Towards Zero (1944) by Agatha Christie

This book has been a popular one for review this month as the chosen year for Rich’s monthly challenge at Past Offences is 1944 and since I do not have any other books corresponding with this chosen year I too am following the crowd. I enjoyed this book when I first read it, not only for its interesting central premise of the ‘Zero hour’ and that ‘the murder is the end,’ rather than the beginning, but I also really enjoyed its characterisation.

Towards Zero

The story opens with the ‘zero hour’ premise and the suggestion that detective stories ‘begin in the wrong place,’ i.e. with the murder. Whereas one of the character’s argue that ‘the story begins long before that… with all the causes and events that bring people to a certain place at a certain time on a certain day.’ After this point it is though the clock is ticking and that the various characters are ‘going unbeknownst to… [themselves] towards zero.’ The action mostly takes place in Saltcreek, a seaside location at the home of Lady Tressilan, whose guests and servants are oppressed by the tense and unnerving atmosphere. This is quite understandable since Nevile Strange and his second wife, Kay are there at the same time as Nevile’s first wife, Audrey – a gathering of people no one expected and there is a great deal of speculation over whose idea it was. Aside from them there is also Mary Aldin, Lady Tressilan’s companion, Audrey’s distant cousin Thomas Royde, who has returned from Malaya and Kay’s Riviera pal, Ted Latimer is also in the area. Unsurprisingly Kay is less than thrilled to be around Audrey, especially since Nevile pays her a lot of attention and eventually one night things come to a head. Yet no one could have suspected that it would be Lady Tressilan who would be the one murdered…

N.B. I’ve tried to avoid saying much about the ‘zero hour’ element of the story as it is best to know as little about that as possible.

Towards Zero

Overall Thoughts

For readers who prioritise the characterisation in a story, like I do, this book will definitely appeal as the characters are the focus in this story and also human nature. I feel like sometimes, in detective mysteries, the characters are more like chess pieces, their only value being in how much they move the plot along. A similar point of view is voiced in the opening chapter of the novel when a group of lawyers are bemused when a retired member of their group emphasises the human aspect of a case: ‘They had considered the people in the case only as regarding their credibility or otherwise as witnesses. No one had even hazarded a speculation as to whether the prisoner had been guilty or as innocent as the court had pronounced him to be.’ Yet I think this novel counteracts this, as the characters are more than types or plot functions. There is a definite sense of life to them.

Additionally I feel like this book has a more personal quality to it and it is hard not to think about Christie’s own painful marital experiences of the 1920s when reading this book. Not just because there is a marriage broken by infidelity, but because there are a couple of characters whose emotional pain brings them right to the edge and their distress comes across as very real and palpable. Moreover, there is a sense that in this story there is an underlying message that to be human is to feel and react, even when and possibly especially when, the feelings and reactions are negative. For example, a character who has attempted suicide at the beginning of the book, is infuriated by the nurse’s abstract sympathy, finding them ‘inhuman,’ because their response was insincere and detached. Though of course there is also the worrying thought in this story, that our reactions and responses can be controlled by others. The issue is suicide which comes up again in the novel also begins the more morally questioning side of this story.

Towards Zero 2

The atmosphere of this novel, as in And Then There Were None (1939), is one of its other key strengths and there is a real awareness in the reader of time ticking down to the ‘zero hour.’ Before death strikes many characters comment on the uncomfortable atmosphere of the group such as saying, ‘there is gunpowder about. The explosion may come at any minute.’ The butler, Hurstall, says that:

‘If I can so express myself, everything that’s said and done in this house lately seems to me to mean something that’s different from what it sounds like…Made me think of a trainer who’s got a lot of wild animals into a cage, and then the cage door shuts. I felt all of a sudden, as though we were all caught in a trap.’

These are not empty flowery words to take up space. They really do describe the emotionally volatile environment and also hint at how there might be someone behind it.

Animals come up a lot in this story in character descriptions, though not just to suggest barbarity or a lack of civility as in the above quote. Thomas Royde’s nickname of ‘the Hermit crab,’ is quite apt for personality as he doesn’t really have a fixed abode and although he has at least one deep attachment, there is still a sense of detachment. Moreover, we have Kay who is described like a ‘tiger’ and Audrey has the most descriptions ranging from a ‘whey-faced cat’ to a ‘rabbit.’ I enjoyed how these descriptions sometimes fitted their characters rather well retrospectively and sometimes were red herrings or misnomers.

Near the beginning of the book we are given a brief window into the mind of the murderer and on this re-reading I felt that the way the killer is described, created a parallel between them and Christie herself, the writer. The murderer is shown to be writing ‘a clearly, carefully detailed project for murder’ and that:

‘To the end that this purpose might be accomplished, the scheme was being worked out meticulously on paper. Every eventuality, every possibility was being taken into account… 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.’

And in a way I felt this was what Christie herself must do when she writes her detective novels. She has to check there are no loopholes and that eventualities are planned for. She also has to look at the characters and decide how they will plausibly respond to events.

Towards Zero 3

As in many of Christie’s novels there is a clash of the modern vs the traditional. Lady Tressilan for example is not keen on the modern suggestion of divorced spouses meeting socially. Moreover, next to the traditional fishing village there is a new flashy hotel, which several of the characters dislike. Yet for all that Lady Tressilan did slightly remind me of Miss Marple and her attitudes to the housing development in The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side (1962), when she says, ‘I may be old but I can adapt myself.’ The modern vs. the traditional also comes up in regards to Latimer, who initially seems like the typical Rivera adventurer, living by his looks and charm, but Christie does reveal a more vulnerable and insightful side to him. He says of himself that, ‘I’m an outsider – and what does it matter what outsiders feel and think… You’re happy and superior in your little roped-off enclosure shut off from the common herd. You look at people like me as though I were one of the animals outside.’ Again the animal kingdom is used as a way for describing how people socially distinguish themselves and also to express frustration at the consequent inequality and erroneous assumptions. This is definitely a story where characters deviate and move away from the character types they supposedly embody.

The final evidence in this case due to its dubiousness and ambiguity, raises a number of questions for the reader. Christie could have focused on and together her evidence through solid physical clues, yet almost deliberately she seems to veer away from that. Why? Firstly I wondered whether she wanted to question the reliability of physical evidence and emphasise a more intuitive approach. The way the evidence is used at the very end of the story, also adds a new dimension to Superintendent Battle’s character giving him a more ‘Machiavellian’ quality, which parallels him with the killer. A further thought I had was that the law and legal system in this book is not entirely presented favourably, with the issue of criminals walking free due to insufficient evidence. This made me wonder whether how the evidence is used in this novel is one response to that.

This next section contains thoughts on the book which includes spoilers, including the killer’s identity.

Towards Zero 4

On re-reading this book I noticed a number of subtle clues Christie places early on in terms of who the killer will be. The killer is indicated to be mentally unstable and ‘insane,’ and I did wonder whether the murderer’s surname ‘Strange’ was alluding to this state of mind. Aside from his athletic abilities being revealed early on in the book and which are later required in the murder, Nevile’s darker and wilder side is also hinted at in a seemingly innocent discussion with his wife Kay, about changing the living room décor. Nevile jokes that she’ll need ‘to throw in an ape’ and she responds by saying he ‘can be the ape.’ As I have mentioned previously animals in this story are used to denote character traits and to segregate characters and ultimately Nevile is separated from the others and his behaviour is shown to be animalistic. From the first description of the killer there is a sense that they are a game player so therefore people’s abilities to play games are important. Audrey at one point is assumed to be the killer, yet an earlier statement from Kay foreshadows the fallacy this. She says to Audrey that ‘You don’t play any games, do you?’ Of course it has a literal meaning but there is a wider subtext at play, concerning the motivations of the character. Audrey is unlikely to be the killer as she is no game player, which is confirmed in how she responds to the police suspicion against her. Although Nevile’s role as a tennis player does provide him some temporary camouflage as the police initially think that ‘a good tennis player shouldn’t be a murderer as well,’ as they have the assumption that sportsmen are gentlemen, who act honourably and fairly.

However, the suspicion against Audrey is well built up in the story by the narrator and other characters, setting her up as the ‘abnormal’ person. For instance characters often say they are ‘frightened’ of her, especially Kay. Moreover, the narrator describes her as ‘a little like a ghost’ and Mary Aldin asks Thomas if ‘she [was] at all unbalanced in any way?,’ thinking that something about her ‘isn’t normal.’ These isolated comments eventually build up and accumulate, so it is not surprising when she is accused of being the killer. Yet to say Audrey is the only one set up as a potential killer would be doing a disservice to Christie as Kay is shown to have a temper and able of manoeuvring events and planning ‘a long way beforehand.’ Equally Mary Aldin is set up as “abnormal” with her ‘man’s brain’ and she herself says she likes ‘experimenting sometimes – upon people. Just [to] see… if I can make them react to what I say in the way I mean.’

Towards Zero 5

My final area of thought on this story was the romance it ends on. The fact that Audrey and Angus either attempted suicide or contemplated it, evinces Hoffman’s (2016) idea that the marriages at the end of golden age detective novels ‘do not necessarily glorify the concept of the traditional patriarchal family.’ Moreover, I forgot about this element so in this re-read a question I had was why Audrey chose Angus over Thomas? Was Christie making a comment on the character type of faithful yet passive lover? Or was she instituting a new type of knight errant, as Angus saves Audrey’s life in more than one way and his ability to do so is partly based on his own painful past experiences. Part of me wondered whether this relationship was a bit rushed at the end or that maybe it was supposed to be a quick starting relationship to contrast with the torch Thomas held for Audrey over many years. The only thing which slightly disturbed me was the final sentence of the book which painted a slightly sinister and eerie picture of marriage, presenting it as a place of containment.

Spoilers over

Overall I enjoyed this re-read, as the complicated and knotty human relationships are well drawn and sympathy moves from character to character, adding to how the world in the book is not black and white. This also gives a real sense of maturity to the novel as well. I wouldn’t say it is a story which crosses all its t’s and dots all its I’s, but in some ways this may have been intentional. Perhaps Christie wanted there to be questions left unanswered at the end? Maybe this is what adds to the verisimilitude of the piece.

Rating: 4.5/5

Click here to read Brad’s (from ahsweetmystery blog) and Les Blatt’s (from classicmystery blog ) thoughts.

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About armchairreviewer

Qualified English teacher, with a passion for literature and crime fiction. On a random note I also own pygmy goats and chickens with afros (it doesn't get any cooler than that).
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24 Responses to Towards Zero (1944) by Agatha Christie

  1. Brad says:

    I knew you would find some great stuff here, Kate! Well done!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. lesblatt says:

    A good review, Kate. Another point of which I wasn’t aware (until I was reminded by a note in Mark Campbell’s invaluable book on Agatha Christie in the Pocket Essential Literature series): parts of the story of “Towards Zero” appear to have been reworked from one of Christie’s “Harley Quin” stories, which were first published in the 1920s, called “The Man from the Sea.” It’s worth re-reading, especially after finishing “Toward Zero,” and I think you would enjoy it if you haven’t read it or re-read it lately. The stories were collected in “The Mysterious Mr. Quin” of 1930.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I didn’t know it was based on an earlier story. I have read The Mysterious Mr Quin stories, but I can’t remember that story specifically, so would need to re-read it. Thanks for the tip.

      Like

    • JJ says:

      Les, you are a star: I knew when I read ‘The Man from the Sea’ that it reminded me of something possibly by Christie, but it’s been bugging me for at least two years precisely what that was. I mean, sure, if I was in genuine mental anguish I’m sure I could have looked it up on the web, but this has scratched one of my many mental itches and I’m extremely grateful!

      Liked by 1 person

      • lesblatt says:

        Ha! Thanks really go to Mark Campbell for his small volume, “Pocket Essential Guide to Agatha Christie.” Looks like Oldcastle Press has a new edition from 2015 – mine is from 2001. It’s a tremendously helpful listing (in several lists) of all of Christie’s writings, including film/TV adaptations, etc. There are separate lists for Poirot, Marple, Beresfords, Parker Pyne and Harley Quin, and a batch of miscellaneous lists as well. Each entry has a one or two sentence synopsis and a short commentary. Curiously (to me, anyway), he doesn’t much care for “Towards Zero,” which he rates as 2 out of 5. But I do recommend his book – it’s quite concise and comprehensive and available either in print or as an ebook. Looks like there’s a lot more information in the new edition, as it runs to 160 pages (per Amazon) while my edition has 96. May have to update myself…

        Liked by 1 person

      • I had heard of the book but didn’t realise how useful it was. I thought it was aimed more at Christie novices. Curious as to why he rated TZ so low. Sounds like I need to check this book out.

        Like

  3. JJ says:

    This is another Christie I need to reread: Battle is probably my favourite of her sleuths — yup, even above Poirot and Aunt Jane — and I was frustrated at the time just how little Battle there was in this, especially as it’s the last book to feature him. The murderer caught me completely by surprise, but I need to go back and reassess the mertis of this in light of what you’ve said here, Kate, because the impression I got when I read it was that my Battle-fanboying was getting in the way of a good book.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think re-reading this book has shown me that I might need to reassess my opinion of Battle, as before this I didn’t really give him that much attention, but although he was only in this book a little, his role was an interesting one and the earlier scene with his daughter intrigued me and revealed a very human side to Battle’s character.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. John says:

    Could this be Christie’s most mature period? Immediately preceding this were Five Little Pigs and The Moving Finger which are two of the best from Poirot and Marple and fine examples of her dark imagination. Then Absent in the Spring came after and of course chronologically Curtain was written somewhere in this period as well. Only two years later The Hollow which once again touches on marital difficulties and emotional turmoil among the characters. Its interesting that both The Hollow and Towards Zero were adapted for the stage. They have a lot in common, I think.

    I said on Les’ blog that I thought I would never be able to re-read Towards Zero again since I remember so much of the plot and definitely remember the killer. After reading this essay and all that you found within its rich multi-layered story I will have to reconsider. Superb job. Always love reading your posts!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Having started re-reading books such as Christie’s this year, I have realised that there is a lot to be gained from re-reads and maybe knowing the solutions already means more attention can be given to other aspects of the books. Glad you enjoyed the post – surprised myself with what I came away with in this re-read. I think a case can be made for the 1940s being her decade of mature work – thematically that is, and there is a definite swing towards character focus as well, such as in FLPs. TMF is not one of my favourite Miss Marples – but that might have been because i felt she wasn’t in it enough. Was surprised when I came to blogging how popular it is though.A re-read though could make me change my mind.

      Like

  5. Pingback: Review: Towards Zero (1944) by Agatha Christie – A Crime is Afoot

  6. One of my favourite Christies, and I really enjoyed your analysis. Interested in the Christie book referenced above in the comments – like you, I tend to assume such books are not for the seasoned reader, but perhaps we are wrong! Will look into it…

    Liked by 1 person

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