Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Dame Agatha's Harlequinade

One of the projects I mean to complete before I die is my book titled "Everything I Ever Learned, I Learned From Reading Mystery Novels". Because, mostly, I did.

As I mentioned earlier today, Agatha Christie liked her literary allusions, and when I was first reading her oeuvre, a dropped reference from her would send me scurrying to another section of the library. She loved mythology and Shakespeare and music. But she had a particular fascination with Commedia dell'Arte. It comes up again and again in her books, the apotheosis being the short story collection The Mysterious Mr Quin. The stories all feature Mr. Satterthwaite, an elderly, comfort loving dilettante. He wants nothing more than to stay in nice houses and hotels, eat good food, collect interesting people, and look at art. In each chapter, Mr. Satterthwaite encounters a mystery of some sort, and a shadowy man called Harley Quin appears and helps him solve the problem by assisting him in looking at whatever the situation is, from a different direction. There are many intimations of the supernatural in the character of Mr. Quin, but little is ever explained. In some of the stories, Mr. Satterthwaite doesn't exactly meet or speak with Mr. Quin, but his presence is felt.

The book is an odd departure for Dame Agatha, but an awfully interesting one. The stories tend to be a little darker in tone, they're full of love turned to madness and jealousy. People's identities are mutable in nearly all the stories. nearly everyone is wearing some sort of mask, not just the eponymous Mr. Quin. There's also an arc throughout the book in which we see Mr. Satterthwaite being shaken from his complacency, and instead of watching events transpire in front of him as if he was an audience member, he becomes an active participant in his life.

I had never heard of Commedia pre-Dame Agatha. But looking at the publication date of my copy of The Mysterious Mr Quin, I was only 12 or 13 when I first read it. Acting school, my brief time as Columbine and my happy associations with various red noses was still years away.

Note: this post is a participant in the Agatha Christie Blog Tour commemorating her 120th birthday.


Kerrie said...

Many thanks for these excellent posts, and your participation in the blog tour.

BookPlease said...

How fascinating! I've yet to read The Mysterious Mr Quin. I see I have a treat in store.