And his name that sat on him was Death...

And his name that sat on him was Death…

“The Espresso machine behind my shoulder hissed like an angry snake.”

Packaged, in my version, in the same book as Peril at End House, I am nonetheless counting this one separately, as the two have little in common. This is one of Christie’s novels that could more accurately be termed a thriller, but I’ve resisted that tag for now, as it differs from her few actual thrillers in still being more murder-centric than simply criminal.

The book seems to open with a number of disconnected plot lines. Mark Easterbrook, a historian and our principal narrator, witnesses a fight in a coffee shop between two girls that ends when one pulls a chunk of the other’s hair out. A Catholic priest, Father Gorman, is called to the bedside of a dying woman who wants to give her final confession, but he himself dies later that night when attacked in a foggy street. In the village of Much Deeping, three supposed witches live together, performing seances and apparently causing people’s deaths just by wishing them dead. Crime novelist Ariadne Oliver is having difficulty with a sticky plot point, and has been invited to sign books at a fete.

Things begin to converge when a list of names is found in the dead priest’s shoe, and when it is realised that the names all represent people who have recently died, something fishy seems afoot. There’s also a lot of talk about the Pale Horse, a term that seems to throw numerous people into a lather as they shrilly try to deny that the words have any meaning to them. But the witches live in a converted pub that once held the name The Pale Horse, and after Mark Easterbrook meets them, he begins seeking out answers as to how they seem to be killing people without going anywhere near them. And, perhaps more importantly, why.

While Christie is best known for her straight crimes, she also wrote some supernatural fiction, although mostly in independent short stories and radio plays, leaving her murder mysteries to be entirely lacking in magic. This, however, might be the one exception. Throughout, the characters try and dismiss the supposed powers of Thyrza Grey and her fellow “witches”, but there is doubt within them all as they worry that there really are forces at work here that they don’t understand. The scene where Mark attends a seance is particularly harrowing, and notably one of the few Christie scenes ever to contain much blood (she rarely did a grisly, bloody murder, although there are exceptions).

This book also ties up the whole Christie universe, it seems, uniting Poirot’s occasional friend Ariadne Oliver, the novelist that Christie inserted into her books as her own mouthpiece to discuss her experiences as a famous writer, and Rev and Mrs Dane Calthrop, who previously appeared alongside Miss Marple. This proves that the Poirot and Marple existed in the same universe, although they naturally never met. One wonders how explosive such a meeting would have been. There are also a few references to earlier adventures. For example, Ariadne Oliver is concerned about attending a fete, as the last time she did, someone ended up murdered.

Creepy, but with an engaging and fun cast of characters, this is one of the more tense of her novels, but as usual, if you’re sharp enough you’ll get it, although perhaps the total whys and wherefores would require a certain specialist knowledge. It’s one of her later books, and shows how she has moved a little with the times. This is Christie at her scariest – not through sheer terror, but through a very sinister threat that laces every page. You can never quite be sure who to trust…

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