiac Murders is designed to stymie the reader, and some who view it in low regard may be tempted to attribute their disfavor to translation issues, either literal or cultural. The reception of the novel, though, is a problem not of translation but of preference. Dedicated readers of Golden Age detective stories will appreciate The Tokyo Zodiac Murders’ take on deductive reasoning tales, delighting in its allusions to and metacommentary on the conventions of the genre, while those who favor the Chandlerian realism of hardboiled detective fiction may be frustrated by the novel’s pacing and misdirection. In its playful displacement of a realistic presentation, however, The Tokyo Zodiac Murders shows the game of intellectual puzzle literature, now reinvented and reinvigorated, is ever afoot.

The Father figures the dynamics of excessive force

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With the abundance of sleuths who have become household names, from Sherlock Holmes to Harry Hole, crime fiction can often seem synonymous with serialized detective stories. Yet the genre occasionally produces the rare narrative that focuses instead on the criminal character. Rather than relegating these figures to the role of conventional antagonists, Anton Svensson’s The Father, Made in Sweden: Part I (2016) portrays the lives of four bank robbers with empathy and intensity as it delves into the structures of familial alliance, social inclusion, and economic disparity that compel their criminality.

The first of a two-novel series, The Father is based on the true story of three brothers who executed a string of bank heists in Sweden during the 1990s. In the fictionalized account, three brothers — Leo, Felix, and Vincent Dûvnjac — and their childhood friend Jasper first plunder an army artillery before staging robberies that become increasingly ambitious in scope, leading the media to dub them the “Military League.”

Co-authored under the pseudonym of Anton Svensson, The Father achieves its intimate perspective from Stefan Thunberg, the fourth brother, and its naturalistic style from Anders Roslund, the investigative reporter who covered the story. This unique combination results in multiple points of view that portray both an incisive interiority, when voicing the thoughts of the Dûvnjac family members, and a distanced objectivity, when City Police detective analyzes the Military League’s actions.

The skillfully crafted narrative alternates between past and present timelines in order to detail the childhood events that led to the brothers’ crime spree, as various permutations of violence permeate the lives of the Dûvnjacs. Ivan, the titular father, uses force as a form of dominance and discipline within his household, repeatedly beating his wife into submission while teaching his sons that family is an unbreakable bond, as he trains his oldest son, Leo, how to box in self-defense. The prologue exemplifies this paradox of violence, documenting the singular encounter that results in the dissolution of the brothers’ bond with their abusive father, which consequently strengthens their ties to one another. Their recollection of this moment, however, is subjective, as each brother insists that he is responsible for opening the front door for their estranged father, allowing him access to attack their mother and forcing them to finally take a stand against his brutality. In turn, each brother’s interpretation of this incident reveals a particular psychological motivation for his criminal activity.

With its emphasis on family dynamics, The Father is a crime novel in the vein of Mario Puzo’s The Godfather. One can’t ignore the similar patrilineal titles, but the two works also share a psychological exploration of criminality and kinship. Unlike The Godfather, however, in which the patriarch is a symbol of stalwart leadership and unquestionably power that passes from one generation to another, The Father is more concerned with the fallibility of such a conception. Rather than representing trust and loyalty as clear-cut parameters dictating that no one goes against the family’s interests. Instead, trust within the Dûvnjac clan vacillates between nurturing values of filial and fraternal obedience and disillusioning one of these ideals, illustrating how the ties that bind can eventually create a noose around one’s neck.

The Father, Made in Sweden: Part I (Quercus Books) available 5 April 2016.

Aged Ambler shows decline in The Care of Time

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What I find remarkable about Eric Ambler’s writing is his ability to fuse the intrigue of a thriller with the conviction of a political manifesto. In his final spy novel, The Care of Time (originally published in 1981; now reissued digitally by Ipso Books) he does so, however, with mixed results.

Editor Bob Halliday’s new contract begins with a bang when he receives a bomb threat followed by an actual, albeit already defused, bomb from Karliss Zander, a known terrorist middleman seeking Halliday’s assistance. With this bluff of violence, Zander lures Halliday to Italy under the pretense of ghostwriting a book that will be part memoir of 19th-century anarchist Sergey Nechayev (the inspiration for Dostoyevski’s The Possessed) and part expose of government corruption that benefits from covertly backing terrorist organizations. Zander’s true intention, however, is to use Halliday as a pawn in negotiations between NATO, the CIA, and an Arab prince known only as “the Ruler, who will allow NATO to build a military base in the Persian Gulf in exchange for permission to found a health clinic in Austria. Through this mediation, a second cover story evolves in which Halliday, Zander, and his associates pose as a television crew to interview the Ruler about the plans for said clinic in an attempt to reveal his true motivations for seeking refuge in Austria.

The Care of Time has all the hallmarks of an Ambler thriller — a protagonist trapped by his situation, fantastic journeys of flight and pursuit, and a narrative layered with falsehoods — yet the pacing of the novel’s second half suffers from lengthy and sometimes convoluted dialogue as information passes among parties and overly detailed exposition of the television set-up storyline. Where Ambler excels is in the first 100 pages in which he uses Zander’s bomb threat to assess the history of terrorist philosophy. In conversation with previous espionage works, Ambler recalls the first wave of anarchism featured in Conrad’s The Secret Agent before denouncing the bureaucratic back-room deals that fuel and finance the second wave of terrorism. Had Ambler continued this thread, The Care of Time would be on par with his earlier works that reinvigorated the espionage genre. Instead, the novel feels like the embodiment of Zander himself, a worn, world-weary intelligence agent for whom the spy game has gone on too long. The novel may not appeal to fans of contemporary fast-paced techno thrillers, but those interested in the more cerebral strain of classic spy fiction will appreciate Ambler’s overview of the transitory end of the Cold War and the onset of the new age of terror.