The Pale Horse

This article is about the Agatha Christie novel. For other uses, see Pale horse (disambiguation).
The Pale Horse

Dust-jacket illustration of the first UK edition
Author Agatha Christie
Cover artist Not known
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Genre Crime novel
Publisher Collins Crime Club
Publication date
6 November 1961
Media type Print (hardback & paperback)
Pages 256 pp (first edition, hardcover)
Preceded by Double Sin and Other Stories
Followed by The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side

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[1] and in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company the following year.[2][3] The UK edition retailed at fifteen shillings (15/- = 75p)[1] and the US edition at $3.75.[3] 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.

Plot introduction

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.

Plot summary

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, a woman named 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 surnames found in Father Gorman's shoe. The list includes the names Corrigan, Tuckerton and Hesketh-Dubois (the same name as Mark's godmother who has recently died of what appear to be natural causes). He begins to fear that the list contains the names of those dead or shortly to die.

When Mark goes to Much Deeping[4] 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 is 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 Hermia 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 disbarred lawyer who outlines to him the means by which the Pale Horse functions without breaking the law, i.e. Bradley bets that someone will die within a certain period of time and the client bets otherwise. If the person in question does die within a certain period of time, then the client must pay or else (one client who refused fell in front of an oncoming train and was killed).

With the agreement of Inspector Lejeune and the co-operation 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"

Characters repeated in other Christie works

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."[5] 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, writing that "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."[6]

Robert Barnard: "Goodish late example – loosely plotted, but with intriguing, fantastical central idea. Plot concerns a Murder-Inc.-type organisation, 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)."[7]

In the "Binge!" article of Entertainment Weekly Issue #1343-44 (26 December 2014–3 January 2015), the writers picked The Pale Horse as an "EW favorite" on the list of the "Nine Great Christie Novels".[8]

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 in actual history

This novel is notable among 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.

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.[12]

Film, TV or theatrical adaptations

The novel was first adapted for TV, by ITV in 1996, in a one-hour-forty-minute TV film with Colin Buchanan as Mark Easterbrook. This version omitted the character of Ariadne Oliver. It makes Easterbrook the suspect in the killing of Father Gorman. At first it seems that the murders are masterminded by Venables, who it transpires is not disabled, but ultimately Osbourne is still revealed as the murderer.[13]

A second adaptation was later made by the same network, done by Russell Lewis for the fifth series of ITV's Agatha Christie's Marple starring Julia McKenzie in 2010.[14] As the character of Miss Marple was made the chief sleuth of the plot, several changes were made for the adaptation:

Publication history

The novel was first serialised in the British 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.


  1. 1 2 Chris Peers, Ralph Spurrier and Jamie Sturgeon. Collins Crime Club – A checklist of First Editions. Dragonby Press (Second Edition) March 1999 (p. 15)
  2. John Cooper and B.A. Pyke. Detective Fiction – the collector's guide: Second Edition (pp. 82, 87) Scholar Press. 1994. ISBN 0-85967-991-8
  3. 1 2 American Tribute to Agatha Christie
  4. James Zemboy, The Detective Novels of Agatha Christie: A Reader's Guide, Jefferson (NC): McFarland & Company, Inc., 2008. The fictitious village is described as lying about twenty miles north of Bournemouth, Hampshire.
  5. The Guardian 8 December 1961 (p. 7)
  6. The Guardian 15 December 1961 (p. 9)
  7. Barnard, Robert. A Talent to Deceive – an appreciation of Agatha Christie – Revised edition (pp. 201–02). Fontana Books, 1990. ISBN 0-00-637474-3
  8. "Binge! Agatha Christie: Nine Great Christie Novels". Entertainment Weekly (1343-44): 32–33. 26 December 2014.
  9. Time Magazine, 17 July 1972.
  10. The Elements of Murder : A History of Poison
  11. The Agatha Christie Companion, by Dennis Sanders and Len Lovallo (1984), pp. 314–15.
  12. "The Commission on Capital Cases updates this information regularly". Retrieved 2014-05-04.
  14. "Julia McKenzie back as Marple in The Pale Horse", Press Release by ITV, 22 February 2010
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