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November 22, 2006

Thallium Poisoning - Agatha Christie has done it all before: The Pale Horse - Agatha Christie

Posted by Helen Szamuely

The Pale Horse
by Agatha Christie
first published 1961

Spoiler warning: those misguided souls who have not yet read Agatha Christie's The Pale Horse might find that there is unwanted information in this piece about the plot and the solution.

When the news came through that the former KGB/FSB officer, now dissident and thorn in President Putin's side, Alexander Litvinenko may well have been poisoned by thallium I nodded and said to a friend: "Of course, that is why he lost his hair". In response to his puzzlement I explained that thallium poisoning figures in Agatha Christie's The Pale Horse. You can learn a great deal from Dame Agatha.

Some people do not like The Pale Horse because it does not have either Poirot or Miss Marple in it. Interestingly, it has several other characters who turn up in other books. Mrs Ariadne Oliver appears in it and, having had a problem or two in Dead Man's Folly, is very unhappy at the thought of having to participate in another village fête; Major Despard and his wife Rhoda, whom he had met some twenty-odd years previously in Cards on the Table are here, though there is no reference to their previous acquaintance with Mrs Oliver. Curiously enough, Mrs Dane Calthrop a strong-minded and very practical vicar's wife with a remarkable understanding of the nature of evil, appears from The Moving Finger, a slightly problematic Miss Marple novel.

Let them not like it. I can recommend this one without reservations, despite the absence of an omniscient detective. What is it about The Pale Horse that I find particularly likeable?

Well, there is the usual Christie wit at the expense of almost everyone, hero/narrator, minor characters, village and London set-up. The teasing is affectionate but it is there, nonetheless. Then there is the wonderful description of fifties London and the people, like the hero/part narrator, historian Mark Easterbrook, who finds much of it bewildering. Chelsea coffee bars with hissing machinery, nice bacon and banana sandwiches offered by a slightly camp waiter and an all-out fight between two girls? For someone, whose idea of entertainment is a visit with a statuesque female don to the Royal Shakespeare Company and dinner afterwards in an expensive restaurant, this is all a little difficult.

Then there are the inevitable references to literature - in this case, Shakespeare and Macbeth. How should the witches be really played? An apparently idle discussion over dinner comes horribly to life when Mark meets three slightly eccentric women who inhabit the old inn, called the Pale Horse and who are reputed to be witches and whose séance he attends with apparently sinister consequences.

The plot (no, I am not going to give away too much) is almost Buchanesque in its structure. There are bits and pieces of information: overheard conversations, a priest murdered almost immediately after hearing a confession, a list of names, which he had hidden in his shoe, comments lightly made and swiftly withdrawn, all gradually brought together into a pattern by Mark and his newly acquired friend, Inspector Lejeune, with the final piece dropped in triumphantly by Mrs Oliver.

What, however, makes it undeniably a Christie is the basic assumption that sin, crime and evil do not change. There may be new fashions and new habits; girls may appear to be different and outrageous; science may have moved beyond anything we could have imagined. But murder is still done for money and evil can still be found in every nook and cranny of life. Mark, though slightly scared and nauseated by the witchcraft, manages to dismiss it as a potent force. It takes him a little while to realize that his assumption of the potency of science and its incomprehensible effect on people is also hokum. In the end, as Mrs Oliver says, echoing Christie herself, what works is good old-fashioned poison.

Neither of those two formidable ladies, nor Miss Marple, nor, for that matter Mrs Dane Calthrop, would have been particularly surprised by the news about Alexander Litvinenko.

Dr Helen Szamuely is a writer and political researcher as well as editor of the Conservative History Journal and co-editor of

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Some of you may remember the case of Graham Young, who poisoned relatives and workmates with thallium, was sent to Broadmoor, and continued to experiment on fellow inmates.

This article also reminds me of an excellent book, The Russian Tradition by Tibor Szamuely. It is, in effect, a prehistory of the Soviet Union; however, the Amazon customer review linked to explains it much better than I can.

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at November 22, 2006 06:55 PM
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