Agatha Christie is of course famous for her Miss Marple and Poirot mysteries, but many don’t know that she has written so many more mysteries with other detectives taking the lead. As my grandfather has left me his entire collection of Christies, which is quite impressive I can tell you, I’ve read my share of murder mysteries. Quite often, we see people appearing again in her novels, but this mystery has an entirely new protagonist. He is fresh, unknown and just a little bit boring. He never planned on playing the detective of course, but the mystery he stumbles upon is anything but boring. In fact, it sent the shivers down my back from time to time and it was one of the creepiest Christies I have ever read, as she attempts to write a supernatural horror novel.
Mark Easterbrook, the main character of The Pale Horse, is a bit of a dull man: a historian researching the Moguls. But he gets his first thrill in ages when he sees two young girls fighting at a coffee place, literally pulling each other’s hair out. The next day, he learns that one of the girls has died. This shouldn’t really alarm anyone, but it does him, especially when he learns of an old priest that has been struck down and murdered, and the coroner has found a small note stuffed down the priest’s sock. This list contains a few names that the police can’t quite connect, but the dead girl is among them. In fact, Mark finds, they’ve all died, but by natural causes.
Soon after, a young acquaintance of Mark mentions a place called the ‘Pale Horse’ that apparently arranges for someone to die, if one would desire it to be so. When he attends a fete, organised by his cousin, Mark and a few relatives and friends decide to visit the illustrious ‘Pale Horse’. Here they meet the three women, who are supposed to be witches and take orders for a death of your desire. One of these ladies, Thyrza, takes Mark with her and explains the general idea of death by suggestion, which simply means that one could kill anyone from a distance simply by appealing to their own desire to die. Remember, this book was written at a time when Freud was still a big hit. Thyrza is quite casual about it all though, when she explains how she, the medium and the witch might perform a ritual and how anyone could then die of natural causes, because they themselves want to die. This is where Mark starts to find the whole business just a little bit fishy, as did I.
The next step for Mark is of course to find an accomplice in his plan to uncover the practices of these three witches. He tries his old friend and detective-novelist Ariadne Oliver, the coroner and a young friend of his, but no one takes him seriously. Mark starts to give up, that is, until he remembers a rather striking redhead who was a part of his cousin’s party. This glorious girl, who goes by the name of Ginger, is the most level-headed female in this entire book and so, of course, she wants to be part of his investigation immediately. But the problem is, murder by suggestion is hard to prove, so the only way for them to go about it is for Mark to contact these ladies with some strange story about how he’d like his first wife to die in order to remarry. Naturally, Ginger volunteers to play the part of the first wife: what could go wrong, right?
As you might have gathered from my summary, many elements of this story remind us of Shakespeare’s play ‘Macbeth’. These three ordinary village women are most likely the modern day depiction of the witches from Macbeth. One is very flamboyant and has the power to connect with the other realm; one is a cook and does all this primitive and dark magic, with the occasional casualty in the form of a chicken, and the last one is the brains and the head of business of the whole affair. Interestingly enough, because this is a modern-day adaptation, these three women have an agent of some kind who makes the arrangements with a client when they would like to see someone die. You visit him and he pretends to simply lay a bet with you on when this person supposedly could die. All of these different parties know very little about one another, which makes the organisation almost impossible to trace, let alone come to a conviction. They have to get the man behind the scenes, who orchestrates it all, and really the only way to do that is to go through all the steps, even though that’s incredibly frightening. But I really liked how Christie turned the witches of Macbeth into modern village spinsters and keeping them believable in this day and age all the same.
Agatha Christie has written over a hundred murder mysteries, which means that she reuses characters, plot lines and motives from time to time. This mystery contains no Christie regulars, except for Ariadne Oliver and she makes for a very interesting addition. In this book, she’s not a main character, but just a friend of Mark. Through Mrs Oliver, Agatha Christie enters a meta-level on what it’s like to be a murder mystery novelist. At one point in the book, Ariadne discusses with Mark how hard it is to write mysteries, saying: “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…” It’s like we hear Agatha Christie talking in her own voice, and I really liked that.
On that subject, and this hasn’t got very much to do with this particular book, but I noticed it and I can’t help but mention it, there’s one particular theme that I have seen recurring in three of her books now. In this book, Mark and some friends go out for dinner and his friend tells one of his famous anecdotes. Then he mentions, out of the blue, that he has once met an elderly lady in a home, sipping milk, who said to him: ‘’Is it your poor child who’s buried behind the place?’’ This caught my attention, because the exact same thing happens in Christie’s ‘Sleeping Murder’ when the protagonist visits a home. In these two books, it’s just a random thing that happens and it isn’t part of the plot, but in ‘By the Pricking of my Thumbs’, it is a major part of the plot (you can find a review of this novel here). In all three novels the elements are the same though: old lady, sipping milk, ‘was it your poor child?’. Again, Agatha Christie often reuses scenes, but never with this much detail and never a scene so bizarre. Needless to say, once I had noticed this, I couldn’t get it out of my mind. Just reading it freaked me out; so maybe this happened to Christie in real life, scaring her so much that it just keeps popping up?
Back to The Pale Horse: It’s a thrillingly good mystery, but when it comes to writing style and plot, I’d say it’s not one of her strongest. Agatha Christie has a very practical and straightforward style of writing, which I normally really like. This means that she doesn’t write more that absolutely necessary, and so the supernatural, frightening aspects of the book aren’t as scary as they could be. However, I will say this, Ginger is about as level-headed as Christie’s writing style is, and she doesn’t believe that these witches can actually do any damage. But when she starts to doubt, when she has to reconsider, that’s when you might want to snuggle up with some tea and a stuffed animal or two. Actually, I think this is one of the strengths of this book: The Pale Horse deals with the psychological notion that everyone has a death wish, combined with the power of suggestion and occult rituals performed by cosy old ladies. It’s the kind of evil that we can all imagine, that even science can’t deny and even the most rational human being has to admit might be true.
So my last point of critique actually turned into praise there, but her practical style of writing can also be off-putting from time to time. It means that her characters are a little flat in this novel and your hardly get to know any of them. Christie seems to be so focused on the witchcraft element of the story, the other parts move to the sideline. The chapters can have a bit of a scattered feel to them, as many things happen that have very little significance to the plot, unlike in many of her other books. For example, Ariadne Oliver gives us a fun look inside Christie’s own brain, but you never quite figure out why she’s there. And even though the story is chilling, the actual plot was something I figured out quite early on. Lastly, I did have some questions in the end that were left unanswered: Why was the priest murdered exactly? How did the dying woman, who told the priest about these names, find out about all of this? England has had trials concerning witchcraft well into the 20th century, so why would it be impossible to prove murder by suggestion when you have three witches obviously connected to the cases? This bothered me a little, especially when I think about it now.
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed The Pale Horse and finished it in a day: my grandfather would have been proud, I like to imagine. It’s a book that grabs you and fascinates you, to the point that you can’t really think about anything else for a while: is there such a thing as…? Some have told me that the plot came to them as complete surprise, so maybe it’s just because I’ve read so many detectives that I figured it out at an early stage! (Ignore that, I’m not nearly as smart as I think I am) This is however a truely original Christie, who doesn’t usually deal with witchcraft, but I’m glad she did: it was so much dark fun!
Black cat award: because you might not be sure if you believe in it, but you won’t risk it
Agatha Christie, The Pale Horse (Glasgow, 1961)