Sunday, 30 June 2019

Taken at the Flood by Agatha Christie

"I really didn't see that coming," could well be my motto when reading Agatha Christie.

And, boy, does it ever apply to this novel, which throws some tremendous surprises at the reader in its final pages.

This is a superior Hercule Poirot mystery with a genuinely terrific set up. It is the 28th Poirot novel, first published in 1948 ,and the shadow of World War 2 falls emphatically across the story.

The book begins with an air raid and bombs falling on the house of a millionaire, Gordon Cloade. Cloade is killed, as are all the servants. Cloade's beautiful young bride and her brother survive.

In the first few pages Hercule Poirot, taking shelter at a gentleman's club from another air raid, hears this tale. 

And what's more, he hears how the beautiful young bride has deprived Gordon Cloade's family of all the money they thought was guaranteed to them —  through Gordon's characteristic generosity.

And what's even more, he hears the rumour that the bride's first husband, reportedly dead of a fever in the African bush, may actually be alive.

In which case Cloade's fortune will go to his family after all...

Two years later the pot really begins to boil and Poirot re-enters the story at the behest of the Cloade family.

This fascinating story is studded with equally fascinating characters. I particularly liked Frances, the wife of lawyer Jeremy Cloade. She's utterly unscrupulous, and completely unashamed about it.

When Frances and Jeremy are discussing what would happen if Rosaleen, that inconvenient young bride, was to suddenly die, "something seemed to pass through the room — a cold air — the shadow of a thought..."

But the whole Cloade clan has a motive for murder and Rosaleen is so obviously a target that considerable suspense soon starts to ratchet up. 

Luckily she's under the protection of her brother, a former commando, as unscrupulous as Frances and another great character.

Generally Christie doesn't do much in the way of reflecting the period her books are set in, but this one conveys a vivid picture of England just after the war, with its rationing, bureaucracy and high taxes. 

Indeed it is the most period-conscious of the Poirot's I've read so far except for Hallowe'en Party, where everybody was complaining about allowing dangerous lunatics to run around loose instead of locking them up in asylums.

She also has some rather more profound things to say about what "war did to you. It was not the physical danger... 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..."

Once this intricate and explosive situation has been fully delineated, along with the characters — and once the killing begins — Poirot decisively enters the story.

He's particularly good value this time around, quoting Sherlock Holmes ("I have my methods"), making an "unsuccessful attempt to look modest" and outlining his approach to investigation.

"Talking to people. That is what I do. Just talk to people."

Finally, having employed his technique, Poirot is ready to reveal all. He goes to the denouement. "Into an atmosphere quivering with danger... Once more, Poirot dominated the situation."  

And what a superb revelation it is.  I never saw it coming.  
(Image credits: The Tom Adams cover for the main image is from Pinterest. The other covers (isn't the Italian Mondadori version fab?) are from  Good Reads, including the Swedish version which has taken "taken at the flood" rather too literally. Except for the Brazilian Colecção Vampiro edition — I'm very fond of this series — which is from Sebo do Messias.)

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