Book review by George S: These two novels were published when Agatha Christie’s was at the peak of her powers, and delivering at least one best-seller every year – two, most years. Both are about families where something has gone wrong in a way, she hints, that mirrors what is going wrong with the country.
Taken at the Flood was published in 1948, and is full of postwar uncertainty. Lynn Marchmont, the most alert of the book’s characters, senses that the war has done something to England:
I’ve noticed it ever since I got home. It’s the aftermath war has left. Ill will. Ill feeling. It’s everywhere. On railways and buses and in shops and amongst workers and clerks and even agricultural labourers. And I suppose worse in mines and factories. Ill will.
The family in Taken at the Flood is representative of the English middle class – it includes a doctor, a lawyer, a farmer, all with pretensions, and all, as we gradually learn, with secrets and inadequacies. All have been living their lives in the expectation that Gerald Cloade, the richest family member, will look after them. Gerald’s remarriage to a widow, and his subsequent sudden death in an air-raid mean that their prospects are undermined. His widow, Rosaleen, is under the protection of her brother, an ex-commando and potentially dangerous.
It’s a type that’s done well during the war. Any amount of physical courage. Audacity and a reckless disregard of personal safety. The sort that will face any odds. It’s the kind that is likely to win the V.C.—though, mind you, it’s often a posthumous one. Yes, in wartime, a man like that is a hero. But in peace—well, in peace such men usually end up in prison.
The family pin their hopes on the idea that Rosaleen’s first husband may not actually be dead – in which case her remarriage would be bigamous, and what they see as the family cash should legally revert to them. As a family, they do not behave well. How far is Christie presenting this as a picture of England, living on its past glories and expecting to be bailed out by others?
The family in After the Funeral (1952) are an equally dodgy crew. Once again, they are supposedly upstanding citizens. At the funeral of Richard Abernethie the suggestion was tactlessly made that he might have been murdered. Poirot considers the family members:
Because he could visualize almost all of these people as a possible – though not a probable – murderer. George might kill – as the cornered rat kills. Susan calmly – efficiently – to further a plan. Gregory because he had that queer morbid streak which discounts and invites, almost craves, punishment. Michael because he was ambitious and had a murderer’s cocksure vanity. Rosamund because she was frighteningly simple in outlook. Timothy because he had hated and resented his brother and had craved the power his brother’s money would give. Maude because Timothy was her child and where her child was concerned she would be ruthless. Even Miss Gilchrist, he thought, might have contemplated murder…
Christie’s presentation of the British middle classes is unillusioned and fairly brutal – and yet we’re never sure how far this is her considered opinion of her average fellow-citizens, or just a matter of writing them in the way the detective genre demands. She does not sermonise, but presents a group of people as a problem for Poirot or Miss Marple to solve.
Both of these novels feature Poirot (without, thank goodness, the annoying Captain Hastings) They are from the period when she was most confident and efficient in her writing. (To generalise, the early books, before 1926 and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, still show her making her way and developing her art, while those after about 1959 seem – to me at least – to get weaker, as she is less in touch with the society she is describing.) Christie often expressed dissatisfaction with Poirot, as a character she could not develop or do much with. She made the huge mistake of starting him off (in The Mysterious Affair at Styles in 1922) at retirement age, which limited his possibilities. But in both these novels he functions well; he is very much the outsider looking in on these (too typical?) English families. Christie constantly stresses his eccentricities and peculiarities; we are repeatedly given reminders that he is an outsider, seeing more than the other characters because he refuses to make their assumptions.
Both of these books expertly mislead the reader. In The Moving Finger (1943) Miss Marple, explaining what a murderer needs to do, makes clear Agatha Christie’s main literary strategy:
Miss Marple had resumed her fleecy knitting. ‘You know,’ she observed pensively. ‘To commit a successful murder must be very much like bringing off a conjuring trick.’ ‘The quickness of the hand deceives the eye?’ ‘Not only that. You’ve got to make people look at the wrong thing and in the wrong place—Misdirection, they call it, I believe.’
The misdirection works brilliantly in both these novels. Christie leads the reader to expect a book to be about one thing, and it turns out to be about something else altogether. I’m avoiding spoilers, so let’s just say that what I’ve suggested above – that Taken at the Flood is about a returning husband, and that After the Funeral is about a truth blurted out at a funeral – well, those descriptions are accurate only up to a point…
In reach of these novels it is the murderer who arranges the misdirection, but in other cases it’s the reader’s own knowledge of the etiquette and conventions of detective novels that hides the truth from him or her, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926) being the most famous example. In The Seven Dials Mystery, the misdirection is stylistic; the first chapter is a sort of P.G. Wodehouse pastiche, and the way it’s written means that the reader is discouraged from noticing certain clues… In At Bertram’s Hotel (1965), one of the best of the late books, the misdirection is subtler. We are told so much about the hotel that is exactly what we would like to hear about a hotel… It takes a Miss Marple to see through the illusion.
Or maybe the reader will. Half-way through one of these books I guessed a major deception that Christie was working on us. It did not lessen my enjoyment of the novel, but actually increased it, as I was able to see how very skilfully she was offering two ways of reading the incidents – one making one assumption, one another. In the other novel I got nowhere near the crucial part of the solution, and had to do a lot of thinking back to be sure that – yes, she did play fair with the reader.
The first half of each of these novels is taken up with getting to know the characters (or in some cases being led into wrong assumptions about them.) In the second half, precipitated by an act of violence, the action speeds up, and Poirot is seriously involved in the work of detection. Taken at the Flood begins as a critique of the ‘ill-will’ in the atmosphere of post-war Britain, but that theme rather diminishes as the detective puzzle takes over. I’m avoiding spoilers as hard as I can, but let’s just say that at the end of each of these novels, the person taken into police custody is an outsider, and the respectable bourgeois, though in some cases almost as sinful, get no official punishment.
Christie avoids the excesses of Dorothy Sayers, whose detective stories pretty well always end with the punishment of a character of whom she socially disapproves, but in some (not all) of her novels there the pattern that Rosa Bracco identified as a crucial middlebrow literary strategy: the status quo is threatened; uncomfortable things happen; finally the status quo, slightly modified, is restored. That pattern underlies both of these books – and it’s made more effective by the brilliant triumph of the revealed ending. The uncertainties and ambiguities of the beginning are to some deghree cancelled out by the satisfaction of the solving of the puzzle.
Because the detective story is a contest between reader and writer, in the end the feeling that it has all been a skilful game wins out on the social criticism – and means that Christie keeps readers of all political persuasions. Others could make equally clever puzzles (I think of the ingenious Anthony Berkeley) but Agatha Christie’s mysteries have an appeal that has endured over the decades. I have recently had a touch of flu. Four Agatha Christies saw me through it very nicely.