In 1961 Agatha Christie wrote one of her most enduring and chilling mysteries. The Pale Horse is a tale of black magic and killers-for-hire set in a time period in England when everyone is just about to embrace The Beatles.
In the 1950s Agatha Christie had a rival for the title of Britain’s best-selling author. His name was Dennis Wheatley. Wheatley’s now largely forgotten tales of Satan worship with titles such as The Devil Rides Out, To the Devil: A Daughter, and The Satanist were wrapped in jackets that promised sorcery and saucy titillation and sold by the tens of millions.
Wheatley’s success spawned a legion of copyists. By the dawn of the swinging sixties, a fictional British countryside awash with folk who spent their weekends dancing naked under the full moon and sacrificing virgins to goat-headed Gods was an established facet of popular literature.
Christie was undoubtedly the world leader when it came to sinister goings-on in leafy English villages, so it is little wonder that the pre-eminent mystery writer of her age decided to get a taste of the action.
The Pale Horse
Agatha Christie's The Pale Horse
The title of The Pale Horse is taken from the Revelation of St John the Divine – a popular port of call for anyone writing about the Devil. In the Old Testament the Pale Horse is ridden by Death. This makes it a fairly unusual choice of name for a cosy English pub. Yet such is the case in the sleepy hamlet of Much Deeping.
Sadly, by the time Mark Easterbrook, the narrator of Christie’s spooky tale, and his pal, Christie’s alter-ego, crime writer, Ariadne Oliver pitch up to sign books at the Church fete, the pub is no longer serving pints of warm bitter and cold pork pies. Instead, it’s dispensing something altogether less traditional – hexes and curses. This is not because The Pale Horse has been taken over by a grumpy landlord, but because it has been turned into a house and the residents are a trio of witches, led by the coldly evil Thyrza Grey.
Soon Easterbrook (an archaeologist like Christie’s husband, Max Mallowan) aided by glamorous art conservator Katherine “Ginger” Corrigan and the vicar’s wife Dane Calthorp (like Ariadne Oliver, a recurring Christie character), finds himself investigating a series of mysterious deaths, linked only – or so it appears by the fact that a number of the victims are listed on a piece of paper found in the shoe of a brutally slain parish priest.
Unlike the unfortunate priest who was bludgeoned to death in the fog, the deceased on the list appear to have died from natural causes. Yet Easterbrook and his chums can’t help wondering if they have actually been killed by the witches from The Pale Horse using The Dark Arts. Are the trio running what amounts to a Satanic Murder Incorporated, carrying out hits for cash?
And if they are, how exactly are they doing it? Is it possible to bring about someone’s death by sending malignant spirits down electricity cables to stop their hearts? And if you do, is it actually murder?
And what are we to make of Much Deeping’s mysterious wheelchair-bound millionaire Mr. Venables and his unexplained fortune? And who, really, is the creepy pharmacist Zachariah Osborne (based on the man who had trained Christie as a drug dispenser during World War One)? And is it true that a disbarred lawyer in Birmingham is running a nationwide gambling game in which punters bet on whether certain people will live or die?
The Pale Horse is perhaps the best of all Christie’s later novels. It’s a howdunit as well as a whodunit, and mixes much of the great mystery writer’s favourite tropes (dark goings-on around the vicarage, a cast of middle-class characters who may or may not be what they seem, wealthy heiresses and disputed wills) with a number of new and unexpected flourishes.
The witches are as spine-tinglingly menacing as anything Dennis Wheatley created. They brim over with unsettling weirdness, creating a feeling that they are capable of just about anything.
Though the village setting is familiar and as old-fashioned as a plate of scones on a lace doily, there are also glimpses of a more modern, less timeless England. Easterbrook lives in fashionable, arty Chelsea (perhaps a few streets away from the trio of long-haired layabouts who, a year after The Pale Horse was published, would announce themselves as The Rolling Stones). There are scenes in London’s then super-fashionable Italian coffee bars, and a brutal fight between two rock n’ roll chicks, one of whom turns out to be a slumming aristo.
It’s this interesting collision between Christie’s traditional chintzy, tea-sipping England of Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot and the new brash, espresso-swigging England of Jean Shrimpton and Michael Caine that makes The Pale Horse so appealing.
The Pale Horse (2020)
There’s certainly plenty of stylish clothing and sixties glamour in the most successful screen adaptation of the mystery, 2020’s BBC two-parter—available on Amazon Prime. It stars the always raffish Rufus Sewell as Mark Easterbrook and Sheila Atin as a genuinely scary Thyrza Grey. Although Sarah Phelps’ screenplay plays fast and loose with the plot, it’s well worth catching.
Christie clearly had fun with her foray into the devilish milieu of Dennis Wheatley. One of the rules of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction was that the criminal could never be supernatural. Part of the enjoyment of The Pale Horse is discovering whether The Queen of Crime is going to break that rule, or not.