Towards Zero by Agatha Christie

Towards Zero

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.

Cards on the Table by Agatha Christie

I think Cards on the Table is one of the best of Agatha Christie’s books. It was first published in 1936 and has been reprinted many times since then. My copy is a Pan Books edition published in 1951 with this cover:

Cards on the Table

From the back cover:

Mr Shaitana is a collector. He collects snuff boxes, Egyptian antiquities … and … murderers.

His murderers are of the very finest. Not the second rate individuals who are caught and convicted. Delighting in his role as a modern Mephistopheles, Shaitana gathers his four murderers for an evening of cards.

Before the evening ends, Mr Shaitana will himself be a murder victim. How very fortunate that he invited a fifth guest to his gathering, M. Hercule Poirot.

One of the things that pleased me about this book is Agatha Christie’s Foreword in which she states that it is not the sort of detective story where the least likely person is the one to have committed the crime. This story has just four suspects and any one of them ‘given the right circumstances‘ might have committed the crime. She goes on to explain that there are four distinct types, the motives are peculiar to each person and each would employ a different method. She concludes:

The deduction must, therefore, be entirely psychological, but it is none the less interesting for that, because when all is said and done it is the mind of the murderer that is of supreme interest.

All of which suits Poirot down to the ground as he considers the psychology of each of the four suspects, Dr Roberts, a very popular doctor who may have killed a patient or two, Mrs Lorimer, a first-class bridge player and a widow who husband died under suspicious circumstances, Major Despard, a daring character, an explorer who possibly killed a botanist whilst on an expedition up the Amazon, and Anne Meredith, a young woman, a timid and careful bridge player, who may have poisoned her employer.

Poirot is not on his own, also at the bridge party were Superintendent Battle, a stolid officer from Scotland Yard (he first appeared in The Secret of Chimneys), Colonel Race, a Secret Service agent (he first appeared in The Man in the Brown Suit), and Mrs Ariadne Oliver, writer of popular detective fiction, (meeting Poirot for the first time). It helps if you can play bridge to understand  how Poirot uncovered the murderer, but it’s not necessary – I managed with just a minimal memory of the card game, and it all hinges on the psychology of the characters anyway.

As Ariadne Oliver is used by Agatha Christie to convey some of her own opinions I wondered whether this description of her physical appearance was how she viewed herself:

… she was an agreeable woman of middle age, handsome in a rather untidy fashion with fine eyes, substantial shoulders and a large quantity of rebellious grey hair with which she was continually experimenting. One day her appearance would be highly intellectual – a brow with the hair scraped back from it and coiled in a large bun in the neck – on another Mrs Oliver would suddenly appear with Madonna loops, or large masses of slightly untidy curls. On this particular evening Mrs Oliver was trying out a fringe. (page 13)

I think there is no doubt that Ariadne’s views on writing and on the character of her detective are Agatha Christie’s own views. For ‘Finn’ in the extract quoted below read ‘Belgian’:

… I regret only one thing – making my detective a Finn. I don’t really know anything about Finns and I’m always getting letters from Finland pointing out something impossible that he’s said or done. (page 55)

And this must be from her own experience too:

I’m always getting tangled up in horticulture and things like that. People write to me and say I’ve got the wrong flowers all out together. As though it mattered – and, anyway, they are all out together in a London shop. (page 110)

And this about writing?:

One actually has to think, you know. And thinking is always a bore. And you have to plan things. And then one gets stuck every now and then, and you feel you’ll never get out of the mess – but you do! Writing’s not particularly enjoyable. It’s hard work, like everything else. …

Some days I can only keep going by repeating over and over to myself the amount of money I might get for my next serial rights. That spurs me on, you know. So does your bank-book when you see how much overdrawn you are. …

‘I can always think about things,’ said Mrs Oliver happily. ‘What is so tiring is writing them down. I always think I’ve finished, and then when I count up I find I’ve only written thirty thousand words instead of sixty thousand, and so then I have to throw in another murder and get the heroine kidnapped again. It’s all very boring.’ (pages 110 – 111)

But back to the mystery, Mr Shaitana is murdered whilst his guests are playing bridge. Two games were set up – one made up of the four people he considered were murderers and the other in a separate room made up of the four detectives or investigators of crime. Mr Shaitana sat by the fire in the room with the murderers. When the four detectives finished their game they return to the other room where they find the game still in progress and Mr Shaitana still sitting by the fire – stabbed in the chest with an ornamental dagger.

What follows is that each detective carries out their own investigations and as I read I swung from one suspect to the other, but I was never really sure who the culprit was. Poirot is his usual brilliant self even though at one point he is astonished and upset at the possibility that he might be wrong:

‘Always I am right. It is so invariable that it startles me. But now it looks as though I am wrong. And that upsets me. (page 163)

But was he wrong?