Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Pale Horse, by Agatha Christie

HarperCollins, 2008
originally published by Dodd, Mead in 1962

"Evil is not something superhuman, it's something less than human."

And Agatha Christie should know, since she spent her illustrious career writing stories about the evil that men (and women) do.  In this later book, there is no Poirot, there is no Marple, no Tommy or Tuppence, but there is still a decent mystery at the core of this tale.

A priest takes a confession from a dying woman in a boarding house, and walks out of there wondering exactly how much of what he's just heard is true and how much is to the delirium brought on by high fever.  He also knows that he must write down a list of names the woman has given him before he forgets them.  He does this at a small cafe (with terrible coffee) then puts the strip of paper in his shoe, due to a torn pocket lining in his cassock. On his way home, he is most cruelly murdered.  The only clue the police have is the list of names and a witness statement from someone who says he saw the murderer on the night in question.

Mark Easterbrook, who is working on a book about the Moguls, finds himself involved rather peripherally at first, then after a few mysterious coincidences is drawn fully into the case. His part of the story begins in a Chelsea coffeehouse with a fight between two women and then a chance meeting with a friend of his, a forensics specialist who has given up private research to make a living; and then it moves on to a mysterious inn known as The Pale Horse, which is run by a trio of Macbeth witch-like women who run the place.  His narrative parallels and then joins that of the police until a cruel murdering maniac is brought to justice.  And the person who provides him with the missing link -- that oh so critical bit of information that is needed to piece it all together -- is none other than Ariadne Oliver, friend to Hercule Poirot, often-scatterbrained mystery writer and probably Agatha Christie's tongue-in-cheek fictional alter ego.

 The reader clearly gets a feel for place and time here --  you can just imagine the coffee houses of Chelsea in the 1960s complete with their "cool" clientele: the "teddy boys;" the young girls who wear birdsnest-type hairdos and sweaters even though it's warm inside, and the young of both sexes who seem rather "dirty" in their overall appearance.  Many of the characters are well imagined and developed, and the plotline is better than just okay. The best compliment I can give for this book is that I did NOT guess the identity of the killer. At one point I thought I had it figured out -- the who and the how, but I was dead wrong, which is always a good thing. There were also a few nice red herrings for the reader to become temporarily sidetracked.  And while The Pale Horse may not one of the better examples of Christie's work,  it is still quite good, and it will keep you entertained trying to figure out the who and the how of the crimes. It's a bit different than any of the other Christie novels in terms of a few members of the dramatis personae involved, and the end came a bit too quickly, but if you're a fan, you'll definitely want to read it.

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