I’ve just finished re-reading Agatha Christie’s The Pale Horse and though I remembered enjoying it years ago, I’d forgotten just how good it is. Some might say it’s a piece of hokum but there’s nothing wrong with that – we love watching Midsomer Murders. Readers are always required to enter into a tacit agreement with an author to suspend disbelief and I’m happy to do that for an exciting tale. This is a real page-turner with great insight into human nature.
People tend to think of Agatha Christie as one of the four ‘Queens of Crime’ from the Golden Age of detective fiction (between the wars) and rightly so. Yet she wrote thirteen novels between 1961-73. Her final published novels Curtain and Sleeping Murder had been written many years earlier.
Although I love Christie’s earlier novels for their period setting, it is interesting to read her descriptions of changing times. Detective novelists with their eye for detail are some of the best chroniclers of social history. Published in 1961 – before the legendary swinging London of the sixties had begun – The Pale Horse starts in a coffee bar in the King’s Road, Chelsea. Not a setting you could ever imagine for Miss Marple.
The first sentence reads “The espresso machine behind my shoulder hissed like an angry snake.” Then comes a heartfelt paragraph on ‘contemporary noises’ which is surely the author reflecting on the modern world. Followed by a vivid sketch of the young customers – the beat generation. I felt I was there, seeing people she’d seen. The setting also has wonderful descriptions of seedy London streets and much of the novel takes place in familiar Christie territory, a peaceful village.
The Pale Horse is largely narrated by an academic who stumbles upon a mystery and begins to investigate. Although Christie is most famous for her series detectives, some of her finest novels were stand-alones. Another of my favourites with a one-off chance detective is Murder Is Easy, published in 1939.
I’m always struck by the astute way in which Agatha Christie wrote about evil. Often dismissed for writing cosy puzzles with an absence of blood, it seems to me that her characterisation of murderers is chilling. She didn’t need to describe violence and gore. Her forte was writing about the ordinary suddenly becoming sinister, wickedness glimpsed from the corner of an eye. Did you imagine it or could you just possibly be right?
The plot of The Pale Horse has one of Christie’s trademark distractions and there’s a final dazzling twist which I hadn’t recalled. Great fun and a deeply satisfying read.