Agatha Christie and ‘The man from the sea’
I’m sure everyone in Tenerife knows that Agatha Christie visited the Canary Islands to finish her book ‘The Mystery of the Blue Train’, which she did not enjoy writing. Most notably for us she stayed in Puerto de la Cruz where, almost by way of light relief, or perhaps exorcism, she wrote a short story while sitting in the garden of the Sitio Litre. The story was ‘The Man from the Sea’ which became the sixth in a book of short stories entitled, ‘The Mysterious Mr Quin.’
But how many people have actually read the book? Like everyone I’d known about it for years and then a few months ago I decided to buy a copy. I’ve never ever seen it in charity shops or second hand book shops, but I bought it without any difficulty online. The second hand copy had been 10p at one time as you can see from the cover, but my rather battered specimen cost me a little bit more than that.
This is quite a strange book by Agatha Christie’s normal standards with an element of the supernatural, as in ‘The Man from the Sea’ when Mr. Quin hints at a ‘commission’ from a dead man. Harley Quin is of course is based on ‘harlequin’, a character from the theatre, a will-o’-the-wisp who appears and disappears unpredictably, who in this case always heralds a mystery, often with lost love, sadness and death, to be solved by the central character, the snobbish, quiet, unassuming and yet sociable and popular Mr. Satterthwaite. The entry of Mr Quin into a story always takes Mr Satterthwaite by surprise, appearing when and where he’s never expected and often with his face in semi shadow like a harlequin mask, and the light, from the moon, or a street light, or the firelight, giving his clothes a patterned effect like the diamond pattern of harlequin’s costume.
The write-up on the back of the book says, “For the mysterious Mr Quin, like the invisible Harlequin of the folk tales, appears only when lovers are troubled or the dead have been wronged. In twelve puzzling cases of murder, scandal and suicide Mr Satterthwaite uncovers the truth and brings justice to the falsely accused – with the help of Mr Quin …”
When reading ‘The Man from the Sea’ from descrip-tions of the settings the reader can picture the Sitio Litre, the Martianez beach overlooked by La Paz on the cliff and Puerto de la Cruz in general. And when one relates the plot of the story, involving as it does the bitterness of a wronged woman, to what was happening in Agatha Christie’s life at the time, reality is reflected in the fiction. Her marriage to Archie Christie was breaking up, even though she still loved him, and she was awaiting her divorce, which was granted in April 1928. Heart-broken, aimless, emo-tionally on the run, she was wondering what was life all about. Mr Satterthwaite’s mood of ennui, his feeling of being old and a desire to be “safe and comfortable” at the beginning of the story could well have been that of the authoress.
In ‘The Man from the Sea’, lost love, disillusionment, doubts about the meaning of life, emptiness, death and thoughts of suicide are all there, and yet the story ends with a warm glow of hope for happiness in the future, a neat ending that we always have with her stories.
Whether that was what Agatha Christie hoped for herself, or if it was simply not within her to write a story with a sad, hopeless ending, we don’t know. But for nostalgia, the whole gentle atmosphere is that of Puerto de la Cruz as it would have been in the 1920’s.