Father Gorman is coshed and killed after visiting a dying woman. It may have been taken for a mugging gone wrong had a list of names not been found hidden in his shoe.
Narrator Mark Easterbrook hears about this list from his friend Jim Corrigan, the police surgeon and initially makes nothing of it. He is more interested in the Pale Horse that was mentioned during a discussion about Macbeth’s Third Murderer and how it would be handy to be able to whistle up a killer to commit an everyday murder for you.
While staying with relatives in the country he hears about a Pale Horse – an old inn now owned by three women, reputed to be witches – but could they really be a trio of murderers?
I won’t say more because one of the strengths of this book is the incremental build up of information.
There are some good ideas at the heart of this, although the type of business that Mr Bradley conducts I’ve definitely come across in at least one short story (possibly by Stanley Ellin – does anyone know what I mean?), but re-reading this I feel that there is a big element that is important for the story as a whole but really serves no purpose at all. Combined with an excess of characters doing the sleuthing this was unfortunately rather a let down.
Recurring Character Development
Has a maid called Milly who “guards her from the onslaught of the outside world”.
Her books include at least 55 murders.
By the end of the book she has published “The White Cockatoo” which she was working on at the beginning.
Signs of the Times
The first page refers to an espresso machine and a jet plane, signs that this an up to date book at the time, although as the book goes on to show for all our modern inventions we can never be sure that everything can be explained.
Ginger humourously imagines Miss Grey as being “like Madame de Montespan on a black velvet altar”. The Marquise de Montespan (1640-1707) was a mistress of Louis XIV and was rumoured to have taken part in witchcraft including having a priest perform a black mass over her naked body.
Venables quotes “The world is so full of a number of things” which is from Robert Louis Stevenson’s “A Child’s Garden of Verses”.
Bradley says “a man can bet on anything he pleases…whether the Russians can send a man to the moon”. This book was published later in the year that Yuri Gagarin first flew in space and before Kennedy’s speech of the next year committing to getting a man on the moon before the end of the Sixties so at this point the Russians may have been favourites.
Mark refers to a woman looking to poison a man as “a second Madeleine Smith”. Smith (1835-1928) was accused of the 1857 murder of her lover, Pierre Emile L’Angerlier, who died of arsenic poisoning. She was found not guilty on one count and not proven on another despite having a strong motive and having purchased arsenic shortly before the death.
References to previous works
Mark’s cousin appeared in “Cards on the Table”.
Mrs Oliver refers to the Murder Hunt that she organised in “Dead Man’s Folly”.
The Reverend and Mrs Dane Calthrop appeared in “The Moving Finger”.
Betting on your victim to survive and hoping that you lose – great idea! – although isn’t this what life insurance is? Insurers may call it “pooling risk” but essentially you’re making a bet that you’ll die and hoping that you lose! Having market researchers check what brands someone uses so that you prepare poison in something they won’t notice – great idea!
But what is The Pale Horse itself for? Poppy puts Ginger and Mark in touch with Bradley directly – Thyrza Grey doesn’t send him – and it is Bradley who sends him back to The Pale Horse. What’s the point of having the customers believe that their target has been killed by mysterious means?
That is my struggle with the book on this re-read – can anyone provide a good reason for it?