You’re thrust right into the middle of a tragedy before your eyes have much time to adjust to their surroundings. For a brief moment it’s 1960 and we’re in Much Deeping, a quaint little village in Surrey. Delphine (Georgina Campbell) is sitting before three mysterious women and a roaring fire. They ask what she wants to know. One member of the trio delicately examines her palms. The whole exchange would have the fickle air of carnival-style fortune-telling were it not for the tension in the room. Well, that, and we know this is an Agatha Christie adaptation. If it seems even the tiniest bit ominous, it absolutely is.
Just minutes into BBC One's The Pale Horse, we know nothing more of these women. It doesn't take any detective work, however, to deduce that Delphine is wildly naïve to ask these three composed yet sinister women whether she’s "going to make Mark happy". Here, we cut to a quick succession of scenes showing Delphine in the bath, the electricity in the house abruptly cutting out, and Delphine lying dead in a casket. Her now widowed husband, the aforementioned Mark (Rufus Sewell), is consumed by grief.
By 1961, we're in London and Mark Easterbrook is unhappily married to Hermia (Kaya Scodelario) and cheating on her with Tommy Tuckerton (Poppy Gilbert), a wealthy young heiress. Things spiral when Mark wakes up beside Tommy, only to discover that she's dead. Her hair falls out in his hand as he tries to stroke her awake.
Tommy dies at the same time as Jessie Davis (Madeleine Bowyer), who seems to have visited the same three women in Much Deeping as the ill-fated Delphine a year ago. You'd be correct to assume that these deaths are all connected but the question, as ever, is how?
A list of names is found in Mrs Davis' shoe when she's examined at the morgue. The list points to a number of people – including Tommy Tuckerton – who have recently died of apparent natural causes. But Mark Easterbrook's name is on the list too...with a question mark next to it.
Mark is alerted by the police who are trying to connect the dots between the names on the list and the recently deceased. Erratic shopkeeper, Zachariah Osborne (Bertie Carvel) is the last name on the list, appearing below Mark's. He suspects witchcraft is at play, which Mark dismisses far too quickly for it not to be something that we in the audience should consider. Later interactions with those three mysterious women at a pagan-esque, ritual-fuelled village fair make their involvement even more suspect.
But we know better than to make assumptions at this stage. Don't overlook Mark's current wife Hermia. There's a dark resentment behind her eyes, which you'll spot when she loses herself in the rigidity of her prim and proper, dutiful exterior. Find relief in the fact that this latest adaptation by writer Sarah Phelps is a two-parter. It's a gloriously dark and twisty murder mystery that will easily suck you in. But it won't take the customary six to eight episodes to find out whodunnit.
The Pale Horse starts on BBC One on Sunday 9th February at 9pm