The Pale Horse is a work of detective fiction by Agatha Christie and first published in the UK by the Collins Crime Club on 6 November 1961 and in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company the following year. The UK edition retailed at fifteen shillings (15/-) and the US edition at $3.75. The novel features her novelist detective Ariadne Oliver as a minor character, and reflects in tone the supernatural novels of Dennis Wheatley who was then at the height of his popularity.
The Pale Horse is mentioned in Revelation 6:8, where it is ridden by Death.
- 1 Plot introduction
- 2 Plot summary
- 3 Characters in "The Pale Horse"
- 4 Characters repeated in other Christie works
- 5 Literary significance and reception
- 6 References or Allusions
- 7 Film, TV or theatrical adaptations
- 8 Publication history
- 9 International titles
- 10 Worldwide covers
A dying woman, Mrs Davis, gives her last confession to Father Gorman, a Catholic priest, but along with her confession she gives him a list of names and a terrible secret. Before he can take action, however, he is struck dead in the fog. As the police begin to investigate, a young hero begins to piece together evidence that sets him upon a converging path.
(may contain spoilers - click on expand to read)
In the following summary, events are not given in strict narrative order. Mark Easterbrook, the hero of the book and its principal narrator, sees a fight between two girls in a Chelsea coffee-bar during which one pulls out some of the other's hair at the roots. Soon afterwards he learns that this second girl, Thomasina Tuckerton, has died. At dinner with a friend, Poppy Stirling mentions something called the Pale Horse that arranges deaths, but is suddenly scared at having mentioned it and will say no more.
When Mark encounters the police surgeon, Corrigan, he learns of the list of names found in Father Gorman's shoe. The list includes the names of Mark's godmother, Lady Hesketh-Dubois, who has recently died of what appear to be natural causes, and of Thomasina Tuckerton. He begins to fear that the list contains the names of those dead or shortly to die.
When Mark goes to Much Deeping with the famous mystery writer, Ariadne Oliver, to a village fete organised by his cousin, he learns of a house converted from an old inn called the Pale Horse, now inhabited by three modern "witches" led by Thyrza Grey. Visiting houses in the area, he meets a wheelchair-using man, Mr Venables, who has no apparent explanation for his substantial wealth. He also visits the Pale Horse, where Thyrza discusses with Mark the ability to kill at a distance, which she claims to have developed. In retrospect it seems to Mark that she has been outlining to him a service that she would be willing to provide.
In the police investigation, there is a witness, Zachariah Osbourne, who describes a man seen following Father Gorman shortly before the murder. Later, he contacts the police to say that he has seen this same man in a wheelchair: it is Venables. When he learns that Venables suffered from polio and would be incapable of standing due to atrophy of the legs, Osbourne is nonetheless certain of his identification and begins to suggest ways that Venables could have faked his own disability.
When Mark's girlfriend does not take his growing fears seriously, he becomes disaffected with her. He does, however, receive support from Ariadne Oliver, and from a vicar's wife (Mrs Dane Calthrop) who desires him to stop whatever evil may be taking place. He also makes an ally of Ginger Corrigan, a girl whom he has met in the area, and who successfully draws Poppy out about the Pale Horse organisation. She obtains from her an address in Birmingham where he meets Mr Bradley, a lawyer who outlines to him the means by which the Pale Horse can kill someone for him without breaking the law.
With the agreement of Inspector Lejeune and the cooperation of Ginger, Mark agrees to solicit the murder of his first wife, who will be played by Ginger. At a ritual of some kind at the Pale Horse, Mark witnesses Thyrza apparently channel a malignant spirit through an electrical apparatus. Shortly afterwards, Ginger falls ill and begins to decline rapidly.
In desperation, Mark turns to Poppy again, who now mentions a friend (Eileen Brandon) who resigned from a research organisation called CRC (Customers' Reactions Classified) that seems to be connected with the Pale Horse. When Mrs Brandon is interviewed, she reveals that both she and Mrs Davis worked for the organisation, which surveyed targeted people about what foods, cosmetics, and proprietary medicines they used.
Mrs Oliver now contacts Mark with a key connection that she has made: another victim of the Pale Horse (Mary Delafontaine) has lost her hair during her illness. The same thing happened to Lady Hesketh-Dubois, and Thomasina's hair was easily pulled out during the fight. Moreover, Ginger has begun to shed her own hair. Mark recognises that these are symptoms, not of satanic assassination of some sort, but of thallium poisoning.
At the end of the novel it is revealed that Osbourne has been the brains behind the Pale Horse organisation; the black-magic element was entirely a piece of misdirection on his part, while the murders were really committed by replacing products the victims had named in the CRC survey with poisoned ones. Osbourne's clumsy attempt to implicate Venables was his final mistake.
Characters in "The Pale Horse"
Mark Easterbrook and friends
- Mark Easterbrook, a historian
- Hermia Redcliffe, Mark’s girlfriend
- David Ardingley, a historian friend of Mark’s
- Pamela “Poppy” Stirling, David's girlfriend
- Ariadne Oliver, the celebrated author
- Ginger, a young woman, art restorer
Events at Paddington
- Mrs Jessie Davis, employee of Customers' Reactions Classified
- Mrs Coppins, landlady of Mrs Davis
- Zachariah Osbourne, a pharmacist
- Father Gorman, a Catholic priest
- Mrs Gerahty, Father Gorman's housekeeper
- Mike Potter, a boy sent by Mrs Coppins to summon Father Gorman
Events at Luigi's Cafe
- Thomasina Tuckerton, a wealthy young woman
- Luigi, the proprietor of an espresso bar in Chelsea.
- Lou Ellis, a blonde girl with whom Tommy fights at Luigi's
- Doug, a friend of Lou
- Gene Pleydon
- Inspector Lejeune, the investigating officer
- Jim Corrigan, the police surgeon
- Sergeant Pine
- Detective-sergeant Lee
- Constable Ellis
Others in London
- Mrs Tuckerton, Thomasina’s stepmother and heiress
- Eileen Brandon, a former employee of Customers' Reactions Classified
- Milly, the maid of Ariadne Oliver
- Mr Soames White, the solicitor of Lady Hesketh-Dubois
- Lady Hesketh-Dubois
- Edith Binns
- Sir William Dugdale
- Mary Delafontaine
- Martin Digby
- Thyrza Grey, Sybil Stamfordis, Bella Webb, witches at The Pale Horse
- Vicar Rev. Dane Calthrop and his wife Mrs Dane Calthrop
- Colonel Despard and Rhoda Despard
- Miss Macalister, governess of the Despard children
- Mr Venables, a wealthy owner of Priors Court
- Mr Lugg
- Various villagers, mostly seen at the fête: Mrs Cripps, Lizzie Parker, Tom, Miss Curtis, Mrs Horsefall, Lady Brookbank, Michael Brent
- Mr Bradley, legal representative of The Pale Horse
Characters repeated in other Christie works
- Ariadne Oliver also appears in Parker Pyne Investigates, Cards on the Table, Mrs. McGinty's Dead, Dead Man's Folly, Third Girl, Hallowe'en Party, and Elephants Can Remember.
- Rhoda Despard also appears as Rhoda Dawes, a friend of one of the suspects, in Cards on the Table.
- Colonel Despard also appears as Major Despard, a suspect, in Cards on the Table.
- Mrs Dane Calthrop also appears in The Moving Finger.
- Rev. Dane Calthrop also appears in The Moving Finger.
Literary significance and reception
Francis Iles (Anthony Berkeley Cox) praised the novel in the 8 December 1961 issue of The Guardian : "Mrs Agatha Christie is our nearest approach to perpetual motion. And not only does she never stop, but she drops the ball into the cup nearly every time; and if one is sometimes reminded of those automatic machines where one pulls a handle and out pops the finished product, that is a compliment to the automatic machine and not by any means a reflection on Mrs Christie. For the latest tug on the Christie handle produces a product which is not only up to the standard but even above it. The Pale Horse is in fact the best sample from this particular factory for some time, and that is saying plenty. The black magic theme is handled in a masterly and sinister fashion, and to give away what lay behind it would be unforgivable. This is a book which nobody (repeat, nobody) should miss."
Mr Iles further named the novel as his favourite in the paper's Critic's choice for the end of the year, published one week later, when he said, "It has not been an outstanding year for crime fiction, but as usual there have been one or two first-class items. The best puzzle has certainly been Agatha Christie's The Pale Horse."
Robert Barnard: "Goodish late example – loosely plotted, but with intriguing, fantastical central idea. Plot concerns a Murder-Inc.-type organization, with a strong overlay of black magic. Also makes use of 'The Box,' a piece of pseudo-scientific hocus-pocus fashionable in the West Country in the 'fifties (one of the things which drove Waugh to the verge of lunacy, as narrated in Pinfold)."
References or Allusions
References to other works
This novel is notable as several of her earlier characters reappear in this book. In addition to Ariadne Oliver, Major Despard and his wife Rhoda (who met and fell in love in Cards on the Table) also participate in the plot. Mrs Dane Calthrop from The Moving Finger also reappears in approximately the same role as she played in that book: the rational but devoted Christian who wants the Evil stopped.
Mrs Oliver is apprehensive of attending a fete, for reasons that will be apparent to readers of her previous appearance in a Christie novel: Dead Man's Folly.
Mrs Lancaster from By the Pricking of My Thumbs may have been mentioned in a conversation, when one of the characters, David Ardingly, mentions how he met an old lady in a mental home who says exactly the same phrase which chilled Tuppence to the bone, and which had a similar effect on Ardingly. Mrs Lancaster mentioned "ten past eleven", though, while Ardingly's recollection placed the mentioned time at "12.10".
References to actual history
This novel is notable amongst Christie's books as it is credited with having saved at least two lives after readers recognised the symptoms of thallium poisoning from its description in the book.
- In 1975, Christie received a letter from a woman in Latin America who recognised the symptoms of thallium poisoning, thus saving a woman from slow poisoning by her husband.
- In 1977, a 19-month-old infant from Qatar was suffering from a mysterious illness. After the baby was flown to London, an alert nurse who had been reading The Pale Horse correctly suggested that the baby was suffering from thallium poisoning.
- In another instance, in 1971, a serial killer, Graham Frederick Young, who had poisoned several people, three fatally, was caught thanks to this book. A doctor conferring with Scotland Yard had read The Pale Horse and realised that the mysterious "Bovingdon bug" (the deaths occurred in a factory in Bovingdon, England) was in fact thallium poisoning.
The novel is also cited to have been the "inspiration" of what was dubbed "The Mensa Murder". In 1988, George Trepal, a Mensa Club member, poisoned his neighbours, Pye and Peggy Carr and their children, with thallium introduced in a Coca-Cola Classic bottles eight-pack. Peggy Carr succumbed while the others survived the attack.
Film, TV or theatrical adaptations
ITV 1997 Adaptation
A television film adaptation was made for ITV in 1997 featuring Colin Buchanan as Mark Easterbrook. This version omitted the character of Ariadne Oliver and made changes in some other characters although it remained fairly close to the main premise of the original story.
Agatha Christie's Marple
The novel was adapted again in 2010 as Episode 1 of Season 5 of ITV's Agatha Christie's Marple starring Julia McKenzie. This version adds the character of Miss Marple as the chief sleuth of the plot, and eliminates the characters of Ariadne Oliver, Colonel Despard, Rhoda, and Mrs Dane Calthrop. (The omission of Rhoda and Colonel Despard is probably due to the fact that in the Agatha Christie's Poirot adaption of Cards on the Table, Rhoda dies in place of Anne Meredith and Colonel Despard falls in love with Anne instead.) Many of the characters of the original story are portrayed, with a number of non-canonical ones such as Captain Cottam, Kanga Cottam, and Lydia Harsnet.
The Pale Horse, BBC 2020 Miniseries
Under the auspices of the BBC another adaptation was created as a two part miniseries and first broadcast in February 2020. Written by Sarah Phelps, this adaptation departed from the original story significantly.
Les Petits Meurtes d'Agatha
- 1961, Collins Crime Club (London), 6 November 1961, Hardback, 256 pp
- 1962, Dodd Mead and Company (New York), 1962, Hardback, 242 pp
- 1963, Pocket Books (New York), Paperback
- 1964, Fontana Books (Imprint of HarperCollins), Paperback, 191 pp
- 1965, Ulverscroft Large-print Edition, Hardcover, 256 pp
- 2011, HarperCollins; Facsimile edition edition Hardcover: 256 pages ISBN 978-0-00-739572-9
The novel was first serialised in the UK weekly magazine Woman’s Mirror in eight abridged instalments from 2 September to 21 October 1961 with illustrations by Zelinski.
In the US a condensed version of the novel appeared in the April 1962 (Volume LXXIX, Number 4) issue of the Ladies' Home Journal with an illustration by Eugenie Louis.
- Czech: Plavý kůň (The Pale Horse)
- Estonian: Tuhkur Hobune (The Pale Horse)
- French: Le Cheval pâle (The Pale Horse)
- German: Das fahle Pferd (The Pale Horse)
- Hungarian: Bűbájos gyilkosok (Glamourous Murderers)
- Italian: Un cavallo per la strega (A Horse for the Witch)
- Polish: Tajemnica Bladego Konia (The "Pale Horse" Mystery)
- Spanish: El misterio de "Pale Horse" (The "Pale Horse" Mystery)
- Swedish: Den gula hästen (The Yellow Horse)