Christie said that these stories about Mr. Harley Quin and Mr. Satterthwaite were among her favorite writings from her own oeuvre. And with good reason. Atypical of her work as they are in some ways, the dozen tales in this volume nonetheless highlight her merits as a literary artist. They showcase her workmanlike ability to summon forth a character with a few simple words, or to evoke a mood with a single striking image. (By contrast, the more purely plot-driven exploits of Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple tend to mask those qualities.) Satterthwaite, a prim old bachelor who “sees things” that others are blind to, serves as the main point-of-view character; he actually occupies more “page time” than the title character. Meek and watchful, yet capable of turning a situation inside-out with his capacity for observation, Satterthwaite is a mouse who occasionally roars. Those occasions always coincide with moments when Quin is nearby. A trickster figure inspired by the harlequinade tradition, Quin flits in and out of his friend’s genteel life, and he performs his tricks indirectly, as Satterthwaite notes to an acquaintance: “I have a friend—his name is Mr. Quin and he can best be desribed in the terms of catalysis. His presence is a sign that things are going to happen; because he is there strange revelations come to light, discoveries are made. And yet—he himself takes no part in the proceedings.”
Mixing straight realism with a hint of fantasy, the adventures of Quin and Satterthwaite recall G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown series. As in a Father Brown tale, the spell of high drama—chiaroscuro lighting, sudden entrances and exits, larger-than-life gestures—hangs over every scene, as does the central conceit that behind every worldly puzzle lies a mystical, otherworldly truth. Most of the Quin stories involve a criminal problem of some kind, and they end with Satterthwaite offering some kind of solution to it. But not all of them follow that pattern. In the last of them, “Harlequin’s Lane,” Christie takes a high-brow turn. The tale explores a pair of romantic triangles, after the style of drawing-room theater, and it culminates not in a neat resolution but in a stark epiphany.