The Mysterious Mr Quin

THE BOOK   Fontana, 1977 pp 255

A Tom Adams cover featuring yet another insect (the wonderfully-named Death’s Head Hawk Moth) and a revolver pinned to a background drawing of characters from the commedia dell’arte, the inspiration for this book’s main character, the Harlequin. The figure of the Harlequin on the right was painted by Paul Cezanne.


The Mysterious Mr Quin is a collection of 12 short stories, all bar one of which had been published in magazines such as The Strand during the 1920s. In terms of the number of pages, it is the longest of any of Agatha Christie’s crime fiction books.

There are two characters who appear in each story: Mr Satterthwaite, a dried-up little elf of a man in his 60s, and Harley Quin, a shadowy character who materialises at a crucial moment in each story and disappears just as suddenly after giving those present their cue for action.

Mr Satterthwaite had all his life been an on-looker, ‘sitting in the stalls’, with the world’s dramas and tragedies seemingly devised for his own personal entertainment, he himself taking little part in them.

Mr Quin represents the invisible Harlequin of old, one who ‘speaks for the dead that cannot speak for themselves’ and ‘a friend to lovers’. He is also an on-looker, but one unable to intervene in the action. Instead, he plays the silent director who puts Satterthwaite centre-stage, using him as his agent to resolve injustices from the past and prevent those of the future. 

Thus Mr Satterthwaite is soon surprised to find himself instrumental in thwarting at least three potential suicides, uncovering a long-lost precious ruby and smoothing the path to happiness of various young lovers.


Mr Satterthwaite and Mr Quin were two of Agatha Christie’s own personal favourite characters, and they are characterised with more subtlety than many others from the period (the 1920s). But not always… here is Satterthwaite the snob (and apparent anti-semite, anti-foreigner etc):

Mr Satterthwaite had seen the Countess at Monte Carlo for many seasons now. The first time he had seen her she had been in the company of a Grand Duke. On the next occasions she was with an Austrian Baron. On successive years her friends had been of Hebraic extraction, sallow men with hooked noses, wearing rather flamboyant jewellery. 
(The Soul of the Croupier)

“I mean, you know all the Duchesses and Earls and Countesses and things.”
“A good many of them,” said Mr Satterthwaite. “And also the Jews and the Portuguese and the Greeks and the Argentines.”
“Eh?” said Mr Rudge.
“I was just explaining,” said Mr Satterthwaite, “that I move in English society.” 
(The Soul of the Croupier)

Here is Satterthwaite as habitual onlooker – life to him is almost like a soap opera:

“In the first place, I doubt if I should have the courage (to commit suicide).  It needs courage and I am not at all a brave individual. And in the second place -“
“I always want to know what s going to happen tomorrow.” 
(The Man from the Sea)

And here is Satterthwaite as connoisseur:

“Sometimes there are very wonderful things on a rubbish heap,” said Mr Quin.
“I know, I know,” cried Mr Satterthwaite, and quoted with just a trace of self-consciousness: “‘Bring me the two most beautiful things in the city, said God’. You know how it goes, eh?” 
Mr Quin nodded. 
(Harlequin’s Lane)

Satterthwaite is proud of his levels of cultural appreciation and here he is quoting from Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince (how many of her readers would now appreciate what he and Quin are getting at?). But it is a most appropriate comment: In Wilde’s story, the ‘two most beautiful things’ that are brought back to God by his angel are the leaden heart of the prince, and the dead body of his friend the swallow, both found on a rubbish heap, thus presaging the fate of Kharsanova in Harlequin’s Lane


Mr Satterthwaite’s senses are sharpened each time he encounters Mr Quin, and he enjoys his spell in the limelight, but by the end he realises that none of it will have had any lasting effect on his own character or way of life:

Quin quote

Once each story has finished, as far as the other actors in the drama are concerned, Mr Satterthwaite may as well also have vanished in a puff of smoke along with his friend.


The idea behind this collection – a spirit appearing from nowhere to inspire the righting of an old wrong or the prevention of a new one – is a brilliantly original one. There are no detectives or police in any of the stories.

The quality of some of them is mixed but the good ones – for example, The Man from the Sea, The Soul of the Croupier – are among the best she wrote. An overall atmosphere is sustained so that, as a collection, The Mysterious Mr Quin hangs together really well. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts.


Agatha Christie’s early poetry had included verses inspired by the characters of Harlequin and Columbine; there were a set of commedia dell’arte figurines in a cabinet at her home. She returned to these figures a few times in her early writing.

In the original Italian commedia dell’arte performances, Harlequin (Arlecchino) was a slapstick servant figure, in love with Columbine, of the kind able to outwit his master each time. The character portrayed by Agatha Christie is more akin to the one that evolved as this piece of street theatre travelled to France and England in the 18th and 19th centuries: from mischievous imp it had developed into something more mercurial and romantic, almost magical.

The Harlequin is not the only member of the troupe to appear in her stories. There are many references to them – for example:

The final story in this collection – Harlequin’s Lane – features a masquerade involving the characters of Columbine, Pierrot and Pierrette

In The Face of Helen, Satterthwaite is surprised to find Mr Quin attending a performance of I Pagliacci, an opera by Leoncavallo that is set amongst a commedia troupe; the lead character Canio plays the part of Pagliacco, a clown who is duped by the characters of Arlecchino and Columbina; comedy turns to tragedy as Canio kills the actors playing each of them. No wonder Mr Quin comments: “There are reasons why I am attracted to – Pagliacci.” 1

The Affair at the Victory Ball, the first story in the collection Poirot’s Early Cases, features a fancy dress ball in which all the suspects dress up as characters from the commedia dell’arte, including also Pulchinello and Punchinella 

A Pierrot doll is found in the murdered Arlena Marshall’s room in Evil Under the Sun and in the Willetts living-room in The Sittaford Mystery.


The mercurial Mr Quin and Mr Satterthwaite appeared once more in the posthumously-published collection Problem at Pollensa Bay. Satterthwaite is also to be found in the company of Hercule Poirot in Three Act Tragedy.

One of the first commedia dell’arte troupes in Italy was founded by Isabella Andreini and her husband, and it may perhaps be not too fanciful to imagine that Swigatha used their name for two of the characters in Murder on the Orient Express: Count and Countess Andrenyi.

Finally, the germs of two future full-length works are present in some of these stories – Taken at the Flood (which uses the main clue from The Sign in the Sky) and the beginning of Towards Zero (which re-uses Satterthwaite’s argument against suicide in The Man from the Sea).


These stories as a group have yet to be adapted for the cinema or TV although the very first silent film of an Agatha Christie story, in 1928, was based loosely on The Coming of Mr Quinn (sic). 

Many of the stories have been read in abridged form by Martin Jarvis for BBC Radio, and these are repeated on Radio 4 Extra from time to time.


1 Canio’s closing line from i Pagliacci – ‘La commedia é finita!’ – provided Swigatha with the final line of another opera-based short story – Swan Song, from The Listerdale Mystery collection