The Pale Horse by Agatha Christie: a book discussion. Part Two

July 22, 2012 at 9:06 pm (Book clubs, books, Mystery fiction) ()

[Click here for Part One of this post.]

The year is 1928. A woman sits on a train. She is alone; her daughter is safely ensconced in a boarding school. Her marriage, to her grief and mortification, has ended. Her beloved mother has died. Why should she not embark on an adventure? She is in need of a change of scene….

The woman is Agatha Christie. The train is the Orient Express. The destination: Baghdad.

Christie had originally planned a Caribbean vacation. But two days before her intended departure date, she happened to have dinner with a young couple just returned from Baghdad. They raved about the exotic, fascinating city. Christie assumed that to get there,  you had to go by sea., but her interlocutors assured her that she could make the journey by train. And not just any train: you could travel on the fabled Orient Express!  As it happened, Agatha Christie loved trains, and it had long  been her desire to travel on that particular storied line. She says in her autobiography:

All my life I had wanted to go on the Orient Express. When I had travelled to France or Spain or Italy, the Orient Express had often been standing at Calais, and I had longed to climb up into it. Simplon-Orient Express-Milan Belgrade, Stamboul…I was bitten.

To us in the twenty-first century, Iraq may seem a strange choice for leisure travel. But as Andrew Eames reminds us in The 8:55 to Baghdad,* the situation was different in the late 1920s: “….at the time the country was a British protectorate and very much in the news thanks to the archaeologist Leonard Woolley’s discoveries, which were being talked up as a second Tutankhamun.”

Travel poster from the 1930s

So revelatory was  that first visit that two years later, Christie decided to go back. On this second excursion, she met a young archeologist who had not been in Baghdad when she’d gone in 1928.  His name was Max Mallowan.

*Many thanks to Ann for reminding me of this title from 2004. In it,  Andrew Eames sets out to recreate Agatha Christie’s journey from England to the Middle East, one which would change her life in ways she could not have anticipated. 

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[Spoilers may be present in what follows.]

It never fails: when I re-read a book in preparation for leading a discussion, certain aspects of the work strike me differently than they did not on my first reading. Additionally, I’m always amazed at what I’ve forgotten, even if  I completed that reading a relatively short while ago. So it was with The Pale Horse, which I read (after listening to Hugh Fraser’s superb narration) in November of 2010. At the  moment, I’m referring specifically to the very first page of Christie’s novel. The Pale Horse does not begin with the scene in a Chelsea coffee bar in which two young woman come to blows over a man. Rather, it begins with a brief  rumination by   Mark Easterbrook. Wondering at what point in time his narrative should commence, he asks a provocative question: “At what point in history does one particular portion of history begin?” Now he himself is a historian by profession, so this is a natural question for him to be asking. After pondering several possibilities. he decides that his strange tale should take as its point of origin “,,,a certain evening in Chelsea.”

(As it happens, Mark Easterbrook’s Foreward provides yet another example of a phenomenon I encounter frequently on these occasions. I wanted to bring up this short half page with the group, and I never did.  I’ve found that no matter how much preparation I do, no matter how meticulous my notes, list of questions, outlines, etc. – the thing rarely goes as planned. But there is almost always rich compensation for the omissions; namely, the questions and observations that, in the course of the discussion, come from the group members themselves.)

With Mark Easterbrook’s brief reflection, a mood of unease is created, a mood that gradually and ineluctably gathers strength. Nothing is wasted – absolutely nothing. For me, this tightness of structure combined with a heightened intensity of feeling is one of this novel’s most admirable qualities.

Mark Easterbrook is the chief protagonist, but there’s a significant array of supporting players on either side of the dividing line between good and evil. There’s Mark’s cousin Rhoda and her husband Major Despard. There’s the somewhat mysterious Mr. Venables, a man of considerable wealth, whose use of a wheel chair is crucial to the plot. There’s Mr. Osborne the pharmacist and Mrs. Dane Calthrop, the vicar’s wife. Inspector LeJeune and Dr. Corrigan the police surgeon are the official investigators. There’s Poppy, a young woman who’s both witless and knowing.  There are the three women residing deep in the countryside in a sort of deconsecrated pub called  The Pale Horse. There’s Mark’s steady, reliable, and rather boring girlfriend Hermia Redcliffe, whose inability to empathize with Mark’s struggle to uncover the truth about The Pale Horse conspiracy signals the doom of their relationship. On the other hand, art restorer (and comely redhead) Ginger Corrigan most definitely does empathize.

And then there’s Ariadne Oliver.

A writer of detective fiction and inveterate hoarder of apples, Ariadne Oliver is best known as the friend of Hercule Poirot. She appears with the Belgian sleuth in several of his detecting ventures. She’s also part of the cast of characters in two non-Poirot tales: The Pale Horse and “The Case of the Discontented Soldier,”  a short story in the collection Parker Pyne Investigates. (Click here to download this story for 99 cents!) Ariadne Oliver is one of my favorite Christie creations. Christie seems to have invented her in order to poke fun at herself. We first encounter her when Mark goes to visit her. He’s on a mission, on behalf of his cousin Rhoda, who would like Ariadne to take part in a fête in her village of Much Deeping. When Mark enters Ariadne’s workroom, he finds her at her wit’s end over a plot point in a novel she’s currently engaged in writing:

‘But why,’ demanded Mrs. Oliver of the universe, ‘why doesn’t the idiot say at once that he saw the cockatoo? Why shouldn’t he? He couldn’t have helped seeing it! But if he does mention it, it ruins everything. There must be a way…there must be….’

Mark is finally able to bring Ariadne around to the question of putting in an appearance at the Much Deeping fête. At first, she adamantly refuses. She’s got her reasons: “You know what happened last time? I arranged a Murder Hunt, and the first thing that happened was a real corpse. I’ve never quite got over it!” This is a reference to the events of Dead Man’s Folly, a Poirot novel and a very enjoyable read. (Greenway, Agatha Christie’s holiday home, furnished the model for the house and grounds wherein the novel’s events take place. Last year, I purchased the paperback at Greenway’s splendid gift shop. The kind lady at the cash register stamped it for me.) 

While it’s true that the Ariadne Oliver character provides some welcome comic relief, it should  be remembered that she possesses a very astute intelligence. Late in the progress of The Pale Horse, she supplies a desperate Mark with some crucial information, arrived at through her own shrewd observation and deduction, that literally enables him to save a life. (In recent films of the Poirot novels, Ariadne Oliver has been played by Zoe Wanamaker, who seems ideally suited to the part.)

Zoe Wanamaker as Ariadne Oliver, with David Suchet as Hercule Poirot

It was Charles Osborne in The Life and Crimes of Agatha Christie who informed me where to look for Ariadne Oliver’s first appearance in the Christie oeuvre. He provided further information about other characters in The Pale Horse who appear elsewhere. Mark’s cousin Rhoda appears in Cards on the Table as Rhoda Dawes; she eventually marries Colonel Despard who was actually a suspect in the murder of the strange Mr. Shaitana. The Reverend Caleb Dane Calthrop and his wife appear alongside Miss Marple in The Moving Finger (1943). (I’m intrigued by the way in which Wikipedia presents this information, and the conclusion that’s drawn:

Mrs Oliver often assists Poirot in his cases through her knowledge of the criminal mind….

In The Pale Horse, Mrs Oliver becomes acquainted with the Rev and Mrs Dane Calthrop, who are friends of Miss Marple (The Moving Finger); thus establishing that Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot exist in the same world.)

One of my favorite scenes in The Pale Horse occurs early in Chapter Four. Mark and Hermia have just been to see Macbeth at the Old Vic. From there, they proceed to a restaurant for brunch, where Mark spots fellow historian David Ardingly. David, a lecturer at Oxford, introduces them to his date Poppy, whom he calls “my particular pet.” They get to talking about the various productions of ‘the Scottish play.’  David remarks that he has his own ideas about how the three witches should be portrayed:

‘Id make them very ordinary. Just sly quiet old women. Like the witches in a country village.’

Poppy challenges him regarding that last bit, exclaiming that there are no witches in their modern world. David retorts: “You say that because you’re a London girl. There’s still a witch in every village in rural England.” And he begins ticking off examples of the phenomenon! This is a nifty bit of foreshadowing. And there’s more, when the party gets onto the subject of murder for hire….

This lead inevitably to a discussion of the major theme of good versus evil. I’ve always felt that much of the power of Macbeth resides in the swift ascendancy of evil over good, an evil that seems to encounter no opposition from an equally powerful force. But in The Pale Horse, despite the presence of what John Curran called “a horribly plausible plot”  – and a fiendish and secretive thing it is, too – there is push back from people who know evil when they see it and believe in their ability, indeed their duty, to put a stop to it. This aspect of the novel – the sense of a desperate battle under way, even a sort of Armageddon – over and above the actual events and the people involved, made a deep impression on me when I first read it. I was interested to see that it had a similar effect on Frances, for whom The Pale Horse was her introduction to the work of Agatha Christie. In a subsequent e-mail to me, Frances commented:

Human nature is well examined in the book, and on a first reading I had the distinct feeling that to thoroughly grasp what the mind of an older, wiser, brilliant storyteller is talking about one would have to read and reread the story several times.

Having now read the novel twice and listened to it once, I can confirm that Frances is right. And as she is our resident Sherlockian, I am tempted to echo the words of the Great Detective: “These are very deep waters….” (Research just now conducted leads me to believe that this line originated in “The Adventure of the Speckled Band,” for my money the most purely frightening tale in the Holmes canon. It was brought vividly to life in the 1984 film starring Jeremy Brett.)

Frances expressed interest in the way in which Christie dealt with the question of good versus evil in her other works. The book that immediately sprang to my mind was Nemesis,. Published in 1971, this was the last Miss Marple novel written by Christie. (Sleeping Murder, though published later than Nemesis, was actually written earlier.) At the heart of the mystery limned in Nemesis is an ancient country house, where three elderly sisters live in deep seclusion, hoarding their secrets….

(I cannot recommend highly enough the BBC film version of this novel starring the inimitable Joan Hickson.) 

In her novels and stories, Agatha Christie does not as a rule expend a great deal of energy in describing her characters’ surroundings, opting instead to use her authorial capital in writing crisp and engaging dialog that advances the plot at a fairly brisk clip. When she does write descriptively, she’s very effective, conveying much in just a few words. In one of my favorite scenes in The Pale Horse, Mark has been conferring with Mrs. Dane Calthrop. She has been a great source of strength to him as he sallies forth, like a knight of old, to do battle against the forces of evil.  As he prepares to take his leave of her, he pauses at the vicarage door:

I looked out over the richness of the autumn world. Such soft still beauty….

‘Angels and ministers of grace defend us,’ I said.

‘Amen,’ said Mrs. Dane Calthrop.

(‘Angels and ministers of grace defend us!’ is Hamlet’s exclamation upon beholding the ghost of his father for the first time.)

There is plenty of discussion of death in this novel, and of what used to be called ‘the death wish’ or ‘the death drive.’ This concept apparently derives from Beyond the Pleasure Principle by Sigmund Freud. It’s well to be reminded that at the time of the writing of The Pale Horse, in the middle of the twentieth century, the theories and ideas of Freud were still very much common currency, and were influential in all areas of the arts, both in Britain and in the U.S. And of course the novel’s title derives from the Book of Revelations:

And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him….

This excerpt is quoted by Mrs. Dane Calthrop near  the novel’s conclusion.

I’d like to go back to Macbeth for a minute. I had with me a paragraph from Thomas de Quincey’s essay “On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth.” I wanted to read it aloud but there was not time to do so. But you can read it in my post on a performance of Macbeth that I saw at the Folger Theatre four years ago. (The paragraph in question is at  the bottom of the post.)

As a meditation on the way in which evil deeds cut the doer (or doers) off from the everyday world in which goodness and grace may at least be hoped for if not readily attained, that passage has, for me, no equal. As I write this, I am thinking of the horrible events of this past Thursday night, in Colorado.

Toward the conclusion of The Pale Horse, there’s an interesting exchange between Mark Easterbrook and Inspector Lejeune:

‘One imagines a mastermind,’ I said, ‘as some grand and sinister figure of evil.’

Lejeune shook his head. ‘It’s not like that at all,’ he said. ‘Evil is not something superhuman, it’s something less than human. Your criminal is someone who wants to be important, but who never will be important, because he’ll always be less than a man.’

Lejeune here seems to be restating the concept of  ‘the banality of evil,’ the locution famously coined by Hannah Arendt to describe of Adolph Eichmann. (I’ve never been sure that I agree with this. Again, at this moment in time, in light of the horrors of this past Thursday night, evil and its perpetrators seem gigantically awful and possessed of  limitless power to do harm, while ordinary people – people of good will – stand by helplessly.)

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Carol remarked that for a person with little in the way of formal education, Agatha Christie certainly knew her Shakespeare. I had the same thought. I think that at the time of Christie’s growing up, Shakespeare’s works were still ubiquitous, part of the air breathed by Britons, and an acknowledged part of their birthright.

I had nearly forgotten, until Pauline’s timely reminder, to mention that the line “The dog it was that died” turns up in Chapter 21 of The Pale Horse. This is the same line quoted in very poignant circumstances, in Somerset Maugham’s novel The Painted Veil, which several of us had recently read and discussed at a different venue. It’s the last line of the poem “An Elegy on the Death of a Mad Dog” by Oliver Goldsmith. (It’s also the title of a play by Tom Stoppard, which was subsequently made into a movie.)

Mike recollected that Dick Francis used the same poison that features in The Pale Horse, in his own novel Banker. (Dick Francis was yet another born storyteller, sorely missed.)

I owe thanks to Carol, for pointing out a passage in Laura Thompson’s biography in which the model for the pharmacist Mr. Osborne is identified. Christie knew him at the Torquay dispensary, where she worked during the First World War:

This man – who carried a lump of curare in his pocket  because it made him feel powerful – reappeared more than forty years later in her book The Pale Horse, transmuted into the chemist Mr. Osbourne [sic].

(The exact title of this book is Agatha Christie: An English Mystery. Carol recommends it.) 

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Agatha Christie and Max Mallowan were married in 1930. The marriage was apparently a happy and companionable one, enduring up until Christie’s death in 1976. (Max died two years later.)

Max Mallowan and Agatha Christie in 1946

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Don’t forget to visit the Agatha Christie Blog Carnival, where you’ll find numerous reviews and lots of additional information about Christie. (Updated monthly)

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I owe a debt of gratitude to the outstanding group of book lovers who comprise the Usual Suspects. Special thanks go to Ann, Carol, and Mike: their in depth knowledge of the life and works off Agatha Christie was both helpful and impressive.

Frances ended one of her e-mails to me with this statement: “I love our book group.” I couldn’t agree more.

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I’d like the final words of this post to be from Mike Grost, whose Guide To Classic Mystery and Detection has been such a superb source since my earliest days online:

For many years I have had a dream, one that repeats itself quite regularly. I am in a library, and I find an Agatha Christie novel that I have never read before. I always wake up happy after this dream.

2 Comments

  1. Elizabeth said,

    I love this post, Roberta!

    I love how you wrote about the “woman on the train” as your lead in to the story of how Agatha went to Baghdad on the Orient Express.

    The Pale Horse is one of the few Christie books I have not read but I will be doing so soon!

  2. Carol said,

    Another wonderful post! I’m happy to have contributed some small part.

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