Father Gorman, called to the deathbed of an agitated woman, learns something so troubling, so dangerous in her confession, that he notes its details and posts it to his old friend Miss Marple. But by the time she reads the letter the next morning, Father Gorman is dead, murdered on his way home from the confession. Armed with little more than Gorman's list of names and a biblical reference, Miss Marple pursues leads to the village of Much Deeping and The Pale Horse, a country inn run by a coven of witches whose practice pays tribute to the village's sole claim to fame, its witch trials of 1664.
Arriving in time for the Burning, the annual bonfire remembering Much Deeping's witch-hunting heritage, Miss Marple acquaints herself with a motley collection of hotel guests, among them the curmudgeonly wheelchair-bound prime suspect Mr. Venables; the English folklorist Easterbrook; the unconventional household of Kanga and Roo Cottam and their housekeeper Lydia; and Ginny, a young woman investigating a death of her own. Ginny's friend Tommy Tuckerton was among the names on Father Gorman's list — names of unrelated individuals who, it's soon revealed, are all dead. And before long, so too is a vigorous inmate of the hotel, dead of natural causes or, as Miss Marple suspects, murder.
With Inspector Lejeune and eyewitness Paul Osbourne on hand from London, Miss Marple catches the scent of the chase, her senses dulled neither by her devastating loss nor the presence of evil manifest at the Pale Horse Inn. But however sweetly she sips cordials or sheepishly "forgets" a name, she must be vigilant in her keen hunt for a murderer who may, in turn, be hunting her.
Read full synopsis
Warning: Contains significant plot spoilers
Hide full synopsis
Warning: Contains significant plot spoilers
Miss Marple receives an enigmatic note from her old friend Father Gorman and then learns that he was murdered immediately after sending it. At the time, he was returning from hearing the confession of a dying woman, Mrs. Davis. The priest's letter lists a series of last names and dates with no explanation. Also included is a biblical citation, Revelation 6:8. Taking up a Bible, Miss Marple reads: "And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him."
Her ensuing investigation leads to a place called the Pale Horse Inn, mentioned on a slip of paper in Mrs. Davis's flat. Miss Marple's unofficial assistant on the case is Paul Osbourne, a neighbor of Mrs. Davis's, who saw a suspicious man lurking on the street at the time of Father Gorman's visit. Osborne identifies him as Mr. Venables, a disagreeable habituÉ of the Pale Horse.
The inn proves to be a hotbed of sorcery, presided over by self-styled witches, Sybil Stamfordis and Thyrza Grey. Although friendly and outgoing, they have a reputation for being able to will people to death. Indeed, Thyrza has privately turned this skill into a business. Those who wish someone to expire simply approach Thyrza's lawyer, Mr. Bradley, and place a bet on whether the targeted individual will survive beyond a given date. If they don't make it — presumably due to black magic — then the wager is paid off. All perfectly legal, since no one lays a finger on the victims.
Interestingly, the deceased parties turn out to be the names on Father Gorman's list, which was evidently enough to get him brutally slain. This suggests that something more violent than "willing to death" is behind all the fatalities. Based on Osbourne's identification, Venables is the chief suspect. When Venables' arch enemy, Captain Cottam, suddenly dies under mysterious circumstances, the case against him seems closed.
But Miss Marple has an alternate theory. In concert with police Inspector Lejeune, she lures Osborne into incriminating himself. A practiced poisoner since childhood, Osbourne choreographed the following scheme. After receiving a "bet" on an individual through Mr. Bradley, he sent a consumer researcher to gather data on the prospective victim — information that allowed him to put an undetectable poison in one of the target's preferred products. Masquerading, as a workman, he then entered the victim's home and made a fatal switch. The subsequent death appeared natural and thus the work of the witches, who were unaware of Osborne's involvement.
It all worked like a charm, until one of Osborne's consumer researchers, Mrs. Davis, became suspicious. Osbourne poisoned her and then had to dispatch Father Gorman, who heard her confession and presumably the names of the victims. Osborne tried to frame Venables, going so far as to kill Captain Cottam. Indeed, he even tried to get rid of the meddlesome Miss Marple, planting poison face cream on her night table, not reckoning with the grey-haired sleuth's powers of observation. For her habit is always to place her products with the labels facing the same direction, easily foiling the careless killer and unraveling his plot.