The Pale Horse (Agatha Christie)

  • First published: UK, Collins, November 1961; US, Dodd Mead, 1962

At once stylish and sinister, this convincingly handled tale of murder-by-witchcraft-for-sale is Christie’s last triumph. The story begins with the murder by the forces of evil of a man of God, returning from the death-bed confession of a murdered woman; the list of names found on his corpse lead to three witches who kill by operating on the death-wish; the play with morbid psychology is unusual, and the séance rivals that of Gladys Mitchell‘s The Worsted Viper (1943). Characters, including the vulpine cripple Venables (the use of the invalid in the wheel-chair is superb both as red herring and as double-edged clue), the oleaginous Mr. Bradley, and the chemist Zachariah Osborne, are vivid and unusual, and it will be an alert reader who spots the identity of the villain before the professional Lejeune; and the brilliant method (showing the author’s medical training) before the amateur Mark Easterbrook.

Blurb (UK)

Christie - The Pale Horse.jpg

“As the priest ended his ministry, the dying woman spoke again.

“‘Stopped…  It must be stopped…  You will…’

“The priest spoke with reassuring authority.

“‘I will do what is necessary.  You can trust me…’”

“A doctor and an ambulance arrived simultaneously a little later.  Mrs. Coppins received them with gloomy triumph.

“‘Too late as usual!’ she said…”

Father Gorman did his best, but on the way home he was killed; on his body was discovered a list of names, mysterious in that the people listed had nothing in common; yet when Mark Easterbrook came to inquire into the circumstances of the people named, he began to descry a connection between them, and an ominous pattern…

Agatha Christie’s readers are legion and they await each new novel of hers with high expectations.  No one is going to be disappointed by The Pale Horse, a crime story not one jot less convincing, ingenious, exciting and sinister than the best of its predecessors, which have made Mrs. Christie famous.

US blurb is similar.

Contemporary reviews

Observer (Maurice Richardson, 12th November 1961): I must say I was very taken, in spite, or perhaps because, of the preposterous spoofing.  Three modern Lesbian-looking witches in the Cotswolds who can ill-wish a long list of Londoners to death is hard to resist.  See if you can swallow the explanation, by no means unsinister, and the ultimate red herring.  Though not her classic form, it is better than anything she has done for a long time.  Can she be like Sophocles, getting ready to strike her best form—some years from now, of course—on her eightieth birthday?

Times Literary Supplement (Anthony Lejeune, 24th November 1961): GONE NATIVE

Miss Agatha Christie, like many writers before her, is often praised for the wrong virtues.  It is not for feats of detection that we turn to her, nor even, since her early tours de force, for the criminological ingenuity of the plots, workmanlike though they are.  Her cardinal virtue is simpler and more subtle.  It is sheer readability; her books can be gulped down like cream or invalid jelly.  This is not a matter of good writing.  Miss Christie can write abominably (“nobody will mind whether he’s been killed or not, and doesn’t care in the least who’s done it” says a character in her new book), but she has a gift almost as rare and intangible as the poet’s gift of poetry.

This gift is there, clear enough, in The Pale Horse, which is not a Poirot story nor a Miss Marple but just a Christie extravaganza.  Mark Easterbrook, the narrator, gathers hints of an organisation called The Pale Horse “that specialises in the removal of unwanted persons”.  The police believe him (“It’s an—an evil business, Mr. Easterbrook”) but are baffled (“It’s clever, damnably clever, Mr. Easterbrook”) because the method used appears to be village magic rather than the gangster’s gun.  By making enquiries on the Chelsea grapevine, Easterbrook finds the organisation’s salesman and, in a delightfully evasive interview, sets his own girl friend up as next victim.

Miss Christie has a surprise or two in hand, of course, and a relatively convincing solution to her rather implausible mystery: but the point is that the story holds unflaggingly, and holds with a grip which is gentle as well as firm.  There are never any midnight horrors about Miss Christie’s murders; she transmutes them into a cosy tea-time game.  She is a peculiarly English writer producing a uniquely English type of book.

NY Times (Anthony Boucher, 30th September 1962, 240w): Both the smooth, deft storytelling that the public loves and the faultless intricacy of plotting that makes her the marvel of her colleagues are splendidly evident in Mrs. Christie’s The Pale Horse.  Here she deals with an eerie, supernatural theme, such as she has employed in some fine short stories but never before in a novel…  This is the formal detective story in all its glory—and, for added pleasure, we have the company of Mrs. Ariadne Oliver, surely the most amusing self-mockery in mystery fiction.