The Agatha Christie Challenge – Problem at Pollensa Bay and Other Stories (1991)

Problem at Pollensa BayIn which Christie gives us eight short stories, comprising two with Hercule Poirot, two with Parker Pyne, two with Harley Quin and two other tales. None of the stories had been published in book form in the UK before. Problem at Pollensa Bay was first published in the UK by Harper Collins in November 1991, and this collection was not published in the US as the stories had all been published in magazines there before. I’ll take them all individually, and, as always, I promise not to reveal whodunit!

Problem at Pollensa Bay

Pollensa BayThis modest little story was originally published in the November 1935 issue of the Strand Magazine, and on 5th September 1936 in the US in Liberty Magazine, under the title Siren Business. Mr Parker Pyne is holidaying in Majorca when he is asked by English woman tourist for his help in stopping her son marrying someone she feels is unsuitable for him.

Six of the stories in Parker Pyne Investigates involve Mr P trying to avoid working with people whilst he’s on holiday, and Problem at Pollensa Bay fits perfectly into that category. Published a couple of years after the other Parker Pyne stories, we don’t learn very much extra about the unwilling detective, although he’s very forthright telling Mrs Chester to stop meddling in her son’s affairs.

The plot is very straightforward and simple, and totally compatible with Parker Pyne’s modus operandi in his previous stories. The situation is set up entertainingly and simply, Parker Pyne’s solution to the problem arrives discreetly and totally under our radar, and when you realise the garden path down which you’ve been lead, you realise how superbly Christie has misled you.

Pollensa is introduced as a very arty environment; you can feel it in her description: “Girls strolled about in trousers with brightly coloured handkerchiefs tied round the upper halves of their bodies. Young men in berets with rather long hair held forth in “Mac’s Bar” on such subjects as plastic values and abstraction in art.” All very self-indulgent, but rather charmingly so. It makes a nice juxtaposition with the conversations between the Chesters and Parker Pyne, which are a model of middle class politeness: “they talked about flowers and the growing of them, of the lamentable state of the English pound and of how expensive France had become, and of the difficulty of getting good afternoon tea.”

There is also a beautiful moment between the over-reacting Mrs Chester and the more laid back Parker Pyne: ““You must do something! You must do something! My boy’s life will be ruined.” Mr Parker Pyne was getting a little tired of Basil Chester’s life being ruined.”

However, the story is definitely damaged by a whopping coincidence that makes Christie’s life easy but makes us doubt the veracity of her yarn, when the gushing Nina Wycherley, who just happens to be staying at a nearby hotel and who just happens to know both Mrs Chester and Mr Pyne separately, just happens to meet those two people in a teashop. Sorry, I’m not buying it.

There’s also the unfortunate use of the D word, which was one of Christie’s favourite derogatory terms in the 1930s and 1940s: “the creature’s a dago. She’s impossible.”

Christie gives us loads of Majorcan locations to accentuate the realism of the story – not only Pollensa, but Palma, Soller, Alcudia, and the always hideously expensive (it was then, and is still now) Formentor. The hotels Pino D’Oro and Mariposa don’t exist, sadly, but were probably based on the Illa D’Or and the Mar i Cel, which did (and still do.)

Nothing too mentally strenuous, and no crime; but pleasant enough.

The Second Gong

J Arthur Rank GongPoirot goes out full throttle in this entertaining little story, originally published in the UK in issue 499 of the Strand Magazine in July 1932, and in  Ladies Home Journal in June 1932 in the US. It was also the basis for the novella Dead Man’s Mirror, first published in the UK as part of the 1935 collection Murder in the Mews. Poirot has been invited to meet Hubert Lytcham Roche, but when he arrives it appears that his host has taken his own life, a bullet through the head that also shattered a mirror in the room. The room is fully locked, and Inspector Reeves is sure it is suicide. But Poirot suspects foul play…

This is a pacy, no-nonsense full-on detective story in miniature, that whizzes along with an imaginative plot and ends with a classic denouement of the type that Christie fans love. There are many similarities with Dead Man’s Mirror, but Christie developed the characters more into a fuller story. But the basic structure of both stories, including the manner of the murder and the identity of the murder, is pretty much the same. It also ends with the same twist, which is here given away rather by the title The Second Gong – a little bit of Christie magic, an unexpected event that brings a smile to your face but is perfectly credible.

“I’m modern, you know, M. Poirot. I don’t indulge in sob stuff” avers Diana Cleves, the adopted daughter of the dead man. That’s an interesting character point for this decidedly tough cookie who knows her own mind and is most definitely a product of her own times.

Mrs Lytcham Roche informs Poirot that the terms of her husband’s will allows her an annual income of £3000. From today’s perspective that’s the equivalent of £150,000. I mean, she’d be comfortable, but it’s not enough to murder someone – is it?

An easy, exciting read that gets your imagination going and gives you a nice surprise ending.

Yellow Iris

Yellow IrisThis slightly odd little tale was originally published in issue 559 of the Strand Magazine in July 1937, and in the 10 October 1937 edition of the Hartford Courant newspaper under the title “The Case of the Yellow Iris” in the US. Christie would later reuse the basis of this story to expand into the full-length novel, Sparkling Cyanide. Poirot is phoned late at night with the request to attend a table at a restaurant where yellow irises are the floral centrepiece. The mysterious caller believes she is in great danger. But from what? And can Poirot get there in time to prevent foul play?

I found this story slightly odd because it sets up an apparent crime, which is then revealed to have been averted but which makes another previous non-suspicious death now a murder (perhaps) but the murderer wanders off scot-free and then the story continues for four more pages of indifferently interesting resolution. Structurally, I didn’t care for this story at all.

I was also uncertain of the timeline of the story; Poirot is telephoned at 11:30pm but then goes out to a restaurant where the Maître D’ enquires whether he would like a table for dinner – and clearly the restaurant is full of people mid-meal, mid-dance, mid-enjoying themselves. Either in those days people ate very late in London (not really a British way of doing things) or Christie didn’t really think that through.

Nevertheless, there are some entertaining moments. It starts with a pure piece of Poirotism, with his appreciation of the electric bar heater because of its symmetry rather than a “shapeless and haphazard” coal fire. We discover, through an unusual moment of embarrassment for Poirot, that he dyes his hair: ““Señora, I would not date to ask you to dance with me. I am too much of the antique.” Lola Valdez said: “Ah, it ees nonsense that  you talk there! You are steel young. Your hair, eet is still black.” Poirot winced slightly.”” And I really enjoyed this understatement: ““at once… it’s life or death…” […] There was a pause – a queer kind of gasp – the line went dead. Hercule Poirot hung up. His face was puzzled. He murmured between his teeth: “There is something here very curious.””

Poirot meets up with an old friend, Tony Chappell, at the restaurant. Christie writes their initial encounter as if Chappell were someone who might have featured regularly in her books; but I believe this is his only appearance in her works. Christie the Poison Expert comes to the fore with the use of potassium cyanide as the weapon of choice. And the song with which the cabaret singer stuns the restaurant into silence appears to be an invention of Christie’s – which is a shame really, sounds like it could be rather good!

Not the best Poirot story, if truth be told.

The Harlequin Tea Set

Harlequin Tea SetIt is not thought that this fascinating, mystic short story ever received magazine publication in either the UK or US. In book form, its first appearance was in Macmillan’s Winter’s Crimes No 3, published in 1971; and in the US it was first published in a short story collection – The Harlequin Tea Set and Other Stories – by Putnams in April 1997. This collection contained the short stories that would be published in the UK in 1997 in the collection While the Light Lasts.

Mr Satterthwaite’s car breaks down en route to stay with an old friend and his family, and whilst he is waiting for the mechanic to fix the problem, he goes in to the Harlequin Café that he noticed as he was driving by. He wondered if his old friend Mr Quin might turn up – and sure enough, he does. Satterthwaite tells Quin about the friend whom he is going to stay with – and invites Quin to come too, but Quin refuses, trusting Satterthwaite entirely to do something “for someone else […] I have the utmost faith in you.” When he reaches his destination, he becomes engrossed in his friend’s family and their comings and goings. But somehow, he knows something is going to happen – and then something that Quin said before they parted finally makes sense. And Mr Satterthwaite definitely does do the right thing.

This is a curious short story without question. As a whole, you come away from it feeling very satisfied, your mystic curiosity piqued by the extraordinary symbiotic relationship between Quin and Satterthwaite. More than ever, you’re sure that Quin is Satterthwaite’s alter ego, a side of himself that he’s never allowed to express, a side that wants to come out and enable himself to do extraordinary things. At the same time, you also feel that quite a lot of this story is mere filler. Satterthwaite dithers and fusses and achieves nothing over several pages and I confess he was trying my patience severely during the first half of this tale; although I did enjoy the amusing car-based introduction to the story.

Satterthwaite refers to the last time that he saw Quin – “a very tragic occasion” he calls it. The last story in the volume The Mysterious Mr Quin is Harlequin’s Lane; however, the last to have been originally published in magazine format is The Man from the Sea. However, I do believe it is Harlequin’s Lane to which they refer. The lack of earlier magazine publication makes it more difficult to date the writing of this story. An awareness that smoking gives you cancer and a reference to smoking “pot” might suggest that this was written in the 1960s. Characters have lived in but returned from Kenya because, “well you know what happened in Kenya”. This could refer to the Mau Mau Uprising of the 1950s or the declaration of independence in 1963.

A key clue to the solution of this particular story is “daltonism”, which was a term used for colour-blindness named after John Dalton (1766 – 1844) who was one of the first researchers into the condition. The story takes place in the villages of Doverton Kingsbourne and Kingsbourne Ducis, both of which sound tremendous but neither of which is real.

Unsettling, intriguing – but occasionally dithery and slow.

The Regatta Mystery

RegattaThis simple and perhaps predictable story originally featured Hercule Poirot, but was rewritten by Christie to feature Parker Pyne instead, originally appearing in May 3, 1936 edition of the Hartford Courant in the US, and in the Strand Magazine, in the UK, later that year. Hatton Garden diamond trader Isaac Pointz entertains a group of people in Dartmouth, and all goes well until 15 year old schoolgirl Eve tells him she has discovered the perfect way to steal his priceless jewel, the Morning Star. Everyone humours the child with her imaginings, until she fumbles the diamond whilst handling it – and no one can find where it landed!

Probably the most entertaining aspect of this story is the speed and ease with which Mr Parker Pyne solves the mystery. No detailed investigation or visit to the scene of the crime for him; merely listening and running the facts of the case through his computer of a brain is all it takes. At the same time that’s a weakness, because there’s no sense of investigation, no first hand interrogation of the suspects, which is what makes most crime thrillers enjoyable. The story is all build up and no denouement.

It all takes place in Dartmouth, at the Royal George Hotel – in real life, the Royal Castle Hotel, where Christie was but one of several notable guests. Very little more needs to be said about this story – except that, perhaps, the Morning Star diamond, that Pointz carries around with him, which is valued at £30,000 in 1936, would today have an equivalent value of around £1.5 million. No wonder it was desirable to unscrupulous souls.

The Love Detectives

private detectiveThis underwhelming little tale was first published in issue 236 of The Story-Teller magazine in the UK in December 1926 under the title of At the Crossroads. This was the first of a series of six stories in consecutive issues of the magazine titled The Magic of Mr. Quin. The remaining five would later form part of the book, The Mysterious Mr. Quin in 1930. The plot has similarities to 1930 Miss Marple novel The Murder at the Vicarage. The story was first published in the US in Flynn’s Weekly in October 1926, with the title The Love Detectives.

Whilst visiting his friend Colonel Melrose, who also happens to be the local Chief Constable, Mr Satterthwaite and he are called out to the scene of a murder – and, on the way, their car has a minor altercation with another vehicle driven, apparently, by none other than Mr Harley Quin. Quin accompanies them to the scene of the crime and encourages Satterthwaite to play an active role in the investigation. Sir James has been killed, and both his wife and her friend confess to the crime, in an attempt to protect the other. But they are both wrong as to the method with which Sir James was dispatched. So it must have been his valet or his butler?

The story starts well and even with the hugely coincidental meeting between Satterthwaite and Quin, which is always par for the course, the set up of the crime is intriguing and enjoyable. But the investigation comes across as slight and hurried, and I didn’t really enjoy it much.

There are several Colonel Melroses in Agatha Christie’s works, and they are all Chief Constables, but it’s generally felt that they’re not all the same person. I rather liked the characterisation of this Colonel Melrose; a no-nonsense, sporty type. When Lady Dwighton and Delangua are comforting each other, Christie writes of him: “Colonel Melrose cleared his throat. He was a man who disliked emotion and had a horror of anything approaching a “scene”.” He’s rather the opposite of Satterthwaite, who’s at home with emotions, and regarded the fact that the murdered man was killed by a statue of Venus as “food for poetic meditation.”

Satterthwaite introduces Quin to Melrose by reminding the latter of the Derek Capel case. This is the first story in The Mysterious Mr Quin collection – The Coming of Mr Quin.

Not a lot to entertain the reader here, I don’t think.

Next to a Dog

happy_cartoon_dogThis very slight tale was first published in The Grand Magazine in the UK in September 1929 and in the compilation The Golden Ball and Other Stories in the USA in 1971.

Widow Joyce Lambert seeks a job as a governess but won’t give up her dog, Terry, who was given to her by her late husband. Her only option appears to be to marry the rich but horrible Arthur Halliday. She agrees to do so, provided she can bring Terry with her. But Terry has an accident and is badly injured…

A very nondescript story, to be honest. It shows the unconditional love between loyal dog and loyal owner, but that’s about it!

Magnolia Blossom

Magnolia blossomThis interesting little story was first published in the UK in issue 329 of the Royal Magazine in March 1926. The story first appeared in book form in the UK in the 1982 collection The Agatha Christie Hour, to tie in with a dramatisation of the story in the television series of the same name. It was first published in the US, like Next to a Dog, in the compilation The Golden Ball and Other Stories in the USA in 1971.

Vincent Easton is hoping that Theodora Darrell will leave her husband and run away with him to a new life in the Transvaal. She keeps her appointment to meet him at Victoria Station, and all seems to be going Vincent’s way until she sees a newspaper headline reporting that her husband’s business was facing a financial crisis – sudden crash – serious revelations – and she tells Vincent she must go back to him. But what happens when she does return to her husband?

This story is a little more promising than Next to a Dog, but not much. It sets up a very interesting dilemma for Theodora, and you think it’s just going to be a woman having to choose between her husband and her lover. But it goes in a darker direction than that; betrayal can work in more than one direction. But the resolution of the story is sadly underdeveloped and hits you with all the force of a damp lettuce.

And that concludes all eight stories in Problem at Pollensa Bay and Other Stories. In comparison with the previous volume, Miss Marple’s Final Cases, despite a couple of stronger stories, they’re overall rather disappointing and slight, and I cannot give this selection more than a 6/10 rating. If you’ve been reading this book as well, I’d love to know your thoughts, please just write something in the comments box.

Next up in the Agatha Christie challenge is the final collection of nine short stories that were never published in book form in the UK – While the Light Lasts and Other Stories. The stories were originally published in magazine format between 1923 and 1932. If you’d like to read it too, we can compare notes when I give you my thoughts on it in a few weeks’ time. In the meanwhile, happy sleuthing and keep on Christie-ing!

The Agatha Christie Challenge – The Mysterious Mr Quin (1930)

The Mysterious Mr QuinIn which we meet Mr Harley Quin, enigmatic representative of the Commedia dell’Arte, who drifts in and out of Mr Satterthwaite’s life, as a catalyst for solving crimes and saving lives, the responsibility for which he hands over to Mr Satterthwaite, giving the old man a final purpose in life. It’s all highly mysterious and unusual; once more structured (like Partners in Crime) as a sequence of short stories that build up to an episodically narrated novel. Don’t worry if you haven’t read the book, I promise I won’t reveal any of its important secrets! Actually, as I was reading it I came to the conclusion that I hadn’t properly read it myself before. I had read a couple of the stories in another compilation (13 For Luck, which I may eventually get round to blogging), but this was my first proper exposure to The Mysterious Mr Quin per se. On the whole, it was an agreeable exposure, although with the occasional nadir along the way.

Grand MagazineAgain, like Partners in Crime, the stories first appeared in magazine format, either in The Grand magazine, The Story-Teller, or in Britannia and Eve magazine; all first appearing between 1924 and 1929. Christie really did spend those formative years trying out a number of different detectives; naturally, she’s largely known for Poirot and Marple but there are several other minor characters in her oeuvre too worth a re-read. Let’s take the stories in order and see how successfully they fill out into a “proper book”.

The Coming of Mr Quin

HarlequinSo what do we know of Mr Satterthwaite? We know what we read in the blurb – and it seems likely that we are meant to read this before we actually start reading the book. “Mr Satterthwaite is a dried-up elderly little man who has never known romance or adventure himself. He is a looker-on at life. But he feels an increasing desire to play a part in the drama of other people – especially as he is drawn to mysteries of unsolved crime. And here he has a helper – the mysterious Mr Quin – the man who appears from nowhere – who “comes and goes” like the invisible Harlequin of old. Who is Mr Quin? No one knows, but he is one who “speaks for the dead who cannot speak for themselves”, and he is also a friend of lovers. Prompted by his mystic influence, Mr Satterthwaite plays a real part in life at last, and unravels mysteries that seem incapable of solution.”

My two instant reactions to this are: a) Mr Satterthwaite is apparently 62 years old – in my book that does not make him elderly. However, I do accept that times have changed – in 1924 the average life expectancy for a male was 56; and b) if Mr Satterthwaite has always sat on the edge of life and never actually done anything, how come he is permanently in the company of interesting people? Surely they would have found him a very boring little man and never have invited him to their house parties? It’s a question that’s never really addressed.

I digress. The first tale sets us in one of those aforementioned house parties, where a gathering for New Year’s Eve becomes all reflective as they try to work out why their friend Derek Capel, who previously owned the house where they are all meeting, committed suicide ten years ago. Enter Mr Quin, in a blustery gale; “to Mr Satterthwaite, watching, he appeared by some curious effect of the stained glass about the door, to be dressed in every colour of the rainbow” – thereby establishing his motley, Harlequin-like, credentials. He says he is seeking refuge from the weather whilst his chauffeur is mending his car – just like the arrival of Mr Paravicini in The Mousetrap, if I remember rightly – and he leads the conversation into memories of that fateful night when Capel died. Theories are propounded, motives are examined; and a second suicide is, as a result, prevented. Mr Quin leaves as promptly as he arrives, and Mr Satterthwaite feels like he has finally achieved something.

Capel had said that he was “in the running for the Benedick stakes”. I’d not heard this phrase before – but a Benedick is a newly-married man, especially when he has long been a bachelor – no doubt, taken from the character in Much Ado About Nothing.

Both arsenic and strychnine get a mention, as they inevitably do with a Christie that was penned in or around 1924. She was fascinated by the stuff!

“The masculine side of Mr Satterthwaite spoke there, but the feminine side (for Mr Satterthwaite had a large share of femininity) was equally interested in another question.” Is Christie trying to tell us something indirectly about Mr Satterthwaite’s sexuality? I guess we’d better carry on reading to find out.

An enjoyable start to the book, and I found both Satterthwaite and Quin an interesting couple with whom to get acquainted. The writing at the end of the story became more suggestive and opaque and less “obvious” than usual. You may, or may not, think this is a good thing. Personally, it left me a little cold. Let’s see what happens with the next story.

The Shadow on the Glass

Ghost at the windowThe next tale sets Mr Satterthwaite in another house party situation, observing a number of more glamorous women and go-getting men from his rather downtrodden station in life. There are a few passages where Christie quite subtly emphasises differences between Satterthwaite and the rest – like how he has to run (out of breath because he’s probably too portly) to keep up with the Big Game Hunter Major Porter, and how he is almost speechless with honour when Porter calls on him in desperation to do something to protect Mrs Staverton. You very much get the feel of a developing character and I rather enjoyed this story about intrigues within marriages set against a backdrop of a ghostly apparition on a window pane. And once again Mr Quin arrives, with a suggestion of surreal colour, asks some pertinent questions and reveals the secret to the mystery in a rather opaque manner.

It’s an interesting reminder of how revered Big Game Hunters were in those days. It was a sign of bravery, of virility; there are endless biographies of bloodthirsty colonels shooting anything that moved in the jungle which the general public a hundred years ago simply lapped up. Today they are people that society generally despises; come across a photograph of an American dentist with a dead jungle animal on Facebook and the likelihood is someone will be questioning the size of his manhood rather than dishing out plaudits. How times change.

The big game hunter reminds Lady Cynthia of a song that includes the lyrics “great big bears and tigers”. If you were curious to know their origin, the song in question is called “Come along with me” and is from a much forgotten old show entitled “The Orchid”, with words by Adrian Ross and music by Ivan Caryll, produced in 1903. Satterthwaite comes up with an odd line: “mine not to reason why, mine but to swiftly fly”. Not only is this a split infinitive (tut, tut) but it’s nothing like what I learned at the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle’s knee: “ours not to reason why, ours but to do or die”. So which is it? The true quotation is: “Theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die” and it’s from Tennyson’s Charge of the Light Brigade. So where is Satterthwaite’s “mine but to swiftly fly” from? I haven’t a clue.

I like the fact that Satterthwaite is planning to go to Carlsbad for his liver. Today we know it as Karlovy Vary in the Czech Republic, renowned for its spa and healing waters. I also liked how Christie unified this story with the opening tale by mentioning the Eveshams again – they played a more major role in that story, but here they are again, staying in that unlucky room shortly before they got divorced. You sense a whole parallel world moving along at the same time, which gives it a greater sense of being an episodic novel rather than just a collection of separate short stories. It would be rare for the Christie of this era not to give a disparaging mention to left wing subversives, and she doesn’t disappoint: “”Has it ever struck you, “ he said, “that civilisation’s damned dangerous?” “Dangerous?” Such a revolutionary remark shocked Mr Satterthwaite to the core.”

An entertaining story that drives the book forward at a satisfying pace. Will we get tired of Mr Quin just coming in to scenarios like this, or will we need him to become more of a rounded and regular character? Time will tell…

At the “Bells and Motley”

PubThe “Bells and Motley” is the pub in the village of Kirtlington Mallet, where Mr Satterthwaite’s car breaks down again with a third puncture – that is unbelievably unlucky – and where he seeks refreshment only to discover that Mr Quin is already there waiting for him. Well, it is the “Bells and Motley” – where else would a harlequin go for a pint?

This is an introverted little tale where the two characters just talk over a cause célèbre that happened a few months previously – the mysterious disappearance (and presumed death) of one Richard Harwell, a brash and jovial huntsman of whom nobody knew much, and the suspects – his young wife, his gardener and his groom (horses, not marriage). As usual Mr Quin presses the right buttons in Satterthwaite’s imagination to solve the crime (if crime there be) from the comfort of the snug. It’s actually quite a clever little whodunit, that probably wouldn’t work in any other way except as a tale retold by third persons.

And we’re still learning more about Mr Satterthwaite; he is an epicure with his own cordon bleu chef (that explains his portly out-of-breath running in the previous story) and he isn’t very gracious with his chauffeur: “”you seem to think you can arrange everything, Masters,” said Mr Satterthwaite snappily.” I’m not sure he’s that nice a chap on the whole. Snappy at servants; easy to flatter if you’re an important person; but not having actually done much with his life.

Some references and facts to consider: the village of Kirtlington Mallet is unsurprisingly a creation of Christie, although there is of course both a Kirtlington and a Shepton Mallet. Ashley Grange – the Harwell’s home – was to be sold for £60,000 to Cyrus G Bradburn – given this was originally written in 1925, that converts to an equivalent sum of £2.5 million today. Nice. “Happy’s the wooing that’s not long doing” says Mr Satterthwaite, describing the brevity of Harwell’s engagement to Miss le Couteau. I thought that might be a quotation but apparently it’s an old proverb – not one that I’d heard of before – dating from the 16th century.

It’s quite amusing from the perspective of reading this book in the 21st century that Quin wants Satterthwaite to imagine they are in the year 2025, trying to solve a case that took place a hundred years previously. We very nearly are.

The Sign in the Sky

Steam TrainAfter the previous story, this is another in a very similar vein – Mr Satterthwaite has been observing a trial, and then later bumps into Mr Quin sitting at his favourite table in the Arlecchino restaurant in Soho – one again continuing the Harlequin theme. One wonders at this stage how many oblique ways Christie can refer to the Commedia dell’arte character. However, whereas the previous story knits up nicely and convincingly, this one is full of holes, IMHO. For example: how do we know the trains always run on time? Supposing another member of the household had a wristwatch? Sorry, Agatha, I expect better from you.

What she does achieve is to continue to fill out our understanding of Satterthwaite – now we know that he enjoys watching trials, and that femininity alluded to in the first story also gets further, dare we say, outing… “your sympathies were with the accused? Is that what you were going to say?” “I suppose it was. Martin Wylde is a nice-looking young fellow – one can hardly believe it of him.” “I’ve known a good many young men, and these emotional scenes upset them very much – especially the dark, nervous type like Martin Wylde.” And once again, we see how promptly Satterthwaite responds to Quin’s flattery: “…if anyone can show me that, it will be Mr Satterthwaite,” he murmured. Mr Satterthwaite gripped the table with both hands. He was uplifted, carried out of himself. For the moment, he was an artist pure and simple – an artist whose medium was words.”

Deering Vale, is, of course, imaginary; Banff in Canada is, of course, real. That’s quite a flight of fancy that Satterthwaite takes on a whim – getting a crossing to Canada, then going all the way over to the Rockies for a couple of days and then coming back. He’d have to have done it rapido in order to be back in time to save Wylde’s life. Both Wylde and Quin have considerable power over Satterthwaite in this tale. Actually the whole conversation where the Canadian link is mentioned, then dropped, then picked up again, and Satterthwaite goes quiet because he just knows deep inside he’ll have to go there, is all done with a very amusing lightness of touch. So my verdict on this one is: well written in all respects except the machinations of the plot.

The Soul of the Croupier

Roulette wheelThe next story is my favourite so far in the whole book. Satterthwaite finds himself (as you do) with the Riviera set in Monte Carlo, observing the goings on between an American lad (you can kind of imagine him being of the Gatsby set, at least in appearance) and the Countess Czarnova, the height of aristocracy (at least as far as the American is concerned). Add an American girl who is jealous of the guy’s infatuation with the (much) older Countess, a croupier who pays out the wrong winner, and – yes you guessed it – the appearance of Mr Quin, subtly glowing with motley colours, encouraging Satterthwaite to enter life’s drama rather than merely observing it on the sidelines. It was during this story that I started to get the feeling that Quin was actually part of Satterthwaite’s psyche, rather than an individual in his own right. It’s as though he represents a part of Satterthwaite that was hitherto missing – an element of soul, conscience, imagination, spirit… The two are definitely becoming one, because Quin appears already to know all of Satterthwaite’s own feelings and emotions.

Talking of which, we get even closer to what Christie refers to as Satterthwaite’s feminine side. It goes without saying that he would already have known Franklin Rudge, the American boy, being young and good looking. Satterthwaite’s ability to see through the Countess, for who she really is, is attributed by Christie to the fact that he “knew far more of feminine secrets than it is good for any man to know”. When Elizabeth Martin, the American girl, asks Satterthwaite why Rudge is so infatuated with the Countess, he replies “she’s got a very charming manner, I believe” – not “she’s got a very charming manner” which is what he would have said if he personally found her attractive. And the Countess can see right through Satterthwaite too: “”You are interested in that nice American boy, Mr Satterthwaite, are you not?” Her voice was low with a caressing note in it. “He’s a nice young fellow,” said Mr Satterthwaite, non-committally.” Satterthwaite’s observations about the young people holidaying in Monaco also make clear what we had previously suspected anyway, that the man’s an utter snob.

The Monte Carlo setting allows us to see Christie moralising again. Just as she was very anti-divorce in Partners in Crime, here she is very anti-gambling. Satterthwaite thinks of gamblers as “doomed souls who could not keep away”. The story requires that the Countess loses at the casino: “again and again she staked, only to see her stake swept away. She bore her losses well […] she staked en plein once or twice, put the maximum on red, won a little on the middle dozen and then lost it again, finally she backed manque six times and lost every time.” The story also allows her to give vent to her general mistrust of foreigners and slight antisemitic viewpoint. She describes some of the Countess’ former dalliances as being with “friends […] of Hebraic extraction, sallow men with hooked noses”; when Elizabeth and Franklin are talking at the end, he says “these foreigners – they beat the band! I don’t understand them. What’s it all mean, anyhow? […] Gee, it’s good to look at anything so hundred per cent American as you […] these foreigners are so odd.” There’s also a reference to Prohibition, which reminds us of Julius in The Secret Adversary.

Some other references: Radzynski is certainly an authentic surname although more Polish than Hungarian; there definitely was a King of Bosnia although the kingdom hasn’t existed since 1463. Although it sounds really credible, alas there isn’t a Sargon Springs anywhere in the US, it’s another of Christie’s inventions. And I’d never heard of a “Hedges and Highways” Party! The reference is in the Bible, Luke 14:23: “And the lord said unto the servant, go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled.” This is following the refusal of three invitees to attend supper because they had other jobs on hand, so the servant went out and brought all the poor and lame in for supper… and there was still room.

Oh, and that 50,000 French Franc note? Probably worth about £40,000 today, unless I’ve got my conversions wrong.

The Man From The Sea

Spanish LadyAnother very notable story next, one with a very different atmosphere from any that have gone before; here there is no crime to solve as such, but suicides to prevent – two of them in fact. Satterthwaite is feeling very mortal in this tale – he reflects with some sadness on the passing of the years; he even witnesses a dog being killed by a car and takes it as evidence that happy life is fleeting and can be snuffed out in an instant. There’s also a further element of supernatural – over and above the regular reappearance of Mr Quin in a shimmer of motley – with an air of reincarnation at the end of the story that I found rather spooky.

Although this is the sixth story in the book, it was, in fact, the last to be written and originally published – first appearing in October 1929 in Britannia and Eve magazine. This in part may account for the discrepancy with Satterthwaite’s age – it clearly states that he is 69 years old. Yet in The Coming of Mr Quin, four years previous, he is 62. What happened to those missing three years! No wonder Satterthwaite feels old if he thinks he’s 69 when in fact he’s only 66. Satterthwaite’s femininity continues to be explored in the book – the mysterious Spanish lady explains that she can say anything to him because “you are half a woman. You know what we feel – what we think – the queer, queer things we do.” Christie also adds a nice aside which you could file under her “distrust of foreigners” heading, when the Spanish lady invites Satterthwaite to take tea with her. “She added reassuringly. “It is perfectly good tea and will be made with boiling water.”” Even today some of those European chappies just don’t know how to make a proper cuppa.

And it’s always entertaining to see Christie use one of her favourite words that has undergone a certain semantic change since the book was written: “While he was resolving things in his mind, the other spoke, realising somewhat belatedly that his single ejaculation so far might be open to criticism.”

A strange story, successful on the whole I think, although it made me feel uncomfortable rather than rewarded.

The Voice in the Dark

seanceSatterthwaite is called on by an old aristocratic friend to investigate the apparent “voices” that her daughter is hearing – as Satterthwaite is bound to know occultists and mediums, he is the obvious person to help. But what at first might have been thought to be some supernatural nonsense – including a very credible séance scene – turns out to be murder in the old-fashioned way.

From the rigorous story of the croupier and the dreamy tale of the Spanish lady, this next story is a bit of a damp squib. It sets up as a good tale; although it doesn’t take a sleuth to guess what “give back what is not yours” refers to; and it leaves many loose ends untied, including exactly how did that séance work and whether there is some missing evidence about the chocolates. I get the feeling that Christie rattled off this one in a hurry. There is also the unfortunate continuity issue, with Satterthwaite recollecting that he and Quin last met in Corsica (in The World’s End, see below) which was the previous story in the order in which they were written but is four stories ahead in this book – that rather kills the sense of the volume developing as a satisfying whole.

In some respects this is classic Christie. There is an allusion to her favourite thing of all, poison, with the chocolates that are sent to Lady Stranleigh. She gets to dig in some further disapproval of divorce and everything that goes with it – Lady S’s interminable paperwork with lawyers and undesired reuniting with “Rudolf” is a nice case in point. There’s the fabulous, brief, characterisation of Lady S’s new beau – Bimbo (yes, that’s his name) and his delightful reply to the question: “what has the tennis been like?” (Answer: “septic”.)

Was there ever a ship called the Uralia? I don’t think so. I looked it up on the internet and found this cryptic definition, about which I have got, I freely admit, gentle reader, not a clue. But perhaps the most relevant aspect of the entire story is the little snapshot into Satterthwaite’s youth that suggests that perhaps he isn’t gay after all!

Not one of Christie’s best short stories.

The Face of Helen

Kew GardensQuite entertaining, rather sad, and, in the details, incredibly far-fetched, this story sees Satterthwaite in his box at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden looking down on a most beautiful girl, and then encountering her again with her boyfriend (not that Satterthwaite would ever say the word) and another admirer; there’s a Christie equivalent of a fight in the pub car park, followed by Satterthwaite interceding to help the girl – Gillian West – and then continuing to help her when the other admirer is jilted for the real boyfriend. Quin plays a somewhat lesser role in this story – almost significant by his absence when Satterthwaite hopes to meet him at the Arlecchino.

Christie continues to fill in the gaps of Satterthwaite’s younger days – he likes to visit the bluebells at Kew Gardens because it reminds him of a time when he was going to propose to a young lady there who sideswiped him by telling him all about the man she really loved; cue Satterthwaite subtly going into confidant mode and abandoning his true feelings. It also occurs to me how incredibly rich Satterthwaite must be. All this cavorting around Europe, staying in the best places, and now we realise he pitches up twice a week in his private box at Covent Garden, entertaining Countesses. That’s some level of independent wealth there.

A few things come to mind – the desire to go for coffee or lemonade during the interval at Covent Garden as opposed to the champagne and Pinot that it would be today, for example. I wonder when tastes changed? Probably with availability. Magical performer Yoaschbim is considered to be the second Caruso – the first, Enrico, died in 1921. I was shocked that Satterthwaite doesn’t like Cavalleria Rusticana as it’s the most delightful of operas – but not at all surprised that Quin favours Pagliacci – as the Harlequin character is the lover. Interestingly, one of Caruso’s most celebrated roles was as Pierrot. And forgive my smutty mind from finding this line amusing: “he was a gregarious little gentleman, and he liked filling his box with the elite of the great world…”

An interesting juxtaposition with The Man From The Sea, where Satterthwaite prevents two suicides; in this story he fails to prevent one.

The Dead Harlequin

artistAn engrossing story this one, with some enjoyable characterisations – I thought Frank Bristow was a very realistic creation – and a good blend of whodunit and the supernatural. Satterthwaite is taken with a painting at an exhibition entitled The Dead Harlequin, a) because the Harlequin reminds him of Harley Quin and b) because he recognises the setting as The Terrace Room at Charnley, a house he knew and the site of an apparent suicide by the young Lord Charnley. Satterthwaite invites Bristow, the painter, to his house for dinner, also inviting Colonel Monkton, who was present when Charnley’s body was discovered. Two people seek to buy the painting off Satterthwaite and Mr Quin turns up in a spookily unexpected way – and of course disappears similarly at the end of the story.

Of course, there are no Harchester Galleries, and an internet search on Frank Bristow reveals a pigeon-fancier, so as usual this is all down to Christie’s fertile imagination. There’s no such house as Charnley, although priests’ holes are certainly real – in fact the old inn in which I was brought up as a youngster (built 1535) had one – frustratingly plastered over so we couldn’t get access to it. There’s a nice moment of Christie tongue-in-cheek where Bristow describes the circumstances of the death of Lord Charnley as “not a best seller mystery, is it?” And the Bokhara rug apparently was valued at £2000. That’s some expensive rug, as at today’s prices that would be the equivalent of almost £90,000. A lot of money for an item whose main purpose was to hide bloodstains.

Exciting and suspenseful, this is definitely one of Mr Satterthwaite’s best moments!

The Bird with the Broken Wing

UkeleleThis is another quite enjoyable and engrossing story but it also requires a number of leaps of faith. Satterthwaite decides to change his plans when a game of “table turning” provides him with a message – apparently from Mr Quin – that he should stay with Madge Keeley as originally invited. He attends her house party where he meets a number of people, one of whom is murdered overnight. The police are called, but Satterthwaite is able to use his little grey cells, if I may use the phrase, to solve the crime without having to discuss it with Quin first.

This is the only story in the collection that does not seem to have appeared in magazine format prior to publication; as a result, we have no way of dating it other than “1930 or before”. Satterthwaite meets and works with Inspector Winkfield, who says “it won’t be the first murder mystery you’ve helped us with. I remember the case of Mrs Strangeways”. Whilst Inspector Winkfield had previously appeared in “The Shadow on the Glass”, there is no other mention in the other stories of Mrs Strangeways; does that suggest maybe a lost or unpublished story?

This tale brings out some of Satterthwaite’s less attractive traits – he’s very snobbish and rather bitchy here, patronising people who sing songs about “my baby”, being very judgmental when he thinks Mrs Graham has been smoking, and being highly sniffy about one of the guests: “her name seemed to be Doris, and she was the type of young woman Mr Satterthwaite most disliked. She had, he considered, no artistic justification for existence. “ As for Quin, he wins the prize for most ethereal character ever in this story, somehow communicating his concerns about Madge through a Ouija-type game; then later appearing to Satterthwaite on a train, who closes his eyes to imagine something and then opens them to find he has gone. He really takes on a dream identity in this book. But that Ouija game… assuming it’s balderdash, how was it that “the spirit” knew to bash out Quin’s name and then start describing Madge’s address? Even if you believe in ghosts, Quin wasn’t (apparently) dead! Talk about loose ends!

Of Mabelle, Christie writes: “she might have been one of those creatures who are only half-human – one of the Hidden People from the Hollow Hills.” Today that’s a pretty obscure reference, but I can only assume it is from the programme notes written to accompany the first performance (1910) of Arnold Bax’s symphonic poem “In The Faery Hills”. In it he describes how he had sought “to suggest the revelries of the ‘Hidden People’ in the inmost deeps and hollow hills of Ireland.”

The World’s End

OpalEleventh story in and I got the feeling of some barrel-scraping going on here. A rather long-winded and pointless tale that eventually gets started, after an inordinate amount of scene-setting, where yet another young person who might be tempted into suicide is averted from the act, this time by a third party who reveals the secret of an Indian Box. To be fair, there are a couple of interesting characters – the Duchess of Leith is well described and fleshed out, and Naomi Carlton Smith, the young attitudinal artist, makes a very good contrast with Satterthwaite’s comfortable and respectable world. There are some enjoyable exchanges between the two on the subject of art – the Duchess knows what she likes and she likes what she knows. But on the whole I found this immensely tedious and artificial.

A couple of references and explanations – the Duchess says Satterthwaite can sit on the dickey, which isn’t an insult; the dickey was an extra foldaway seat hidden in the luggage compartment of some older cars. No wonder Satterthwaite doesn’t sound too chuffed at the prospect. The story takes place in Corsica (for no particular reason that I could identify) and the final scene takes place at a Casse-Croûte which is like a lunch/sandwich bar. Unusually for Christie, she places this story at a specific location – Coti Chiaveeri, or as it is known today, Coti-Chiavari, a tiny Corsican village on the south west coast of the island.

This is the story that originally came before The Voice in the Dark – creating the continuity issue explained earlier. Considering the stories leading up to this one – this is definitely something of a disappointment.

Harlequin’s Lane

Harlequin and ColombineAnd so we come to the final tale, where Satterthwaite is staying at yet another house party but this time with people he doesn’t really associate with; the address of the property is Harlequin’s Lane, which Mr Quin (for, surprise, he is there too) says belongs to him. An extra-marital affair and a concealed identity figure in another rather sad story that has an unhappy ending.

But more than anything, you get a feeling that Satterthwaite and Quin are somehow two parts of the same whole, a symbiotic relationship where Satterthwaite gains insight and the ability to participate in the world through Quin’s influence, and where Quin gains a physical presence that otherwise he might not have. This final story seems extremely spooky and supernatural – Mrs Denham more or less tells Satterthwaite that they both know Quin is a fantasy.

There’s an excellent description of how Satterthwaite feels dead and worn out in comparison with life going on around him: “He felt suddenly rather old and out of things, a little dried-up wizened old fogey of a man. Each side of him were the hedges, very green and alive.”

As an end to the book it’s a rather misty conclusion; hard to pin down, definitely leaving the gate open for more (although there wasn’t much more to come) – perhaps ending more with a whimper than a bang, but that’s probably in keeping with the rest of the book. Satterthwaite and Quin get under your skin; it’s a fictional relationship that stays with you long after you read the final page.

All that remains is for me to give this an overall satisfaction rating of 7/10. It’s very enjoyable, but the short story format doesn’t work as well for me as the “proper novel”. And there’s a supernatural element and a number of untied loose ends that don’t really work. But the characterisation is fascinating! And just to keep you fully informed, my edition illustrated at the top of the page is Fontana Paperback, priced 3/6, first edition in this format (1965), with a striking cover by an unnamed artist.

Murder at the VicarageWith the next book in the Agatha Christie Challenge, our beloved writer returns to the novel format; not only that, it’s the debut of one little old lady by the name of Miss Marple. The book is Murder at the Vicarage, and if you’d like to read it too, I’ll blog about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meanwhile, happy sleuthing and keep on Christie-ing!