Puzzles in Agatha Christie, Part Four
Posted 22 November 2008 in Books by Catriona
No, I haven’t quite run out of puzzles just yet:
6. How seriously are we supposed to take the supernatural? (Sparkling Cyanide, 1945, and The Mystery of the Blue Train, 1928)
I’m excluding from this piece 1930’s The Mysterious Mr Quin, which is the most distinctly supernatural of Christie’s works. Mr Quin fascinates me, because he’s a strange and disturbing being who evokes some of the more sinister undercurrents of the Harlequinade.
I know little about the origins of Harlequin and of the Commedia dell’arte, but Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable suggests that the name (from the Old French Hellequin or Herlequin) may derive from either the Middle English Herle king, which is one of the names for Woden, or the German Erlenkönig (literally, “king of the alders,” often represented, as it is on the Wikipedia page for “Harlequin,” linked below, as “Elf king”), either of which could have informed the term “Arlecchino.” Both Brewer’s and Benet’s Reader’s Encyclopaedia emphasise that the character is invisible (except to Columbine) and frequently mischievous.
Wikipedia also has, on its “Harlequin” page, a fifteenth-century image, though the content of the image is not referenced in the article, subtitled “Arlecchino and other demons handling souls from the pitch for Dante and Virgil.” On that note, however, Henry Cary (who translated The Inferno in 1805 and the rest of the Divine Comedy in 1814) presents the name as “Alichino” (canto 21, line 116), as does Mark Musa (canto 21, line 118.)
(Dorothy L. Sayers presents it as either “Hacklespur” or “Hellkin.” It’s impossible for me, monolinguist that I am, to tell which, since she reverses the order of some of the other names in this list, in comparison to Cary and Musa: “raving Rubicant and Farfarel” (canto 21, line 123), for example, where Musa has “Farfarello and our crazy Rubicante” (canto 21, line 123). I’m tempted by “Hellkin,” given its strong phonetic connection to the Old French Hellequin, noted above.)
Either way, “Arlichino” and “Arlecchino” may not be the same name—or, alternatively, the former may not have influenced the more modern version of the latter character.
Either way, I now desperately want to know more about the origins of the Harlequin character, and might need to make that a small research project—if you take “research” to mean “buying a book on the subject.”
But, as I say, this puzzle isn’t about The Mysterious Mr Quin, despite the fact that I’m fascinated by the character, by the odd positioning of the Harlequin as an emissary for the dead, and by way in which Mr Quin’s foil (his Columbine?), Mr Satterthwaite, reappears in the entirely non-supernatural Three-Act Tragedy (1935)—how does the little, bird-like Satterthwaite, epicure and acknowledged art critic, reconcile his two divergent lives, his crossing in and out of supernatural events? No, having devoted an enormous amount of space to something I’m ostensibly not talking about, I’m not talking about it any further.
Nor is this about stories such as “The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb” (from 1924’s Poirot Investigates), in which a killer deliberately exploits superstition to hide the motives for their crimes, in which superstition and the supernatural are pure misdirection.
No, this is about where the supernatural impinges on otherwise realistic narratives, in Sparkling Cyanide and The Mystery of the Blue Train.
The supernatural is a small element of Sparkling Cyanide, merely the strange sense that Iris has that her dead sister Rosemary is watching and protecting her in the year after Rosemary’s tragic death, her apparent suicide. Iris is uneasy and uncertain about this throughout the novel, but it is only really addressed explicitly at the end:
Then his face changed, grew suddenly serious. He touched a little vase by Iris’s side in which was a single sprig of grey-green with a mauve flower.
“What’s that doing in flower at this time of year?”
“It does sometimes—just an odd sprig—if it’s a mild autumn.”
Anthony took it out of the glass and held it for a moment against his cheek. He half-closed his eyes and saw rich chestnut hair, laughing blue eyes and a red passionate mouth.
He said in a quiet, conversational tone:
“She’s not around now any longer, is she?”
“Who do you mean?”
“You know who I mean. Rosemary. . . . I think she knew, Iris, that you were in danger.”
He touched the sprig of fragrant green with his lips and threw it lightly out of the window.
“Good-bye, Rosemary, thank you. . . .” (188-89)
It’s a small scene, and could be fanciful: Iris is highly strung and, as a very young girl, was horribly traumatised by her sister’s horrific death. This could simply be a symbolic way of laying a ghost. It is not, after all, much like the analogous scene in The Mystery of the Blue Train, where a ghost actually helps solve the crime.
In The Mystery of the Blue Train, Katherine Grey, who has traveled to the Riviera with the murdered woman, Ruth Kettering, sits in a garden in Monte Carlo with Ruth’s father’s secretary, Richard Knighton. When he leaves:
Then suddenly Katherine had a very curious sensation. She felt that she was no longer sitting alone on the seat in the Casino gardens, but that someone was standing beside her, and that that someone was the dead woman, Ruth Kettering. She had a further impression that Ruth wanted—badly—to tell her something. The impression was so curious, so vivid, that it could not be driven away. She felt absolutely certain that the spirit of Ruth Kettering was trying to convey something of vital importance to her. The impression faded. Katherine got up, trembling a little. (160)
So far, so good. The evocation of the murdered woman’s spirit could still be symbolic, though Katherine’s physiological response to the experience suggests otherwise. And it seemed symbolic to me, until Poirot references it during his summation of the case:
Miss Grey is not a fanciful woman by any means, yet she firmly believes that she felt your daughter’s presence beside her one day in the Casino Gardens at Monte Carlo, just after she had been having a long talk with Knighton. She was convinced, she says, that the dead woman was urgently trying to tell her something, and it suddenly came to her that what the dead woman was trying to tell her was that Knighton was her murderer! The idea seemed so fantastic at the time that Miss Grey spoke of it to no one. But she was so convinced of its truth that she acted on it. (216).
So how seriously are we supposed to take this? Katherine believes it—and in acting on it helps bring Knighton to justice, though Poirot is also working in that direction without, as he says here, knowing of Katherine’s supernatural experience. But are we, the readers, supposed to take this as fact?
Christie mentions in her autobiography that The Mystery of the Blue Train was one of her least favourites among her own novels: she wrote it in a period of desperation, after her mother’s death, her own breakdown, and her husband’s infidelity, and has never cared to re-read it.
It’s tempting to assume that this odd supernatural streak comes from that place of pressure and pain: to complete a novel, to fulfill contractual obligations, to support herself and her daughter, she pushed the credulity of the reader.
But then what of the shades of this in Sparkling Cyanide? What of intensely supernatural events of The Mysterious Mr Quin, to which Mr Satterthwaite refers obliquely in Three-Act Tragedy?
It seems to me that we are supposed to take this seriously: that, sometimes, Christie’s characters exist in a world in which the supernatural clashes with the polite ladies and gentlemen of between-the-wars England.
(All quotes from Sparkling Cyanide from the 1983 Fontana edition. All quotes from The Mystery of the Blue Train from the 1979 Fontana edition.)