Sunday, August 25, 2013

The Mysterious Mr. Quinn

As Delicious Death works its way through Dame Agatha's literary output, I'm re-reading both old friends and books which I read once, more than 25 years ago.  The Mysterious Mr. Quinn falls into the latter category.  I know I've read it before, but only once - for the most part, I haven't re-read her short story collections.  They don't have enough atmosphere, and the mysteries are a bit too straightforward.  The titular Mr. Quinn adds a supernatural aspect to the collection, and that generally doesn't appeal to me.  I did enjoy the narration of Mr. Satterthwaite, an aging socialite moving from house party to upper-class spa; living a life that was dying out and not quite approving of the Bright Young Things who tolerated his existence.  He's the link between the stories, the witness to a crime (or second-hand reporter of the event), whose mysterious acquaintance guides him to the solution, usually over drinks or a meal.  Christie is almost always diverting, but The Mysterious Mr. Quinn is little more than that - a book to read with one's eyes, rather than one's mind.

Faith and Treason

I first heard of Guy Fawkes when Paddington Bear used his grumpy neighbor's suit to make a dummy for Bonfire Night.  It seemed like a cute, quaint custom when I was 8, and I didn't learn until years later about the political implications.  Antonia Fraser focuses on the religious and political background to the Gunpowder Plot because it's more interesting, and, well, the plot wasn't well planned or executed, and Guy Fawkes was actually a minor participant, more notable for being discovered than for his actual role.

More interesting than the actual plot was the analysis of the highborn secret Catholics in Elizabethan and Jacobean England.  Elizabeth considered religion a private matter; Catholics weren't allowed to publicly practice their faith, but she didn't pursue private practices.  Still, it led to separate public and private lives, and houses with "priest holes" where the family's spiritual guide could hide if the authorities searched.  Elizabeth's death left a bit of a succession crisis (she hadn't named a successor, although James was the logical choice), and the Catholic underground hoped he might legitimize - or even follow - their practices.  They were wrong, forgetting that James's upbringing was more strictly Protestant than the compromise theology of Anglicanism.  More importantly, religion and politics were so closely entwined in the early 17th Century that one decided the other - it wasn't just that Anglicanism was the state religion, but Catholicism implied (often accurately) an affinity for England's enemy, Spain.  While Frasier couldn't have completely skipped the Gunpowder plot, I understand why she concentrated on the three year lead-up.