Towards Zero, first published in 1944 (my copy is a 1972 impression), is an intricately plotted murder mystery featuring Superintendent Battle, the last of the five novels he appears in. Agatha Christie dedicated this book to Robert Graves, author of I Claudius, who was her neighbour in Devon during the Second World War and the two had become friends. She wrote:
‘Dear Robert, Since you are kind enough to say you like my stories, I venture to dedicate this book to you. All I ask is that you sternly restrain your critical faculties (doubtless sharpened by your recent excesses in that line!) when reading it. This is a story for your pleasure and not a candidate for Mr Graves’ literary pillory!”
It was received well at the time reviewed in the 6 August 1944 issue of The Observer:
“The new Agatha Christie has a deliciously prolonged and elaborate build-up, urbane and cosy like a good cigar and red leather slippers. Poirot is absent physically, but his influence guides the sensitive inspector past the wiles of the carefully planted house party, and with its tortuous double bluff this might well have been a Poirot case. How gratifying to see Agatha Christie keeping the flag of the old classic who-dun-it so triumphantly flying!”
It begins with a prologue in which a group of lawyers discuss a recent case at the Old Bailey. Mr Treves, a retired lawyer puts forward the idea that murder is not the beginning of a detective story, but the end, that murder is the culmination of causes and events that bring together certain people, converging towards a certain place and time, towards the Zero Hour – ‘towards zero’. The idea presupposes that there is an inevitability – that once events have been set in motion then the outcome is determined.
And in line with this idea, an unnamed person is seen planning a murder:
The time, the place, the victim. … Yes everything planned – everyone’s reaction foretold and allowed for, the good and evil in everybody played upon and brought into harmony with one evil design.
But the story begins with Angus MacWhirter recovering in hospital after a failed attempt at suicide, assured by a nurse that the mere fact of his existence could be of great importance, perhaps even save someone’s life one day. It then moves on to Superintendent Battle whose daughter has confessed to pilfering at school, even though she hadn’t stolen anything. The relevance of this episode is made clear later in the book.
And it is only later in the book that the murder is carried out, giving plenty of time for all the characters to be introduced, defined and their thoughts and relationships explored – Nevile Strange, a sportsman, good looking, wealthy, married to his beautiful second wife, Kay, Audrey Strange, Nevile’s first wife, Thomas Royde, Audrey’s distant cousin returning from Malaya, who hopes to marry her, and Ted Latimer, Kay’s friend who all converge at Gull’s Point, a large country house on a cliff above the River Tern where Lady Tressilian and Mary Aldin, her cousin and companion live.
The murderer could be any of them and as solution after solution is proposed I was completely bamboozled. All the clues are there, but subtly hidden, buried in layer upon layer. As was Superintendent Battle for a while. I like Battle, described as
‘solid and durable, and in some way impressive. Superintendent Battle had never suggested brilliance; he was definitely not a brilliant man, but he had some other quality, difficult to define, that was nevertheless forceful.
And as he also knows Poirot, he is able to apply Poirot’s use of psychology to the case, keeping the suspect talking until the truth slips out.
Towards Zero has to be one of my favourite of Agatha Christie’s books despite a few reservations – Angus MacWhirter’s role seems superfluous, other than introducing the idea of pre-destination, and Mr Treves’ story of a child killer wasn’t really explained. I was surprised by the ending – not the denouement of the murderer, but the unlikely romance between two of the characters in the very last chapter which seemed just too far removed from reality. But, disregarding these points I really enjoyed this book.