Agatha Christie, The Pale Horse (1961)

In 1961, Agatha Christie was 71. Can you imagine how much her world changed since she wrote her first mystery at the end of WWI? Perhaps I imagine too much, but she might have felt that traditional cosy mysteries, those where a body is found in the library of an isolated countryside manor where all kinds of people with all the right motives to kill happen to be reunited for sherry and cards were not attractive enough anymore. Yes, of course cosy mysteries are formulaic constructions, but they are still fun long after isolated manors have disappeared, and after people don’t spend the evening there with sherry and cards. The appeal of these stories remains because they’re an abstract construction of lies and partial truths, not because we truly care about those characters.

Christie must have felt at odds with her times: I can see no other explanation to her introduction where the hero strangely complains about the aggressive sounds of banal contemporary appliances: “The dish-washers, the refrigerators, the pressure cookers, the whining vacuum cleaners – ‘Be careful’ they all seem to say.’ I am the genie harnessed to your service, but if your control of me fails…’ From an old lady of 71 who witnessed the invention of all those things, it’s completely understandable, but from the youngish hero (a slightly original bachelor, but in the conservative way), it feels strange and fragile.

So the Pale Horse is something of a hybrid: it has some ingredients of the traditional “cozy”, but it adds distracting influences: the Chelsea bar scene, voodoo rituals, accusations of witchcraft rationalized into radio waves influences, organized crime, and even a love sub-plot. The ground idea is very good: an evil organization that offers crime à la carte by black magic, to those who need to get rid of “dear ones”. But all those foreign elements seem quite unnecessary to me and felt odd at best, ridiculous even sometimes (the girls’ catfight in a bar showed only too much that Lady Agatha hadn’t set foot in a bar for quite a while).

My conclusion may sound a bit harsh but she should have stuck to her guns (and to what she did well) and not made those concessions to the times. It reminds me of the 1970 mystery by Ngaio Marsh that I read last year, where the rules of the classic mystery were bent out of shape to accommodate drugs, thugs and even a shoot-out in the streets of Rome, regardless of the proper, tidier killing that must happen, as you all know, in a library of an isolated British manor, behind closed doors.

 * * *

I’ve typed the notebook version of this post and enriched it at the same time, but in case you want to have a taste of pencasting (my first ever attempt), here it is:


Yew, it looks really worse than I thought (there is some tape on the pages as Baby Smithereens tried several times to understand what’s so interesting in Mom’s notebook). Maybe I’ll stick to the typing then…

5 thoughts on “Agatha Christie, The Pale Horse (1961)

  1. I read The Pale Horse so long ago I’ve almost completely forgotten the story and the aesthetic feel…it was interesting to read your thoughts here, makes me want to spend part of the summer re-reading all my favorite Agatha Christie’s.

    About your technical question…you could send yourself a review in the form of an email from either a cell phone or a blackberry. It might be slower to compose than longhand in the beginning but the quick editing and posting on your blog might make up for that.

    I did enjoy seeing the pencast, however, what a clever idea.

  2. I like seeing people’s handwriting! It’s interesting what authors do who are writing over long periods of time and feel the need to adapt. I suppose changing times could lead to new, brilliant writing, or to some odd hybrids.

  3. I sometimes write out my posts by hand, but for some reason I feel like I think better when typing. When did that happen??! My handwriting, however, is nowhere near as nice as yours. Interesting about the Christie novel. I’ve heard something similar leveled against Ruth Rendell who also has enjoyed a long writing career–that her novels no longer feel quite as fresh as they did in the 70s-80s–those novels were so well done and she just isn’t translating so well in these more ‘modern’ times. And when she does try and write with the times they are just not as successful.

  4. Pingback: Six Degrees of Separation – May | Smithereens

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