I suspect I’ve been reading Agatha Christie all my life. In the case of most other authors, my first encounter with their work is something I actually remember; but while presumably I read my first Christie novel at some point, I don’t know which, or when, or even whether I liked it. As an adult, I’ve made my way through the vast bulk of the Christie canon and I do know what I like — I know which stories (and which series) I will visit over and over again because I enjoy them and find them comforting. I know which ones I will not revisit because they unsettle me (Christie is not normally the author to whom I turn when I want to be unsettled, as skilfully as she may achieve that effect), which ones I will not revisit because I just don’t enjoy them, which ones I might revisit only to check that I didn’t hallucinate them (Passenger to Frankfurt). I’ve fluctuated between being a Poirot loyalist and a Marple loyalist, all the while knowing that one could be both and neither. But to “celebrate” the author’s birth anniversary a few days ago I found myself rereading the Mr Quin stories.
I’ve generalised wildly about detective fiction here before, so feel I can safely do it again: the detective story is fundamentally comforting. However much violence and bloodshed and psychological harm they may contain, the structure is that of a puzzle that is solvable — by you, the reader, if we’re going by the rules of fair play; by the characters themselves if this is not the case. There are clues, and they only need to be pieced together. There is only one solution that fits all the facts. Of course, it’s easy to generalise about the whole of a genre and detective stories have been undermining all of this for as long as they’ve existed. (Terry Pratchett’s police/detective Sam Vimes has a wonderful rant on the “insult to the rich and chaotic variety of the human experience” that clues assume.) Christie’s own detectives challenge those notions — in Poirot’s disdain for physically hunting for footprints, or Marple’s apparent belief that likenesses between people are somehow infallible markers of character. And yet even these are only alternative methods towards solving a world that is, fundamentally, solvable.
Quin is a mysterious dark figure bearing a puzzling resemblance to a Commedia dell’arte character, who shows up on occasion when a crime has been committed and hints to Satterthwaite about what has happened and who has done it.
And then there are Mr Satterthwaite, and Mr Harley Quin. Satterthwaite is an observer of human nature, we’re told (often by Quin); a rich, elderly man, interested in art, never in a romantic relationship and often aware of, and worried by the knowledge that his experience of life has been at a remove. But it’s precisely this detachment that makes him an able agent for Quin, a mysterious dark figure bearing a puzzling resemblance to a Commedia dell’arte character, who shows up on occasion when a crime has been committed and hints to Satterthwaite about what has happened and who has done it. Not a figment of Satterthwaite’s imagination, since other people see and recognise him, it’s clear that there’s something not quite real about him, even in the stories where his appearances and disappearances might have a rational explanation. Occasionally his supernatural nature is openly acknowledged — at more than one point he is said to speak for the dead.
The Mr. Quin books are detective stories, but crucially, they are also ghost stories. There is a crime, there is a solution, there is the sense at the end that we have grasped What Really Happened, but we’re also reminded over and over that none of this would have been possible without the supernatural intervention of Mr Harley Quin. It’s a yoking together of two genres that should not work together (and yet of course they do, so many ghost stories are stories of unsolved crimes); truth and justice are attainable, in this world, but only through a sort of divine intervention.