A Poirot mystery set in post-war England, this one has stuck in my memory for reasons both good, bad and ugly.
While it’s true that every book that’s ever been written is inevitably linked to its era in some way, it’s very rare for an Agatha Christie novel to centre around an event of great historical significance, or explicitly state the time period it’s set in. Taken at the Flood definitely stands out as a chronicle of post-war England and the changes taking place after the end of World War II, a fact that I’ve appreciated much better when re-visiting the book as an older reader.
The novel begins with a brief prologue set in 1944 London, with Hercule Poirot stuck at the Coronation Club during an air raid. He ends up listening to the resident club bore and his latest gossip about a rich financier named Gordon Cloade, killed recently during the blitz. The bore knows something juicy about Robert Underhay, the first husband of Cloade’s young widow Rosaleen. A hardcore Catholic, Underhay was unwilling to give Rosaleen divorce and reportedly claimed that he might fake his death in order to give her freedom. Some time later, the news reaches England of Underhay dying of fever somewhere in the South African bush… but was his death genuine, or might the new Mrs Gordon Cloade get an unpleasant shock one day?
From then on, we skip ahead to 1946 and meet the extended family of Gordon Cloade, whose fortunes were changed in an instant by that fateful air raid. It seems that Cloade had no opportunity to revise his will before his death, which means that the entirety of his wealth goes to Rosaleen, while his relatives lose the security blanket they took for granted all their lives. Rosaleen turns out to be a rather soft, passive and insecure creature, and might be persuaded to write some cheques, but unfortunately for Cloades she’s got a fierce guard dog in her brother, David Hunter, who has no qualms about telling his in-laws where to go.
If only those rumours about Rosaleen’s first husband were true and she was revealed to be a bigamist! A new mysterious arrival in the village, claiming that Robert Underhay is alive after all, seems to be an answer to the family’s prayers. But before anyone has a chance to figure out if there’s any truth to these startling claims, the mystery man is murdered, which is where Poirot comes back into the story after a lengthy absence.
To be honest, with a few exceptions most of the Cloade clan don’t make much of an impression, so it’s just as well that the story sticks with its most relatable member, Gordon Cloade’s niece Lynn. She best exemplifies the themes of change and displacement: having spent years overseas in the Women’s Royal Naval Service, Lynn finds herself restless and dissatisfied upon the return back home, where, in a reversal of traditional gender roles, her fiancé (and cousin) Rowley Cloade awaits for her. She’s no longer sure if she wants to marry Rowley after all, her nervy mother annoys the hell out of her, and overall Lynn is dismayed to find her independent, clear-thinking self to be so confused and rudderless.
A wave of nostalgia swept over her for those war days. Days when duties were clearly defined, when life was planned and orderly – when the weight of individual decisions had been lifted from her. 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…
Complicating matters is Lynn’s growing attraction to David Hunter, one of the reckless rogues who distinguish themselves with exceptional courage during the war but have trouble fitting into the peaceful society. David offers Lynn the danger and excitement that’s missing in steady, stay-at-home Rowley; though this budding romance is handled in a rather rushed manner, it is at least psychologically convincing. David and Rosaleen also represent another aspect of change: former “lower class” coming into money in contrast to the genteel, socially respectable Cloades.
Though the mystery is full of the twists and turns you expect in a Christie story, I’ve never found it to be the most interesting aspect of the novel. To be fair it does continue the “topsy-turvy” theme in a way, by showing that the obvious, most logical motives don’t necessarily align with what look like corresponding crimes. Poirot is able to figure this one out because he perceives instantly that the crime is somehow the wrong shape.
The biggest issue, however, and the one that most other reviews are likely to bring up, is the ending which is also the resolution for the novel’s romantic subplot. Even if you’re a tolerant reader when it comes to the grossly outdated sexual politics of the past, the indulgent view of the physical violence in a relationship is pretty disturbing, and some of the dialogue near the end is just pure cringe.