INSIGHTS: Agatha Christie's Mr. Harley Quin.
"Framed in the doorway stood a man's figure, tall and slender. .... he appeared by some curious effect of the stained glass above the door, to be dressed in every colour of the rainbow." From these first introductory words, Agatha Christie introduces to her readers a new character - Mr. Harley Quin. Christie wrote fourteen short stories that included him. The last literally ends with "To our next meeting. H.Q.", a message delivered by Hermes, Harley Quin's small black dog. Sadly these words marked a finale for Christie's character as she never wrote about him again. For those who haven't delved into the world of Harley Quin there are great pleasures awaiting you. Hopefully our insights into reading and collecting these stories will be of equal interest to those new or returning to the character..
In her youth, Agatha Christie was fascinated by a set of Dresden figures her mother owned, that represented the Italian commedia dell’arte – an early form of Italian theatre whose characters become well known – somewhat akin to the English pantomime. The characters whose figurines her mother owned included Columbine, Pierrot and Harlequin, amongst others.
As a young girl Christie wrote poems about them and incorporated them into one of her early short stories – The Affair at the Victory Ball. Her fascination with the characters could also have led to her choice of ‘Poirot’ as the name for her detective as it was perhaps heavily influenced by Pierrot – one of the figurines she loved.
When Christie started writing crime fiction, she transformed the character of Harlequin into the persona of Mr. Harley Quin(n) – a character who appears both real and ethereal. Christie stated that she created Mr. Quin to be someone concerned with the ‘affairs of human beings and particularly of lovers.’ With Mr. Quin comes his friend and partner, the diminutive Mr. Satterthwaite. Christie's Mr. Quin stories were mostly written in the 1920s, with twelve being published between 1924 and 1929.
The Harley Quin(n) Short Stories (in order of initial publication):
The first four short stories featuring Harley Quinn were all published by The Grand Magazine in England. In these four stories, Christie spells his name with two n’s. When published in book form, the spelling was changed to one n. From 1926 onwards, all other short story magazine publications spelled his name Quin.
The Passing of Mr. Quinn, The Grand Magazine (UK), Issue 229, March 1924. In the US, it was published in Munsey magazine (March 1925), Volume 84, No. 2. When published in the book compilation it was retitled The Coming of Mr. Quin.
The Shadow on the Glass, The Grand Magazine (UK), Issue 236, October 1924. There was no US magazine printing prior to the book publication in 1930.
The Sign in the Sky, The Grand Magazine (UK), Issue 245, July 1925. There was no US magazine printing prior to the book publication in 1930.
A Man of Magic, The Grand Magazine (UK), Issue 249, November 1925. In the US, it was published in Flynn's Weekly, Volume XVI, No. 6, 17 July 1926. When published in the book compilation it was retitled At the 'Bells and Motley'.
The Love Detectives, Flynn's Weekly (USA), Volume XIX, No. 3, 30th October 1926. In the UK, it was published in the The Story-Teller magazine, Issue 236, December 1926.
The Soul of the Croupier, Flynn’s Weekly (USA), Volume XIX, No. 5, 13th November 1926. In the UK it was published in The Story-Teller, Issue 237, January 1927.
World’s End, Flynn's Weekly (US), Volume XIX, No. 6., 20th November 1926. In the UK, it was published in The Story-Teller magazine, Issue 238, February 1927.
The Voice in the Dark, Flynn’s Weekly (USA), Volume XX, No. 1, 4th December 1926. In the UK, it was published in The Story-Teller, Issue 239, March 1927.
The Man from the Sea, The Story-Teller (UK), Issue 237, January 1927. In the US, it was published in Britannia and Eve, Volume 1, No. 6, October 1929 (images of both below).
The Face of Helen, The Story-Teller (UK), Issue 240, April 1927. In the US, it was published in Flynn’s Weekly, Volume XXVI, No. 1, 6th August 1927.
Harlequin’s Lane, The Story-Teller (UK), Issue 241, May 1927. It was first published in the US in Flynn's Weekly, Vol. XXVI, No. 4, 27th August 1927.
The Dead Harlequin, The Grand Magazine (UK), Issue 289, March 1929. In the US, it was published in Detective Fiction Weekly (formerly Flynn’s), Volume 42, No. 3, 22nd June 1929.
Most of the magazines did not give front cover billing to Agatha Christie as the four covers below show.
The Mysterious Mr. Quin:
All of the previously published short stories, except The Love Detectives, were collected together and published by W. Collins in 1930. The collection also included one new short story that does not appear to have had a magazine release in the UK - The Bird with the Broken Wing.
The marketing blurb on the rear panel of the Collins dust jacket and restated inside the book stated that "Mr. Sattethwaite is a dried-up elderly little man who has never known romance or adventure himself. [but] he has a helper - the mysterious Mr. Quin - the man who appears from nowhere - who comes and goes like the invisible Harlequin of old. .. [He] speaks for the dead who cannot speak for themselves." Certainly a different introduction for those solely used to Hercule Poirot!
It is interesting to note that The Mysterious Mr. Quin is dedicated by the author "To Harlequin the invisible" which makes it unique as we cannot recall any other book she dedicated to a character. Also of note, the sequence of the short stories is different that the chronology of the short story magazine publications and are positioned as chapters with no table of contents.
The collection was also published in the US in 1930 under the same title by Dodd, Mead & Company, New York. It retained the same blurb on the front flap.
For US readers, three of the stories do not appear to have every been published in US magazines prior to the book's publication.
Other Harley Quin Stories & Publications:
There are two other stories featuring the Harley Quin character which were not included in the 1930 collection. They are The Love Detectives and The Harlequin Tea Set. While the first was published in magazines in 1926, the latter appears to be a story Christie wrote later - arguably in the 1950s. The first hardback printings of these stories are as follows:
The Love Detectives. The first book appearance was in Three Blind Mice and Other Stories, Dodd, Mead & Co., USA in 1950. The story did not appear in book form in the UK until 1991, as part of a collection in Problem at Pollensa Bay and Other Stories.
The Harlequin Tea Set does not appear to have had a magazine publication prior to appearing in hardback. Its first appearance is in the anthology Winter’s Crimes #3, MacMillan, London, UK (1971).
This story was also included in the Christie-only collections Problem at Pollensa Bay and Other Stories, HarperCollins, UK (1991). Its first US appearance was in The Harlequin Tea Set and Other Stories, G.P. Putnam, USA (1997).
In 2004, HarperCollins published Love Detectives: The complete Quin and Satterthwaite. For the first time this book collected all fourteen short stories discussed above featuring Mr. Quin.
The book also includes the novel Three Act Tragedy in which Mr. Satterthwaite appeared alone and the novella Dead Man’s Mirror where Mr. Satterthwaite had a cameo appearance.
Christie refers to the original commedia dell’arte Harlequin character in Harlequin’s Song, part of the Masque from Italy sequence of poems found in her 1925 collection The Road of Dreams, Geoffrey Bles, London, UK.
It was reprinted in 1973 by both Collins (UK) and Dodd, Mead & Co (USA) in Poems. She states that this poem was first published in Poetry Review – a publication where a number of these poems did appear – though we are yet to find a copy of it.
The commedia dell'arte character also appears in her first-ever published magazine short story The Affair at the Victory Ball (Sketch, March 1923). Here Lord Cronshaw dressed as Harlequin at a fancy dress ball. Christie writes “the costumes were copied from a set of china figures forming part of Eustace Beltane’s collection” – clearly a reference to her own mother’s collection. This short story was published in book form in the US collection The Under Dog and Other Stories (1951) and in the UK in Poirot's Early Cases (1974).
While Agatha Christie did write a play based on her short story The Dead Harlequin, she removed both Mr. Quin and Mr. Satterthwaite from the script. Titled Someone at the Window, this stage play is yet to be published and can only be found in early typescripts distributed to theatres by Christie’s agent when they were seeking a producer for it.
While Agatha Christie did not write the screenplay for The Passing of Mr. Quinn, a 1928 British silent film based on her same-titled short story, there is novelization of the screenplay available.
Originally printed by The London Book Company, London, UK (1929), it has since been reprinted in a facsimile style by HarperCollins (2017). Currently the film is considered "lost" though maybe one day a print will surface.
Values & Closing Comments:
Any of the early magazines from the 1920s are quite scarce, and buyers should expect to pay anywhere from £30 - £70 ($40 - $85) for a very good copy. The Collins first edition of The Mysterious Mr. Quin in jacket could command £10,000 - £15,000 for a very good copy, though spine fading is a common problem. The Dodd Mead & Co US first edition in a very good jacketed copy could command $1,000 - $2,000, though chipping is common. The Road of Dreams is very scarce and the last known sales at auction were for ~£1,500. The Dodd Mead & Co first printing of Three Blind Mice is also uncommon and can easily command $500 or more for a very good jacketed copy. The London Book Company 1929 printing of the film novelization will also sell for £500 - £750 in a very good jacketed copy. The rest of the books referenced above generally command used book prices though for some reason The Complete Quin and Sattherthwaite paperback is a little pricier as it appears to have had a fairly small print run.
If any of our readers have corrections or additions, please share them with us so that this article can be more complete. You can write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Image credits: Several magazine images are sourced from the authoritative magazine website www.philsp.com, run by Phil Stephensen-Payne. For collectors of magazines it is a very valuable and recommended resource.