The shelf of English-language books at my local kringwinkel (shop selling second-hand and recycled goods) is always full of surprises. There are thick tomes by Marian Keyes and Sophie Kinsella, a book on the Mayan Prophecies which has been sitting there unloved ever since I first visited it about five years ago, a clutter of elderly diet and exercise books (Callanetics!). Sometimes there’s a curio I can’t prevent myself from buying: Haydn’s Visits to England, by Christopher Hogwood, was a book I’d never known before I saw it that I would need to read, and I also fell for The Old Burma Road: A Journey on Foot and Muleback, by Doctor Neville Bradley (foreword by the enchantingly named Lady Erskine Crum). Currently I’m toying with the purchase of Tolstoy’s edited correspondence, volume one. This is a book I’d like to believe I’d read, but would I? Is it, what I’d call an ‘aspirational purchase’ (I’d like to be the sort of person who reads it, but never actually get round to doing so).
A few weeks ago I spotted a trio of Agatha Christie paperbacks, with those slightly lurid Fontana paperback covers of the late 1970s. One of them was The Mysterious Mr Quin, a collection of stories first published in 1930. It was the beginning of the new school term, a time of particular stress and paperwork for teachers, and this seemed just the ticket for a tired and confused brain (I am not very good at administration).
‘You think it’s all bunkum on my part, Mr. Satterthwaite? But there are people, you know, who can tell you when a storm’s coming. They feel it beforehand in the air. And other people can foretell trouble. There’s trouble coming now, Mr. Satterthwaite, big trouble. It may come at any minute. It may—'
[Porter] stopped dead, clutching Mr. Satterthwaite’s arm. And in that tense minute of silence it came—the sound of two shots, and following them, a cry—a cry in a woman’s voice.
‘My God!’ cried Porter. ‘It’s come!’
He raced down the path, Mr. Satterthwaite panting behind him. In a minute they came out on to the lawn, close by the hedge of the Privy Garden. At the same time, Richard Scott and Mr. Unkerton came round the opposite corner of the house. They halter, facing each other, to left and right of the entrance to the Privy Garden.
‘It—it came from in there,’ said Unkerton, pointing with a flabby hand.
‘We must see,’ said Porter. He led the way into the enclosure. As he rounded the last bend of the holly hedge, he stopped dead. Mr. Satterthwaite peered over his shoulder. A loud cry burst from Richard Scott.
There were three people in the Privy Garden. Two of them lay on the grass near the stone seat, a man and a woman. The third was Mrs. Staverton. She was standing quite close to them by the holly hedge, gazing with horror-stricken eyes, and holding something in her right hand.
‘Iris,’ cried Porter. ‘Iris! For God’s sake! What’s that you’ve got in your hand?’
These stories do not show the Queen of Crime at her best: they were early works and – here I must admit a prejudice – I don’t think the short story format lends itself too well to murder mysteries since there isn’t enough space to be subtle in introducing clues. If someone mentions a priest’s hole or a strange stain on a window pane, you know that it is significant and it isn’t hard to piece things together. However, the stories are all pleasant enough, evoking a rather Jeeves-and-Woosterish society of weekends at country houses, holidays with duchesses on the Riviera, characters whose place in society is clearly indicated by their clothing and whose personalities by their faces. There are deaths in locked rooms, star-crossed lovers, ghostly cavaliers, predatory countesses and uncouth artists. If Christie is a bit sentimental in many of the stories, her pacing can’t be faulted.
The principal character, Mr Satterthwaite (he is always Mr Satterthwaite), is one of Christie’s outsider sleuths in the Poirot and Marple tradition: elderly, single, fussy about his food and creature comforts. Independently wealthy, or wealthyish, he has never worked or married and considers himself to have observed rather than participated in life. However, his powers of observation and his instincts about people, developed over his long life, are acute. In each story a visit by a mysterious Mr Harley Quin, whose face is often shadowed as if masked or whose clothes often have a look of motley about them – I mentioned the stories aren’t subtle – heralds a mystery which Mr Satterthwaite must solve. Mr Satterthwaite investigates new crimes but also unsolved mysteries because, Mr Quin claims, it is actually an advantage to examine something at a distance:
‘The contemporary historian never writes such a true history as the historian of a later generation. It is a question of getting a true perspective, of seeing things in proportion.’
When I read that, I did expect my S-Level history teacher to bob up shouting ‘Discuss with reference to at least three major historical events!’ If you like your mysteries light, short and nostalgic, you could do worse than this. And it reminds me to reread some more of Christie’s work, I was a teenager when I last read any of it.