Towards Zero was brought to my attention by authors Sophie Hannah and Alex Michaelides during a bookish Zoom event I watched in the summer to celebrate the release of a new Agatha Christie short story collection. They both cited it as one of their favourite Christie stories due to its ingenious plotting, so I definitely had to see for myself.
Also – being a fan of random facts, I actually started reading Towards Zero on 12th September and this is the exact date the murder takes place in the story…
Opening sentence: The group round the fireplace was nearly all composed of lawyers or those who had an interest in the law.
Written in 1944, this isn’t a Poirot or Miss Marple novel, it’s actually book 5 in the Superintendent Battle series, which I didn’t know existed until now. I know of him from Poirot novels, of course, and he does, in fact, give a name-check to the Belgian detective in Towards Zero. Plot does play a huge part in this story, specifically like this:
‘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.
Strange by name, strange by nature…
We meet professional tennis player Nevile Strange and his wife Kay. His ex-wife Audrey is also here as they are spending a few weeks at the same place for the summer – Lady Tressilian’s glorious house overlooking the sea in Cornwall near St Loo (where another of Agatha’s stories is set, Peril at End House).
Lots of the characters, especially the women, are cleverly put forward as potential suspects. Mr. Strange’s first and second wives are particularly intriguing. Audrey is a (forgive the pun) strange character: definitely hiding something, she has layers to be unravelled. Kay is painted as vacuous but there’s more to her too…
You call me a nitwit sometimes – but in my own way I’m quite clever. I make things happen. Sometimes I have to plan a long way beforehand.
Towards Zero spends a lot of time building up the tension and suspense (100 pages in and no murder has been committed yet…) and gives us deeper character studies than we’ve seen in some of Agatha’s other books.
Yes, I am puzzled, I must confess. The true feelings of the parties remain obscure, but in my opinion, there is gunpowder about. The explosion may come at any minute.
Heading towards zero
Superintendent Battle doesn’t feature hugely through the first half of the book, but he makes his presence known when it counts and deciphers the ‘fine Italian hand’ behind the crime. This is a new phrase for me and I love it. It refers to there being more than meets the eye.
The strong prologue perfectly sets the scene, so although we are waiting for that inevitable murder, the suspense is perfectly built up. The crumbs are laid for a trail that seems to go one way, then gives us a huge double bluff curve ball. The seemingly random plot points all come satisfyingly together too. I can see why it was cited as such a great example of Agatha’s ingenious ability to craft a murder-mystery plot.
I also thought it was a great example of her ability to tap into the nuances of human behaviour, which is what, ultimately, made her so good at this. She could identify the little ticks that mean people are tipped over the edge to do something as dastardly as commit murder.
‘It’s extraordinary,’ said Battle, ‘the amount of misunderstandings there are even between two people who discuss a thing quite often – both of them assuming different things and neither of them discovering the discrepancy.‘
It did end on a slightly weird note but I really enjoyed Towards Zero. In many ways, it felt like a classic Poirot story, so I wonder why Agatha didn’t just give it to him?
- Get your copy of Towards Zero here;
- First published by Collins Crime Club in 1944. This edition, HarperCollins 2017;
- 242 pages;
- My rating: 5/5