The Pale Horse (1961) was my choice for the #ReadChristie challenge for this month, and though it was one of the picks for the challenge, it seems I interpreted the visual prompt completely differently to the official interpretation.

The Pale Horse presents an interesting mystery where it isn’t only the whodunit that keeps one puzzled but also the howdunit for seances and witchcraft (mixed with some apparently scientific principles) seem to be the method used, and our protagonists can’t quite work out whether there is any merit to this and if not, what the possible cause could be.

The story is narrated by Mark Easterbrook, an archaeologist/historian interested in Mughal architecture and history and writing a book about it in a flat in Chelsea. A late night trip to a coffee shop on which he witnesses what can only be described as a ‘cat fight’ between two young women; an invitation he extends to his friend, author Ariadne Oliver to sign books at a village fete organized by his cousin Rhoda in Much Deeping; a chance remark by Poppy, the latest girlfriend of his friend David; and a small bequest left him by his godmother, all lead him to the puzzle of the Pale Horse, a mysterious inn in the village of Much Deeping, where three women seem to practice witchcraft. Alongside the police (these parts explored in a third person narrative) are investigating the murder of Father Gorman, a priest who is killed as he is returning from the deathbed of a young woman to which he was called and who told him of something wicked she knew of, and which must be stopped. All Gorman has left behind are a list of names, but whose are they and what relevance they have leave the police puzzled.

It soon transpires that some at least on that list are dead—all of natural causes—but there were people who benefitted. Could it have been that the women at the Pale Horse actually have some powers they could call upon to accomplish this? Mark Easterbrook decides there is something decidedly strange in the matter, and begins to look into it, joined a little way in by Ginger Corrigan, a young art restorer he meets ar Rhoda’s. But it seems, to solve the mystery of the Pale Horse, they must put themselves into danger!

The Pale Horse is certainly a fun mystery with plenty of witchery, spookiness and also touches of exoticism, and one which keeps one guessing over both the how and who. This was at least my third visit (though after a fairly long gap) and I’d actually forgotten the whodunit, and ended up loving the surprise Christie sprung at the end.

Setting wise, this book is an interesting one in terms of giving us both a look at London with its coffee bars, ‘60s youth and sophisticated theatres and restaurants, and also typical country life with village fetes, visits, and ‘witches’. Almost all through we see hints of people being killed by what can only be witchcraft for the women at the Pale Horse, particularly Thyrza Grey pretty much boasts that they can kill people ‘remotely’. And witnessing the three in action only serves to unsettle Mark (even if he may have doubted them earlier) and at least one of them, he is sure has something that’s real. But perhaps, it was that since I knew the howdunit from previous visits, the spooky elements while nicely done didn’t feel to me as strong as say in some of Christie’s other books (Endless Night, for instance, where despite knowing that there’ll be a solution very much in the human realm, the creepiness is so well done that it left me with goosebumps long after finishing the book).

And speaking of howdunit, there are plenty of clues that one realises the relevance of later, and that perhaps one who is familiar with the method would pick up on sooner. I remember reading about a real-life case involving the same method soon after I first read the book years ago and realising as soon as I read some symptoms what it possibly was, based on this book (here), though it seems that even prior to this case which was in the 1990s, two other similar cases were solved on the basis of the book (here; Rekha from the Bookdecoder with whom I buddy read this, pointed me to this link–Both links spoilery as to howdunit).

In The Pale Horse we also meet some recurring Christie characters whom one’s met in other books, something I always enjoy. The eccentric mystery writer Ariadne Oliver, through whom Christe pokes gentle fun at herself makes a short appearance, yet provides a crucial clue; then we have Mrs Dane Calthorp, the perceptive vicar’s wife, also encountered in the Moving Finger.

Using elements of superstition and fear, witchcraft and witchery, and the theme of evil being a very real thing, Christie gives us a really enjoyable mystery (with a nice thread of romance), one in which the howdunit is certainly a puzzle, and if one thinks one knows the who, Christie proves to us at the end why she’s deservedly the ‘queen of crime’.

Bookish Coincidence: What chances that two books one reads back to back mention the Malleus Maleficarum? I didn’t expect there to be but both this book which dealt with witchery and witchcraft and my immediately previous read Death of a Bookseller, in which a seller of rare books is murdered mentioned it since he also dealt with books on the occult!


21 thoughts on “Book Review: The Pale Horse (1961) by Agatha Christie #ReadChristie

  1. The Pale Horse was one of few Christies I didn’t immediately cotton on to when I first read it long ago, but when re-reading it a few years back I appreciated it far more. I also really liked that whodunit twist and love your observation about how she combined the different settings in London and the village.


  2. I watched a TV adaptation of this a few years ago and was very confused – it may have been the production but I suspect I would’ve got more out of the book. Maybe next time I’m in the mood for some Christie!


  3. That is the joy of re-reading Christie! After some years elapse, we will completely forget the mysteries. And since Christie was a very prolific author (thank God!), we are guaranteed to perpetually re-reading hers, always with fun! I have read this only once, and completely forgotten what the story is about. Seems a fun Halloween read! 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I love to reread a book because it’s easy for me to forget so much and the second time reading a book, I also pick up new details that I missed the first time. Nice review, Mallika.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I forget lots too, and it’s always interesting to pick up new details each time. Christie especially has so many subplots and details, she’s as much fun on revisits as the first time around


  5. Agreeing with the official interpretation or not, The Pale Horse presents an interesting mystery that keeps the reader guessing. I’m curious to know if there are any other Agatha Christie novels that involve a mixture of scientific principles and witchcraft like this one?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It certainly does, and the solution was an intriguing one as well. Not that I can immediately think of but there is Endless Night which involves a gypsy’s warning and some very unsettling atmosphere even though the solution once again is very much in the human sphere.


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