Agatha Christie’s The Pale Horse: When Science Becomes Superstition

 

the-pale-horse-1Murder mystery novels like The Moonstone and The Woman in White established a template for the genre whereby reasoned and scientific minds take on mysteries that are seemingly supernatural, ultimately revealing their conventional and rational nature.  In keeping with the tradition set before her, the queen of mystery, Agatha Christie, composed The Pale Horse, which demonstrates that all one need do to solve an uncanny mystery is ask who had the motive, opportunity, and means to commit the crime in question. The novel follows the principle narrator, Mark Easterbrook, as he tries to uncover the mystery of several deaths linked to a local troupe of ‘witches’ who reside at a former inn known as The Pale Horse.  Christie explores the seam of technophobia that runs through even the most modern of thinkers, and highlights the simplicity of past and current mythologies linked to seemingly supernatural phenomena.  Where Christie expands the tradition of the genre, however, is where she highlights how people’s naivety with respect to technology and psychology has made them susceptible to believing any number of ridiculous claims with regard to these sciences, suggesting that science can, in some instances, be considered the new superstition.  Regardless of the source of the misdirection, be it science or superstition, the principles of the murder mystery allows Easterbrook and the reader deduce the culprit, suggesting that when faced with uncertainty, one ought to rely on reason rather than assumption.

 

the-pale-horse-2One of the ways in which superstition can fester is when a culture has a fear of technology.  Christie highlights such technophobia in the first passage.  When Mark Easterbrook enters a café, he describes the Espresso machine in almost demonic terms, stating that it “hissed like an angry snake” and had a “sinister” and “devilish” sound (7).  He then goes on to bemoan the “intimidating angry scream of jet planes” and the “slow menacing rumble of a tube train”.  Dish-washers, refrigerators, and vacuum cleaners are likewise added to a list of items that are like ‘genies’ who serve, but pose a danger if control over them is lost (7).  In framing Easterbrook as a man who has a fear of technology, Christie frames him as a character who may be susceptible to superstition, or one who is at least naïve with respect to technology.  Though an education man with an academic background, Easterbrook is uneducated with respect to psychology, and so is tempted to believe that if the ‘witches’ in the novel do not use actual spells to cause the premature death of several of the novel’s denizens, then at the very least they are employing some kind of psychological spell.  It is important that Easterbrook has an academic background, because Christie shows that even though he is an educated man, he can still be an easy mark for uncanny explanations of conventional crimes when not employing reason, highlighting the fact that all must be on guard against uninformed assumptions.

 

 

the-pale-horseThis in doubly reinforced by the fact that Easterbrook is not only consciously aware of flaws in superstition, but is even given the answer to the crime spree early in the novel.  When Poppy and Hernia, two of the protagonist’s cohorts, are talking with Easterbrook about witch craft, Hernia claims there is “a witch in every village in England”, promoting Poppy to insist that she much be joking and claiming that “all that kind of superstition has died out completely with education” (35). Hernia has a poignant observation, stating that such superstition has not died out “in the rural pockets of the land” (35), which is coincidently the regions were education was (and is) less prominent.  Thus, Christie outlines that it is a lack of education that leads to the naïve believe in superstition, and Easterbrook is made well aware of this.  Yet, when Thyrza Grey offers a simple explanation that explanation that debunks the romanticized myths of the past and simultaneously explains the novel’s central mystery, Easterbrook gleams over the simple solution.  Grey states (spoiler alert), that despite “The Borgias and their famous secret poisons”, what they really used was “Ordinary white arsenic!  Just the same as any little wife poisoner in the back streets” (60).  This holds the key to solve the novel’s mystery, but it is a cypher that Easterbrook takes the better part of nearly 200 pages to discover.  Instead, he would rather believe in the superstition of psychology, a field of science which he is unfamiliar with.

 

the-pale-horse-3It is here where Christie highlights how people have traded one superstition for another.  Grey tells Easterbrook that “we’ve progressed a long way beyond” superstition as “Science has enlarged our frontiers” (60), suggesting that more complicated approaches can be taken that simply arsenic.  When the mystery is solved, it is nothing more than a simple poison that is the culprit, yet Easterbrook is as ignorant of psychology and science as most are with respect to the nature of ‘god’.  Consequently, he is a liable to fall for a vague explanation alluding to science or psychology as a child may be when a parents suggests the actions of an imagined supreme being has shaped the course of their day.   Grey convinces Easterbrook by stating that she and her colleagues have “gone further ahead than the witch-doctor has ever gone” as “psychologists have shown the way” through the “desire for death!”  She concludes excitedly, stating that “It’s there—in everyone.  Work on that!  Work on the death wish” (61).  Easterbrook then begins to believe that, however unlikely, Grey and her fellow witches may simply be convincing people to die subconsciously.  When, upon learning form a detective involved in the case, that the deaths were caused by (spoiler alert) thallium poisoning, and not a subconscious trick on the brain, Easterbrook finally concedes his follow: “We don’t believe in spirits and witches and spells nowadays, but we’re a gullible lot when it comes to ‘rays’ and ‘wavers’ and psychological phenomena” (169).  Thus, Christie demonstrates how humanity’s lack of scientific literary, combined with blind faith in science, has created a new kind of naivety that rivals traditional superstition.

 

 

Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie

As a detective novel, The Pale Horse is perhaps average at best.  Once one determines who had motive, opportunity, and means, the answer to the mystery is obvious, even if the details are not.  The novel’s value, though, is in its commentary the parallels between superstition and science.  The novel is in no way suggesting that science is strictly a matter of faith, but is does suggest that those who are not science literate are just as likely to indulge malarkey rooted in scientific jargon as the laity may be to believe in superstition.  Therefore, it is tangible evidence and reason that one should follow, rather than seeking to validate the fantastic.

 

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Works

Christie, Agatha.  The Pale Horse. Glasgow, Fontana/Collins. 1961.  Print.

 

 

Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

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