Television

The Pale Horse: Rewriting Agatha Christie

Poetry is not the most important thing in life … I’d much rather lie in a hot bath reading Agatha Christie and sucking sweets.  Dylan Thomas

By nature a shy person, Agatha Christie liked solitude and gardening—even winning several local horticultural prizes. She also found time to become the third-highest-selling author of all time, with sixty-six novels, over two billion copies sold, just under Shakespeare and the Bible, and author of the world’s longest-running play, The Mousetrap, with over 27,000 performances. I hope her roses didn’t suffer from neglect.

In an rare 1955 interview, she said:

What is your method, they want to know. The disappointing truth is I haven’t much method. I type my own drafts on an ancient faithful machine I’ve owned for years. No, I think the real work is done in thinking out the development of your story and worrying about it until it comes right. That may take quite a while. Then, when you’ve got all your material together, all that remains is to find time to write the thing.

The Pale Horse is the most recent mini-series interpretation of Christie’s 1961 novel, produced by Mammoth Screen and Agatha Christie Limited, for BBC One. It was screen-written by Sarah Phelps and directed by Leonora Lonsdale. The book had been twice adapted for BBC Radio 4 in 1993 and in 2014, and for ITV, once in 1996 and again in 2010, as part of the BBC’s Miss Marple series, where Marple, a spinster and amateur detective, was cast as the protagonist.

Joe Dolce’s column appears in every Quadrant.
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In part one of the two-part series, set in 1960, antique dealer Mark Easterbrook (played by Rufus Sewell) discovers his wife, Delphine, dead in the bathtub. Earlier, we saw her sitting at a table with three elderly women, at the Pale Horse, an old converted inn, now a private residence, in the village of Much Deeping, Surrey. The women are reading Delphine’s fortune and she is asking if she will have a happy marriage. One of the women tells her, “Your marriage will not last. He will be married to another woman by August.” It is a year later now and, as per the prophecy, Easterbrook has indeed remarried. Another woman, Jesse Davis, also goes to the Pale Horse for a séance. After a week, she is sick in bed, losing her hair. She urgently writes down a list of names and Easterbrook’s name is included, with a question mark next to it. He is having an affair with an exotic dancer named Thomasina Tuckerton, who also, luckily, happens to be an heiress, but her father has stipulated in his will that if she dies before the age of twenty-one, her stepmother inherits everything. Easterbrook spends the night with Thomasina but, in the morning, finds her dead, also with hair loss. He flees from the hotel room without alerting staff or the authorities. A very ill Davis stumbles out of her bed, into the street, and falls dead. During her autopsy, Inspector Lejeune discovers the list of names hidden in a shoe. As Easterbrook’s name is mentioned, Lejeune interviews him, but Easterbrook denies knowing the woman.

While at the police station, Easterbrook meets Zachariah Osborne, also on the list. Thomasina’s name was on it and Ardingly’s—another person Easterbrook knows—but he says nothing to the inspector. Easterbrook makes his way to Davis’s flat and discovers a train ticket receipt to the village of Much Deeping. He recalls his first wife, Delphine, had an identical receipt. He drives to Much Deeping and walks around the town, but when he returns to his car, a straw effigy-doll is attached to the windscreen. Zachariah Osborne pays a visit to Easterbrook, showing him a similar doll, and informs him that everyone on the list is dead, except himself, Easterbrook and Ardingly, and it is his belief that all were murdered, the deaths somehow connected to the “witches” at the Pale Horse. Easterbrook, sceptical of spiritualism, throws him out. Easterbrook and his new wife, Hermia, drive up to Much Deeping for a village fair, attending a street parade, with villagers wearing pagan animal masks and watching a ritual beheading of a large straw effigy. Easterbrook passes the three Pale Horse women standing on the street and they ask if he would like his fortune told, but he says he doesn’t believe in hocus-pocus, that he is a rational person. The leader of the women, Thyrza Grey, replies, “We’re all rational when the sun is shining; different when it goes dark.” Easterbrook’s wealthy friend, Aunt Clemency Ardingly, suffers a heart attack, and he discovers his wife, Hermia, has been to the Pale Horse. He is aware that she knows of his affairs, and his own hair is beginning to fall out.

In part two, Easterbrook makes a connection between the Pale Horse women and the list. Osborne visits Easterbrook, telling him that David Ardingly, heir to his deceased Aunt Clemency’s estate, attended a séance at the Pale Horse. Inspector Lejeune is closing in on the truth about Thomasina’s death, so Easterbrook pays the Pale Horse women a visit, admitting that they might have “particular skills”. He requests a séance, fearing Hermia has had a spell put on him and wants it lifted and to be free of Lejeune’s investigation. During the séance, he has a vision of his first wife in the bath, and, of himself accidentally knocking the space heater into the water and electrocuting her. The women tell Easterbrook his wishes will be granted but he is never to visit them again. He returns home to find Hermia unconscious from an overdose and takes her to the hospital where she put on a ventilator. While there, he sees the dead body of Inspector Lejeune wheeled in. Easterbrook visits Osborne’s business, discovering a cabinet with files on all the victims, and confronts Osborne, who admits that he has killed them all, including the inspector, using an undetectable and untraceable poison called thallium. Jesse Davis had been his partner—she was the one who discovered the Pale Horse, but the women, and their “spiritual” powers, were only used to divert attention away from the thallium-poisoning. Osborne brags that he has killed thirty people and that Easterbrook is next. Easterbrook hits him with a crowbar, killing him, and destroys all the files. Hermia comes out of the coma and Easterbrook notices a headline in the newspaper announcing his own death. He is suddenly thrust back into the moment of the electrocution of his first wife in the bath, and stuck in a memory-loop where he is cursed to relive the horror of the accident over and over.

I will forgive you if you have to digest those last lines of the synopsis again. My first thought was that Agatha Christie could not have ended a story like that. Christie could never close a crime story with such an ambiguous, Blue Velvet-style let-the-audience-work-it-out ending.

And she didn’t. Screenwriter Sarah Phelps did. Anita Singh wrote in the Telegraph: “Only the bare bones of Christie’s plot were retained, and almost everyone was culpable in the end.” The original novel ends with a much more complex, but well-thought-out and logical finish.

Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller was born into an upper-middle-class family in Devon in 1890. As a girl she was an avid reader of Edith Nesbit, Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll, and later became a fan of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. She was always interested in the paranormal, believing her mother possessed the power of second sight.

She served as a member of the Voluntary Aid Detachment of the Red Cross in the First World War, and in the University College Hospital pharmacy in London during the Second World War. The latter position allowed her to gain expertise in poisons, which helped inform her later novels.

Her first book, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, was published in 1920, introducing the popular Holmes-like sleuth Hercule Poirot, who appeared in thirty-three novels and fifty-four short stories. He is the only fictional character to be given an obituary in the New York Times.

She married Archie Christie, who worked in the Indian Civil Service, in 1914, but they divorced in 1928 when he admitted to an affair. When she discovered his infidelity, she vanished for ten days, her disappearance becoming international headline news. There was an extensive search involving hundreds of police. She was eventually found, registered, oddly, under the last name of her husband’s mistress, Neele, at the Swan Hydropathic Hotel in Yorkshire. Some say it was a stunt to embarrass him; others, that she had a nervous breakdown and had entered a kind of fugue state.

Under the terms of the divorce she was allowed to keep custody of their only daughter, Rosalind Margaret Clarissa, and retain use of the surname, Christie, for her professional career.

In the 1930s she married a much younger man, an archaeologist named Max Mallowan, and they remained together until her death in 1976. She said, “I have enjoyed greatly the second blooming … suddenly you find—at the age of fifty, say—that a whole new life has opened before you.” She travelled with Mallowan on many archaeological expeditions, including trips to Syria and Iraq, for the excavations of Ur, Nineveh and Nimrud. This furnished her with exotic details for her Middle Eastern stories. Her commercial success enabled her to finance some of his expeditions as an anonymous donor. She took part in hands-on work on the digs, including taking field notes, photography, labelling finds and the reconstruction of ancient pottery.

She died, aged eighty-five, from natural causes attributed to Alzheimer’s.

The title of The Pale Horse is taken from Revelation 6:8: “I looked, and there before me was a pale horse! Its rider was named Death.” The idea of using thallium as a poison was suggested to Christie by the Chief Pharmacist for the UK Ministry of Health.

The television series diverges from Christie’s novel in significant ways. In the book, Easterbrook is a hero and has nothing to do with his first wife’s death. He is not cheating on his second wife with any stripper and he doesn’t withhold information from the police. He is writing a book on Mogul architecture but inadvertently becomes a sleuth, helping solve the crimes. Easterbrook’s name is not included on the list; neither is Zachariah Osborne’s.

Jesse Davis confides the name to a priest during confession just before she dies, and he writes it down and hides it in his shoe. He is murdered and it is discovered during his autopsy.

Hermia is Easterbrook’s girlfriend, not his wife. They attend a performance of Macbeth, discussing the witches of Shakespeare, comparing them to the ordinary witches in every local village—fortune tellers, palm readers and spiritualists.

The three women at the Pale Horse have very delineated identities, unlike the series, where they are faceless seers. Thyrza Grey owns the Pale Horse with her two companions, Sybil Stanfordis (a medium) and Bella Webb, the cook. Easterbrook attends tea at the Pale Horse and Grey is very forthcoming about the history of witchcraft, shamans, medicine men, the power of suggestion and poisons. Stanfordis is charming and only Bella Webb is difficult and stand-offish. Grey brags about how proud they are to be called witches (as many New Age folk do these days).

When Easterbrook goes to the Pale Horse for a séance, he gives Grey a brown glove and she channels a spirit called Macandal. Hair loss—the common symptom of all the victims—gradually leads Easterbrook to identify undetectable and untraceable thallium-poisoning, not witchcraft, as the cause of death. He uncovers a plan, organised by Osborne, that specialises in removal of “unwanted” persons for a fee. The Pale Horse women serve as an unwitting cover for Osborne’s true method, which is as follows:

A disbarred lawyer named Bradley makes substantial bets with interested clients, against a specific date, wagering someone they know (the “target”) will die. If the person dies before the date, Bradley wins; after the date, the client wins. He assures them that this kind of betting is not illegal.

Bradley then sends his clients to the Pale Horse to have their fortunes read, and the three women place a “curse” on the target. This is not illegal either, as witchcraft and spells have no provable basis in law.

The victim is then visited by someone Osborne has employed, conducting a consumer survey and handing out a questionnaire asking for information about their daily habits: brands of food consumed, toilet articles, cosmetics, and so forth.

Osborne, disguised as a workman—an electrician, plumber or water-meter reader—pays a visit to the victim, substituting a thallium-infused replacement for one of the items on the survey list. When the victim uses the item, they unwittingly poison themselves and die.

The client “loses” the bet, paying Bradley a substantial sum. Bradley has no idea who Osborne is or how the women’s “curses” work, and doesn’t want to know. He just takes his cut of the winnings and drops the rest off in an unmarked envelope at an anonymous post box (set up by Osborne).

If the Pale Horse women hear or read about the deaths, they assume that their occult powers were the cause. They receive modest fees from Bradley for conducting the readings.

Frankly, I found this a pretty far-fetched ending, too—but still much earthier, and classically Christie, than the waffly ending in the series. So why did Sarah Phelps rewrite it? In an interview with Express.co.uk, she said: “I think if you become only focused on the twist, then the twist is a kind of like, ‘Oh yeah here it comes, here it comes’.”

She is overlooking Alfred Hitchcock’s key rule for suspense—if you tell the audience what’s going on (just be sure not to tell the characters!), then they have the delectable suspense of waiting for it to happen—the element of surprise always being inferior to the element of suspense. That is the reason great thrillers can be watched many times. We know what’s going to happen, but the suspense, the getting there, only improves with age.

Phelps is also a bit confused about Easterbrook’s character. She says:

[Easterbrook] who realises how badly he’s been misled has to carry on living knowing that he’s been a real idiot, and he’s been a real idiot because of this thing that happened ten years ago. So it feels like the twist is a fraud.

Certainly in Phelps’s rewritten screenplay this might be the case. But in Christie’s original story, nothing happened ten years ago to make Easterbrook feel like an idiot—he did not cause the death of his first wife. He is a hero and a sleuth in Christie’s novel, so Christie’s twist isn’t a fraud. Phelps’s variation has changed the back-story of the protagonist—who has now become an anti-hero—so she has to change the outcome.

Sarah Phelps has written three previous Christie adaptations: And Then There Were None (2015), Ordeal by Innocence (2018) and in the same year The ABC Murders, starring John Malkovich as Poirot. The Pale Horse was directed by Leonora Lonsdale, a relative newcomer. The production design by Jeff Tessler is elegant and outstanding. The village of Bisley, near Stroud, became the town of Much Deeping and a local pub, the Bear Inn, was turned into the Pale Horse. The producers based the popular British series Poldark in the same town.

Raymond Chandler once commented that a Hercule Poirot story was “guaranteed to knock the keenest mind for a loop. Only a half-wit could guess it.” But Francis Iles praised The Pale Horse in a 1961 review for the Guardian:

Mrs Agatha Christie is our nearest approach to perpetual motion. And not only does she never stop, but she drops the ball into the cup nearly every time; and if one is sometimes reminded of those automatic machines where one pulls a handle and out pops the finished product … the latest tug on the Christie handle produces a product which is not only up to the standard but even above it. The Pale Horse is in fact the best sample from this particular factory for some time, and that is saying plenty. The black magic theme is handled in a masterly and sinister fashion … this is a book which nobody (repeat, nobody) should miss.

Entertainment Weekly voted it one of the “Nine Great Christie Novels”.

The book is said to have saved lives after readers later recognised symptoms of thallium-poisoning. A woman in Latin America saved herself from slow death by her husband, who was putting thallium in her food; a nurse recognised the symptoms in a baby she was caring for; a Mensa Club member, George Trepal, tried to murder his neighbours, and their children, with thallium injected into Coca-Cola bottles. Detectives familiar with Christie’s plot used it in 1971 to catch Graham Frederick Young, who had poisoned three people with thallium in Bovingdon, England, in what had been referred to as the “Bovingdon Bug”.

The Pale Horse mini-series is intensely rewarding—up until the very end of the final episode, until a wheel falls off. I had to read the book (twice) to assure myself that Agatha Christie would never have ended the story that way. Although she had an interest in spiritualism, her forte was solid crime stories.

Phelps could have ended her screenplay somewhere around Osborne’s death. Instead, she introduces the completely un-Christie premises that (a) perhaps the witches did have occult powers, or (b) there’s a Twilight Zone-style time-loop that Easterbrook finds himself stuck in, where he relives his wife’s death over and over.

The novel, of course, is much clearer. No witchery, no hypnotism, no hocus-pocus, no memory time-loop. Poison, pure and simple.

Gabrielle Bruney of Esquire said of the series:

Most of the changes serve to strip the story of much of its Christie primness and inject horror elements … but these changes aren’t necessarily for the better—the very thing that makes The Pale Horse one of Christie’s greats is its message about the nature of evil. In the book, the witches are purely a distraction. The truly frightening villains are a neat little pharmacist and his clever lawyer. In stripping that away, the adaptation turns it into a story filled with shallow scares.

There are still heated arguments over whether Agatha Christie is serious literature or not. Best-selling author John Banville said:

I say “novels”, but I am not sure that is what these books are. They more resemble crossword puzzles, and finishing one of them, like finishing a puzzle, leaves one with the same ashen sense of futility and wasted time. Christie is certainly a kind of genius, but one cannot help feeling she would have been better off employed in Bletchley Park as a code-breaker, or working for a manufacturer of board games.

The crime novelist Linwood Barclay summed it up better: “Does Christie still hold up today? Does it matter? All of us who write crime fiction owe her as great a debt as we do the inventor of the printing press.”

Personally, if Agatha Christie was fascinating enough to entertain Dylan Thomas, that’s good enough for me. Run the bath and pass the sweets.

2 comments
  • Stephen Due

    Over the years our local repertory group has put on several Agatha Christie stories, enjoyably adapted for the small stage. They were intending to perform The Mousetrap last month, but the virus put paid to it.

  • PT

    I despise Phelps and her self-indulgent kind. The same arrogant rewriting has happened in her earlier productions (although she left “And then there were None” sufficiently intact). This happened in the mentioned Marple series too. Adapting a book for screen or television certainly means comprises are made. Some characters are written out, or combined into a single one as they don’t want too many characters for the viewer to remember. Language gets modified as some words and expressions are now called “offensive” (cf Modesty Blaise) or have simply fallen out of fashion! But the point of a Christy story (indeed all crime fiction other than Colombo and his imitators) is “whodunnit”. But Phelps has in past productions not only changed the location, but the identity of the murderer! And yet they have the gall to call it Agatha Christie’s work!
    .
    The Marple series inserted Marple into other Christie stories she had no part in, but also changed the identity of the murderers on occasion, or made straight characters gay or lesbian (even though filmed as a period piece) and changed the motivation of the killer even where the identity remained the same. The excuse given in the Marple series was “adapting it for a modern audience”.
    .
    The truth is surely the vanity of the writers. The likes of Phelps want to make the project and story their own, but want to cash in on the Christy name to get an audience and money! It’s one step away from outright plagiarism. These people insist on inserting their own ego into the work. It would be as if Peter Jackson decided to make Saruman the true hero of Lord of the Rings – big twist you know! Perhaps Phelps can write compelling television. I may well like her work. But vandalism of the work of others so she can use their name to get an audience but still please her ego? Unacceptable!

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