The Mysterious Doctor Quin

My recent Doctor Who re-watch got as far as “The Unicorn and the Wasp” this past week, and I adored it as much this time as I did the last time. It takes a particular kind of brain to distill a story-archetype into its component elements and then use those elements in a way that is reminiscent, affectionate, fun, and still works on its own merits – and I admire that kind of brain. I also, as I’ve mentioned previously, enjoy Easter eggs, and every third or so line in “The Unicorn and the Wasp” is the title of an Agatha Christie novel. And then there’s the given name of the son of the house… I find all this delightful. Your mileage may vary.

Even better, Agatha Christie did, actually, in real life, disappear for eleven days at the time her first marriage was disintegrating. She might as well have been traveling with a Time Lord as doing anything else. Why not?

Given all this well-researched setup, I was (and continue to be) astounded that the scriptwriters didn’t draw the most obvious connection of them all.

Agatha Christie is most well known for her stories about Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, but she had something like half a dozen other less-well-known recurring detectives as well. The strangest of these (by a considerable margin) is Mr. Harley Quin.

We know almost nothing about him; we never get his POV. The mysterious Mr. Quin only shows up in stories where recurring-character Mr. Satterthwaite is the protagonist. Nor are he and Sattherthwaite even friends as such – Satterthwaite doesn’t know anything about him either. All of their meetings are by chance. Mr. Quin shows up out of rainstorms, in deserted inns, along the roadside where Mr. Satterthwaite’s car has broken down. Tricks of light and reflection just happen to make it briefly seem as though he is wearing a Harlequin costume, he and Satterthwaite just happen to shortly thereafter stumble upon imminent miscarriages of justice, and a chance remark of Quin’s always just happens to set Satterthwaite on the right track to save the innocent du jour before it is too late. It’s not quite true that on those days, nobody dies – but many fewer die than they would have without Quin’s whisper and Sattherthwaite’s hands. It is implied, if I remember correctly, that Satterthwaite is well aware he is plugged into something very strange, but he chooses not to know. Not to question. Very British of him.

And yeah, this sounds like a Doctor Who Christmas special to me, too.

I’m not making any of this up. The Mr. Quin stories are a bizarre departure from Christie’s usual both-feet-firmly-on-the-ground approach to detective fiction. She wrote a handful of supernatural stories here and there – ghost stories, billed as such – but nowhere else in her enormous body of work does the supernatural waft into the real world and help the champions of the real world solve problems and save those who need help before fading quietly back into the aether before anyone else gets a good look at it. In her autobiography, Christie called Harley Quin “a friend of lovers and connected with death,” and named him as her favorite among her characters. And apparently (I didn’t actually know this until I went looking up the character names to get the spellings right), she dedicated “The Mysterious Mr. Quin” short story collection “to Harlequin the invisible.” Bizarre again – nothing else she wrote is dedicated to a fictional character.

I know, right? How could anyone know enough about Christie to write all the Easter eggs into “The Unicorn and the Wasp” and yet have it end with the cover of Death in the Clouds rather than with her idea for an entirely different kind of detective – a mysterious traveler who appears out of nowhere just long enough to save people who need saving, a friend of lovers connected with death?

I have decided to believe that the original version of the script ended thus, and the powers that be decided it would be too hard to explain. (Or maybe that TPTB foresaw issues with DC Comics.)

Leave a comment

Your comment