Has a truer or wittier opening line ever been written?
Miss Lemon thinks not.
Indeed, she feels that one can find one of the cleverest beginnings of all time among the opening pages of Agatha Christie's 1948 detective novel, Taken at the Flood.
(Disclosure: Agatha Christie also created Miss Lemon; but she promises that this coincidence in no way influences her partiality.)
The fact is that from this rousing starter, the novel only gets better. The club bore in question is one Major Porter, late of the Indian Army. Mrs. Christie continues: Major Porter "rustled his newspaper and cleared his throat. Every one avoided his eye, but it was no use."
Ah, one can't help but feel the same sense of captivity -- the dread certainty that one will be regaled with a monologue of such colossal dullness that escape to quiet sanctuary becomes the impossible dream.
No one listens to Major Porter as he drones on about his neighbor, Gordon Cloade, blown to bits in an air raid, and the woman he'd married -- quite unexpectedly and late in life; no one cares.
'Got married while he was over there. A young widow -- young enough to be his daughter. Mrs. Underhay. As a matter of fact I knew her first husband out in Nigeria.'No one seems to care, that is, except one M. Hercule Poirot, the sole auditor among this unwilling audience -- the only one who has the grey cells limber enough to perceive that the details of the saga being recited may one day prove significant.
Major Porter paused. Nobody displayed any interest or asked him to continue. Newspapers were held up sedulously in front of faces, but it took more than that to discourage Major Porter. He always had long histories to relate, mostly about people whom nobody knew.
And that's exactly what happens when the extended Cloade family, a breed of decaying gentility, find themselves embarrassingly dependent upon the new Mrs. Gordon Cloade, who survived the bombing.
When a stranger turns up in Warmsley Heath who might perhaps be the original Mr. Underhay -- and then is murdered -- there's plenty of motive and opportunity to go around. And plenty of skeletons that want airing from the family cupboard.
Miss Lemon thinks that Agatha Christie nears the height of her powers in Taken at the Flood -- with characterization, with verbal repartee, with setting and scene. This should also be counted among her most tightly plotted novels. Elements of disguise, mistaken identity and the frailty of first appearances add to the narrative intrigue.
The title, Miss Lemon begs her dear reader to note, is taken from William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, IV.iii:
There is a tide in the affairs of menA clever framework on Mrs. Christie's part, as the tragedy of the Cloade family begins to look quite Shakespearean indeed by the close of the novel.
Which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
Miss Lemon's only quarrel with Taken at the Flood is the final scene -- a superfluous resolution so sentimental that Miss Lemon shudders to recall it. But as it has nothing to do with the commission or solution of the crime, Miss Lemon can overlook it. She trusts the reader will do the same.
Now if you will please excuse Miss Lemon, she must get back to her filing.