"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

Monday, October 31, 2022

The Pale Horse (1961) by Agatha Christie

Readers unfamiliar with The Pale Horse may prefer to read these notes only after reading the novel.

In Agatha Christie's Complete Secret Notebooks, John Curran writes:

Although written in 1960 and published the following year, The Pale Horse had an inspiration from Agatha Christie's youth. Mr P was a pharmacist who, almost half a century earlier, instructed her in the preparation and dispensing of drugs. One day he showed her a dark-coloured lump that he took from his pocket, explaining that it was curare which he carried around with him because it gave him a feeling of power. As she writes in An Autobiography : 'He struck me, in spite of his cherubic appearance, as a possibly dangerous man. His memory remained with me so long that it was still there waiting when I first conceived the idea of writing my book The Pale Horse .'

The minus-man in thriller fiction, the anonymous thrill-killer, seems like a very modern topic for a writer of Christie's vintage. Until we recall 1936's The ABC Murders: Poirot on the trail of just such a walking shadow who apparently selects his targets arbitrarily. (One of Lee Child's finest early Jack Reacher novels, 2000's Running Blind, still finds energy in the plot, and has time to poke fun at Thomas Harris' Clarice Starling Saga in the bargain).

The Pale Horse is about a killer who selects victims arbitrarily to achieve a rational goal: assisting the police in apprehending a poisoner.

.... Again [Divisional Detective-Inspector] Lejeune considered the distance across the street. His eyes rested thoughtfully on the chemist.

     He asked: "Do you think you would recognise this man if you saw him again?"

     "Oh, yes." Mr. Osborne was supremely confident. "I never forget a face. It's one of my hobbies. I've always said that if one of these wife murderers came into my place and bought a nice little package of arsenic, I'd be able to swear to him at the trial. I've always had my hopes that something like that would happen one day."

     "But it hasn't happened yet?"

     Mr. Osborne admitted sadly that it hadn't.

     "And not likely to now," he added wistfully. "I'm selling this business. Getting a very nice price for it, and retiring to Bournemouth."

     "It looks a nice place you've got here."

     "It's got class," said Mr. Osborne, a note of pride in his voice. "Nearly a hundred years we've been established here. My grandfather and my father before me. A good old-fashioned family business. Not that I saw it that way as a boy. Stuffy, I thought it. Like many a lad, I was bitten by the stage. Felt sure I could act. My father didn't try to stop me. 'See what you can make of it, my boy,' he said. 'You'll find you're no Sir Henry Irving.' And how right he was! Very wise man, my father. Eighteen months or so in repertory and back I came into the business. Took a pride in it, I did. We've always kept good solid stuff. Old-fashioned. But quality. But nowadays"—he shook his head sadly—"disappointing for a pharmaceutist. All this toilet stuff. You've got to keep it. Half the profits come from all that muck. Powder and lipstick and face creams; and hair shampoos and fancy sponge bags. I don't touch the stuff myself. I have a young lady behind the counter who attends to all that. No, it's not what it used to be, having a chemist's establishment. However, I've a good sum put by, and I'm getting a very good price, and I've made a down payment on a very nice little bungalow near Bournemouth."

*   *   *

The Pale Horse is thickly armored with dead ends and red-herrings. Bright young thing Mark Easterbrook, through his friendship with one of Lejeune's colleagues, starts unraveling an end of the skein from its sexier end: voodoo and village witches. Because Christie is also concerned with future prospects for her ingenues (as she knows that you and I - readers - are, too) the Easterbrook chapters become the chapters where appropriate mates are carefully established.

     "What exciting things happen in the country!" said Hermia lightly.

     We had just finished dinner. A pot of black coffee was in front of us—

     I looked at her. The words were not quite what I had expected. I had spent the last quarter of an hour telling her my story. She had listened intelligently and with interest. But her response was not at all what I had expected. The tone of her voice was indulgent—she seemed neither shocked nor stirred.

     "People who say that the country is dull and the towns full of excitement don't know what they are talking about," she went on. "The last of the witches have gone to cover in the tumbledown cottage, black masses are celebrated in remote manor houses by decadent young men. Superstition runs rife in isolated hamlets. Middle-aged spinsters clank their false scarabs and hold séances and planchettes run luridly over sheets of blank paper. One could really write a very amusing series of articles on it all. Why don't you try your hand?"

     "I don't think you really understand what I've been telling you, Hermia."

     "But I do, Mark! I think it's all tremendously interesting. It's a page out of history, all the lingering forgotten lore of the Middle Ages."

     "I'm not interested historically," I said irritably. "I'm interested in the facts. In a list of names on a sheet of paper. I know what has happened to some of those people. What's going to happen or has happened to the rest?"

     "Aren't you letting yourself get rather carried away?"

     "No," I said obstinately. "I don't think so. I think the menace is real. And I'm not alone in thinking so. The vicar's wife agrees with me."

     "Oh, the vicar's wife!" Hermia's voice was scornful.

     "No, not 'the vicar's wife' like that! She's a very unusual woman. This whole thing is real, Hermia."

     Hermia shrugged her shoulders.


     "But you don't think so?"

     "I think your imagination is running away with you a little, Mark. I daresay your middle-aged pussies are quite genuine in believing it all themselves. I'm sure they're very nasty old pussies!"

     "But not really sinister?"

     "Really, Mark, how can they be?"

     I was silent for a moment. My mind wavered—turning from light to darkness and back again. The darkness of the Pale Horse, the light that Hermia represented. Good everyday sensible light—the electric light bulb firmly fixed in its socket, illuminating all the dark corners. Nothing there—nothing at all—just the everyday objects you always find in a room. But yet—but yet—Hermia's light, clear as it might make things seem, was after all an artificial light….

     My mind swung back, resolutely, obstinately….

     "I want to look into it all, Hermia. Get to the bottom of what's going on."

     "I agree. I think you should. It might be quite interesting. In fact, really rather fun."

     "Not fun!" I said sharply.

     I went on:

     "I wanted to ask if you'd help me, Hermia."

     "Help you? How?"

     "Help me to investigate. Get right down to what this is all about."

     "But Mark dear, just at present I'm most terribly busy. There's my article for the Journal. And the Byzantium thing. And I've promised two of my students—"

     Her voice went on reasonably—sensibly— I hardly listened.

     "I see," I said. "You've too much on your plate already."

     "That's it." Hermia was clearly relieved at my acquiescence. She smiled at me. Once again I was struck by her expression of indulgence. Such indulgence as a mother might show over her little son's absorption in his new toy.

     Damn it all, I wasn't a little boy. I wasn't looking for a mother—certainly not that kind of a mother. My own mother had been charming and feckless; and everyone in sight, including her son, had adored looking after her.

     I considered Hermia dispassionately across the table.

     So handsome, so mature, so intellectual, so well read! And so—how could one put it? So— yes, so damnably dull!

It's no spoiler to point out Christie never fails her young men and their expectations. Hermia is founding wanting, but Ginger is on another level altogether:

     Ginger sat opposite me at a table in the White Cockatoo where we had met for a drink. She looked refreshingly the same as she had looked at Much Deeping—a tousled mop of red hair, an engaging freckled face and alert green eyes. She was wearing her London artistic livery of skintight pants, a Sloppy Joe jersey and black woollen stockings—but otherwise she was the same Ginger. I liked her very much.

*   *   *

Occult trappings are kept to one seance of a few pages, creating an atmosphere of quaint menace Christie clearly has no appetite to explore. The cold, sound judgments of Ariadne Oliver and Mrs. Dane Calthrop are more useful for contexts contributing to fair cluing.

     "Something that won't jell?" I said sympathetically. "Perhaps I'd better go away."

     "No, don't. At any rate you're a distraction."

     I accepted this doubtful compliment.

     "Do you want a cigarette?" Mrs. Oliver asked with vague hospitality. "There are some somewhere. Look in the typewriter lid."

     "I've got my own, thanks. Have one. Oh no, you don't smoke."

     "Or drink," said Mrs. Oliver. "I wish I did. Like those American detectives that always have pints of rye conveniently in their collar drawers. It seems to solve all their problems. You know. Mark, I really can't think how anyone ever gets away with a murder in real life. It seems to me that the moment you've done a murder the whole thing is so terribly obvious."

     "Nonsense. You've done lots of them."

     "Fifty-five at least," said Mrs. Oliver. "The murder part is quite easy and simple. It's the covering up that's so difficult. I mean, why should it be anyone else but you? You stick out a mile."

     "Not in the finished article," I said.

     "Ah, but what it costs me," said Mrs. Oliver darkly. "Say what you like, it's not natural for five or six people to be on the spot when B is murdered and all 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."

     "I see your problem," I said. "But if you've dealt with it successfully fifty-five times, you will manage to deal with it once again."

     "That's what I tell myself," said Mrs. Oliver, "over and over again, but every single time I can't believe it, and so I'm in agony."


31 October 2022

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