Too hot to sleep but too tired to read anything complex, I hunted through my e-reader for a suitably undemanding novel. I thought I’d be safe with an Agatha Christie novel. The Pale Horse turned out to be much darker than anything else I’ve read by her but still good escapist fun.
Published in her later period, this is a murder mystery but not of the locked room or stately home variety. This one has overtones of black magic and the supernatural. It features two of Christie’s regular sleuths: Inspector Lejeuen and the novelist detective Ariadne Oliver. The Pale Horse doesn’t really fit into the Ariadne Oliver series however because she’s relegated to a very minor role in the background.
The ‘detective’ work in this novel is undertaken by Mark Easterbrook, a man who is more of an expert on Mogul architecture than death and murder but falls into the latter as a result of a string of coincidences.
Invited to a fete in the village of Much Deeping he hears about an ancient inn called The Pale Horse, now converted into a house inhabited by three women with a knowledge of magic and the dark arts. When he meets one of them, Thyrza Grey, the conversation turns to a discussion about the ability to kill at a distance. Afterwards Mark gets the impression she might have been describing a service she’s willing to perform.
In Much Deeping Mark also discovers that a Roman Catholic priest was murdered shortly after hearing the last confession of a parishioner. In his shoe was a list of nine surnames. Most of them turn out to be recently deceased, including Mark’s godmother. Another was a girl he’d seen get into a fight at a Chelsea coffee shop. Mark begins to suspect the two remaining names are people who might be about to die.
With the aid of “Ginger” Corrigan, a girl he meets at the fete, he sets out to discover whether there’s a “murder on demand” organisation at work.
The plot is a bit jumbled initially with more of a flavour of a “howdunnit” rather than a “whodunnit” There’s a hotchpotch of characters, some of whom provide a romance interest, some who drop hints and others who might or might not be the murderer.
e get a hint of this early in the novel when a character muses about how best to portray the witches in a production of Macbeth. Christie’s idea is to make them a trio of slightly eccentric women who talk about spells and magic while dolling out tea in an English village. It’s not until Mark attends a seance that we see any of them in action.
There are no fenny snakes or newts’ eyes but we do get invocations and a visitation from the spirit world and a cockerel’s fresh blood dripped into a fiery cauldron. If it was meant to be chilling it failed. I’m not sure how Mark Easterbrook managed to keep a straight face when all this hocus-pocus was going on, I certainly couldn’t.
Still it made The Pale Horse fun to read because once that sorcery business is out of the picture, the rest is a straight forward narrative of clues that lead you a merry dance until the final revelation.
Just as enjoyable was the periodic intrusion of Christie’s authorial voice to mock (gently) writers of academic texts and the problems of being a writer.
So here we have Mark, who is supposed to be writing a book about Mogul architecture, beset by doubts of whether this is really what the world needs:
[He had] one of those sudden revulsions that all writers know. Mogul architecture, Mogul Emperors, the Mogul way of life — and all the fascinating problems it raised, became suddenly as dust and ashes. What did they matter? Why did I want to write about them?
More significantly there’s Ariadne Oliver, (often used by Christie to satirize her own experiences of as a writer) explaining to Mark the problem of devising a realistic crime plot:
‘The murder part is quite easy and simple. It’s the covering up that’s so difficult. … Say what you like, it’s not natural for five or six people to be on the spot when B is murdered and all to have a motive for killing B-unless, that is, B is absolutely madly unpleasant and in that case nobody will mind whether he’s been killed or not…’
or bemoaning the fate of authors when confronted by enthusiastic interviewers or readers:
… always the same every time. What made you first think of taking up writing? How many books have you written? How much money do you make. Etc. etc. I never know the answers to any of them and it makes me look such a fool.
I wonder if the same thoughts go through the minds of authors today sent out to do yet another book tour event on a cold night in a dreary village hall?
The Pale Horse by Agatha Christie: Footnotes
The Pale Horse was published first in the UK in 1961, Christie’s 22nd novel. The titlecomes from the Revelation of St John the Divine, chapter 6, verse 8. “And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him…”
It’s been adapted multiple times for television and radio, although all the adaptations have departed markedly from Christie’s novel.
Its first outing was a television film version by the independent network, ITV, in 1996 which omitted the character of Ariadne Oliver and makes Mark Easterbrook a suspect. The same network did a new adaptation in 2010 as part of the Agatha Christie’s Marple series starring Julia McKenzie in 2010. Miss Marple replaced Mark Easterbrook as the primary sleuth, one of numerous alterations that prompteding The Telegraph critic to say that the scriptwriters had thrown “the rat-filled kitchen sink into this rewrite of Agatha Christie”.. in 2020 it was the turn of the BBC with a two part adaptation only loosely based on the novel.