This stand-alone mystery is one of Christie’s oddest crime novels, which is probably why it’s one of her books that stuck in my memory the most. I don’t necessarily think it’s an example of Christie at her best; the non-linear plot meanders somewhat and the resolution is far too abrupt. But it’s certainly one of her most interesting books, with some unusual elements that I can’t remember seeing anywhere else in Christie’s oeuvre.
Most of the story is told from the perspective of Mark Easterbrook, a scholarly type who feels rather out of step with the modern world and in particular the bohemian crowd frequenting the cafes of Chelsea, London where he resides. While sipping a coffee in such one cafe, he witnesses a vicious fight between two young women over a man. A week later, he happens to see the name of one of the women mentioned in the Deaths column of a newspaper – a sad and tragic thing to happen to someone so young, but nothing unduly suspicious.
The narrative then jumps to a third person perspective to describe an important event not witnessed by Mark, a murder of a Catholic priest called upon to attend to a dying woman wishing to confess a sin. A list of names is found on the priest’s body, including that of the young woman from the Chelsea cafe. Through a series of coincidences, Mark gets entangled in the mystery of the list and, together with the police, tries to figure out how it all fits together. It all points to a sinister organisation specialising in removing unwanted persons for money, which may involve… witchcraft?
The whole occult angle is foreshadowed early on in the book, when Mark and his lady friend Hermia (beautiful, intelligent, a perfect life companion… on paper that is) discuss Macbeth and its witches. In restrospect, the book also pretty much foreshadows the eventual mastermind reveal, though I think that it becomes an easy guess way before the final denouement. Christie does a great job playing around with the credibility of witchcraft: Mark’s rational modern mind of course rejects the whole thing as utterly preposterous, but all the while there’s a tiny part of him wondering that maybe, just maybe, it’s possible to kill a person through the power of the mind.
This is one of Christie’s books where the presence of the author herself is strongly felt. There’s the guest appearance of Mrs Ariadne Oliver the crime writer, who once again delivers some entertaining meta commentary on the frustrations of her profession and the challenges of the mystery 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.”
But Christie also seems present in the words of Mark as he muses on the contemporary world, its conveniences, the hidden dangers of technology, the young generation and their unfathomable tastes in dress styles. I also always appreciate the nods to the long-time readers when characters and locations from the past Christie novels are referenced; here, a couple of major characters from Cards on the Table pop up in the background as Mark’s relatives and aides.
Among the negatives, the progression of the story feels rather jerky and a major plot point is resolved by a character just happening to remember a random article they’ve read in the past, a sort of convenient memory that’s hardly ever satisfying. Still, The Pale Horse – Christie’s fiftieth-something novel – at the very least can’t be accused of the author reheating the same old stale murder mystery. When a writer can still be inventive in their twilight period, you gotta take off your hat to them.