The Pale Horse by Agatha Christie: a book discussion. Part One: background (but first – a heartfelt digression)
As last Tuesday night’s meeting got under way, we members of Usual Suspects were treated first to a recap of Marge’s recent and rather fabulous trip to England. Not only did she savor the many joys of literary London, she also attended a star studded Crimefest Convention in Bristol. This is the same event that we both enjoyed last year, but this year’s Crimefest was truly stellar: Lee Child! Sue Grafton! And most amazingly, the reigning queen of British crime fiction, P.D. James! Marge’s tour also took her to Oxford, where she fell in love with the city of the dreaming spires and got to spend some time in the company of Colin Dexter, author of the peerless Inspector Morse novels.. (Ron and I enjoyed this same memorable experience in 2006, while on the Smithsonian Tour, Classic Mystery Lover’s England.)
All right – I must stop myself getting sad and dreamy-eyed, as I invariably do when remembering this, and proceed to the matter at hand…. Oh but first, I really must offer up a soundtrack. This video tribute to Barrington Pheloung begins with music he composed for the film Shopgirl. You’ll hear the Morse theme at about two minutes and twenty seconds in:
I began Tuesday night’s discussion of The Pale Horse began with a brief survey of the life of Agatha Christie. It was not my intention to delve into too much detail, as the general facts of her life are fairly well known and easy to access. Still, I admit I was knocked sideways by the fact that Carol rattled off from memory the name Roedean, this being the boarding school attended by Agatha’s older sister Madge. She was also well up on the arcana of Agatha’s complex familial antecedents. Well done, Carol!
Agatha Christie was born in 1890 in Torquay,on Devon’s south coast.
Lovely Torquay – Ron and I were first there in 2006, and then again, last year. (The first photo is of the lobby of the Imperial Hotel, where we stayed in 2006.)
Madge was eleven years older than Agatha; brother Monty was ten years older. So in some respects, Agatha’s upbringing resembled that of an only child. In addition, her father, the American born Frederick Alvah Miller, died in 1901, when Agatha was eleven years old. As a result, she and her mother Clara, already close, grew even closer. Clara had some eccentric notions concerning education; hence, Agatha’s was something of a catch-as-catch-can affair. As Agatha grew to young womanhood, her chief aim was to get married. As Joan Acocella tells it in her 2010 New Yorker profile: “All she wanted was a husband, and when she was twenty-four she got one: the dashing Archie Christie, a member of the Royal Flying Corps.” After a rather turbulent courtship, Archie and Agatha were wed. Archie went off to fight in France; Agatha went off to work in a hospital dispensary in Torquay, a fateful job choice as it later turned out.
When Archie came back from the war, he and Agatha at first settled into a comfortable domesticity. Agatha gave birth to their daughter Rosalind. But Archie was proving to be a less than ideal husband. In her autobiography, Agatha quotes him as saying : ” I did tell you once, long ago, that I hate it when people are ill or unhappy-it spoils everything for me.” Unfortunately for both of them, Agatha’s mother Clara died in 1926. As Joan Acocella wryly observes, this devastating loss had the effect of “…plunging her daughter into the kind of sorrow that Archie found so obstructive to his happiness.” Sure enough,Archie sought consolation elsewhere. He soon informed Agatha that he was in love with another woman and wanted a divorce. This crisis in her personal life prompted Agatha Christie to decide on a strange course of action, one which has been endless scrutinized and analyzed for decades: she disappeared.
She was gone for eleven days. Eventually it transpired that she had absconded to the Old Swan Hotel in the spa town of Harrogate, in Yorkshire. She checked in under an assumed name, giving as her surname ‘Neele,’ the last name of Archie’s new love. Her disappearance was sensational.
The Surrey constabulary, enlarged to five hundred men, combed the downs and dragged the ponds in the area around her abandoned car. When the weekend came, they were joined by a mob of volunteers, plus bloodhounds. Ice-cream venders set up stands to serve the crowd. Most of the major newspapers carried a daily story on the matter. Christie’s fellow-guests at the hotel looked at the photos of her in the papers, but none of them made the connection. Indeed, she later recalled playing bridge with them and discussing the strange case of the missing novelist.
Christie was eventually identified by members of the hotel’s band. What followed was a great deal of speculation. Had Christie experienced some kind of amnesia? Was this a desperate bid to regain Archie’s affection? Or was it a publicity stunt, pure and simple? Again, Joan Acocella:
….if Agatha’s flight was an effort to get the attention of the public, it was successful. She had produced six detective novels by that time, the last of which, “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd” (1926), was extremely popular. That success, in part, was why her disappearance received so much attention. Conversely, her disappearance, with its interesting link to detective fiction, made her a celebrity. Her earlier novels were reprinted, and they sold out.
(The publicity stunt rationale was deemed unlikely by the Suspects. The feeling was that Agatha’s natural shyness would have prevented her embarking on this gambit with such a calculating purpose in view.)
A word about Harrogate before we leave this subject: I’ve visited there twice. once in 2005 and again in 2007. It’s a lovely place in and of itself, and also an ideal base for investigating the nearby attractions of North Yorkshire:
Naturally I wandered through the lobby of the Old Swan Hotel, soaking up the ambiance, as Agatha Christie must have done all those years ago….
More about the life of Agatha Christie in a subsequent post. For now, I’d like to make a start on: . I first read this novel (and wrote about it in this space) in 2010. When I asked the Suspects if they’d discussed a Christie work lately, they replied in the negative. The Pale Horse struck me as a good bet for a discussion – though just how good, I hadn’t anticipated.
In Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks, John Curran states that The Pale Horse is one of the high marks of the last fifteen years of Christie’s writing life. He goes on to say that the novel “…has a horribly plausible plot, a very unusual poison and a genuine feeling of menace over and above the usual whodunit element.” And in The Life and Crimes of Agatha Christie, Charles Osborne comments: “The Pale Horse is a remarkably fresh and imaginative creation for a writer entering her seventies.”
The Pale Horse possesses a beautiful structure, like an edifice rising in a slow and stately manner from bare ground. This dark tale of a fiendish conspiracy involves numerous disparate players, and Christie places the various components before the reader with extraordinary skill and timing. She’s certainly an expert at misdirection, but here she does something even more subtle: she embeds crucial facts in the most prosaic statements and situations. The names of characters who will ultimately play a major role in the story are sandwiched between those of comparative unimportance. Vital clues appear right from the beginning, in the most innocent-seeming settings. It’s so easy to miss them. I certainly did, on my first encounter with this novel.
A word at this juncture about the “very unusual poison” alluded to above by John Curran. In an effort to avoid ‘spoilers,’ I’m not going to name it here. I will say that it occupies an entire chapter in Deborah Blum’s terrific book The Poisoner’s Handbook. (We Suspects had a great time discussing this work at our June meeting.) In addition, on her blog Speakeasy Science, Blum tells the fascinating story of a crime committed just last year in Princeton, New Jersey, that involved the use of this same substance.
There’s quite a bit more to be said about our discussion of The Pale Horse. Part Two of this post will, I hope, not be long in coming. Meanwhile, I’d like to say a bit more at this point about sources and background.
The full text of Joan Acocella’s New Yorker piece on Agatha Christie can be found at Gale’s Biography in Context. This database can be accessed through the library’s website. Go to the home page; there, you will see the ‘How Do I’ drop box’ at the upper right, beneath ‘New & Hot Items’ and ‘Classes & Events.’ Click on the downward arrow and select ‘Use Electronic Resources.’ (You’ll find it about halfway down the list of options.) Select ‘List of Databases’ near the top of the page. Select ‘Biography’ at top left. Then select ‘Biographies’ at the top of the page. Type ‘Agatha Christie’ into the search box. Joan Acocella’s article is entitled “Queen of Crime;” the link to it is in the left hand column, second from the top. At some point in this process, you may need to enter your library card number. (One must jump through all these hoops, alas; the New Yorker keeps nearly all of its content behind a pay wall.)
What you won’t see is the rather startling photo that accompanied the article. It was taken by Lord Snowden in 1974, two years before Christie’s death:
There are other items of interest at Biography in Context’s Agatha Christie page. Right under ‘Queen of Crime’ you’ll find a link to the NPR piece about the tapes made by Christie that were found at Greenway in 2008 by her grandson Matthew Prichard. (What treasures were unearthed while Greenway was being readied to hand over to the National Trust!) You can go directly to the NPR segment, where you can listen to portions of those tapes. If you do so, you’ll note that the possibility is raised of a meeting between Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. One senses that the very idea irritated Dame Agatha. “But why should they meet?” she exclaims indignantly. ” I’m sure they would not like meeting at all.” Commentator Lynn Neary adds: “And no doubt, Agatha Christie knew exactly what she was talking about.”
Ah, but we Agatha aficionados know differently. They did meet – in Torquay in 1990, at the Agathe Christie Centenary Celebration. You can see for yourself. The meeting of the two famed fictional protagonists occurs about eighteen minutes in on this promotional video:
This video also made we wonder whether an annual Agatha Christie Festival has in fact been successfully established at Torquay. Judging by this next video, the answer is yes: