According to me, this is one of the underrated gems of Agatha Christie, where she flirts with fantasy. Even though none of the stories except the last one (Harlequin's Lane
) cross over into fantasy territory, they are always on the borderline. That Christie does this without straining our credibility speaks volumes for her mastery of the medium.
Mr. Harley Quin is a thinly disguised Harlequin, transported into modern England. His specialty: he allows one to solve mysteries by stripping away the unnecessary details. He does this by asking one to imagine that the events happened in the remote past, to strangers: this removes the personal element from the equation and allows one to see clearer. Mr. Satterthwaite, an elderly bachelor who is interested in human beings and their affairs, is the usual beneficiary of Quin's method.
Most of the mysteries in the volume are dark and brooding. The first story, The Coming of Mr. Quin
, sets the tone for the whole book when Quin appears at the doorstep of the country house where Mr. Satterthwaite happens to be spending his New Year's Eve, as the first visitor of the year. As he steps across the threshold, a queer trick of the light appears to give the impression that the visitor is dressed in motley and is wearing a mask. Then Quin sets out to make his presence felt by enabling the house-guests to solve the mystery of a suicide that happened in that house a year ago! In the process, he helps two lovers reunite.
This is Quin's trademark - love...and violent death. As Satterthwaite says, his friend seem to be interested in the welfare of lovers more than solving crimes. But in a Christie story, they often go hand in hand.
This book is a personal favourite of mine, read over and over countless number of times; especially on wet June nights, in the cavernous rooms of my ancestral home in Kerala, as the monsoon rages outside. I half expect Quin to step over the threshold every time, saying: "Damnable weather outside. Can I wait inside till it clears?"