Monday, 9 November 2009

Taken At The Flood (1948)

PLOT: Can Poirot save rich widow Rosaleen Underhay?



Poirot's made it through the Second World War. When we first met him he was a refugee during the First World War and possibly retired. So how old is he now? It's best not to ask.

Taken At The Flood is interesting from the point of "Does Christie change with the times, or does she simply redress her mannequins in fashionable outfits?". This is a grim novel of a damaged, glum Britain, with air raids, blitzed London and villages plunged into miserable poverty. It's very contemporary and appropriate - there's no sense of conspicuous affluence or that the cast haven't been changed by the global upheaval.

And yet... peel off the new wrappings, and we've the classic village full of suspicion, a rich young heiress, a black sheep, a tiny bit of occult and a lot of vocal and chemical poison. The sense is that, despite everything, England carries on - the world of quiet malice behind the flower arranging.

Poirot is dragged in by the poisonously new age Mrs Lionel Cloade ("M. Poirot, I have come to you under spirit guidance"). It's a story of an Old Family who are trying to adjust to New Money - to their rich brother's nervous widow, Rosaleen, and her domineering brother, David.

It's world of subtle nastiness and complicated resentments. The Cloades despise Rosaleen, but depend on her for money, at the same time as questioning just how she came into her inheritance. The story all comes down to what noble Lynn Cloade realises - "We'd do anything, anything for money."

The story splits two ways - both an investigation of mystery of the past and a mysterious stranger from the present, and Poirot hovers over both, quietly, regretfully investigating. And everywhere he turns is the same motive - "We'd do anything for money". So it is that we meet characters like the shabby genteel Major, who still goes to his club but lives in threadbare poverty, broken by taxation. Every single person in the book is driven by greed - this is the world of classic Christie but come upon hard times.

So it is that we find Poriot at a miserable hotel ("Here there was a good fire, but in a large arm-chair, toasting her toes comfortably, was a monumental old lady who glared at Poirot" and the Coffee Room, "the only time coffee was served there was somewhat grudgingly for breakfast and that even then a good deal of watery hot was its principal component"), carrying out his investigation into the lives of people who are literally mean-spirited. In many ways it's business as usual - complicated lies and alibis, but hanging over it is a sense of tiredness and despair. The war is over but there's no real sense of victory, and everyone's morals are slightly off balance.

It's a melancholy, dismal book, and affecting in its sense of tragedy. The noblest character is Lynn, returning from war to find herself repelled by her lovelorn cousin Rowley and instead besotted with rakish David. But who will she end up with? Well, actually, that's one of the most interesting, and troubling scenes...

SPOILERS:


Lynn goes to see Rowley to break the news that she's leaving him for exciting, risky David. Rowley is anguished - she's been away to war, he's been stuck behind, having to keep the farm going. He feels left out of life and now abandoned by her. For her part she's refusing to give up her independence, her love of excitement.

And then Rowley cracks, and strangles Lynn, and we realise that Rowley's broken the law to keep order.

Only... Poirot turns up at the last minute, suggests a pot of tea, and explains what's really happened. It's quite startling - oddly like the kitchen murder from Torn Curtain in its savagery and civility, but also has a really, really odd conclusion.

Lynn realises that, after all, it is Rowley she loves. Or, as she puts it, "When you caught hold of me by the throat... I knew then that I was your woman." Umm. I think the point is that she's realised that Rowley isn't as meek as she thought he was, but the message that's coming over is that a bit of domestic violence can bring necessary spice to a relationship. Ah well, different times.


The ending is ultimately and appropriately bleak and morally curious. Poirot, the avenging angel, allows death to be misattributed and for a killer to find happiness with someone they attempted to murder.

4 comments:

  1. I completely agree about the sense of a bleak and miserable England in this book, which has a very much post-war austerity feel in contrast to the archetypal Christie of between the wars country houses. Everything about this world is subtly wrong, from the microcosm of Poirot’s patent leather shoes in a conservative gentlemens’ club to a collapsing social order. Like the country, the Cloade family’s future, once assured and taken for granted, is now uncertain. Nothing is quite what it seems, starting with the blast that killed Gordon Cloade, but apparently left his wife and brother-in-law uninjured (“Funny business, this blast”), then the death of Robert Underhay who may not really be dead.

    ‘Taken at the Flood’ is set in a changed world full of people who don’t deal well with change, from Lyn the ex-Wren who isn’t as happy to be home as she expected, to Jeremy the solicitor and wife Francis who can no longer afford the lifestyle they’re accustomed to. There isn’t enough of anything in Warmsley Vale – not enough money, enough order, enough family affection, enough for the characters to do other than plot and fret.

    This is another low body count Christie, which opens with the death of the mysterious Enoch Arden – a man whose identity’s so vague you start to wonder whether he actually exists. He’s another invisible victim, who no-one seems to regret and whose death is really just an excuse to investigate the Cloades’ flaws and failings. There’s a flavour of Aga saga to this novel and Christie gives the family drama and the “Which man will Lyn choose?” romance plenty of space to develop before there’s any detection.

    There’s some reflection going on here about what happens when soldiers come home and the place of wartime virtues in peacetime that appears in several Christies. “Enterprise, initiative, command, those were the commodities offered. But what was wanted? People who could cook and clean, or write decent shorthand. Plodding people who knew a routine and could give good service.” Restless Lyn is increasingly difficult to keep home on the farm now that she’s seen Paree and the dashing David Hunter is obviously much better suited to commando raids than actually earning a living.

    Although the mood is very different, the basic situation is almost identical to that in ‘The Body in the Library’ (and to a lesser extent, ‘A Pocket Full of Rye’), showing how Christie tends to riff on very similar set-ups in different times. A wealthy old man whose family have grown to depend on his money takes up with a lower class young girl he thinks is a plucky little thing who’s had a hard life and puts the family’s nose out of joint. Rosaleen, the young widow and victim in waiting is described in almost exactly the same terms as ‘Body’ victim Ruby Keene; young, childlike, slightly vacuous and “not a lady”. Even their make-up’s the same “She has the most enormous eyes – dark blue and what they call put in with a smutty finger”. While Christie doesn’t seem to find either of them malicious (“women must live”), both books ultimately dispense with them and allow the social order they interrupted to go back to normal.

    There’s no dead body in this novel till almost 100 pages in and (apart from the Prologue), Poirot doesn’t enter the story until half way through the book. As you point out, the ending is very morally ambiguous, with Poirot not so much delivering justice as papering over the cracks. Although the ending apparently turns the clock back to before Gordon Cloade’s death, it feels like a hollow victory and there’s a sense of having won the war but lost the peace. More thoughtful and less murder by numbers than some more traditional Christie stories, this shows her applying a typical scenario to a changed social reality.

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  2. Assume a birth date in 1878 and Poirot makes sense. Marple on the other hand is clearly some sort of Celtic demigoddess of real antiquity although if you assume she is an unreliable narrator with a gift for impersonation she could also be born circa 1870 and die at age 106.

    Silly to even contemplate such things when Tommy and Tuppence lose ten to fifteen years somewhere around N or M and go from being Bright Young Things in age to counterparts of the Mallowans. Ah well.

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