“The First and the Last: In the Shadow of the Uncanny” (by R.T. Raichev)

A look at the first published short story by Agatha Christie—and at her last

Raicho Raichev’s story “Rassendyll’s Grave” appears in EQMM’s current issue, May/June 2020. A Golden-Age style mystery of the country-house variety, the story incorporates a fascinating twist to the form in that the house in question has been transported to modern Dubai, where the author currently lives and teaches. Raicho is an expert on Golden Age mysteries. He’s previously written several articles for this site about some of the key figures in the field, including Agatha Christie; this time he elucidates Christie’s short stories—specifically the first and the last. You may want to find copies of these and other Christie stories after reading the post. Also, don’t miss “Rassendyll’s Grave,” which forms part of the author’s series  starring mystery writer Antonia Darcy and her husband, Major Payne. The series includes a number of critically acclaimed novels, and we’ll have another short-story case for the pair later this year.—Janet Hutchings

Out of Agatha Christie’s 150-plus short stories, the very first to see the light of day was “The Affair at the Victory Ball.” It was published in 1923 in The Sketch in the UK and in The Blue Book Magazine in the USA. Fifty-one years later it was included in Hercule Poirot’s Early Cases published in 1974 by Collins in the UK and Dodd Mead and Company in the USA.

The milieu in “The Affair at the Victory Ball” is high-bohemia-meets-the-aristocracy, somewhat off Agatha Christie’s usual beat, while the affair in question is a mysterious stabbing at a costume party where all the attendees are dressed up as characters from the Commedia dell’ Arte. The victim is Lord Cronshow, “fifth viscount, twenty-five years of age, rich . . . very fond of the theatrical world” who is killed while wearing a Harlequin costume. That same evening Lord Cronshow’s fiancée, actress Coco Courtnay, who had been his Columbine, dies of a cocaine overdose—a death which Poirot eventually exposes as another murder in the guise of “an accident cleverly engineered.”*

The central puzzle depends on impersonation, specifically on the ease with which a “glittering Harlequin” costume can be worn under a “loose Pierrot garb.” The killer masquerades as his victim** with the purpose of confusing the time of the murder. It is an ingenious enough ploy and it could be deemed fair-play—so long as readers were able to visualize the commedia dell’ arte regulars and had the perspicacity to tumble to the bamboozling possibilities of their attire. Christie introduces her first least-likely killer by providing him with the kind of alibi that corresponds to the literal meaning of the word—at the time of the murder he appears to have been “elsewhere.”

The story is narrated by Captain Hastings. Whatever criticism may have been leveled at Hastings’s intelligence, he does an excellent job of it. He starts by reminding the reader of the mysterious affair at Styles and Poirot’s triumphant role in bringing it to a successful conclusion. He then presents us with the facts of this new case in a manner that is lucid and methodical. And while wasting no time on irrelevancies, he manages to be entertaining. Reflecting on Inspector Japp’s true motivation for enlisting Poirot’s help, he even rises to sardonic wit:

“. . . I, for my part, considered that the detective’s highest talent lay in the gentle art of seeking favours under the guise of conferring them!”

As part of his denouement Poirot attempts a reconstruction of the murder*** with the help of a set of China commedia dell’ arte figures belonging to one of the suspects. Some readers will be surprised that the killer gives himself away a little too easily, flying into a rage and snarling at Poirot (“Curse you, how did you guess?”) before he is put in handcuffs. The truth is that, apart from a green pompon, there is no material proof of his guilt, certainly nothing that would take him to the gallows. The story concludes with the little Belgian grandiloquently declaring the case “simplicity in itself” and the killer not “as clever as Hercule Poirot.”

The inspiration behind “The Affair at the Victory Ball” is believed to be the set of commedia dell’ arte figures that had been part of the decor at Agatha Christie’s family home Ashfield and which she had later brought to Greenway, her Devon country estate, where they can be seen in a glass-paneled cupboard. The figures also inspired Christie to write a series of poems, A Masque from Italy, a play, The Dead Harlequin, and, most famously, the collection of short stories entitled The Mysterious Mr. Quin, published in 1930.

Mr. Harley Quin (to give him his full name) is an elusive, semisupernatural character who tends to appear at opportune moments as though by magic, and then to disappear just as mysteriously—but not before he has been able to steer his friend, the corporeal Mr. Satterthwaite, towards some emotional problem or a conundrum of a detective interest that needs solving urgently. The stories in The Mysterious Mr. Quin are an effective blend of the rational and the mystical. At least one critic found Mr. Quin “as fascinating as Poirot” while The New York Review of Books recommends the book as “a rare treat for the discriminating reader.”

Sadly, this doesn’t apply to the very last Quin conte, which Agatha Christie wrote more than forty years later. Intriguingly called “The Harlequin Tea-Set,” it is also the last short story Agatha Christie ever wrote.It appears alongside stories by other crime authors in the anthology Winter’s Crimes 3 published by Macmillan in 1971. Agatha Christie was then in her eighties and, on the evidence of the last couple of books she wrote, her plotting powers were in steep decline. As is known from various biographical sources she had been using a dictaphone and that had had a further “loosening” effect on her writing. Not unlike Postern of Fate, the last novel she produced before her death, “The Harlequin Tea-Set” is altogether too muddled, rambling, and repetitious, and it teems with incongruities, irrelevancies and self-indulgences.

A long opening paragraph introduces us to the jaundiced views of the elderly Mr. Satterthwaite**** on the subject of modern cars which “broke down more frequently than they used to.” Quite unnecessarily, Harley Quin is given a little black dog called Hermes, clearly named after the winged herald and messenger of the gods, though one strongly suspects modeled on Agatha Christie’s beloved dog Bingo. A scarecrow called Harley Barley makes an embarrassing appearance and so does the ghost of Lily, the mother of the intended victim, “dressed in some pale mother-of-pearl colouring.” At one point the scarecrow rather dramatically, though for no apparent reason, bursts into flames. The middle-aged and respectable-looking Mrs Gilliatt rides a motorbike—which on one page changes to “bicycle.” Daltonism, or colour blindness, is mentioned early in the story’s ten-page exposition, but when the time comes for this important detail to be slotted into the mystery, the result is something of a damp squib.

There is a happy end of sorts, with Mr. Sattherthwaite managing to avert a murder by poisoning, though exactly how the killer might have hoped to get away with it is unclear. Conveniently the killer—rather, the would-be killer—commits suicide and Mr. Satterthwaite thinks it “best left that way.” He tries to explain why thus: “It’s an old house. And old family. A good family . . . A lot of good people in it . . . One doesn’t want trouble, scandal, everything brought upon it.”

“The Harlequin Tea-Set” is a story which Christie completists will no doubt treasure despite all its flaws, however it would be very wrong to recommend it as an introduction to The Queen of Crime. What the reader can take away from it is the reassuring country-house setting and the very English atmosphere of a particular “cozy” kind, much beloved by aficionados of the genre.

This is Mr Satterthwaite arriving at the house splendidly called Doverton Kingsbourne:

Tea was set out upon the lawn. Steps led out from the French windows in the drawing room and down to where a big copper beech at one side and a cedar of Lebanon on the other made the setting for the afternoon serene . . . two painted and carved white tables and various garden chairs . . . hoods over them to guard you from the sun . . . a soft pinkish-golden sky . . .

*This set-up is not dissimilar to the one in Lord Edgware Dies, which was published ten years later in 1933. Tho the puritanical Lord Cronshow with his “unusually strong views on the subject of dope” couldn’t have been more different from the dissolute and degenerate Edgware.
** Agatha Christie uses the ploy in the novels After the Funeral and Curtain— both Poirot cases, as it happens—and in the short stories “The House in Shiraz” and “The Companion.”
*** This rather theatrical device is employed by Christie to greater effect in the short story “Three Blind Mice” and her most celebrated play The Mousetrap. 
**** In one of the stories in The Mysterious Mr. Quin, Mr Satterthwaite’s age is given as sixty-nine. That was in 1930. Therefore he must be more than 110 as the events of “THQTS” unfold. Though perhaps one mustn’t be too pedantic.
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