This is a rather unusual collection of twelve short stories. They all revolve around the elderley Mr Satterthwaite who, as far as I can make out, is filthy rich, only hangs around with the upper crust, has no day job to speak of, and travels the world observing people to avoid boredom.
From time to time, he bumps into a rather enigmatic character called Mr Harley Quin. Mr Quin, named after Harlequin, the mischief-making character from the Italian Comedy who can make himself invisible, has a knack of showing up whenever there is a murder to be solved, perhaps even prevented. There are also a couple of odd stories where there is a romance that can perhaps be organised, or a suicide prevented.
While these stories are fairly well dated (being written in the 30s), two things make this one of Christie’s more memorable books:
1) Mr Quin’s supernatural edge. Christie never goes into great detail about this, but as the stories progress, the vagueness of his background, his habit of coming and going at odd moments, his name, and other strange things point to Mr Quin’s being not quite human.
2) His mystery-solving style. Unlike Poirot or Miss Marple, who bring all the pieces together and provide the solution that nobody else saw before, Mr Quin merely has discussions with Mr Satterthwaite. During those discussions, he will ask leading questions and drop subtle hints of things. Mr Satterthwaite then, as a result of said discussions, will then arrive at a conclusion and be in a position to set things right.
I think the whole stories are summed up best by this quote from the story “The Man From the Sea”:
[Mr Satterthwaite] paused breathlessly, then added:
‘You must excuse my excitement. Do you happen to know anything about catalysis?’
The young man stared at him.
‘Never heard of it. What is it?’
Mr Satterthwaite quoted gravely: ‘A chemical reaction depending for its success on the presence of a certain substance which itself remains unchanged.’
‘Oh,’ said the young man uncertainly.
‘I have a certain friend – his name is Mr Quin, and he can best be described in terms of catalysis. His presence is a sign that things are going to happen, because when he is there strange revelations come to light, discoveries are made. And yet – he himself takes no part in the proceedings . . .”
3 1/2 out of 5.