THE BOOK Fontana 1964 pp191
Tom Adams cover is one of his early ones for this series, and hugely effective it is at conveying the ‘black magic’ elements of the story. Unusually, the back cover contains a close-up of one part of the painting depicted on the front – part of the right wing of the pinned bat.
Father O’Gorman, a Catholic priest, is murdered after hearing a dying woman’s confession. In his pocket is found a list of names.
Meanwhile, Mark Easterbrook, a writer researching for a book about Mogul architecture, is in a London espresso bar when he witnesses a fight between two young women, in which one manages to pull out tufts of the other’s hair. The girl on the receiving end, Thomasina Tuckerton, brushes off her experience, saying that it didn’t hurt.
One week later, Mark finds her name in the Deaths column of The Times. He discovers that the name of Tuckerton was on Father Gorman’s list.
Mark finds himself investigating a coven that live in an ex-pub known as The Pale Horse; the members claim to be capable of inflicting damage on their fellow beings from afar, via a combination of black magic ritual, spell and suggestion.
Mark presents himself to them as a potential client …
There are a few characters in this story who seem almost to have stumbled into it from other ones: Ariadne Oliver, last seen enlisting Poirot’s aid in Dead Man’s Folly (1956); Colonel and Rhoda Despard, who met in Cards on the Table (1936); and Mrs Dane Calthorp, a refugee from Miss Marple’s universe (The Moving Finger, 1943).
The story, although for the most part set in a typical English village, is very recognisably of its time: the Chelsea coffee-bar, Teddy boys, the smart-set girls getting their kicks. Mrs Oliver’s reference to the difficulties of writing about ‘beatniks and sputniks and squares and the beat generation’ is clearly a heartfelt sigh from her alter-ego.
The characters are, as ever, described with wonderful economy, one sentence usually sufficing to make them clear; that sentence is rarely complimentary.
Agatha Christie often claimed that she didn’t put her acquaintances into her stories, but there is one character in this book who is clearly based on someone she came across when working in a dispensary during WW1. To name this character here would give the story away somewhat, but it is pretty obvious to anyone who has read her autobiography that she was revolted by the man; that aversion comes through loud and clear in The Pale Horse.
ATTITUDES AND QUOTES
As always, quotations taken from a text cannot help but reflect at least some of the spirit and attitudes of the time when it was written. This is particularly the case here. For example, Mark Easterbrook is in conversation with the supposedly intelligent Dr Corrigan, who sounds here more like a refugee from Doctor in the House, a popular film of the time:
“You’re not married then?”
“No fear, and no more are you, I should say, from the comfortable mess in which you live. A woman would tidy all that up in no time.”
I told him I didn’t think women were as bad as he made out.
Now Mark assesses Thomasina Tuckerton’s mother:
The eyes were pale blue and gave the impression that she was appraising the price of everything. She was the sort of woman who undertipped porters and cloakroom attendants.
And Thyrza Grey:
She was this evening the British country spinster to the life, pleasant, efficient, uninterested in anything beyond her immediate surroundings.
And Bella Stamfordis:
She spoke little, treating us to a far-away wrapped-up-in-higher-things mode. It ought to have been impressive.
Agatha Christie has many characters in her post-war books bemoaning the educational reforms that gave every child the chance to go to school, rather than enter service at the age of 12. Here is a different take on the subject.
Even Bella seemed tonight only a half-witted old peasant woman – like hundreds of other women of her kind – inbred, untouched by education or a broader outlook.
Mark Easterbrook in conversation with the prescient Mr Venables:
“Will computers take the place of men eventually?”
“Of men, yes. Men who are only units of manpower, that is. But Man, no.”
Easterbrook and Venables are speaking in the wake of the nuclear arms race, a year before the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962:
“Life is always dangerous – never forget that. In the end, perhaps, not only great natural forces, but the work of our own hands may destroy it. We are very near to that happening at this moment …”
“No-one can deny that, certainly.”
Poppy is a model-cum-spokeswoman for the ‘Smart’ Set:
I poured some more champagne into Poppy’s glass. Here, I felt, in front of me was someone who might be helpful if only you could tear out of her the disassociated facts that were flitting about in what she called her brain.
SWIGATHA RATING 7/10
As usual, the book has a terrific beginning, the central idea is startling and the revelation of the perpetrator is satisfyingly surprising. There is plenty to cheer, therefore.
However, on re-reading it, I got the impression that the author was throwing the kitchen sink at her plot to drag it out to the usual 192 pages-worth. There is really no need for any of the ‘guest stars’, and the explanation at the end seems dashed off.
Good fun, though!
WHAT HAPPENED NEXT
The choice of thallium as the poison in use in this story had various unexpected consequences.1
One was the press speculation that future murderers had chosen it for their own use having read The Pale Horse first. The year after it was published, Graham Young (who went on to become an insanely proficient poisoner) was arrested on suspicion of murdering his stepmother with thallium. This was the first known case of its kind in the UK, although Young denied having read the book.
Another was the occasion when a woman in South America, who had read The Pale Horse, was able to recognise the symptoms of thallium poisoning being perpetrated on a man by his young wife, thereby saving his life (because the hospital was able to treat the patient promptly with the correct medication).
There was a 1997 TV film, in which Mark Easterbrook has to prove that he is innocent of the murder of Father Gorman.
There was also a TV version that shoe-horned Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple into it; I cannot stand that series, so I have not watched it. I should say, however, that the author herself had toyed with the idea of bringing Miss Marple into the plot, thereby re-uniting her with Mrs Dane Calthorp.2 I think that that would have worked well, but it would have meant removing the characters from the Poirot Universe (Mrs Oliver and the Despards).
The BBC also adapted the story to show at Christmas in 2019. As seems to be becoming the norm with this series, all the humour of the original is excised, and the lead character of Mark Easterbrook is unrecognisable from the one in the book.
1 Kathryn Harkup A is for Arsenic
2 John Curran Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks