The Agatha Christie Challenge – Towards Zero (1944)

Towards ZeroIn which tennis star Nevile Strange takes his new wife Kay to stay with his late guardian’s widow, Lady Tressilian, when his first wife, Audrey, is also visiting. Tempers flare, old flames are kindled, and old scores are settled. After one apparently accidental death and another that’s definitely murder, Superintendent Battle, together with his nephew Inspector Leach, questions the suspects and gets to the bottom of what actually happened. As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to tell you whodunit!

robert gravesThe book is dedicated “To Robert Graves. 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 should 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! Your friend, Agatha Christie.” Robert Graves was, of course, a famous and successful writer, who created works such as Goodbye to All That, I Claudius, and Claudius the God. I’m not sure what the recent excesses that Christie refers to in this dedication are. They were clearly good friends anyway! Towards Zero was first serialised in the US in Collier’s Weekly in three parts in May 1944, under the title Come and Be Hanged! The book was first published in the US in June 1944 under its usual title of Towards Zero by Dodd, Mead and Company, and in the UK by Collins Crime Club in one month later.

zeroI remember reading this book as a youngster and being frustrated that there wasn’t a nice juicy murder for me to get my teeth into right from the start. In fact, you have to wait till just over halfway through the book before anyone dies. I confess, that was my immature reaction to the book. Today, I can see that its charm and power come from all the trails that it creates in the run up to the murder taking place. Not only are you trying to identify possible motives for murder, you’re also working out who the likely victims might be as well as who is likely to have done the deed. It gets you thinking and operating your own little grey cells, even though Hercule Poirot isn’t present to supervise you – although Superintendent Battle, on this final occasion that we have dealings with him, remembers the old man at one point and gets some sleuthing inspiration from him.

old family solicitorIt’s narrated in the third person but still has quite a complicated structure. We start off with a brief prologue, dated November 19th, where old Mr Treves discusses an unrelated legal case with his colleagues and points out what he sees is a fault with crime fiction: “they begin in the wrong place! They begin with the murder. But the murder is the end. The story begins long before that – years before sometimes – with all the causes and events that bring certain people to a certain place at a certain time on a certain day […] all converging towards a given spot […] Zero Hour.” And that is the structure of this book, gathering those threads together that lead their way towards a crime being committed.

cliff edgeThe next part of the book, “Open the Door and Here are the People” introduces us to the rest of the cast of the story, in the sequence in which their involvement begins – and with each section dated, in chronological order. Thus, on January 11th, we meet Angus MacWhirter, having failed at an attempt at suicide, trying to work out how to piece his life together – as well as hiding from the law as suicide was illegal in those days. A little later we see him get a job, but then MacWhirter then disappears from the narrative for 110 pages, because he has no active role in the lead up to the crime. February 14th sees a nameless hand write a plan; presumably the murderer working out the deviousness of their plot. Come March, and Superintendent Battle hits our radar, with a domestic problem of his daughter in school. Nice to know that Battle has a family life, I don’t think that’s something that was ever addressed before. No information is wasted in this very tight book, and Battle’s experience with his daughter does play a part in his detection in due course.

women-arguingOn April 19th we see Nevile and Kay together for the first time and form a strong opinion on how they spend their daily life together. In May we meet to Audrey, and Thomas Royde, whose late brother was in love with Audrey before she married Nevile; and we become reacquainted with Mr Treves, planning to visit Lady Tressilian. By the time August comes around, we’ve met all the dramatis personae and nothing can change the eventual outcome. By this gradual introduction of characters, plots and relationships, you can see how the separate threads of this story merge together; unusual for Christie, and it keeps your attention throughout.

PoliceAs I mentioned earlier, Towards Zero marks the point where Agatha Christie and Superintendent Battle part company; and Christie takes the opportunity to fill in some gaps where it comes to Battle, his life and personality. Up till now we’ve only ever seen him as the totally solid, slightly slow, playing-by-the-book, highly traditional character. Christie has thrown out a few clues in his previous cases about his character, but nothing much. From The Secret of Chimneys: “Detective stories are mostly bunkum,” said Battle unemotionally. “But they amuse people.” From Cards on the Table, talking to Miss Burgess: “I don’t want to say anything against your sex but there’s no doubt that a woman, when she’s rattled, is apt to lash out with her tongue a bit”. Now in Towards Zero, Battle seems to have much more space to be himself. He’s very much a mentor to his nephew, Inspector Leach, who is almost pathetically grateful to his uncle for any help: “You’ll give me a hand, won’t you, Uncle, over this? First case of this kind I’ve had.”

suspiciousBattle controls the investigation with a fair hand and an open mind. But Christie is keen to point out that Battle is actually full of his own little prejudices, and whilst Inspector Leach is introducing themselves to the wider Strange family, Battle is silently judging them all from his own preconceptions: “his view of them might have surprised them had they known it. It was a sternly biased view. No matter what the law pretends as to regarding people as innocent until they are proved guilty, Superintendent Battle always regarded everyone connected with a murder case as a potential murderer […] These were Superintendent Battle’s thoughts: Suppose that’s Miss Aldin. Cool customer – competent woman, I should say. Won’t catch her off her guard easily. Man next to her is a dark horse – got a groggy arm – poker face – got an inferiority complex as likely as not. That’s one of these wives, I suppose – she’s scared to death – yes, she’s scared all right. Funny about that coffee cup. That’s Strange, I’ve seen him before somewhere. He’s got the jitters all right – nerves shot to pieces. Red-headed girl’s a tartar- devil of a temper. Brains as well as temper, though.”

PoirotBattle can’t place why he can’t stop thinking of Poirot, although he suspects it must be something to do with the psychology of the case. Leach considers Poirot to be a “comic little guy”, but Battle’s having none of that. “Comic my foot […] about as dangerous as a black mamba and a she-leopard! […] Keep a murderer talking – that’s one of his lines. Says everyone is bound to speak what’s true sooner or later – because in the end it’s easier than telling lies. And so they make some little slip they don’t think matters – and that’s when you get them.” In fact, Poirot comes into Battle’s head because of a very revealing instance of non-symmetry; following that through gives Battle a big clue as to whodunit and how.

juan les pinsRegular readers will know I like to have a look at the place names in Christie’s books to see to what extent they’re genuine, or just a figment of her imagination. In this book, the majority of places are certainly made up. The book’s setting of Saltcreek, opposite Easterhead, not far from Saltington, is purely fictional. There is a Saltcreek – but it’s in Australia; there is also a River Tern, but this is a tributary of the River Severn and so never meets the sea. St. Loo is mentioned; this is the setting for Peril at End House, but it doesn’t exist – although I have read commentators who equate St Loo with Torquay. However, Hindhead, of course, where Nevile Strange lives, does exist, in Surrey; as does Juan les Pins, on the French Riviera, where Kay and Ted Latimer had met on holiday when they were young. “I see they’ve detained a man in the Kentish Town trunk case” says Mary Aldin. Kentish Town, of course, does exist, but I don’t think it’s ever seen a “trunk case”.

hanging-judgeThere are just a couple of other interesting references in the book; Mr Treves conducts a conversation about child murderers, never an easy subject, but one that inevitably stirs strong emotions. There weren’t any famous cases of child murders in the UK around the time that Christie wrote this book, but it may well be she was in part exploring the way for one of her later books where a child, indeed, is shown to be the murderer. Looking forward to re-reading that one in due course!

elegant handwritingOne lengthy section of the book is entitled “A fine Italian hand”. This phrase has often been used to describe the change of handwriting in parts of Europe away from the Gothic script of the 17th century and before. As a figure of speech, it implies a skill in a distinct field. So when Kay tells Battle that Nevile “quite honestly thinks it was his idea, but I’ve seen Audrey’s fine Italian hand behind it from the first” she means Audrey has skilfully manipulated the situation to come about.

PoundRegular readers will know that I like to convert any significant sums of money mentioned in the Christie books to what they would be worth today, in order to gain a greater understanding of quite how large or small they are – it’s not always so easy to assess otherwise. The only meaningful sums of money in this book relate to the amount of money that Nevile and Audrey might inherit. There’s £100,000 washing about in the late Sir Matthew’s trust – that was a tidy sum in 1944, and converts to the even tidier £3.1 million today.

Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for Towards Zero:

Publication Details: 1944. Fontana paperback, 6th impression, published in April 1973, price 30p. The cover illustration by Tom Adams shows a dead, decaying fish on some rocks in the middle of a beach, whilst a coil of rope lies nearby. The rope is key to the crime; the dead fish, I feel, is mere window-dressing.

How many pages until the first death: 89. The structure of this book is that everything hurtles towards zero hour. Don’t worry that there hasn’t been a murder yet, just wallow in all the developing possibilities.

Funny lines out of context:

“Rather late, wasn’t it, to go off to Easterhead Bay?” “Oh, it’s a gay spot – they keep it up till all hours.”

Memorable characters:

This book is textured with a number of memorable characters. Camilla, Lady Tressilian, is a grande dame of the old tradition, who enjoys ill health and its trappings. You can just imagine her demanding an audience in her boudoir with anyone she wishes to beam kindly on; and ignoring anyone she wants to put the boot in. Mr Treves is also a well-rounded character; intelligent, experienced, not afraid of upsetting people even at his grand old age; “a little malice […] adds a certain savour to life” he says at one point to Lady Tressilian. But it’s the warring factions of Kay and Audrey Strange that really sit high in your memory once the book is over; Kay, with her hot-headed over-reactions, and Audrey with her infuriating calmness.

Christie the Poison expert:

No particular references to poison in this book. Just not that kind of book!

Class/social issues of the time:

The role of women is once more shown to be precarious, particularly amongst the older characters. Lady Tressilian snobbishly looks down on Kay as being arriviste and with “no background, no roots.” “”Her mother was notorious on the Riviera. What a bringing up for the girl. Nothing but Hotel life – and that mother! Then she meets Nevile on the tennis courts, makes a dead set at him and never rests until she gets him to leave his wife – of whom he was extremely fond – and go off with her! I blame her entirely for the whole thing!” Mary smiled faintly. Lady Tressilian had the old-fashioned characteristic of always blaming the woman and being indulgent toward the man in the case.”

On another occasion, Lady Tressilian is singing the praises of her companion Mary Aldin, and, spoken as a compliment, exclaims: “she has really a first-class brain – a man’s brain.” Christie felt very comfortable with these traditional old anti-feminist viewpoints. I’m sure that’s one of the reasons she never felt comfortable writing about divorce, because it enabled a woman to go her own way and make her own decisions in life, instead of being meekly dictated to. Of course, manners and etiquette regarding divorce were in their relatively early stages. Lady Tressilian has her own views about how it should be conducted: “if husbands and wives have to advertise their difficulties in public and have recourse to divorce, then they might at least part decently. The new wife and the old wife making friends is quite disgusting in my mind. Nobody has any standards nowadays!”

There’s a lovely example of how the times they are a-changin’. In a world where people divorce and the class system is challenged, a few old habits still die hard. Mr Treves, newly arrived from a different area, is to come to dinner at Lady Tressilian’s. In preparation for this visit, he brings a letter of introduction from a mutual acquaintance. Perfectly charming. I don’t think that practice has survived into the 21st century!

There’s normally a reference or two in a Christie novel to either xenophobia or racism. I could only see one such reference in Towards Zero – when “unsympathetic old colonels were wont to say” of Ted Latimer, “touch of the Dago”.

Another more unusual social issue, that I don’t think Christie had addressed before, is that of suicide. With the character of Angus MacWhirter having attempted suicide before the book starts, but having survived it, he is faced “with the prospect of being hauled up in a police court for the crime of trying to take his own life. Curse it, it was his own life, wasn’t it?” Suicide ceased to be a criminal act in England and Wales in 1961. Interestingly, today we would consider that most people who attempt suicide have poor mental health when they do so. MacWhirter, though, proclaims that “he’d never been saner! And to commit suicide was the most logical and sensible thing that could be done by a man in his position.”

The nurse attending MacWhirter holds no sympathy for him other than her nurselike duty of getting him well again. Her phrases: “we know what’s best for you”, “it’s wrong”, “haven’t you got any relations?” “but you’ve got friends, surely?” and “you won’t kill yourself now […] they never do”, are all reactions that help the person who didn’t try to take their life, rather than the person who did. Today, they’d all be rather inadvisable things to say to someone considering suicide.

Classic denouement: Pretty much! All the suspects are gathered, and it looks very much like one person is clearly the murderer until a last-minute twist turns our attention to someone else. Christie allows Battle to finish his swansong with a bang!

Happy ending? Largely. There’s a slight element of disappointment that the murderer is only brought to justice on the grounds of causing one death, rather than two, or possibly even three. However, apart from that, there’s an engagement between one couple and the suggestion of a second with another.

Did the story ring true? On the whole, yes. The murderer was unlucky that there was, basically, an eye-witness to a major part of the crime set-up, which, had that not been the case, might never have come to light.

Overall satisfaction rating: My memory of reading this book in the past suggested that I wouldn’t be giving this more than about 6/10. But, on this re-read, I have no hesitation in giving it a 10/10, because the tension grows so deliciously.

Death Comes as the EndThanks for reading my blog of Towards Zero and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge is Death Comes As The End, where Christie transports us back 4,000 years to ancient Egypt. I remember this as being one of my all-time favourite Christies, and I can’t wait to get cracking on it. As usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

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