The Pale Horse by Agatha Christie

Christie, A. (1962). The pale horse. London: Collins.

This is a wonderful mystery featuring Mark Easterbrook. He is not a detective and doesn’t even claim to be an amateur detective.  He is an author who stumbles upon a strange sequence of events and decides he must look into it because in the beginning the police cannot.  

A dying woman confesses to a priest and he writes down a list of names – all of whom died. The priest is coshed in the head before he can tell anyone anything. A pharmacist insists that he saw a man following the priest, but the man he describes in a polio victim in a wheel chair.  People mention strange goings on at a place called The Pale Horse. It is a former pub now a home to 3 older women with a reputation as witches and mediums. One claims she can cause people to die by somehow thinking the suggestion to them and letting their body’s natural desire for death take over.

Mark Easterbrook and his friend Ginger and the police detectives do some undercover work and uncover the ring of people who are offering to get rid of someone for a price. The process is covered in layers of deception and ritual, but how it is actually done and by whom is much simpler and down to earth.

A wonderful read, different from the more popular Poirot or Miss Marple mysteries, but quite enjoyable.

Poisons and Poisoners: with Historical Accounts of Some Famous Mysteries in Ancient and Modern Times

By C. J. S. Thomson (Charles John Samuel)

 

Thompson, C. J. S.(1993 [1931]). Poisons and poisoners: With historical accounts of some famous mysteries in ancient and modern times. New York: Barnes & Noble.

This is an older work (1931) which was reprinted in the 1990s for a good reason. Thompson’s historical overview of poisons and poisoners is excellent. It covers the ancient world up through the 20th century in well laid out chapters. The earlier chapters discuss early plant and animal poisons used by tribes (think poison arrows) and early civilizations across the globe.

He points out that people discovered that if they shot someone with an arrow that had been previously pulled from a body, it had a more lethal effect (the arrows weren’t cleaned after being pulled from a body and helped add disease and infection to the wound). Soon folks started deliberately dipping arrows in blood and feces to make them more potent. Others used plant and animal toxins to coat their weapons.

Europe in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, especially Italy, became a hot bed of poisoners as people discovered ways of eliminating the competition through nefarious ways. Italy led the way, but the techniques and formulas for effective poisons soon spread.

In the 19th and 20th centuries Thompson gives examples of famous poison cases. Many times the poisoner had some sort of medical training which enabled them to procure and administer poisons. Also, poisons were easily obtainable for supposedly innocent purposes. Fly paper was sold with arsenic. If one soaked the paper (as one did in using it), one would get a highly toxic arsenical solution.  

This is an enjoyable jaunt through the history of poisons with the types and uses explained. In addition, some of the more memorable of famous poison cases (usually the more modern ones are from Britain) are laid out for the reader’s enlightenment.

Death of a Dissident: The Poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko and the Return of the KGB

By Alex Goldfarb with Marina Litvinenko

Goldfarb, A. &. (2007). Death of a dissident: The poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko and the return of the KGB. New York: Free Press.

 

This is an amazing tale told by Goldfarb and the widow of Alexander “Sasha” Litvinenko, Marina Litvinenko. Sasha was a KGB operative working to crack down on organized crime. When the Soviet Union (USSR) dissolved, he then ended up working for the FSB (what the KGB became) doing similar work.

He ended up being sent into Chechnya and saw firsthand the destruction wrecked by the Russian army. Sasha started to question what was going on within the FSB. At this time Yeltsin was struggling to hold on to and encourage democracy in Russia and to seek someone to take over as president who would continue the liberal changes and encourage the fledgling democracy.

One thing led to another and Vladimir Putin was suggested as head of the FSB. Putin had been a KGB member for years. Sasha and some others started to investigate corruption within the FSB, but when they brought it to the attention of the top staff, including Putin, they were basically told to forget it or face the consequences. Sasha didn’t stop. He went public with his allegations that he and other FSB officers were ordered to kill Boris Berezovsky (high powered oligarch who was supporting democracy) and Mikhail Trepashkin, and ended up in prison. Later he was able to flee with his wife and son and ended up in London. From there he worked with a group of expatriates to try and open the western worlds eyes to what was going on in Russian politics and what Putin was doing.

A number of things led to the second Chechen war (which like the Iraq war for Bush helped him get into and stay in office as president). One in particular was a series of bombings of Moscow apartments. Sasha and the others were able to find evidence that the FSB themselves was most likely responsible for the bombings. Suddenly, people associated with the investigation into the bombings and those who were activating for peace in Chechnya started to be assassinated. Anna Stepanovna Politkovskaya was a journalist at Novaya Gazeta and was assassinated in 2006 (shot while carrying groceries in her apartment elevator). Yuri Petrovich Schekochihin, a Duma member and journalist, was poisoned in 2003. Mikhail Ivanovich Trepashkin was a former FSB officer and lawyer and was arrested in 2003. In May 2006 Amnesty International  reported that Trepashkin was being denied medical treatment. He suffers from asthma and was sent to the hospital for treatment but then forcibly removed by prison wardens. Finally in 2007 USA Today  reported that Trepashkin was finally released from prison in Nizhny Tagil to Yekaterinburg, Russia. Trepashkin also reported that he and others were asked in 2002 to kill Litvinenko and Berezovsky. Trepashkin warned them about the hit squad and upon release from prison, stated that it was the Kremlin that had Litvinenko killed.

Litvinenko was poisoned on November 1 2006 and died November 23rd. At first doctors thought he just had a case of food poisoning. Then they thought it was Thallium poisoning. Actually it was Polonium-210 a radioactive substance that is highly lethal in very, very small doses that killed Litvinenko. This is a substance that only a very small number of places can manufacture. In fact, 97% of the world’s Polonium-210 comes from Russia. The trails all lead to Andrei Lugovoy and Dmitry Kovtun as the ones who brought the Polonium-210 out of Russian and to London to kill Litvinenko. It is possible that there was a third man as well.

This book is quite an eye opener into Russian politics and politics in general. It is also a lesson on why wars are started and why, when groups on both sides want peace, wars continue. Power over media, power over police, control of all secret services, power over regional governance, can all lead down a very dangerous road. The masses of citizens of the world need to start to look at what is going on and Goldfarb’s book provides an amazing inside view of only one time period in one government—but it is a very powerful view.