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Agatha Christie’s Sleuths: Harley Quin

In a continuation of our occasional series exploring Agatha Christie’s sleuths, Brook and Sarah discuss Harley Quin.


Mysterious Mr. Quin (1930) Agatha Christie

“The Coming of Mr. Quin” (1923) Agatha Christie

The Passing of Mr. Quin (1928) Agatha Christie

Three Act Tragedy (1934) Agatha Christie

“The Harlequin Tea Set” (1971) Agatha Christie

Fight Club (1996) Chuck Palahniuk

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This transcript is generated by a computer and there may be some mis-spellings and strange punctuation. We try to catch these before posting, but some things slip through.

SarahWelcome to Clued in Mystery. I’m Sarah.
BrookAnd I’m Brook and we both love mystery.
SarahHi, Brook.
BrookSarah, it is so good to be talking with you again.
SarahThe highlight of my week.
BrookExactly! We have a really fun topic today. We’re returning to our little miniseries we’re doing on Agatha Christie’s lesser-known sleuths and today we’re going to talk about Harley Quin. So, I’ll start us off with some background. Before the DC Comics mischievous henchwoman there was another Harley Quin. Agatha Christie’s mysterious and elusive sleuth, Mr. Quin. Now to be fair, both of them owe their origins to the harlequins of the Comedia Del Arte, an early form of professional theater that originated in Italy. These traveling acting troops were popular throughout Europe between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries and one recurring character in the plays was the harlequin. What we might think of as the court jester. He wore a dark mask and bright diamond pattern clothing. He was originally the clown or fool in the dramas. But by the eighteenth-century, harlequins had evolved into these romantic heroes. And this connects really well to Christie’s character where love or affairs of the heart are at the core of most of his mysteries. In fact, I would say love and death are the themes that the stories portray. Agatha’s Harley Quin is almost magical. Often suddenly appearing to his friend. Mr. Satterthwaite in a flash of light or in a scene with really bright colors. In each story, Quin assists Mr. Satterthwaite by guiding him to the solutions of a crime. Like a kind teacher, he inspires Satterthwaite to trust his instincts and keen observations. But as each story unfolds, Mr. Quin’s physical form becomes more and more unclear. Until we question whether he exists at all or is simply a hidden part of Satterthwaite’s personality. The New York Times book review from May 4, 1930, when the first anthology came out started by saying “To call the tales in this collection detective stories would be misleading. For though all of them deal with mystery and some of them with crime they are nevertheless more like fairy tales.”
BrookAnd when I read a few of these I also went back and forth as to whether Quin was really there or just in Mr. Satterthwaite’s imagination. And I would need to do a deeper review to remember did anyone else see Mr. Quin, or is it just Mr. Satterthwaite who’s always referring to him? And this made me think did Agatha beat Chuck Palahniuk to the punch by creating this character with an imaginary alter ego pulling the strings.
BrookDame Agatha wrote a total of 14 short stories featuring Harley Quin. Most of them were published in magazines before being compiled into that anthology in 1930 titled The Mysterious Mr. Quin. According to her autobiography Quin and Satterthwaite were her favorite characters and she only wrote stories featuring them when she felt like it. The short story “The Coming of Mr. Quin” became a silent film retitled The Passing of Mr. Quin in 1928, so very early. It starred Stuart Rome. But Christie was never really satisfied with the portrayal of her beloved character and since then no other screen adaptations have ever been made. The stories are available on audiobook and Hugh Fraser, known for his role as Hastings in the Poirot TV series voices several of them. And I found them to be very good. And then in 2015, a brand new digital app titled Mr. Quin was created by the Agatha Christie Limited Company and it features the two beloved characters. There’s an interesting crossover: Mr. Satterthwaite appears in the Poirot novel Three Act Tragedy where the plot involves the theater.
BrookSo Sarah, I think it’s so interesting that this very enigmatic mysterious character was one of Christie’s favorites to write. And I hope we can discuss what that might reveal about her.
SarahWell before we do that, Brook thank you for such a great overview of Mr. Quin and his colleague Mr. Satterthwaite. I read as well, doing a little bit of research, before we spoke today that Agatha Christie really enjoyed writing these characters. And you can kind of tell that in in the stories. Um, and there’s definitely that kind of supernatural element. I think one of at least one of the stories features a séance. And you know we know that that is something that she was um, she didn’t just write the Marple stories or the or the Poirot stories that you know she did write some spookier tales. So um, yeah I really enjoyed reading these stories.
BrookI did too I was so struck by you know and as you just said she had. We’ve mentioned before that she does it all in the world of mystery. You know she writes thrillers she writes what we what you might consider cozies. Romantic suspense. Some action adventure with mysterious elements. I mean she really covers the gamut. But this is the first time that I think I’ve picked up one of her stories and was surprised that she had written it because it felt so different than her other work.
BrookAnd I think it’s what you kind of what you said, that you can tell that she had maybe a different relationship with these characters. She does a lot more um than I have seen in anything I’ve read and again I have not read all of Agatha Christie’s work. But I feel like in these stories she goes on, for lack of a better word, more tangents like more like thoughtful commentary about the world about art about you know, kind of her thoughts. Like one of them I read was “The Harlequin Tea Set” is written much later like in 1971 I think and she talks a lot about , or rather Satterthwaite, talks a lot about aging and memory and the way things get cloudy and trying to recall the way situations unfolded you know correctly and I just feel like we get a lot of insight into maybe Agatha’s world.
SarahYeah, so I really liked what you read from the The New York Times review where they were referred to as fairy tales and you know I remember the kind of I think of one of the first conversations that we had about Agatha Christie and how she had all of these imaginary friends that kept her company and you know so I wonder if there’s some relationship between that imaginary world that she lived in and these stories in particular.
BrookOh I had not put that together I forgot about her imagine her group of imaginary friends that is lovely and I think that is oh that ties in really well, you’re getting my imagination going, Sarah. Um, because one thing I think you know I I alluded to. You know, Fight Club or whatever because we don’t know how real Mr. Quin is he kind of goes in and out of being an actual physical person and just being ah the Jiminy Cricket so to speak sitting on Satterthwaite’s shoulder. Um, and I think I came away from it feeling like maybe Agatha was using him as a way to describe the muse. He visits and he solves, or she. The muse visits and solves problems and gives story answers. They’re mysterious. You don’t always know when they’re going to show up and um and they you know they bring everything together sort of like Mr. Quin did for Satterthwaite and then you know they’re gone again. Um, and that ties in so nicely with the idea of these imaginary friends that um I think we know authors have these different characters so to speak that kind of live with them and I I just think that there’s a much deeper conversation with this group of stories than maybe any of the other ones that we’ve talked about with Agatha.
SarahYeah I I think you’re probably right, Brook. I had the same thought as I was reading the stories because I didn’t do any research ah into them until after I I had read them. And it was towards the end of um, you know one of one of the last stories that I read where I was like “Is Harley Quin even real?” right?
BrookYes, me too.
SarahLike at the beginning I didn’t I didn’t have that sense. Because I think in that first story I think he is seen by other people. You you raise that question in your introduction, right? Because he knocks on the door of this house. It’s New Year’s Eve or or you know around Christmas time I think. And he says his driver is repairing the car can he come in and sit and that’s when he tells this story right of I think one of the previous owners of the home if I if if I’m remembering that correctly. So in that one he’s interacting with other people. But I’m not, I think you might be right if we looked back at the other ones. Ah, he may not interact with anybody else except for for Mr. Satterthwaite.
BrookYeah, yeah, it’s very mysterious and there there that’s where I felt like “wow this is so different than anything else that she’s written”. I thought it was really fun that she only wrote these when she felt like it. You know she was certainly under contractual obligation for probably a certain number of Poirots or Miss Marples or whatever throughout her career. But she reserved these to only write when she had the muse visit her and felt so inclined. And I thought that was really special and a great thing for her to do because she was so prolific. And anybody who reaches her level of authorship you know it definitely becomes a job right? It was it was work and and obligations to continue to write stories but she saved these for for her fun times and for her enjoyment.
SarahOne of the things that I really liked about these stories is that Mr Satterthwaite travels differently than some of Agatha Christie’s other characters. In at least one of the stories he goes and investigates you know goes and speaks to somebody, actually comes to Canada, to speak to somebody and then he he returns to the UK for kind of the rest of the story. I don’t remember um of the of the other Agatha Christie novels that I’ve read I don’t remember Poirot doing that like he’s you know if he’s in um, ah, Baghdad. He’s in Baghdad, right? like he doesn’t he doesn’t go anywhere else. Um, so I kind of like that like you know the idea of of picturing this guy kind of getting on the on the on the the boat and then on the train to get across the country. Um, but he he travels a lot. He’s in Spain, Monte Carlo, Cannes. And Parker Pyne traveled remember when we spoke about him like he did a bit of traveling and and Poirot obviously does some traveling. And I think that reflects Agatha Christie’s life as well, right? Like she we know she did a lot of ah, a lot of traveling but I just thought it was interesting that the way that um, Satterthwaite travels is a little bit different than in some of the other books.
BrookYeah, you’re right I didn’t pick up on that but I don’t think that I can think of any of her other stories where except maybe Tommy and Tuppence where they’re on more of an action adventure and they’re moving to different locations but still I believe that would just be within one country probably um, but yeah, that’s a really unique point in these stories as well and I think that Christie was so unique for being able to write in so many different locations because she did so much travel that is just something. That only I think she has because she did so much traveling and knew so much about so many different parts of the world.
SarahAnd at a time when most people didn’t do a lot of traveling.
BrookExactly Yeah, that was super rare and she was and adventurous when she got there. We know that she liked to surf. So.
SarahAnother question that I had as I was reading these is you know these are kind of um, categorized as as Harley Quin being the the sleuth but he’s not actually doing any of the legwork. It’s all Mr. Satterthwaite. He’s the one who’s piecing things together. He’s you know, gently nudged by Quin but it’s you know I feel a bit bad for Satterthwaite because he doesn’t get this the the the credit.
BrookYeah, you’re right? Mr. Quin is his mentor maybe but Satterthwaite does all the work. And to the point we don’t even know his first name. I don’t believe he has a first name. He’s only ever referred to as Mr. Satterthwaite so yeah and again it’s like what is she saying there I just find this whole thing so fascinating and there’s so many layers you could pick apart.
SarahThat’s ah that’s a great point. What what is she’s saying? So I liked how and you mentioned this in in the introduction kind of um, romantic element, matchmaking if you will, and the detection and she blends that in these. And you can kind of feel that romantic thread that I think she had herself and so that was kind of nice. You know I think the the stories were originally published in the 1920s right? Most of them. And we know that that was a rocky period for her in terms of her romantic life. Um, so yeah I Wonder if there’s anything that if we did a little bit more digging we could. We could learn about that way.
BrookYeah, and it’s different because we also mentioned this in the Parker Pyne stories that he was solving love dilemmas as well. But it’s very different I feel like. His dilemmas were solved in such a black and white almost legal manner. And then these are written much more lyrically and romantic and again I find it hard to believe that the same person wrote both of them. I’m not questioning that of course she did. It just shows what a range. What a broad range she had and and of talent.
SarahYeah, as you say the Parker Pyne stories. There’s definitely um, you know he’s fixing some romantic situations but the tone of those the feel of those is very different from these. And as you say she’s just got such um, such a great range.
BrookSo, Sarah have you read the Poirot novel Three Act Tragedy where Mr. Satterthwaite appears?
SarahNo, I haven’t read that one yet, Brook. How about you?
BrookNo I haven’t either. But I love that it involves the theater you know so she is drawing in that harlequin um theme I guess somehow. I’m anxious to see what role Mr. Satterthwaite plays in that story.
BrookAnd I also love that Christie did that where she put different characters and she doesn’t do it a lot but there’s little um, bits here and there of characters doing crossovers in her worlds and it just makes it feel like genuine.
SarahAbsolutely yeah, no I think that’s I think that’s such a neat thing. Um that that she was doing that and um I’m definitely going to track down The Three Act Tragedy.
BrookWell Sarah this was a great conversation about another one of Agatha Christie’s lesser-known sleuths.
SarahI agree, Brook. It’s so fun to look into some of these other characters that um that we know that Christie wrote but maybe haven’t haven’t yet had a chance to read.
BrookYeah, and I hope that it inspires our listeners to go find some of these other stories that maybe aren’t the first ones that everyone thinks of. So thank you all for joining us today on another episode of Clued in Mystery I’m Brook.
SarahAnd I’m Sarah and we both love mystery.