"And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death and Hell followed with him."
Some readers are not too impressed with Agatha Christie's output in the swinging 60's but I am not one of them. Sure her best work was behind her (though she did manage another classic and one of my favorite Poirot books ever, CAT AMONG THE PIGEONS in 1959, just one year before the onset of the 60's) but Dame Agatha still had something left in reserve and she managed in the next decade to write several terrific books: THIRD GIRL (yes, not many people like this one, but after listening to it on audio, I changed my view and now I like it very much indeed), HALLOWE'EN PARTY, A CARIBBEAN MYSTERY and today's choice: THE PALE HORSE.
The book has a devilishly cunning plot which shifts back and forth between two narratives - one the cop's, one the hero's - though the murders themselves are pure simplity - more or less. Let's just say that the 'how-to' is probably due to Dame Agatha's work in a hospital dispensary during WWI.
There is a kind of dread which hangs over the story precisely because the instrument of evil is so cleverly hidden and so darn mystifying. Then there's the chatter of voo-doo death spells and occult happenings woven throughout the narrative as people wonder if death by remote control is feasible.
But there is also the spectacle of three ridiculous witches in an English village who muck up the works and upon first reading of THE PALE HORSE years ago almost made me stop reading. One began to think Christie had perhaps gone too far. I mean, butchering fowl? But once you realize it's all window dressing, you see the brilliance of it. You will probably also figure out mid-book who the mastermind is. Doesn't matter - it's the HOW to, that keeps this book moving and the nicely developing love story, not to mention the likable heroine with the bright red hair.
This is one of Dame Agatha's stand-alones since it doesn't feature Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple, though Ariadne Oliver, the mystery writer, gets involved. Instead the sleuthing and most of the narrating is done by a historian (researching the Mogul or Mughal era) named Mark Easterbrook who enters the fray tangentially after witnessing two girls' hair pulling fight in a dingy Chelsea restaurant.
Later Mark reads the name of Thomasina Tuckerton in the newspaper death notices and remembers that that was one of the girls involved in the altercation. File those incidents in the back of your mind as we move forward.
One night Father Gorman, a Catholic priest, is called out to hear a confession from a dying woman. She reveals the ominous outline of an evil plot together with a list of names. But before he can return to his church and decide what to do next, the priest himself is struck down dead in the street.
Fortunately for the police, the killer did not get the list of names since the priest had a hole in his pocket and had folded the list and inserted it in his shoe for safe-keeping. But the list tells the police exactly nothing - it's just a bunch of names.
In the meantime, Mark Easterbrook has had a request from his cousin Rhoda. Could he ask Mrs. Ariadne Oliver (a friend of Mark's) to attend an afternoon church fete in the village of Much Deeping. He heads on over to Mrs. Oliver's apartment and after much amusing chit chat (those of you familiar with the character of Mrs. Oliver will know what I mean), she says she'll think the invitation over because the last time she'd attended a fete, a murder occurred. "I've never quite got over it." So, she'll let him know.
On another night Mark goes to the theater with his fiancee Hermia (about whom the less said the better) to see a new version of Shakespeare's Macbeth. Afterwards they go to dinner and meet up with a couple of friends. The conversation turns to the three witches in Macbeth, then onto the idea of real witches still existing in villages in England (which Mark scoffs at), then onto death and murder and how convenient it would be if you could get someone to cast a spell and the job would be done.
The young woman half of the other couple mentions that there is actually something like that. 'The Pale Horse' is a place one goes to if one wants to arrange a murder. But when questioned, she clams up and seems embarrassed. Later in the case when Mark tries to pry some details loose, she appears frightened and pretends not to know what he's talking about.
"One of the oddest things in life, as we all know, is the way that when you have heard a thing mentioned, within twenty four hours you nearly always come across it again. I had an instance of that the next morning.
My telephone rang and I answered it.
A kind of gasp came through the phone. Then a voice said breathlessly but defiantly:
"I've thought about it and I'll come!"
I cast around wildly in my mind.
"Splendid," I said, stalling for time. "Er - is that - "
"After all," said the voice, "lightning never strikes twice."
"Are you sure you've got the right number?"
"Of course I have. You're Mark Easterbrook, aren't you?"
"Got it!" I said, "Mrs. Oliver."
"Oh," said the voice, surprised. "Didn't you know who I was? I never thought of that. It's about that fete of Rhoda's. I'll come and sign books if she wants me to."
"That's frightfully nice of you. They'll put you up, of course."
"There won't be parties, will there?" asked Mrs. Oliver apprehensively. "You know the kind of thing," she went on."People coming up to me and saying am I writing something just now - when you'd think they could see I'm drinking ginger ale or tomato juice and not writing at all. And saying they like my books - which of course is pleasing, but I've never found the right answer. If you say 'I'm so glad' it sounds like 'Pleased to meet you.' A kind of stock phrase. Well, it is, of course. And you don't think they'll want me to go out to the Pink Horse and have drinks?"
"The Pink Horse?"
"Well, the Pale Horse. Pubs, I mean. I'm so bad in pubs. I can just drink beer at a pinch, but it makes me terribly gurgly."
"Just what do you mean by the Pale Horse?"
"There's a pub called that down there, isn't there? Or perhaps I do mean the Pink Horse? Or perhaps that's somewhere else. I may have just imagined it. I do imagine quite a lot of things."
Fortuitously Mark later runs into an old Oxford friend named Corrigan who happens to be a police surgeon and through him Mark learns of the list in Father Gorman's shoe. They go over the list together and Mark notices not only the name of Thomasina Tuckerton, but the name also of Mark's godmother Lady Hesketh Dubois who has recently died of natural causes. The name of Corrigan is also on the list and Mark's friend says "I've a feeling it's unlucky to have your name on that list."
Suddenly bored with his Mughal researches, Mark embarks on his own check of a few other names on the list and finds that they're all dead - died of natural causes one and all. So why was Father Gorman killed? If for the list, why? They're just the names of people who have died of a variety of natural causes.
Shortly thereafter, Mark's cousin's fete came and went and Mrs. Oliver's fears were unfounded. Nothing much happened except the usual.
"The party consisted of my Cousin Rhoda, and her husband, Colonel Despard; Miss Macalister; a young woman with red hair, suitably called Ginger; Mrs. Oliver; and the vicar, the Rev. Caleb Dane Calthrop and his wife. The vicar was a charming elderly scholar whose principal pleasure was finding some apposite comment from the classics. This, though often an embarrassment and a cause of bringing the conversation to a close, was perfectly in order now. The vicar never required acknowledgement of his sonorous Latin; his pleasure in having found an apt quotation was its own reward.
"As Horace says..." he observed, beaming around the table.
The usual pause happened and then:
"I think Mrs. Horsefall cheated over the bottle of champagne," said Ginger thoughtfully. "Her nephew got it."
Mrs. Dane Calthrop, a disconcerting woman with fine eyes, was studying Mrs. Oliver thoughtfully. She asked abruptly: "What did you expect to happen at the fete?"
"Well, really, a murder or something like that."
Mrs. Dane Calthrop looked interested.
"But why should it?"
"No reason at all. Most unlikely really. But there was one at the last fete I went to."
"I see. And it upset you?"
The vicar changed from Latin to Greek.
After the pause, Miss Macalister cast doubts on the honesty of the raffle for the live duck.
"Very sporting of old Lugg at the King's Arms to send us twelve dozen beer for the bottle stall," said Despard.
"King's Arms?" I asked sharply.
"Our local, darling," said Rhoda.
"Isn't there another pub around here? The - Pale Horse, didn't you say," I asked turning to Mrs. Oliver.
There was no such reaction here as I had half expected. The faces turned towards me were vague and uninterested.
"The Pale Horse isn't a pub," said Rhoda. "I mean, not now."
"It was an old inn, " said Despard. "Mostly sixteenth century I'd say. But it's just an ordinary house now. I always think they should have changed the name."
Turns out the the house is owned and lived in by three odd old ladies much invested in the occult, spiritualism and trances and such. And when Mrs. Oliver says she'd love to meet them, the group decides to visit the next day.
Eventually Mark (with the occasional flash of disjointed wisdom from Mrs. Oliver) will uncover the connection between the three old 'witches' who love putting on a good show, The Pale Horse, a surprising book-making establishment, wholesale death on demand, a wealthy reclusive man whose fortune comes from unknown sources, and a witness who won't take no for an answer all the while slipping comfortably into a relationship with Ginger aka Katherine Corrigan (yes, another Corrigan) the red haired young woman helping him in his investigation (Hermia having decided that it was all a bunch of nonsense.)
All this makes for a terrific convoluted thriller, the sort in which everything comes together at the end nice and neatly - but not before nearly costing Ginger her life.
Since this is Friday again, don't forget to check in at author Patricia Abbott's blog, Pattinase, to see what other forgotten or overlooked books other bloggers are talking about today.