The Pale Horse by Agatha Christie (1961); read by Hugh Fraser
And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him... (Revelation 6:8)
I apparently first read this in 2014--at least that's what my reading log told me, though I had a hard time believing it. Since then, I acquired the audio CD version with Hugh Fraser reading it to me. And I have to say, this is one of the rare times that I didn't enjoy Fraser reading to me just as much as when I read it for myself. Perhaps I was just not in the mood to be read to. But I'm not going to deduct star value since Fraser is usually good. I gave the book four stars when I read it for myself and we'll stick with that.
Christie's only novel in which Ariadne Oliver makes an appearance without Hercule Poirot is a twist on the plot device used by Philip MacDonald in The List of Adrian Messenger two years previously. The story begins with Father Gorman, a Catholic priest called to the deathbed of a woman apparently dying of flu. She tells him that there is "Wickedness...such wickedness...Stopped...It must be stopped...You will..." And the priest assures her that he will do what is necessary. But before he can do anything about what he has heard, he is murdered on his way home. The police find a list of names in his shoe--a list of names of people who seem to have nothing in common. Except when historian Mark Easterbrook is brought into the investigation through the passing of his godmother (whose name, incidentally, appears on the list), he discovers that the names do have something in common....death.
Christie also dabbles in a bit of apparent black magic in this one. The Pale Horse of the title is an old inn, now inhabited by three women who have a reputation for witchcraft. Seances and secret rituals involving white cocks and modern death rays are rumored to occur. Easterbrook, being a modern man, scoffs at the idea of voo-doo or death-wishes, but as each name on the list winds up dead he begins to wonder if there isn't really such a thing as murder by remote control....
This is one of the better Christie stand-alone novels. There is a fine sense of atmosphere from the coffee shops of Chelsea to the country village and mystic Pale Horse. She does her usual excellent job of misdirection--making me completely misidentify the culprit. I should have know better, I really should have--but like Mark Easterbrook I was thoroughly taken in. Mrs. Oliver makes cameo appearances, adding just the right amount of her general dottiness...and helping Easterbrook spot the method of murder even if he does make a mistake in fingering the villain. The romance is also a nice touch--given enough limelight to make events believable, but not too much attention to distract from the business of tracking down the murder. Good classic Christie fun. ★★★★
First line: The Espresso machine behind my shoulder hissed like an angry snake.
"My husband's a very good man," she said. "Besides being vicar, I mean. And that makes things difficult sometimes. Good people, you see, don't really understand evil." (Mrs. Calthorpe; p. 66)
"People are so proud of wickedness. Odd isn't it, that people who are good are never proud of it? That's where Christian humility comes in, I suppose." (Mrs. Calthorpe; p. 70)
Last line: "If you want to go to the Old Vic in the future," she said firmly, "you'll go with me."
Deaths = 4 (one hit on head; three poisoned)