“Of course I often have a master criminal in my stories – people like it – but really he gets harder and harder to do. So long as one doesn’t know who he is, I can keep him impressive. But when it all comes out, he seems, somehow, so inadequate. A kind of anticlimax. It’s much easier if you just have a bank manager who’s embezzled the funds, or a husband who wants to get rid of his wife and marry the children’s governess. So much more natural – if you know what I mean.” Mrs. Ariadne Oliver, The Pale Horse
From 1961 to 1973, Christie wrote thirteen novels (a rather ominous number). Of those titles, I have a partiality for three and acknowledge that five of them work from beginning to end. But it was clear that Christie began to lose interest in, and control of, her writing during the ‘60’s, and many of these novels are, frankly, poor. For much of the period, she could still begin a novel well: the depiction of Bertram’s Hotel, the hook into Third Girl and Hallowe’en Party, the opening luncheon in Elephants Can Remember, the visit to Aunt Ada at the start of By the Pricking of My Thumbs – all of these have their charms, even as the novels which follow devolve into big messes. Then there are those that just don’t work: The Clocks, Passenger to Frankfurt, and Postern of Fate have to rank at the bottom of the pile on most readers’ lists.
Leaving Bertram’s aside, I think The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side, A Caribbean Mystery and Nemesis form a poignant “golden years” trilogy for Miss Marple. Sadly, Hercule Poirot doesn’t fare nearly as well; After the Funeral (1953) is glorious, but all Poirot novels that follow begin a significant decline, even as the detective’s mustaches continue to flourish. As for the stand-alones of the last period, two of them have particular interest. I’m not sure when and how I can write about Endless Night because I don’t particularly like it. I’d rather have a debate about it with another Christie fan, and even then I will have to re-read it a third time, something I am not particularly excited to do. That brings us to The Pale Horse, the first novel of Christie’s final period and easily one of the best. I believe that this book stands out in the Christie oeuvre for a number of reasons, the significance of which I propose to discuss here. I ask readers to wary of spoilers ahead, both for this novel and for a couple of other titles that may crop up.
For those of you who have never read the novel, here’s a quick rundown of its plot, which is told through a divided narrative, something that Christie almost never did (the only other titles I can think of are The Man in the Brown Suit and The A.B.C. Murders), about a mysterious organization that murders people upon request. Most of the story is recounted by a writer named Mark Easterbrook, who stumbles into this bizarre conspiracy through a series of remarkable coincidences. The rest of the book is told in the omniscient third person, allowing Christie to relate events of importance that Mark did not witness, such as the inciting incident of a priest who is called upon to give confession to a dying woman. She entrusts Father Gorman with a list of names, and on the way home he is killed, apparently for that list. The rest of the novel involves the police and Mark trying to figure out how these names are connected and then trying to put a stop to a horrible crime spree that nimbly jumps back and forth from London to the countryside and might, just might, involve witchcraft! That’s all you need to know, and at this point you should stop reading this, go read the book, and then come back and find me. I’ll be waiting . . .
Are they gone? Okay, here we go . . .
One of the most charming aspects of this novel is the fact that, although it does not feature any of Christie’s series sleuths, it is the only stand-alone novel that clearly resides in the same universe as Poirot, Miss Marple and the Beresfords. Up till this point, nobody had ever intruded into anyone else’s sphere, except for one instance in Partners in Crime, where Tommy and Tuppence impersonated Poirot and Hastings. The odd thing about this occasion is the inference it made that the Beresfords were real people while Poirot was a character from detective fiction. The Pale Horse is the only occasion where Christie spliced characters from all her different worlds together, and the result is a charming treat for her real fans.
Part of the novel takes place in the village of Much Deeping where Mark’s cousin Rhoda lives with her husband, Colonel Despard. Rhoda and the Colonel (promoted from Major here) were major characters in the Poirot novel Cards on the Table (1936), and they figure here not as suspects but as aides to Mark’s investigation. Mark has brought the noted mystery novelist, Ariadne Oliver, herself a major part of the Poirot universe (having originated, however, as an employee of Mr. Parker Pyne) down to Much Deeping to open a fete, and a lot of humor is drawn from Mrs. Oliver’s apprehension at trying her hand at this sort of event after the last fete she took part in, during the Poirot mystery, Dead Man’s Folly (1956).
Meanwhile, the religious leadership of the village resides in the capable hands of the Reverend Dane Calthrop and his wife Maud. These two have made their way to Much Deeping after a thriving career in Lymstock, the village where mysterious anonymous letters led to murder in The Moving Finger (1942). That mystery was solved when Maud called in her old friend from St. Mary Mead, Miss Jane Marple.
And just to make things even more interesting, back in London Mark goes on a date and ends up having a fascinating discussion on the nature of evil with an old friend. The friend illustrates how the most chilling wickedness can take on the most deceiving forms, citing a visit he made to a mental home where a kindly old woman sat beside him drinking milk . . .
“ . . . and then suddenly she leaned forward and asked in a low voice: ‘Is it your poor child who’s buried there behind the fireplace?’
“And then she nodded her head and said, ‘Twenty-ten exactly. It’s always at the same time every day. Pretend you don’t notice the blood.’”
This anecdote forms the basis of the late novel By the Pricking of My Thumbs, a Tommy and Tuppence Beresford mystery. The title is a quotation from Act 4, Scene 1 of Macbeth, uttered by the Second Witch. Coincidentally, in The Pale Horse, Mark has this conversation immediately after he and a girlfriend have attended a production of Macbeth at the Old Vic.
Now, one could say that Christie was simply trotting out an idea that she wasn’t ready to use. Or perhaps, this woman that Mark’s friend David met was the same Mrs. Lancaster that Tuppence would encounter in the later novel.
It gets even better, though: this same anecdote is mentioned in a much earlier novel featuring none other than Miss Marple – Sleeping Murder. Although this is the final published novel featuring the elderly spinster, its creation predates both the other books by perhaps twenty years, having been written by Christie during World War II with the intention of having them published posthumously. Whatever the case, it is fascinating that the same creepy anecdote is found in three potentially separate parts of the Christie universe spanning nearly thirty years of her career.
The plot of The Pale Horse places it squarely in that sub-category of Christie novel, the conspiracy thriller. As a rule, these rank among my least favorite of her books, largely due to their highly dubious dabblings into political intrigue. Christie was no Le Carre or Ian Fleming, not even a Robert Ludlum. Her spies were ridiculous, her international villains even more so. Virulent British conservatism and rank racism tended to permeate her depiction of the bad guys in these thrillers, nearly all of whom were ruled by a secret leader (Mr. Brown, Number One, the Marquis, etc. etc.), who was inevitably unmasked as a traitorous member of the British ruling class. It was almost impossible not to guess the leader’s identity, as it tended to be the person who would elicit the loudest gasp of betrayal from our heroine (Tuppence Beresford, Hilary Craven, Victoria Jones, etc.) at the reveal.
In two of her conspiracy books, Christie trades politics for crime, and the result is far better. The first is The Seven Dials Mystery, (which deserves a re-reading by me), a charming romp with a really nice surprise at the end. The other is The Pale Horse, the one conspiracy thriller Christie wrote which actually works. I cannot say that the identity of the master criminal is a big surprise here, but at least it is not a reworking of the same old idea. Everything feels fresh here and, sadly, quite possible. In fact, a particularly horrible real life serial killer used the method found in Christie’s novel. Whether or not he learned it from reading The Pale Horse is open to speculation; his crime spree started the same year the novel was punished, when the killer was only 14 years old. (Read the story here, but only after you have read the book, since it basically gives the murder method away.
While the solution to the crime is rooted very much in present day matters, it is artfully disguised as something much older and darker – witchcraft. Christie works hard to lend credence to the idea that witchcraft could, at the very least, have a deleterious effect on the most suggestible souls. Early on in the novel, the discussion of Macbeth leads to a discourse by Mark’s friend David on witchcraft:
“There’s still a witch in every village in rural England. Old Mrs. Black, in the third cottage up the hill. Little boys are told not to annoy her, and she’s given presents of eggs and home-baked cake now and again. Because, if you annoy her, your cows will stop giving milk, your potato crop will fail, or little Johnnie will twist his ankle. You must keep on the right side of old Mrs. Black. Nobody says so outright, but they all know!”
Christie, like many Golden Age writers, often introduced the supernatural into her tales and exposed these ghosts, witches and evil spirits as frauds. I find the inclusion of these ceremonies a fascinating aspect to the conspiracy. You’d think nobody in his right mind could possibly believe that a killing “curse” is what actually dispatches the victims. Then why is the ceremony a part of the killing contract? Could it have something to do with alleviating the strong sense of guilt that might come over those who paid to have a death occur? Is Christie exposing a “modern” society that still possesses a healthy respect for the occult? Later in the book, Mrs. Dane Calthrop echoes David’s description when Mark asks her if she really does believe in witchcraft:
“But of course! There’s nothing mysterious or secretive about it. It’s all quite matter-of-fact. It’s a family asset that you inherit. Children are told not to tease your cat, and people give you cottage cheese or a pot of home-made jam from time to time.”
Finally, one has to mention the biggest treat in this novel: the presence of Ariadne Oliver. One always gets a sense that, quite possibly, Christie is revealing something of her own practices and frustrations with the profession when she includes this character. In the beginning, Mark visits the author to ask her to sign books for a country fete and discovers her in the throes of creative suffering over a knotty problem that many a mystery author must face: a witness has seen something that must be revealed in order to solve the murder. Yet, as soon as this fact is revealed, the mystery will end, so how does one stall this fact from coming out too early in the book? In other words, how do you keep a reliable witness from spilling the beans? This evolves into a discussion between the two authors where Mrs. Oliver discusses the artificiality that lies at the heart of the genre:
“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, and doesn’t care in the least who’s done it.”
Here, Christie is speaking about something she and her fellow GAD writers have long been criticized over, by folks as lofty as Raymond Chandler! Christie is owning up to this “flaw” in her style of mystery – something we smarter people know is anything but a flaw – and it is to her enormous credit as a mystery writer that she makes this artificiality more than easy to swallow in the great majority of her novels, including this one.