The Agatha Christie Challenge – Three Act Tragedy (1935)

Three Act TragedyIn which we meet dashing actor Sir Charles Cartwright, who falls for the lovely young Miss Hermione Lytton Gore (known, bizarrely, as Egg) and together they amateur sleuth their way through a series of deaths, aided by the redoubtable Mr Satterthwaite and one Hercule Poirot. Whilst the amateur detectives make many useful discoveries it is of course Poirot who finally discovers the reason for the death of an apparently harmless old clergyman and identifies the killer of a respected doctor. And if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to tell you whodunit!

curtainsChristie dedicated the book to “My friends, Geoffrey and Violet Shipston”. Unfortunately she doesn’t mention the Shipstons in her autobiography so I can’t tell you anything else about them! The book was originally published in the US in magazine format in the Saturday Evening Post during June and July 1934 under the title Murder in Three Acts; in novel format, again in the US, it first appeared later in 1934 under the same name. Christie’s British audience had to wait until January 1935 for it to be published as Three Act Tragedy – I have kept with that year in my title, as I am British! Interestingly this is one of two Christie novels where there are some significant differences between the British and American editions; the American version ascribes a different motive for the killer from that in the British version.

top-secretWhen I came to re-read this book I couldn’t remember any details of it at all, but as it progressed, elements of it started to come back. For whatever reason, this isn’t a book that stays in your mind very long, even though it’s very enjoyable, amusingly written, with some interesting characters and a “three act” structure all of its own. Halfway through I made a stab at remembering whodunit – and it turned out, I was right. To be honest, I don’t think it’s that difficult to work out. Christie is, as usual, very cunning with this structure, in that some vital pieces of information are withheld from the reader, that would make it much more obvious to work out the identity of the criminal. If you’re sleuthing this one, have a think much more about what you’re not being told than what you are being told! She never lies to the reader – but she is economical with the truth.

HarlequinChristie takes the opportunity to flesh out the characters of Poirot and Satterthwaite, so that we understand them a little more. This is only our second meeting with Satterthwaite (after The Mysterious Mr Quin five years earlier) – and we won’t get to meet him again until he appears in a short story, The Harlequin Tea Set, which wasn’t published in the UK until 1991 – so it’ll be a long time before I get around to reading that one.

HepplewhiteMy memory of Satterthwaite is that Christie implied from his great understanding of women that he was perhaps a little effeminate. That’s not the case in this book, where she describes him as “a manly man”. For the first time, we get to visit him at home: “Mr Satterthwaite’s house was on Chelsea Embankment. It was a large house, and contained many beautiful works of art. There were pictures, sculpture, Chinese porcelain, prehistoric pottery, ivories, miniatures and much genuine Chippendale and Hepplewhite furniture. It had an atmosphere about it of mellowness and understanding.” This very much emphasises his artistic and refined character and is exactly what we would expect.

BluebellsIn his conversation with Lady Mary, ostensibly to question her about her knowledge of the Babbingtons, he gets sidetracked with talk of love, being a hopeless old romantic. We discover a little more about his one love affair: “he told her about the Girl, and how pretty she was, and of how they had gone together to see the bluebells at Kew. He had meant to propose to her that day. He had imagined (so he put it) that she reciprocated his sentiments. And then, as they were standing looking at the bluebells, she had confided in him… He had discovered that she loved another. And he had hidden the thoughts surging in his breast and had taken up the role of the faithful Friend. It was not, perhaps, a very full-blooded romance, but it sounded well in the dim-faded chintz of Lady Mary’s drawing-room.”

FrenchmanThere’s also an implication that Satterthwaite and Poirot are old acquaintances. When Satterthwaite spots Poirot at Sir Charles’ dinner party, “Mr Satterthwaite had recalled himself to M. Hercule Poirot’s memory. The little man had been very affable. Mr Satterthwaite suspected him of deliberately exaggerating his foreign mannerisms. His small twinkly eyes seemed to say, “You expect me to be the buffoon? To play the comedy for you? Bien – it shall be as you wish!”” But there is no reference in the earlier works to Satterthwaite and Poirot ever having met. Poirot is not mentioned in The Mysterious Mr Quin, for example.

OEDBut he’s right about Poirot’s speech mannerisms, that they are sometimes an affectation. At the end of the book he confronts Poirot on the subject: “I will explain. It is true that I can speak the exact, the idiomatic English. But, my friend, to speak the broken English is an enormous asset. It leads people to despise you. They say – a foreigner – he can’t even speak English properly. It is not my policy to terrify people – instead I invite their gentle ridicule. Also I boast! An Englishman he says often, “A fellow who thinks as much of himself as that cannot be worth much.” That is the English point of view. It is not at all true. And so, you see, I put people off their guard. Besides,” he added, “it has become a habit.” So Poirot admits that many of his more bizarre affectations are assumed in order to play up to the traditional image of the little-Englander. The typical Brit would have a degree of xenophobia as part of his make up; Poirot uses it to his own advantage.

refugeesAlthough it had only been less than a year since Poirot’s previous appearance in a Christie novel (Murder on the Orient Express), we found out precious little extra about the Belgian detective in that book, and consequently are treated to a quick re-introduction to his back story, as we would call it today, and his attitudes and aspirations. Mr Satterthwaite gets him to reveal: “as a boy, I was poor. There were many of us. We had to get on in the world I entered the Police Force. I worked hard Slowly I rose in that Force. I began to make a name for myself. I made a name for myself. I began to acquire an international reputation. At last, I was due to retire. There came the War. I was injured. I came, a sad and weary refugee, to England. A kind lady gave me hospitality. She died – not naturally; no, she was killed. Eh bien, I set my wits to work. I employed my little grey cells. I discovered her murderer. I found that I was not yet finished. No, indeed, my powers were stronger than ever. Then began my second career, that of a private inquiry agent in England. I have solved many fascinating and baffling problems. Ah, monsieur, I have lived! The psychology of human nature, it is wonderful. I grew rich. Some day, I said to myself, I will have all the money I need, I will realise all my dreams […] My friend, beware of the day when your dreams come true.” This little piece of Poirot history is a potted version of The Mysterious Affair at Styles.

moustache2At one point, to highlight the difference between Poirot and Sir Charles, Christie refers to the detective as “the little bourgeois”; which I suppose is an accurate description, although I’m not sure if it would still have carried the same pejorative overtones that it does today. Sir Charles is a very well drawn character, but often comes across as self-indulgent and lacking grace. I doubt whether Poirot would have appreciated his calling him “Moustachios”; but then again, he might have taken it as a bizarre compliment. Sometimes it’s hard to see what Egg sees in Charles. There’s a moment where Satterthwaite was about to talk about a previous occasion where he was investigating crime: “once when my car broke down and I was staying at lonely inn –“ only to be interrupted by Sir Charles reminiscing in a high clear voice about when he was touring in 1921. Presumably Satterthwaite was going to tell the story of At the Bells and Motley. His story is left hanging in mid-air.

Married couplePoirot often has an interesting outlook on crime, or a philosophy that he likes to share. In this book, he has an observation on crime statistics between married couples. Egg is annoyed that Poirot could even contemplate that Mrs Babbington might have been involved in the murder of her husband: “”But they were devoted to each other,” cried Egg indignantly. “You don’t understand a bit.” Poirot smiled kindly at her. “No. That is valuable. You know, but I do not. I see the facts unbiased by any preconceived notions. And let me tell you something, mademoiselle – in the course of my experience I have known five cases of wives murdered by devoted husbands, and twenty-two of husbands murdered by devoted wives. Les femmes, they obviously keep up appearances better.” “I think you’re perfectly horrid,” said Egg.”

little_dog_laughed_09There are a few references to check out. The playwright Miss Wills had previously written One-Way Traffic, which brought her success and esteem. It’s a great name for a play but it doesn’t appear to exist in real life. However, her next play, that will star Miss Sutcliffe, is The Little Dog Laughed. This was to be the name of a play by Douglas Carter Beane that first appeared in the West End in 2006. When Mr Satterthwaite judges Sir Charles to be acting the role of detective, he sees him as Aristide Duval. As I was reading the book, I thought Duval was a genuine fictional detective from a contemporary writer – but no, he’s a creation of Christie’s. It would be a great name for a detective!

lady of shalottThere’s a poetry quote: “Of more than twice her years, Seam’d with an ancient swordcut on the cheek, And bruised and bronzed, she lifted up her eyes And loved him, with that love which was her doom.” Its source? The clue is in the chapter title, “A Modern Elaine”. It’s from Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, and describes Elaine’s love for the older Lancelot. Satterthwaite is being ironic about Egg though: “Egg […] did not look at all likely to perish of love and drift about rivers on a barge. There was nothing of the lily maid of Astolat about her.”

Rikki-Tikki-TaviSuperintendent Crossfield is a little star-struck when he first meets Sir Charles, as he had seen him play Lord Aintree’s Dilemma at the Pall Mall Theatre. No such play – although it’s a perfect Wildean/Shavian title – and no such theatre either. Captain Dacres takes Egg to the Seventy-Two Club; again it’s an invention of Christie, although it sounds rather swish. At one stage Sir Charles is described as resembling Lord Eaglemount, scornfully looking at his solicitor. He was a character in The Hermit in London published 1819, so even when this book was written that strikes me as being a rather obscure allusion. However, the mongoose who likes to find out, to whom Miss Wills is likened, is clearly children’s favourite Rikki Tikki Tavi, written by Rudyard Kipling in 1893 as part of The Jungle Book.

looeMuch of the action of the book takes place in Loomouth, in Cornwall (although I believe in Nemesis it’s situated just twelve miles from St Mary Mead, which would put it in Kent or Sussex). Loomouth, of course, doesn’t exist, but there is Looe in Cornwall, fifty miles from Falmouth, so the imagination sets that part of the story on the south Cornish coast. Melfort Abbey in Yorkshire is said to be site of Bartholomew Strange’s sanatorium, and is where the second dinner party is held; Melfort is a village in Argyll and Bute, so one can only presume this is another Christie invention. The Babbingtons originally lived in Gilling, in Kent, and Egg visits Mrs Milray there. In real life there are the villages of Gilling West and Gilling East in Yorkshire, but I am sure Christie’s Kentish Gilling is based on Gillingham, even if the directions she gives won’t take you there.

Bruton StreetWhen Superintendent Crossman gives Sir Charles the names and addresses of the party guests, they all have their addresses provided. Lord and Lady Eden live at 187 Cadogan Square (in real life the numbers don’t go that high); Sir Jocelyn and Lady Campbell live at 1256 Harley Street (ditto); Angela Sutcliffe at 28 Cantrell Mansions (does not exist); Captain and Mrs Dacres at 3, St John’s House (ditto); and Miss Muriel Wills at 5 Upper Cathcart Road, Tooting (tritto). Mrs Dacres’ posh shop is located in Bruton Street, which does exist, and you could probably imagine a well-to-do couturier establishment in the locale.

PoundRegular readers will know I like to convert any significant financial sums into what their equivalent would be today – just to get a better feel for the amounts involved. There are only a few mentioned in this book, and they’re all relatively small. The largest, £1,000, the amount that Ellis, the missing butler, is seeking as part of his blackmail scam, today would equal just under £50,000. The average price of a dress at Mrs Dacres’ posh shop (£50-60) would set Egg back £2500-£3000. That was never going to happen, especially as her entire wealth was assessed at £15 12/-, or in today’s language, about £775.

car warning triangleOliver Manders arrives unexpectedly at Sir Bartholomew’s dinner party because he has a car accident outside his house. Flashback to Frankie having a car accident outside Bassington-ffrench’s house in Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? Frankie’s accident was fake; Oliver’s probably was too. I hope Christie doesn’t play this accident card too often….

Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for Three Act Tragedy:

Publication Details: 1935. Fontana paperback, 8th impression, published in August 1971, priced 25p. Tom Adams’ deceptively attractive cover illustration takes a garden setting, with a yellow flower (I presume a dying nicotiana) propped up in a wine glass, with its thorns showing. It’s a picture that gets less and less bucolically romantic the longer you look at it.

How many pages until the first death: 13. It doesn’t take long for this enjoyable story to really get going.

Funny lines out of context: A little bit more luck here than in recent books.

“I like men to have affairs,” said Egg. “It shows they’re not queer or anything.”

When Poirot is building a house from a pack of cards: “Egg looked more closely at the erection on the table. She laughed.”

Memorable characters: Christie gives us a few smart one-liners that quickly paint a strong picture of a character.

Sir Charles, describing his secretary/housekeeper Miss Milray: “She says she’s got an invalid mother. Personally I don’t believe it. That kind of woman never had a mother at all. Spontaneously generated from a dynamo.”

Egg, with Mrs Dacres, discussing a suitable selection of dresses for her to buy: “”I simply adore dressing a young girl. It’s so important that girls shouldn’t look raw – if you know what I mean.” “Nothing raw about you,” thought Egg, ungratefully. “Cooked to a turn, you are.””

Sir Charles is very well described, with his pompous ways and his theatrical styles; Egg is a little like Christie’s other bright young things, except she’s not quite a bright nor as independent. She doesn’t have the derring-do of Tuppence, or Bundle, and she resents Poirot quite strikingly, primarily because she thinks he is going to get in the way of her and Sir Charles Getting it Together.

Christie is on record saying how much of a favourite character Mr Satterthwaite was; and it shows, by the strong part he plays in this story.

Christie the Poison expert:

Nicotine poisoning is the method of choice for this murderer, and there are few observations where people wonder if the victims might have been heavy smokers. But it’s also pointed out that it is used in sprays for roses – Mrs Babbington uses it – and it’s an odourless liquid. When Poirot is hosting his sherry party he points out that the glasses used by Sir Charles and Sir Bartholomew are heavy cut crystal, which means it is easier to hide a small amount of colourless liquid. Oddly, Tom Adams’ cover depicts a plain glass with no lead cut design.

There’s also a dramatic suggestion that someone might have jabbed Mr Babbington with a hypodermic containing the arrow poison of the South American Indians; but that’s just Mr Satterthwaite teasing Egg.

Class/social issues of the time:

There aren’t very many observations of this type in this book. Satterthwaite can’t quite put his finger on what it is about Oliver Manders that is “different”, until Egg describes him as a “slippery Shylock”; then “”of course,” thought Mr Satterthwaite, “that’s it – not foreign – Jew!”” But Manders is, on the whole, portrayed in a kindly light in this book, so, for its era, I would not say there’s any element of anti-Semitism in it. However, when Poirot contradicts Satterthwaite about Egg’s emotions and aspirations, he gets surprisingly annoyed, and a little xenophobia comes out. Poirot starts this conversation: “”I wonder now,” he said. “I do not quite understand – “ Mr. Satterthwaite interrupted. “You do not understand the modern English girl? Well, that is not surprising. I do not always understand them myself. A girl like Miss Lytton Gore – “ In his turn Poirot interrupted. “Pardon. You have misunderstood me. I understand Mss Lytton Gore very well. I have met such another – many such others. You call the type modern; but it is – how shall I say? – age-long.” Mr Satterthwaite was slightly annoyed. He felt that he – and only he – understood Egg. This preposterous foreigner knew nothing about young English womanhood.”

There’s an enjoyable scene where Beatrice, Sir Bartholomew’s Upper Housemaid, is questioned by Sir Charles and Mr Satterthwaite, which strongly brings out the class-consciousness of the servant. Beatrice talks fondly of Miss Sutcliffe, and particularly so of Lady Mary, and of Egg; less so of Mrs Dacres, and she visibly stiffens when asked about Miss Wills. When pressed, she admits: “”well, she wasn’t quite the “class” of the others, sir. She couldn’t help it, I know,” went on Beatrice kindly. “But she did things a real lady wouldn’t have done. She pried, if you know what I mean, sir, poked and pried about.””

There are a couple of impassioned speeches about the Church; first by Egg: “You see Mr Satterthwaite, I really believe in Christianity – not like Mother does, with little books and early service, and things – but intelligently and as a matter of history. The Church is all clotted up with the Pauline tradition – in fact the Church is a mess – but Christianity itself is all right. That’s why I can’t be a communist like Oliver. In practice our beliefs would work out much the same, things in common and ownership by all, but the difference – well, I needn’t go into that.” Later by Manders, as recounted by Lady Mary: “”Oliver made a rather ill-bred attack on Christianity. Mr Babbington was very patient and courteous with him. That only seemed to make Oliver worse. He said, “All you religious people look down your noses because my father and mother weren’t married. I suppose you’d call me the child of sin. Well, I admire people who have the courage of their convictions and don’t care what a lot of hypocrites and parsons think.” Mr Babbington didn’t answer, but Oliver went on: “You won’t answer that. It’s ecclesiasticism and superstition that’s got the whole world into the mess its’s in. I’d like to sweep away the churches all over the world.” Mr Babbington smiled and said, “And the clergy, too?” I think it was his smile that annoyed Oliver. He felt he was not being taken seriously. He said, “I hate everything the Church stands for. Smugness, security and hypocrisy. Get rid of the whole canting tribe, I say!” Manders’ feeling as though he is not being taken seriously is not that different from Bobby’s relationship with his vicar father in Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? Manders’ self-consciousness about being the child of unmarried parents also reflects on the mores of the time.

Classic denouement: Yes indeed. Unusually, perhaps, there is no indication of who the murderer is before Poirot’s final chapter, so the surprise (if it is a surprise) comes even more compact and controlled than usual. But it’s a delightfully dramatic end to the story.

Happy ending? Surprisingly difficult to judge. On the one hand, justice is seen to be done. On the other, one person is left shocked by the actions of someone they thought they knew very well indeed. Any future relationship this person has – and the text implies that it is possible – will have a lot of problems to overcome.

Did the story ring true? On the whole, yes, but with some reservations. On a practical level, if Miss Sutcliffe is opening in Miss Wills’ new play in the next few days, it is very unlikely that they would have had the time to attend Poirot’s sherry party. Whilst one can accept the explanation of the whole Ellis the butler and his disappearance mystery, again on a practical level one wonders how realistic it really is. That aside, the book is relatively credible for Christie!

Overall satisfaction rating: 9/10. Even though I guessed whodunit and there are a few ragged edges to this book, I found it a very entertaining and exciting read, and found the second half of it un-put-downable. And you can’t ask for more than that.

Death in the CloudsThanks for reading my blog of Three Act Tragedy and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge, we have another Hercule Poirot novel with Death in the Clouds. If I remember rightly, a lot of this takes place on an aeroplane, which I would imagine would have had its own charm and excitement back in 1935. I have a feeling I will quickly remember whodunit, although at the moment I can’t recall any other aspect of the story. As always, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

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!