THE BOOK Fontana 1970 pp 192
Tom Adam’s cover suggests the background to the story (the Blitz) in the background and two items found in a later death scene (the tongs and lipstick) in the foreground. The earlier Fontana cover is a straightforward depiction of a disguise that is assumed in the story.
It is 1944, and Hercule Poirot is sheltering from an air-raid in his club. He is happy to be distracted from the mayhem outside by the club bore, Major Porter. Porter recounts the story of the death of Gordon Cloade in the Blitz, and the survival of his young widow, Rosaleen, who had thereby inherited a considerable fortune at the expense of Cloade’s family.
Major Porter had known Rosaleen’s first husband, Robert Underhay, reported dead in Africa, and hints darkly that Underhay might still be alive and living under the name of Enoch Arden.
Soon afterwards, aware of Porter’s story, a member of the Cloade family consults Poirot and asks him to find Underhay. Poirot refuses.
Two years later, a man named Enoch Arden is found dead in a pub in Warmsley Vale, home to most of the Cloades …
CHARACTERS AND ATTITUDES
This story is very much of its time – the period immediately after the end of the Second World War. Lynn Marchmont has returned home after six years with the WRNS in the Middle East; David Hunter, ex-commando, and Rosaleen Cloade have moved to Warmsley Vale having recovered from the bomb that destroyed the hotel where they had been staying; Rowley Cloade, having, as a farmer, been in an exempt occupation, had sat out the War and resents it, while the remaining Cloades have all seen their incomes greatly diminished due to raised taxes and War Damage Insurance payments.
Everything has, naturally, been changed by the experience of the War and its aftermath. ‘Life isn’t Safe’ is one of the themes of the book; Warmsley Vale certainly is no longer safe, and without Gordon Cloade’s millions to bail them out, neither are the Cloades.
Lynn doesn’t actually want to be safe, nor does she wish to go back to her pre-War lifestyle. She is unhappy at coming down from the excitements of wartime to the realities of a grim, grey ration-book Britain. Fortunately, she ends up in the arms of a lying, conniving person whom she knows is complicit in the deaths of two people, and is therefore happy.
There is one tragic character in this story – Major Porter, the retired Army Officer, who perjures himself because he needs the money and cannot live with the consequences … yet another example in Christie of a retired senior officer gone to seed.
Agatha Christie once again mocks the insularity of the British:
‘Her first husband (poor child, such a grief to her) was reported dead in Africa. A mysterious country, Africa.’
‘A mysterious continent,’ Poirot corrected her.
Lynn is shocked at what she finds when she returns home:
It’s the aftermath war has left. Ill will. Ill feeling. It’s everywhere. On railways and buses and in shops and amongst workers and clerks and even agricultural labourers. And I suppose even worse in mines and factories. Ill will.
This is not a side to the War and its aftermath that one often comes across in the journals of the time, but it rings true: Lynn was clearly not alone in not wishing things return to the pre-war ‘normal’.1
Here is an interesting thought that occurs to Lynn, one that might also occur to one during a pandemic:
Was that what, ultimately, war did to you? It was not the physical dangers – the mines at sea, the bombs from the air, the crisp ping! of a rifle bullet as you drove over a desert track. No, it was the spiritual danger of learning how much easier life was if you ceased to think …
Lynn cannot help but think now that she has returned home. Here is David Hunter’s take on coming back:
‘Back to safety! Back to tameness! Back to where we were when the whole bloody show started! Creep into our rotten little holes and play safe again.’
There are many slighting references to foreigners in Christie’s canon of work, and some readers have ascribed these attitudes to the author herself. Others have excused her on the grounds that this was how things were at the time she wrote them. That excuse is unnecessary; almost always, the words are spoken by unsympathetic characters, and there is a classic example in this book:
“You’re a foreigner.”
“Yes,” said Hercule Poirot.
“In my opinion,” said the old lady, “you should all Go Back.”
“Go back where?” inquired Poirot.
“To where you came from,” said the old lady firmly. She added as a kind of rider, sotto voce: “Foreigners!” and snorted.
“That,” said Poirot mildly, “would be difficult.”
“Nonsense,” said the old lady. “That’s what we fought the war for, isn’t it? So that people could go back to their proper places and stay there.”
To be fair to her, the old lady is not the only person in this book wondering what the war was fought for.
SWIGATHA RATING 9/10
Agatha Christie was at the absolute peak of her powers in the 1940s, seemingly inspired by World War II and the years following it. The sensationally original plotting of the previous decade had given way to stories where her characters were more to the fore (but the twists just as brilliantly concealed).
In this story, one presumed murder turns out to be manslaughter, another turns out to be suicide and a presumed suicide turns out to be murder. The deception at the heart of the plot is referred to again and again in conversations between the main protagonists, but it would be a rare reader who would realise what they meant. When the book is re-read, on the other hand, it is staggeringly obvious. This is brilliant deception.
WHERE IT LED
Poirot disappeared off the radar for four years. Swigatha finished off the 1940s in real style with Crooked House and A Murder is Announced, but thereafter the quality of her books was far more mixed. This may not be unconnected to the flowering of her dramatic genius in the 1950s, as she became the most successful living writer for the English-speaking theatre.
ITV’s Poirot series insisted on setting almost all the adaptations of the Poirot stories in 1936, even though they were written any time between 1916 and 1972. This usually does not matter, because many of the stories were not date-stamped, but it does in this case. The events of WW2 and the privations afterwards are core to the plot of Taken at the Flood. By ignoring them, they have had to change the characters to an extent that they are rendered uninteresting and almost ridiculous.
1 And things didn’t return to normal: within five years of WWII, the UK had introduced free Education for all, a National Health Service and a Welfare State.