Towards Zero is one of only a few Agatha Christie novels to feature the detective Superintendent Battle. There’s no Poirot or Miss Marple in this one (although there is a TV adaptation – which I haven’t seen – where Miss Marple does appear) but even without them I thought this was an excellent murder mystery novel that deserves to be more popular. The story revolves around the murder of an elderly woman, Lady Tressilian, who has invited a group of guests to her seaside home at Gull’s Point.
With this novel, Christie takes a slightly different approach to normal. Instead of beginning with a murder and then following the detective’s attempts to solve it, she chooses to spend half the book describing the backgrounds of the characters, some seemingly unconnected episodes from their pasts, and the sequence of events that lead to the murder finally being committed and the murderer’s objective being achieved (what one of the characters refers to as ‘Zero Hour’).
“I like a good detective story,” he said. “But, you know, 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.”
So by the time the murder takes place halfway through the book, the characters are quite well-developed and we know a lot about each of the possible suspects. Could the murderer be the tennis player, Nevile Strange, one of Lady Tressilian’s guests? Or his beautiful wife, Kay? Or could it be his first wife, Audrey, who happens to be visiting at the same time? Maybe it’s Thomas Royde, who is secretly in love with Audrey – or Ted Latimer, a friend of Kay’s. And what about Mary Aldin, Lady Tressilian’s companion?
I thought the mystery was a difficult one to solve and I think I suspected all of the above people at some point in the story! I thought I’d figured it out once or twice but was proved wrong and there were at least two big plot twists towards the end of the book that took me by surprise. Looking back, there were plenty of clues, but plenty of red herrings too.
Towards Zero is atmospheric, very cleverly plotted, and although it’s not one of my favourite Agatha Christie novels it’s still one that I would highly recommend.