In which historian and writer Mark Easterbrook witnesses a fight between two girls in a coffee bar – which leads him into a mystic underworld of seances, black magic and the surprise deaths of unwanted relatives. And what connection can an old converted pub, The Pale Horse, have with these deaths? With occasional support from his old friend Mrs Oliver, and encouragement from the resourceful and charming young Ginger, he’s able to assist Inspector Lejeune to work out exactly what’s happening – although the final revelation is just as much a surprise to Easterbrook as it is to the reader. As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, as always, I promise not to reveal whodunit!
The book is dedicated “to John and Helen Mildmay White with many thanks for the opportunity given me to see justice done”. Helen Mildmay was the heiress to Flete Manor, in Devon, who set about creating beautiful gardens on the estate which she inherited following the death of her brother. She married Lt-Cdr John White, and their son Anthony is the current owner of the Flete estate. Christie doesn’t mention the couple in her autobiography, and I don’t know to which “justice” she refers! The book was first published in the UK in eight abridged instalments in Woman’s Mirror magazine in September and October 1961, and in the US a condensed version of the novel appeared in the April 1962 issue of the Ladies Home Journal. The full book was first published in the UK by Collins Crime Club on 6th November 1961, and in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company in 1962.
Much has been made of the fact that Christie wrote this book as a response to the popularity at the time of the works of Dennis Wheatley. However, I can’t particularly find any reference to Christie appreciating Wheatley’s works, and indeed Wheatley had been writing for thirty years or more before The Pale Horse was published. So whilst there might indeed be a nod of homage from Christie to Wheatley, it might also be coincidental.
The structure of this book is a little different from the norm. There’s no Poirot or Marple, and the “hero” of the book is historian and writer Mark Easterbrook. He has obviously tasked himself with writing the story of The Pale Horse, as Christie starts the book with a foreword that has been written by him, rather than her. Most of the chapters begin with the words “Mark Easterbrook’s Narrative”; those that don’t, are written in Christie’s third person style and describe the death of Father Gorman and Inspector Lejeune’s early investigations, until Easterbrook himself becomes more involved in asking questions and working alongside the police. I can’t recall seeing the narration swop between one character and another like this since the days of The ABC Murders.
Easterbrook is a reasonably genial companion to take us through this case. Despite his faults, he’s quite charming, witty and urbane; he shows gumption and bravery, but like most of us, also reveals his fears, such as during the séance or his meeting with Bradley. He’s also inclined to be impatient, and doesn’t suffer fools gladly. He’s quick to point out the presence of an airhead – as in his dealings with the sweet bimbo Poppy – which explains his attraction to the feisty Ginger, one in the long line of Christie women full of get-up-and-go spirit, and much more fun to be with than the dry and careful Hermia. We can pretty much identify with Easterbrook.
Detective Inspector Lejeune is one of Christie’s decent police creations, a man with a good sense of dramatic timing, as we see in the denouement; something of a loner, highly intelligent and practical. Christie describes him thus: “he was a sturdy man, dark haired and grey eyed. He had a misleadingly quiet manner, but his gestures were sometimes surprisingly graphic and betrayed his French Huguenot ancestry.” Easterbrook hits it off with him instantly. In his words, “I liked […] Lejeune at first sight. He had an air of quiet ability. I thought, too, that he was an imaginative man – the kind of man who would be willing to consider possibilities that were not orthodox.”
And we also get to meet Ariadne Oliver again, the first time in five years since Dead Man’s Folly, and, perhaps of note, the only novel in which she appears where the crime isn’t investigated by Hercule Poirot. Appearing alongside Easterbrook, Christie now has two writers through whom to express her frustrations and anxieties about writing. The first thing that Easterbrook does, when we first meet him at the beginning of the book, is complain about the problems of being a writer. “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?”
But of course it is through Mrs Oliver that we get – as always – Christie’s autobiographical feelings about the writer’s life. “I’m too busy writing or rather worrying because I can’t write. That’s really the most tiresome thing about writing – though everything is tiresome really, except the one moment when you get what you think is going to be a wonderful idea, and can hardly wait to begin.” She’s completely opposed to opening fêtes, which is unsurprising given her experience in Dead Man’s Folly, or giving an interview, because of “all those embarrassing questions which are 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? […] I never know the answers to any of them and it makes me look such a fool.” Mrs Oliver says that she has actually written 55 detective novels to date; by comparison, The Pale Horse was Christie’s 52nd novel, although she had also written ten collections of short stories. `
There’s an amusing interchange between Mrs Oliver and Thyrza Grey, the “leader” of the three “witches” who live at The Pale Horse, when Miss Grey tells Mrs Oliver ““you should write one of your books about a murder by black magic. I can give you a lot of dope about it.” Mrs Oliver blinked and looked embarrassed. “I only write very plain murders”, she said apologetically. Her tone was of one who says, “I only do plain cooking.””
Mrs Oliver isn’t the only character whom we’ve met before in earlier Christie books. In fact, Mrs Christie is on a positively vigorous nostalgia trip in this book. Mark Easterbrook’s cousin is Rhoda Dawes, whom we met in Cards on the Table, which ends with the prospect of romance between her and Major Despard. Rhoda and Despard are now married; he’s now a colonel, and comes across as a more reasonable and wise chap than he was in those earlier days. We also get to meet again the Reverend Dane Calthorp and his wife, whom we first met in The Moving Finger. He’s still very intellectual and clerical; she’s perhaps less bossy and interfering than she was.
Easterbrook is a man set very much in the here and now, and has no time for ridiculous theories of the occult or black magic; how on earth can you kill someone like that using just the power of thought and dark arts? However, Christie very nicely creates an uncomfortable mystic atmosphere in the scene where Miss Grey takes him around The Pale Horse, and they have a private conversation about the kind of mind games that just might be possible. Against his better judgment, Easterbrook finds himself swayed by these mystic theories and possibilities, and that sense of mental or imaginary power or insight pervades much of the book. The reader gets drawn into this too, and quickly concludes that the witch ladies must be responsible for the crimes although we don’t quite know how they do it. This leads the reader on to believing that they’ve absolutely cracked the case early on – how can this story be developed so that there is a genuine whodunit element to it? Christie manipulates us in this way right up to the very last moments when we’re suddenly confronted with an alternative surprise solution which, basically, knocks our socks off. Very often in a Christie, one’s reading pleasure might be eroded by the over-use of coincidence, which can sometimes appear to be really heavy-handed and ridiculous. In this book, there are what appear to be highly unlikely coincidences; but this time Christie uses them as clues rather than as just another coincidence. It’s very cleverly written indeed.
Now we’ll look at some of the references in this book, starting, as usual, with the locations. The events of this book either take place in the small town of Much Deeping, said to be 15 miles north of Bournemouth, or in London. It is of course a fictional location – maybe based on Blandford Forum, or Brockenhurst. In London, Mrs Coppins lives in Benthall Street, Lady Hesketh-Dubois in Ellesmere Square; Easterbrook and Corrigan dine in Lowndes Square, and Ginger lives in Calgary Place. In reality, there is a Benthal Road in Stoke Newington, and an Ellesmere Road in Bow; there’s no such place as Calgary Place. But Lowndes Square does exist, in Belgravia. Easterbrook also dines at the Atheneum, a luxury Mayfair hotel, so he doesn’t stint himself. Mr Osborne is said to have retired to Glendower Close, Bournemouth; there are several Glendower Closes in the UK, but none in Bournemouth.
And now for the other references. The title itself – The Pale Horse – is a reference from the Bible. Death rides a pale horse in the Book of Revelation, chapter six, verse eight. “History is bunk” sighs Easterbrook, bemoaning his lot at the beginning of the book – and he wonders if it was Henry Ford who originally said it; yes, it was. Whenever Dr Corrigan arrives anywhere, he’s always whistling “Father O’Flynn” – that’s an old Irish ballad set in Donegal. And when Poppy gets anxious at the mention of The Pale Horse, David calms her down with a Coupe Nesselrode. That’s a Swiss ice-cream sundae made with vanilla ice cream, whipped cream, meringue and a chestnut puree.
The erudite Easterbrook refers to Lu and Aengus, and says they come from The Immortal Hour. That is an opera written by English composer Rutland Boughton, which premiered at the first Glastonbury Festival in 1914; it seems to have been long forgotten today. The spirit that emerges when Sybil goes into a trance is named Macandal – that’s the name of a Haitian voodoo priest whose name is still associated with black magic today and who was killed in 1758 and is seen as an important leader in the fight for Haitian independence. Madame de Montespan, whom, allegedly, Sybil is definitely not, was the chief Royal Mistress to King Louis XIV of France.
Mr Osborne draws Easterbrook’s attention to Jean Paul Marigot, whom he says “poisoned his English wife”. This appears to be an invention of Christie’s. Madeleine Smith, whom Easterbrook mentions in the same conversation, was real – a 19th century Glasgow socialite who was accused of the murder of her lover L’Angelier. It was not proven.
Regular readers will know that I like to consider any significant sums of money in Christie’s books and work out what their value would be today, just to get a feel of the range of sums that we’re looking at. Thomasina Tuckerton is said to have inherited an estate worth at least £100,000, which at today’s rate would equal at least £1.5 million. Lady Hesketh-Dubois left half that amount in her will, £50,000 net – so that’s £750,000 today. And the other interesting sum mentioned is the five shillings that Easterbrook is forced to part with to buy a rose from Poppy at her flower salon; today that would be worth about £3.90. That’s not that expensive really!
Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for The Pale Horse:
Publication Details: 1961. My copy is a Fontana paperback, nineteenth impression, dated September 1983, bearing the price of £1.50 on the back cover. The cover illustration, (not by Tom Adams) simply shows Death riding a what looks like a fairground merry-go-round horse. Not overly imaginative.
How many pages until the first death: 5. Lots of deaths occur very early in this book, but then they stop. But it’s good to get going with the sense of detection right from the start!
Funny lines out of context: A few.
Mrs Dane Calthrop has an unfortunate turn of phrase when she gives an example of the kind of event at which a village witch might take revenge: “Billy teased my pussy last Tuesday week.”
A white cockerel is sacrificed in the witchcraft scene in Easterbrook’s presence, leading to Rhoda inquiring: “any white cocks?” And later Easterbrook is remembering the scene and imagines “Bella, chanting her evil spells, held up a struggling white cock”.
This book does quite well on the memorable characters count. Mark Easterbrook himself is a strong lead, non-police, investigator. And Ginger, his partner in detection, is a feisty and forthright young woman whom you can easily visualise. The three witch-types at The Pale Horse, Thyrza, Sybil and Bella, are all very well drawn, with distinct characteristics and very easily imaginable in your mind’s eye. And Mr Bradley is memorable in his own way, for being a rather unctuous weaselly type of chap.
Christie the Poison expert: SPOILER ALERT (you might wish to move on to class/social issues!)
Christie writes in her autobiography about being introduced to the workings of a pharmacy and how this gave her her insights into the world of poison. There she met a character whose influence stayed with her all her life and on whom she drew very strongly when writing this book. It’s from this memory that she employed the use of thallium poisoning in this book; a chemical element that was usually used as a rat poison or an insecticide. One of its main side-effects is that it induces hair loss, which is how Easterbrook put two and two together and realised this must be the way that the murders were committed.
As a sidenote, it’s fascinating that reading The Pale Horse alerted a few members of the public to the existence of thallium poisoning in their own lives; the book is credited with having saved the lives of at least two people after readers recognised the symptoms of thallium poisoning. And in 1971, a serial killer, Graham Frederick Young, who had poisoned several people, was caught thanks to this book. A doctor conferring with Scotland Yard had read it and realised that the mysterious “Bovingdon bug” that was erroneously being blamed for the deaths was in fact thallium poisoning.
On the other side of the equation, however, the book is also believed to have inspired “The Mensa Murder”. In 1988, George Trepal, a member of Mensa, poisoned his neighbours, Pye and Peggy Carr and their children, with thallium introduced in Coca-Cola bottles.
Class/social issues of the time:
There are very few of the usual Christie themes and issues in this book. There are one or two references to high taxation, and Mrs Coppins has a bee in her bonnet about how disappointed she is in the new National Health Service. There’s none of the usual xenophobia/racism; apart from the default observation that black magic and occult influence don’t work on Europeans – by which Christie doesn’t mean the French or the Germans, she means white Caucasians as opposed to people living in Africa or the West Indies; the supposition being, I presume, that the West is too intelligent to believe it.
The other aspect of the book that I found interesting from a historical point of view was Christie’s description of Mr Osborne’s traditional pharmacy. It’s so very unrecognisable from the kind of place we would go to today to get our prescriptions filled. ““We’ve always kept good solid stuff. Old-fashioned. But quality. But nowadays” – he shook his head sadly – “disappointing for a pharmaceutist. All this toilet stuff. You’ve got to keep it. Half the profits come from all that much. Powder and lipstick and face creams. And hair shampoos and fancy sponge bags. I don’t touch the stuff myself. I have a young lady behind the counter who attends to all that.”” When Lejeune first arrives at the pharmacy, he “passed behind and through a dispensing alcove where a young man in a white overall was making up bottles of medicine with the swiftness of a professional conjurer”. Today one thinks of all our medicines as being pre-prepared and pre-packed. It’s fascinating to consider the changes in the industry over what is barely more than half a century.
Classic denouement: It’s a twist on the idea of a Classic Christie denouement. It’s not the traditional gathering together of all the suspects in a drawing room before the detective reveals whodunit. However, all the individual elements are there, with suspicion being heavily placed on Character A before it is revealed that Character B is the guilty party; and we ourselves can witness how the guilty party reacts to being unveiled, which is very satisfactory. On a number of occasions with Christie, the guilty party isn’t present when we find out whodunit, and it’s especially rewarding to see if they’re contrite, in denial, in flight or whichever of a number of possible reactions. And what this denouement has, above all else, is the terrific hidden punch of complete surprise.
Happy ending? Absolutely. There’ll be no more suspicious deaths, and Easterbrook and Ginger look forward to theatre trips together – and more.
Did the story ring true? Despite the high level of spiritualism, occult and black magic, I find this a very believable story. Once you have discovered the modus operandi of the crimes, it all fits into place and makes perfect sense. You can also see how the crime might occasionally fail, which also goes along with our understanding of what happens. I have just two or three quibbles with the story; we might expect to have revealed to us the exact process that caused Ginger to fall ill – that’s omitted from the narrative. Also it’s a little unsatisfactory that some people from the list of names that Father Gorman writes out are not included in the investigations. There are two Corrigans in the story – the Doctor and Ginger – and we never really discover whether the Corrigan on the list is one of those people, or if it’s just a coincidence (which wouldn’t really be very stylish). Or is Christie just being impish?
Overall satisfaction rating: It’s an excellent book, extremely well-written and one of Christie’s more un-put-downable works. Given the tiny quibbles I’ve just mentioned, I’m giving it a 9/10. But it’s a fantastic read.
Thanks for reading my blog of The Pale Horse, and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge is The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side, and a return to Miss Marple. I’m pretty sure I can remember a lot of this book, including the identities of the murderer and at least one victim. Nevertheless I’m looking forward to re-reading it and, as usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about it as soon as I can. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!