In the Agatha Christie’s Marple version, suspense lingers regarding what it all means. A letter from Father Gorman (Nicholas Parsons) arrives in Miss Marple’s mailbox with a list of surnames, a biblical reference (Revelation 6-8*), and the promise will telephone tomorrow and explain.
Bertie: (regarding Rev 6-8): Don’t like the sound of that.
Marple: Well, it’s the bible, dear. I’m not sure you’re meant to.
The same day a news article announces Gorman was the latest victim of London street crime. (The Whitechapel Bludgeonist Strikes Again!) and Miss Jane Marple (Julia McKenzie) is on the case!
This is to mean the unthinkable has happened: Miss Jane Marple is actually commissioned to solve a crime. Much like her American expy, Jessica Fletcher Miss Marple is not generally a consulting detective, rather hazards her way into most of her mysteries only by meddling benignly in the affairs of family and friends. She has the nasty habit of being already conveniently nearby before the first body drops.
For once the implications are not so obvious.
The last rites of the dying and distraught Mrs. Jessie Davis (Tricia Thorns) is heard by Father Patrick Gorman which includes a secret so terrible that some might kill to preserve it. (And they do!) Gorman actually reasons My goodness, this terrible secret and its mysteries require the attentions of a sleuth. Aha! That nosy fusspot Marple I knew from The War can put her meddlesome talents to use on this. She would make something of it for certain! And the good father Patrick managed to send off a note before being overtaken by street crime.
Atypical of cozies and mystery stories in general, the police are involved immediately. Davis’ death appears as natural causes at first glance, but Father Gorman has his head beaten in and his pockets turned out. Inspector Lejeune (Neil Pearson) decides it’s a robbery.
Not that robberies of parish priests are commonplace, even on the mean streets of Londontown. There’s still a certain distaste of robbing the cloth, and priests are not known for their embarrassments of lucre. Additionally, our culprit added a couple of extra blows to be thorough and assure the good Father did not suffer. Another day in the big city.
Miss Marple comes in to the precinct to reveal the letter, and thus begins the saucy, snarky, flirty relationship between Lejeune and Marple.
Marple: You’ve questioned [Mrs. Davis’] neighbors, presumably.
Lejeune: …We have done this sort of thing before, Miss Marple.
Lejeune: Whatever suspicions you may have you must leave matters to the police and not take any action of your own.
Marple: No, no, of course, Inspector! I wouldn’t dream! Oh dear me, no.
Most of the names on the list are common names in the UK phonebook, but then there’s Lady Heskith-Dubois, there’s only one in the phonebook …and she died six months ago.
Marple: I thought it would be useful to your inquiry to know that Lady Heskith-Dubois died six months ago.
Lejeune: …Of an inflamation of the brain.
Marple: Oh! You know, then!
Lejeune: Yes, I know! Rather more to the point, how do you!?
The Pale Horse turns out to be an inn in the village Much Deeping in Hampshire. The village holds an annual fete celebrating the trial, false conviction and hanging of the alleged witch (Goody Carn a widow of three husbands, the substantial property of whom was seized), and this is the only week that the inn — or the entire village for that matter — sees much traffic from outsiders.
Widow Thyrza Grey (Pauline Collins), proprietor of The Pale Horse lingers as Miss Marple unpacks. Might the Miss have come to Much Deeping for motives more guarded than mere tourism. Maybe there’s something that perhaps she might want to divulge? No? Perhaps later, then.
In The Pale Horse, a couple of proscribed fair play rules are invoked, and a third one broken outright. There is much discussion of witchcraft, occult and supernatural murder, though the method is revealed to be entirely material. And there is debate over the invalid Mr. Venables (Nigel Planer) witnessed standing and lighting a cigarette near the residence of Mrs. Davis not long before the assault of Father Gorman. A polio victim confined to a wheelchair, does he have a twin with an identical scar? Or is he faking the severity of his affliction?
More interesting to me is the coven of early-twentieth-century occultists. I hesitate to call them witches as they don’t necessarily follow current neopagan traditions, or seem to take any interest in black magic except as a means to ends, but they do qualify as a secret society, and early on, I wasn’t entirely sure if Thyrza Grey was sizing up Miss Marple as a potential new member. Still, it worked, and the secret order served to flavor the story, but not obfuscate the clues.
~ A legally gray means by which a contractual hit can be negotiated.
~ Plausible deniability and need-to-know-only information barriers the likes of which to rival the GCHQ. In the end, only one person knew.
~ Death by aphrodisiac.
~ A brief duel of equine innuendos between Miss Marple and Bradley (Bill Paterson)
~ You came here to… find… us? (winkity-nudgy, nudgity-wink)
~ A fire that may or may not have been caused by the crabby, and questionably-disabled Mr. Venables
~ A pish, posh and tosh festival in which plenty of suspects are denying their involvement in such nasty business and how ludicrous the accusations sound. You can’t be implicating me. You call that evidence?
~ Two evil voices. The first and best coming from Thyrza Grey, who knew her own involvement, but not the means by which the malevolence she invoked was carried out.
~ The it was all just in good fun speech by the young innocent witchlet. We weren’t actually killing anyone…there was no money… immediately followed by the Oh you innocent fool speech. How else did you think we’ve been keeping afloat since the bypass went through?
~ You think you know all? Well, we’ll see who has the last laugh!
~ The dogs! Of course!
* Miss Marple quotes the KJV: And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him.