Taken at the Flood (Agatha Christie)

  • First published: USA: Dodd Mead, March 1948, as There is a Tide…; UK: Collins, November 1948

Everybody except Robert Barnard underrates this middle-period (1948) Christie.  Christie’s usual brisk, humorous tone comes across as her putting a brave face on an impoverished Britain entering an age of  taxation, increased cost of living, and rationing queues as it recovers from WWII.

Christie’s concern is how people adjust to life after the war.  Lynn the Wren wants freedom and danger; the ex-commando David Hunter is better suited to war than peace; stay-at-home Rowley regrets not seeing action.  

Is Gordon Cloade’s death in the war a symbol of the old order of things passing?  He raised his siblings to depend on him; now he’s dead, how will they cope?  “What happens to the ivy when the oak round which it clings is struck down?”  Crooked House, the next year, deals with a similar theme.

Gordon Cloade’s will and marriage left his family penniless, but the widow’s husband — presumed dead — apparently turns up as “Enoch Arden” and is killed, proving his wife a bigamist.

The plot relies on timing, identity, impersonation and legal complications.  It’s solid and complicated.

We will now discuss the plot.  SPOILER The title (quote from Julius Caesar) refers to people acting on chance and taking risks: Frances’ fraud; David’s fraud; Rowley using his killing to incriminate David (fraud again!); David’s alibi.  The main situation – what the reader assumes – is WRONG.  Three deaths (one murder and two suicides) are really one suicide, one accident, one murder.  The murderers kill the “wrong” person: David is the only person with a motive to kill Arden – and he’s innocent; David loses by Rosaleen’s death – and he kills her.  

Christie holds out the possibility that David and Lynn, and Rowley and Rosaleen will pair.  The last chapter seems unnecessary; Lynn marrying Rowley doesn’t seem in character somehow.

Blurb (UK)

A man calling himself Enoch Arden comes to Warmsley Vale on a Saturday and is killed in his room at the local inn on the following Tuesday.  Upon the identity of this man hang the fortunes of the Cloade family.  There were sinister motives for his death—not the least of which was a sizeable fortune—but which of the suspects had taken the golden tide at its flood?  Poirot thought he knew.  “In Agatha Christie’s work,” writes Ellery Queen, “the unusual is usually the usual.”  Here she has given a new dramatic twist to the legend of a man who returns home after a long absence to find a strange welcome.  Hercule Poirot’s solution of the mystery is completely unusual.

Blurb (US)

“Jealousies, hates, swift passionate actions – all are here,” said Hercule Poirot.  “And here is successful opportunities, too,” he added.  “There is a tide in the affairs of men which someone has turned to his own end, under your nose, so to speak.”

Superintendent Spence of Scotland Yard rubbed his nose irritably.  Both Poirot and the Superintendent were investigating the death of Robert Underhay in the little town of Warmsley Heath.

There were sinister motives for his death – not the least of which was a sizeable fortune – but which of the suspects had taken the golden tide at its flood?  Poirot thought he knew.

“In Agatha Christie’s work,” writes Ellery Queen, “the unusual is usually the usual.”  Here she has given a new dramatic twist to the legend of a man who returns, after long absence, to his own home and finds a strange welcome.  Obviously, Hercule Poirot’s solution of the mystery is completely unusual.

Contemporary reviews

New Statesman (Ralph Partridge, 15th January 1949): A good detective-story should be like a good bull-fight.  The reader charges up and down distracted by the red herring until exhausted, when the author plunges the unexpected explanation into him like a sword—the moment of truth, as the Spaniards call it.  From the bull’s point of view the object of the performance is simply to get at the author before the author gets at you.  The author has a more delicate rôle.  He must give the reader a chance to get at the man but take care that he only reaches the cloak: and the closer he allows you to brush past, the better the author.  The slightest miscalculation, however, may be fatal.  No wonder so many authors lose their nerve, trail their capes far afield, jump the barriers of common-sense, and finally assassinate their readers with a feeble poke at the seat of intelligence.  These bunglers retire hooted with derision; but they survive the ordeal to write their next book.  My simile is suggested by the welcome reappearance in the arena of that formidable espada, Mrs. Christie, who passes the bulls closer to her chest than any other living writer.

The plot of Taken at the Flood cannot be summarised without betraying secrets.  The title implies that one of the characters makes the most of a heaven-sent opportunity—and that is all readers deserve to know beforehand.  From the first page you plunge into a fever of expectation and a rapture of bewilderment.  You feel the misleading hints, at which Mrs. Christie is so adept, at their stealthy work, gently nudging in some wrong direction.  In self-defence you quickly suspect all the pretty girls, and then all the handsome young men, while still ignorant of what crimes lie ahead.  Then comes one false move; and the exquisite tension relaxes.  The lapse is unimportant in itself, it gives away nothing inevitable, but it shakes our confidence.  Mrs. Christie makes Poirot overlook something so obvious that until he catches up with our superior knowledge many pages later we are kept drumming our heels with impatience.  The error in timing robs Taken at the Flood of the perfection we anticipated; and the rather arbitrary solution is not one of our lady’s best.  The book must be regretfully consigned to the middle of the Christie shelf.

Sat R of Lit (20th March 1948, 50w): Admirable.

New Yorker (27th March 1948, 80w): A pleasant, workmanlike job.

NY Herald tribune Wkly Bk R (Will Cuppy, 28th March 1948, 300w): There Is a Tide is no Roger Ackroyd when it comes to a final surprise, but it’s one of the better Christies most of the way.  Don’t miss.

Booklist (1st May 1948)