Monday, 1 April 2019

Poirot Project: The Further Adventures of Mr Satterthwaite


This post is part of my 2016-19 Poirot Project. You can read the full story of why I’m doing this in my Introduction post. The previous post was a review of ‘The Chocolate Box’.

Beware: Here be Spoilers


When I was coming up to reviewing ‘How Does Your Garden Grow?’, I decided to make this blog project even more completist by considering Miss Lemon’s appearances in other, non-Poirot stories. I called that post ‘The Further Adventures of Miss Lemon’, and I said at the time that my plan was to write about the ‘further adventures’ of all the other characters who crop up in both Poirot and non-Poirot stories.

Well, it’s time for another ‘further adventures’ post… This time, it’s Mr Satterthwaite who takes centre-stage.

What do you mean, who’s Mr Satterthwaite? Oh dear.

Actually, you might (just) be forgiven for needing to be reminded about Mr Satterthwaite. The poor chap gets short shrift when it comes to Christie adaptations. And by that I mean, Mr Satterthwaite has never appeared on screen in a Christie adaptation. He was (I think) used as the central character in a ‘modern day drama interpretation’ app produced as a ‘multimedia stream with social functionality’ by Agatha Christie Productions in 2015. I’d never heard of the Mr Quin app before today, but I see from the publicity that Mr Satterthwaite was played by Gethin Anthony, making Anthony perhaps the only person to ever perform as (a version of) Christie’s rather unassuming character.

One adaptation where you certainly won’t see Mr Satterthwaite is ITV’s Agatha Christie’s Poirot. Although Christie included the character in ‘Dead Man’s Mirror’ and Three Act Tragedy, the character was removed/replaced in the TV versions. So, you might ask, given that this is a blog about the ITV show, why on earth have I devoted an entire post to a minor character who appears very briefly in a couple of stories and is dropped entirely from the adaptations?

It’s simple really. I wanted an excuse to talk about Harley Quin.


Not you.

In the mid- to late-1920s, Christie wrote a series of short stories for various magazines (including Grand Magazine and The Story-Teller, featuring a certain Mr Satterthwaite and his mysterious friend Harley Quin.


NOT YOU. Go on, clear off.

Twelve of the stories were published in 1930 as a collection entitled The Mysterious Mr Quin, and two further stories ‘The Love Detectives’ (first published as ‘At the Crossroads’ in The Story-Teller, but not included in the earlier collection) and ‘The Harlequin Tea Set’ were included in later collections of Christie stories. All the short stories, along with ‘Dead Man’s Mirror’ and Three Act Tragedy were collected into The Complete Quin and Satterthwaite: Love Detectives and published by HarperCollins.

I know the stories from my 1965 Fontana Books edition of The Mysterious Mr Quin (which I apparently bought for 19p when I was working at the Oxfam shop in the late 90s) and the 2010 HarperCollins eBook edition of Problem at Pollensa Bay (a collection first published in 1991, which includes ‘The Love Detectives’ and ‘The Harlequin Tea Set’).


To put these stories in context of Christie’s other detective fiction… the first Harley Quin story was published in March 1924. By this point, Christie had written two Poirot novels and a series of short stories for the Sketch. She was also in the process of wrapping up a second series of Sketch stories (known as ‘The Man who was No. 4’), which finished the same month as the first Harley Quin story appeared. Tommy and Tuppence had appeared in one novel (The Secret Adversary) by this time, but it would be three years before Miss Marple’s first outing (‘The Tuesday Night Club’, 1927) and eight years before we’d meet Parker Pyne (‘The Case of the Discontented Soldier’, 1932).

According to Christie’s autobiography, the Harley Quin stories were her favourite stories (or, perhaps, her favourite out of the two short story collections she published between 1929-1932 – her statement is a tad ambiguous!), and ‘Little Mr Satterthwaite’ was one of her favourite characters. Is it strange, then, that he has drifted into obscurity? Or is it somehow weirdly appropriate?

In case you’re unfamiliar with the Harley Quin/Mr Satterthwaite stories, allow me to introduce you to them. You’re in for a treat.

Our introduction to the characters – and to the type of story in which they will feature – comes in the first published story ‘The Coming of Mr Quin’. Our hero (as it were) is described thus:
‘Mr Satterthwaite was sixty-two* - a little bent, dried-up man with a peering face oddly elflike, and an intense and inordinate interest in other people’s lives. All his life, so to speak, he had sat in the front row of the stalls watching various dramas of human nature unfold before him. His role had always been that of the onlooker. Only now, with old age holding him in its clutch, he found himself increasingly critical of the drama submitted to him. He demanded now something a little out of the common.’
The story takes place on New Year’s Eve, at a house party at Royston. Mr Satterthwaite is among the guests, as are Richard Conway, a couple called Portal and ‘six or seven young people whose names Mr Satterthwaite had not grasped’. The hosts are Tom and Laura Evesham.

As midnight strikes, Mr Satterthwaite finds himself intrigued by Eleanor Portal, and by what he perceives to be the strange effect she has on her husband. The party toast to ‘Auld Lang Syne’, and a rather melancholy mood comes over them. In typical NYE fashion, they begin to get a little maudlin, remembering the death of Derek Capel (the previous owner of the house), some years earlier. (Except the ‘serious political’ Laura Evesham, that is. She’s just hoping the New Year will be happier: ‘But the political situation seems to me to be fraught with grave uncertainty.’ Bloody Brexit.)

Up to this point, ‘The Coming of Mr Quin’ reads like a fairly standard Golden Age country house mystery, albeit one with a curious central character. As midnight chimes, though, a somewhat different atmosphere descends. There’s talk of Royston being haunted, of an old case that has never been fully explained, and a wild wind begins to blow outside. Laura Evesham (in a somewhat less ‘serious political’ vein) talks of an old superstition: ‘it must be a dark man who first steps over the door step on New Year’s Day’. And Alex Portal is unsettled by the weather:
‘“A good night for ghosts to walk,” said Portal with a reckless laugh. “All the devils in Hell are abroad to-night.”
“According to Lady Laura, even the blackest of them would bring us luck,” observed Conway, with a laugh.’
It should come as absolutely no surprise that, at this point, the men’s laughter is interrupted by the heavy sound of three loud knocks on the door.

Is it a dark man come to cross the threshold and bring good luck? Is it a ghost? Is it a devil?
‘Framed in the doorway stood a man’s figure, tall and slender. To Mr Satterthwaite, watching, he appeared by some curious effect of the stained glass above the door, to be dressed in every colour of the rainbow. Then, as he stepped forward, he showed himself to be a thin dark man dressed in motoring clothes.’
This is Mr Harley Quin. And he is most definitely not a consulting detective.

Before I come on to what – exactly – Mr Quin is, I want to say something about the type of cases he solves with Mr Satterthwaite. I guess the modern way of describing them would be ‘cold cases’ – these stories feature puzzles from the past, where there are no clues or opportunities for re-investigation. Harley Quin has no interest in different types of cigarette ash or footprints in the flowerbed, but rather he is concerned with the details of an event deeply hidden in the memories of those present. In ‘The Coming of Mr Quin’, he gently encourages the house party to think back to the death of Derek Capel and piece together the seemingly unrelated scraps they all recall.

This use of memory – the idea that the truth can be obtained by a group of people sharing what they remember of an event – is something Christie would come back to in later Poirot stories. Both Five Little Pigs and Elephants Can Remember have this idea as a central conceit, for instance. As with these later novels, this act of remembering is coupled with a detective character who observes the participants as they remember, in order to put together a plausible theory of what must have occurred. While it is Mr Quin who nudges the memories in ‘The Coming of Mr Quin’, it is Mr Satterthwaite who is able to divine the significances.

This is the general pattern of the subsequent Harley Quin stories as well. While there are two stories in which Satterthwaite is able to prevent an impending murder (‘The Face of Helen’ and ‘The Harlequin Tea Set’ – arguably ‘The Voice in the Dark’ could be counted here as well, though it’s not completely clear what ‘Clayton’ plans to do to Margery after killing her mother) and one where Satterthwaite is himself present at the time of the murder (‘The Bird with the Broken Wing’), the stories tend to focus on cases that have happened elsewhere and, usually, at some point in the past. Few of the stories actually end with an arrest, and there is very little mention of the police.

What does get more of a mention in the Harley Quin stories is suicide. In a number of stories, Mr Satterthwaite is able to discern suicidal intent in a chance acquaintance and, almost always, avert this by solving the problem at the root of their desperation. ‘The Man from the Sea’ is probably the clearest example of this, but there are a number of other stories featuring characters brought low by a crippling melancholia quite unlike anything found elsewhere in Christie’s fiction. These are stories about, above all, sadness.

While I guess it’s tempting to imagine reasons why Christie might, in the mid- to late-1920s, have written a series of short stories with sadness as the overriding theme, I don’t want to do that here. What I’m interested about is her choice of ‘detective’ for these stories – what’s the deal with Harley Quin?


What – exactly – is Harley Quin?

‘The Coming of Mr Quin’ gives a few possibilities… he’s a ghost, he’s a devil, he’s a good luck charm. Elsewhere in the stories, he takes on more explicitly supernatural qualities. He appears where he should not be – sometimes apparently willed there by Satterthwaite himself (e.g. ‘The Harlequin Tea Set’) – and disappears in equally baffling ways (e.g. he seems to walk off a cliff at the end of ‘The Man from the Sea’). On one occasion (‘The Bird with the Broken Wing’), he appears to send Satterthwaite a summons from afar via table-turning.

Of course, it should go without saying that Harley Quin is also directly associated with… well… Harlequin. There’s the name (obvs), and the fact that he’s often described as appearing to be dressed in multi-coloured clothes or motley, though this is often simply a trick of the light. At the end of ‘The Coming of Mr Quin’, he cheekily suggests Mr Satterthwaite checks out the Harlequinade at the theatre: ‘It is dying out nowadays – but it repays attention.’ In subsequent stories, Satterthwaite runs into Quin at a fancy restaurant named Arlecchino and a country pub called the Bells and Motley. In ‘The Harlequin Tea Set’, the H-word is used repeatedly to describe the eponymous multi-coloured tea service, and then there’s ‘Harlequin’s Lane’… but no… you’re not ready for that one yet.


Now, I drafted a whole long section about Harlequin that I was going to include here. About his appearance in the Italian Commedia dell’arte as a comedic zanni (servant) character. About the theories that this zanni Harlequin is a development of earlier mischievous ‘devil’ characters in medieval drama, explaining Harlequin’s common role as a trickster. About the English Harlequinade and pantomime, and the importing of Harlequin as a key character. About the development of the English Harlequin into the sophisticated romantic lead, to be contrasted with the chaos and brutishness of Clown. I had a whole big thing about Joseph Grimaldi and the Payne Brothers, the relationship to Punch and Judy, the significance of ‘motley’ and its jester heritage.

But the thing is… that’s not what Harley Quin is. Harley Quin is something that derives from – to quote Max Mallowan – ‘Agatha’s peculiar imagination’. He isn’t a mischievous trickster, or a romantic lead. He isn’t a jester or a comedic servant. He is an immortal death deity – a psychopomp.

I imagine you think I’ve lost the plot now, don’t you?

But I totally stand by this claim. Agatha Christie’s series detectives are: a Belgian refugee, a married couple who dabble in secret service work, an elderly spinster, a life coach and an immortal psychopomp. Fact.

Don’t believe me? Let’s take a trip down ‘Harlequin’s Lane’, shall we?

In this story, Mr Satterthwaite is visiting a couple called Denman. John Denman is a solid Englishman ‘devoid of imagination’, and Mrs Denman is a Russian who escaped the revolution as a refugee. The Denmans live close to an old-fashioned ‘rural lane’ named Harlequin’s Lane, and Mr Satterthwaite is unsurprised to find his old friend hanging out on said street.

What follows is probably the trippiest, most disturbing story of the lot.

In a nutshell: the Denmans are planning to stage a little entertainment for their friends. They’re putting on a ballet performance of ‘Harlequin and Columbine’, and they have some exciting dancers arriving to take part. Turns out, Mrs Denman trained as a dancer in Russia. Talk turns to the tragedy of Kharsanova, Russia’s greatest ever dancer (apparently), who was killed during the revolution. People arrive and there’s hints of intrigue (Does John Denman fancy Molly Stanwell? Does Mrs Denman have a history with Prince Oranoff?). But then a car accident prevents the arrival of the professional dancers… Mrs Denman decides to dance the part of Columbine herself, with Oranoff playing Harlequin.

Plot twist: Mrs Denman is Kharsanova!

I’ll gloss over the reasons for Anna Kharsanova’s decision to disappear to England and change her name (just for info, not saying it’s relevant, but the story was published just five months after Christie disappeared and was found staying in Harrogate under a false name). What matters is the resolution to the story. Despite Mrs Denman/Kharsanova’s implication that she is now going to leave her husband to be with Oranoff (‘For ten years I have lived with the man I love […] Now I am going to the man who for ten years has loved me.’), the story quickly reveals that her words mean something else entirely. She explains to Satterthwaite:
‘“Always one looks for one thing – the lover, the perfect, the eternal lover… It is the music of Harlequin one hears. No lover ever satisfies one, for all lovers are mortal. And Harlequin is only a myth, an invisible presence… unless –”
“Yes,” said Mr Satterthwaite. “Yes?”
“Unless – his name is – Death!”’
WTF?

Shortly afterwards, Satterthwaite sees Kharsanova being led down Harlequin’s Lane by his old (at this point, terrifying) friend. Her maid, however, saw her walking down the lane alone.

They all hurry to the end of the lane and find Anna Kharsanova… lying dead on a rubbish heap.

Seriously, WTF??

Satterthwaite – quite understandably – asks Mr Quin what the hell is going on:
‘“What is this place?” he whispered. “What is this place?”
“I told you earlier to-day. It is My lane.”
[…] “And at the end of it – what do they find?”
“The house of their dreams – or a rubbish heap – who shall say?”’
And with that, Mr Quin literally vanishes into thin air.

Mr Satterthwaite better hope his friend is a psychopomp. The alternative is that he’s a psychopath, gleefully offing Russian ballet dancers and chucking their bodies onto his homemade murder tip.

Anyway, I’ve looked everywhere for some academic source for this association of Harlequin with death. There’s nothing. Harlequin-as-psychopomp really does seem to be Christie’s own unique take. It’s easy enough to find information about Christie’s fascination with the characters of the Commedia dell’arte (or more accurately the Harlequinade): in her autobiography, for instance, she writes about some of her early poems, which drew on stories of Harlequin and Columbine, and breezily suggests that Harley Quin was simply a ‘kind of carry-over’ from these. Her first Poirot short story (‘The Affair at the Victory Ball’ featured characters dressed as figures from the Commedia, supposedly inspired by a set of china ornaments she’d had as a child. But none of this explains why she repeatedly associates Harlequin with death.

I don’t have an answer to this. And I’ve just remembered that I’m supposed to be talking about Mr Satterthwaite, and not Harley Quin. Oops.

To return to where I began: Mr Satterthwaite has never appeared on screen. In fact, the Harley Quin stories themselves have barely been adapted. Nevertheless, there is an interesting story about the only (loose) film adaptation to tackle the tales – or, rather, one of the tales.

In 1928, a silent film version of ‘The Coming of Mr Quin’ was made. It was the first British film adaptation of a work by Christie, predating Alibi by three years. The film was called The Passing of Mr Quin, and, like Alibi, it was directed by Leslie S. Hiscott. The film took… erm… quite serious liberties with the plot and characterization, to the point of revealing at the end that it was Mr Quin himself who carried out the murder. Mr Satterthwaite – poor Mr Satterthwaite – is removed from the story entirely.

I have not seen The Passing of Mr Quin. The film was a ‘quota quickie’, and it has since been lost. However, the studio decided to publish a novelization of the film shortly after its release. Agatha Christie was reportedly horrified by this, not realizing that the film rights she had sold gave permission to the studio to use her characters in this way (and suffice to say future contracts were worded quite differently). The novelization only had a single print run, but it did survive.


In 2017, HarperCollins republished The Passing of Mr Quinn (note the spelling of the character’s name), with a fantastic introduction by Mark Aldridge that outlines the history of the film and the novelization, as well as the publication history of Christie’s own stories. It’s well worth a read.

So what have we learnt?

Mr Satterthwaite is one of Christie’s more overlooked creations, despite being one of her favourites. He’s an unassuming gent of good taste and sociable habits, who enjoys the arts. After many years of simply observing life’s drama, he has decided to make more of an intervention, and this leads him to offer comfort, explanation and resolution to the troubled people he encounters. The stories in which he features are characterized by deep sadness, with suicide being a common theme.

Mr Satterthwaite hooks up with a possibly malevolent, and almost definitely immortal, psychopomp, who may or may not be Harlequin. Among his more human acquaintances is Hercule Poirot, who he chums up with in ‘Dead Man’s Mirror’ (briefly) and Three Act Tragedy.

We’ve also learnt that you, dear reader, will put up with me rambling on for 3500 words about characters that aren’t even in the ITV Poirot series.

Shall I get back on track? The next episode is ‘Dead Man’s Mirror’, which doesn’t include Mr Satterthwaite. But it’s an adaptation of a short story that does include Mr Satterthwaite. Of course, that short story is an expansion of an earlier story that doesn’t include Mr Satterthwaite. You know what? Let’s just move on to ‘Dead Man’s Mirror’




* I believe that Christie made some changes between the original magazine publication and the 1930 book publication of the story. One of these changes was to shift Mr Satterthwaite’s age forward from 57 to 62.

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