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Agatha Christie’s ‘Towards Zero’

 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. Towards Zero (Agatha Christie Collection) by [Christie, Agatha]

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.

 

 

 

 

 

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Talking about the Penny Dreadful…

A big thank you to American crime writer Marni Graff, who features me today as a guest blogger on her splendid crime writing blog auntiemwrites

I’m talking about my new book Deadly Quest and how the writers of today might learn from the writers of Penny Dreadfuls in Victorian times.

Do visit and follow Marni’s blog which is always full of fascinating news about crime writing, book reviews etc.

Thank you Marni!

Click on the link below to visit Marni’s site.

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Francis Durbridge’s “The Teckman Mystery”

For anyone growing up in England during the middle years of the 20th century, the name of writer Francis Durbridge, in connection with mystery writing, was an indication of twists and turns, considerable cunning, and particularly fine writing.

Durbridge was very prolific and, although he wrote fiction, his greater reputation was as a scriptwriter for films and television. Throughout those decades, UK audiences would cancel appointments to make sure they were in when the latest Durbridge mystery was aired on our TV screens.

The Teckman Mystery, though, is a film, suggested by Durbidge’s original story The Teckman Biography. It features one of his regular characters the crime-writer Philip Chance, played in this 1954 production by John Justin.

As the film begins, we meet Chance flying back to England from his villa in the south of France. He is returning to London to meet his publisher, who wants him to write a biography of Martin Teckman, an airman who has died testing a new aircraft, though his body was never found.

By coincidence, on his journey to England, Chance meets Teckman’s sister Helen (Margaret Leighton), who seems puzzled by the death of her brother.

Now, I’m not going to give away much else of the plot, for Durbridge deserves to be seen with no spoilers.

Enough to say, that, as so often with Durbridge stories, nothing is quite what it seems to be. Which characters can be trusted, and who are your real allies as opposed to enemies.

A series of “accidents” beset the would-be biographer of Teckman, leading to attempted bribery, burglary and murder – but who wants his investigation into Teckman’s accident hushed up?

And just why are Scotland Yard and MI5 so interested in Philip Chance’s inquiries?

This Cold War thriller made in 1954, was directed by the excellent Wendy Toye, and features an superb cast, including – apart from Justin and Leighton – Roland Culver, Michael Medwin and Duncan Lamont. It’s shot, as are most good films in this genre, in crisp black and white. And how wonderful to see a 1950s London before the city was wrecked by tower-blocks…

Watching the Teckman Mystery is a very enjoyable way to spend a rainy afternoon.

To see links and versions please click on the link below:

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