When it comes to popular authors from the Golden Age of Detective Fiction in Britain - roughly the years between the two world wars of the 20th century - Agatha Christie was, and remains, in a class by herself. There were many fine and popular writers during the period. None has shown the "staying" power that Christie has shown. She is, for the most part, still very much in print. Her books have been outsold only by Shakespeare and the Bible. One of her plays, The Mousetrap, opened in London in 1952 and is still playing there as it begins its 65th year onstage.
One of my early podcast reviews was of Christie's Taken at the Flood, which stars her dapper little Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot. Here's that review, again slightly edited:
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Agatha Christie’s Taken at the Flood involves Poirot in an unusual and puzzling tragedy. The book begins with a prologue set in a British men’s club, where Poirot overhears a long story, told by the club’s resident bore, about a young woman, newly married to a very rich man, who was the only survivor of a German air raid which killed her husband and a couple of servants. Now, the young woman will inherit a very large fortune – and her husband’s relatives, who had relied on him as their primary means of support, aren’t at all happy about it.
The widow, and her late husband’s family, live in a town called Warmsley Vale. Opinion in the town is pretty solidly lined up against the young woman and her brother, who lives with her. But then some strange events begin happening. A mysterious stranger turns up in town – and very quickly meets a violent end. And members of the husband’s family seek help from Hercule Poirot.
And so Poirot goes to Warmsley Vale – too late to prevent death, but in time to decipher the clues that lead along a remarkably twisted path to the murderer.
In fact, Poirot plays a more limited role in this novel than he does in most of the other stories where he appeared. And he seems a little wiser, and a little more mellow. Taken at the Flood dates from 1948, which was about midway in Christie’s career, and Poirot has become less the pitiless avenger and nemesis of evil, and more compassionate and, I think, more aware that his actions and his investigations will have life-or-death consequences for at least one of the characters. That same mood is reflected in the book’s title. Taken at the Flood is a quotation from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, spoken by Brutus:
There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.
Taken at the Flood is, in my opinion, one of Agatha Christie’s better stories featuring Hercule Poirot. Over the course of her long career, she created a number of series of detectives – Poirot and Miss Jane Marple being the two best known – and wrote a lot of non-series books and plays. I think her finest work often comes from that last group – books such as And Then There Were None, which we discussed in an earlier program in this series.
But Poirot was certainly among the audience’s favorites – though he can certainly be irritating. In the novels where he is accompanied by his Watson, an incredibly dense ex-military man named Arthur Hastings, Poirot’s tendency to show off becomes almost unbearable – made worse by Hastings’ incredible stupidity.
Happily, Hastings is absent from Taken at the Flood, and Poirot as a result is far more bearable – and, I would argue, far more believable as a character. In fact, the mystery here is one that grows out of the personalities of the characters. As a result, one of Christie’s usual ingenious and complex plots becomes much more believable. And her characterizations are beautifully done – revealing a great deal in an unexpected line or thought. At one point, one woman is talking to her husband, and reveals this extraordinary thought:
She stared at him. Extraordinary, she thought, to have been married to someone for over twenty years and not have know what was going on in their minds. But how could one know when it was a mind so different from one’s own? A romantic mind, of course, well camouflaged, but essentially romantic…the poor idiotic darling.
That level of writing is maintained throughout the book, and it’s one of the reasons why I enjoy it and recommend it to you. If you’re not familiar with Poirot, this is a good place to meet him. I don’t believe that in this book he ever does refer knowingly to his “little grey cells,” the brain which he uses to solve the most complex problems. But he does employ them quite effectively – and comes to a conclusion which is likely to satisfy the reader.
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If you would like to listen to the original podcast review, you may do so by clicking here.
Next week, one of the best Miss Marple mysteries, The Moving Finger.