Towards Zero was first published in 1940, although the War isn’t mentioned in the novel. The unusual title comes from a remark made in the prologue about the origins of murder.
“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. …All converging towards a given spot. Zero hour.”
The detective in this story is Superintendent Battle, who features in four earlier stories, The Secret of Chimneys (1925), The Seven Dials Mystery (1929), Murder is Easy (1938) and Cards on the Table (1939). Battle is staying with his nephew, a police inspector, who welcomes his uncle’s greater experience.
The plot has an interesting structure, beginning with a couple of scenes whose significance only becomes apparent at the denouement. We know early on that someone is planning the minutiae of a murder. Then we switch to letters being written and plans made for the characters to come together, nine months later in September. They stay at a house called ‘Gull’s Point,’ on the cliffs above a Devon fishing village. The setting is thought to be based on Devon’s Salcombe and the Kingsbridge estuary .
Once the suspects are gathered, Agatha Christie skilfully builds an atmosphere of prolonged tension, making this a gripping read. Scenes, pleasant on the surface, are full of fear and a sense of waiting for disaster. The characters are well-rounded and Christie’s wise understanding of psychology is shown at its strongest. I couldn’t disagree more with critics who dismiss her work as cardboard characters and superficial plots.
When a murder finally takes place, everyone concerned is put in the frame in a succession of twists. Red herrings abound and twice I was convinced I’d worked out the solution, only to be foxed again. Christie uses a plot device I recall in (only) one other title, but one of her many strengths is to present recycled ideas in such a well-disguised, fresh way that they slip past the readers again. Given that she wrote sixty-six novels, many short stories and there are only so many possible plots, I think she was remarkably clever.
Apparently when Agatha Christie adapted Towards Zero into a play in 1956, it wasn’t a great success. Perhaps because it’s quite an outdoor novel with scenes on the beach and cliffs. And creeping tension is better conveyed on the page?
I suspect this novel is often overlooked due to the lack of Poirot or Miss Marple. Certainly it wasn’t high on my list of gradual rereading – until I saw a few reviews. I must have read it decades ago but didn’t remember the plot.
Now I’d recommend Towards Zero as one of Agatha Christie’s best. A very rewarding and satisfying read.