Covering two supernatural-inflected Agatha Christie collections, The Last Seance and The Mysterious Mr. Quin.
Long before I was into ghost stories, I was into detective and crime fiction. I grew up reading old paperback anthologies from Ellery Queen and Alfred Hitchcock, and I read a lot of Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers: everything my local library had. But it’s been years since I’ve read anything by either Christie or Sayers, or that style of “body in the library” detective fiction, in general.
Christie and Sayers began their writing careers in the period between the two World Wars, a period when the English ghost story also proliferated. It’s not surprising that both authors tried their hand at supernatural tales. While I’d come across a few of Christie’s ghost stories amongst her short story collections, it was before I was as widely read in the supernatural literature of the period as I am now. So it was interesting to read the recent Christie collection, The Last Seance: Tales of the Supernatural, now that I’m more familiar with the landscape of ghost stories written about the same time.
The Last Seance isn’t a ghost story collection; it’s a collection of stories with supernatural overtones. In some stories, the ghosts and other supernatural elements really exist; in others they are pretense, camouflage for an entirely naturalistic crime. And sometimes, the supernatural is simply karma, a “subterranean moving of blind forces” groping towards justice, to paraphrase a character in one of the stories.
This mixture has some advantages, as “pure” collections or anthologies can be spoilerish. The hound on the moors or the vampire in Sussex can never be perfectly spooky when Sherlock Holmes is around. Likewise, when you read an Ellen Datlow anthology, you’re never really surprised to discover the mysterious old lady across the street was dead the whole time. With The Last Seance, there’s a little guesswork involved in the reading. Not a lot of guesswork; if Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple appear on the scene, you know the resolution will be purely earthly. Still, one story in particular had me fooled almost to the end; it was a fun surprise.
Overall, I’d say the naturalistic crime stories were the better ones. The truly supernatural stories felt too much of their period, covering the typical subjects and themes as other stories published contemporaneously. They were generally good, but not outstanding. “The Dressmaker’s Doll” stood out for me, because it felt thematically the freshest (it was also the most recent story, written in 1958).
In the end, I enjoyed revisiting an author who gave me so much pleasure growing up. While I don’t think all the stories (especially a few of the ghost stories) have aged well, there was still a lot of entertainment to be found. But I’d have to say that The Last Seance is more for mystery buffs who enjoy a little spookiness than the other way around.
Since Agatha Christie had come back to my attention, I decided to check out another collection of supernaturalish short stories, The Mysterious Mr. Quin. The protagonist of the collection is the elderly, wealthy Mr. Satterthwaite who spends his life hobnobbing amongst the upper classes in an endless round of weekend country house parties and trips to the Continent. Then he meets a mysterious man named Harley Quin, who “comes and goes,” and who has the uncanny ability to draw from Satterthwaite observations–and conclusions–that resolve various mysteries and dramas that Satterthwaite comes across.
I liked this collection. Again, the plots revolve around naturalistic situations: straightforward murders and crimes in the earlier stories, other types of human drama in the later stories. Only Mr. Quin has a touch of the supernatural about himself (his name, of course, is not an accident). The real interest is in the development of Mr. Satterthwaite. In the beginning, Satterthwaite is a fussy, effeminate, comfort-oriented man; even his friends call him “old-maidenish.” He’s never experienced any deep romance or drama; he is more an observer than participant in life. Under the influence of Mr. Quin, he gradually becomes more of a participant in, not just an observer of, the situations that he encounters. He also learns to channel the observational and deductive abilities that Quin draws out of him, relying less on Quin’s direct aid as time goes on. The true nature of Mr. Quin also becomes clearer (but never perfectly clear), and the fantastical elements ratchet up as the stories progress.
My main complaint is that the stories aren’t arranged in the order that Christie wrote them. If they had been, this could have been read almost as a novel, with a narrative arc that shows the gradual blossoming of Mr. Satterthwaite and reveals more and more about Mr. Quin. As it is, the climax of this would-be novel, the story “The Man from the Sea,” appears right in the middle of the collection, which spoils the overall narrative arc, and to a certain extent the stories that come later in the collection as well.
The edition of the collection that I read contains the original publication dates of each story, so a patient reader can read the Satterthwaite/Quin saga in the proper order. I give the order below, but at the very least, I’d recommend skipping over “The Man from the Sea” and “The Bird with the Broken Wing” on your first reading, and reading them last (in that order).
In fact you could even just skip “The Bird with the Broken Wing” altogether, as it’s not a great story, and isn’t really a Quin story. It feels more like a teaser for the “next installment” of a Satterthwaite series, without Mr. Quin. Christie even adds a new character, Inspector Winkfield, who seems poised to take the role of Inspector Lestrade to Satterthwaite’s Sherlock Holmes. Perhaps Christie had been thinking about writing more about the Satterthwaite character, but as far as I know he only appears subsequently in the Hercule Poirot novel Three Act Tragedy.
Of the two collections, I preferred The Mysterious Mr. Quin. I liked the combination of fair-play ratiocination tales with a touch of the fantastic. I enjoyed following Mr. Satterthwaite’s development, and the gradual encroachment of the supernatural as the stories progressed. If you like Golden Age mystery stories with a fairy-tale feel, or if you like fantastical stories with crime stories at their core, you might enjoy reading about Mr. Satterthwaite and Mr. Quin, too.
Publication order for the stories in The Mysterious Mr. Quin.
The Coming of Mr. Quin – March 1923
The Shadow on the Glass – October 1923
The Sign in the Sky – June 1925
At the “Bells and Motley” – November 1925
The Soul of the Croupier – 13 November 1926
The World’s End – 20 November 1926
The Voice in the Dark – December 1926
The Face of Helen – April 1927
Harlequin’s Lane (*) – May 1927
The Dead Harlequin (*) – March 1929
The Man from the Sea – October 1929
The Bird with the Broken Wing – April 1930
(*) While “Harlequin’s Lane” was published before “The Dead Harlequin,” I think that the overall narrative arc will work better if you read “The Dead Harlequin” first.