Towards Zero – Agatha Christie (1944)

As much as I enjoy reading Agatha Christie, I’ve had the unfortunate luck of seeing through a number of her solutions.  I’m going to guess that I have about a 50% success rate, which is nothing to brag about since when I reach the end of a mystery novel I really want to feel thoroughly fooled – or as Scott K Ratner more eloquently puts it, I want to experience “sudden retrospective illumination”.  I’m happy to report that Towards Zero did indeed give me that sudden retrospective illumination, although honestly Christie’s books are fun enough reads that I enjoy them either way.

I’ve had Towards Zero on my radar as one of the better Christies – perhaps as a result of some helpful comments on my past reviews – although honestly I could be mixing it up with another title.  I’ve had a dreadful 1972 Pocket Books edition on my shelf for years (honestly, who knew that the cover quality of Pocket Books dropped so severely; see pic further below), and when I stumbled upon an inexpensive 1963 edition with a proper cover, I had to snatch it up.  And of course, I couldn’t leave a cover that nice unread for long.

I don’t know that I’d call Towards Zero out as anything too special as far as Christie goes, but that’s because everything I’ve read that she put out in the 30s and 40s has pretty much been a home run.  Towards Zero is much the same, feeling to me to be of a similar quality as maybe Sad Cypress or There is a Tide.  In other words, it’s damn good, but doesn’t quite have a trick that’s going to stick in your mind as much as, say, Evil Under the Sun, or a sucker punch like you get at the end of Murder in Retrospect.  It’s a bizarre side effect of Christie having such an extensive library of quality work that I can read a story like Towards Zero – enjoying every last page, mind you – and say “yeah, it’s about middle of the pack”.  Because honestly, it’s just as good as the best works that I’ve read by the likes of Patrick Quentin or Rupert Penny.

Towards Zero gives you what you want from Christie: a setting to yearn for (a seaside mansion built up against a steep cliff), a love triangle, questions concerning a will, a nice spread of convincing suspects, an incredibly subtle red herring dangled for the clever reader (I swear I thought I solved this), and of course a hook.  The hook in this case is a character’s curious declaration that detective stories 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 of them converging towards zero.”

It’s an interesting hook to present as the story kicks off, because we now wonder how the story will play out.  Will it defy mystery conventions and actually end with the murder?  How does that work?  What about solving the case?

Well, I’ll leave that to you to find out, but rest assured there’s plenty going on in the plot to keep your interest from sagging.  There is indeed a strong thread of mystery, and despite me thinking I had it all figured out, Christie spun me around at the end.  This is one of those mysteries where with just a few chapters left, you know someone is going to get fingered as the culprit, but you don’t really anticipate there being anything particularly clever about the solution.  Christie’s done this to me a few times (I’m looking at you Murder at Hazelmoor) and it always results in a nice jolt at the end.  There’s a particular nice touch with this one, where something that was pointed out as possibly somehow being a clue works its way into the solution beautifully.

So bring em on, Christie.  I’ll take your middle of the road books any day.  They’re a nice return to solid craftsmanship after a few months of dabbling elsewhere.

My editions

My 1963 Pocket Books edition probably features the best cover available, although there is another nice Pocket edition that focuses on a woman’s eyes.  If you were to read the back cover or the Cast of Characters section, you’d ruin a half dozen plot twists.  But you know better than to look at stuff like that before you read the story, right?

My 1972 Pocket Books edition is dreadful.  I never realized that Pocket Books made this 70s/80s paperback form factor – seriously, what pocket are you sticking this beast into? – and the cover style is everything I hate about the era.  The Cast of Characters section is identical to the earlier edition.

If you look closely at my 1972 cover (I know, I shrink these down small), you’ll see a price sticker from a mystery bookshop that used to be at the Raleigh/Durham (North Carolina) airport.  There was a period where my travels took me through that airport several times a year, and I absolutely loved the fact that there was a shop that focused on selling second hand mystery novels (although their vintage selection must have been a bit lean the trip when I bought this one).  I don’t know about the rest of the world, but US airports tend to feature the same chain bookstores, and all they seem to sell are the hardcover editions of whatever books are all the rage at the moment.  This little used bookshop was a breathe of fresh air, and I remember wasting away the time before my flight scanning through massive sections of Christie, Sayers, Marsh (curiously no Carr) and others. The store closed several years back and was replaced by something much less interesting.  I still have a tattered bookmark to remind me though.

8 thoughts on “Towards Zero – Agatha Christie (1944)”

  1. I’ve always been very fond of this one, partly because the opening section contains such disparate elements that you almost wonder how she can bring them all together, and partly because this one contains a supreme example of Christie hiding a major clue within casual conversation. My favorite example of this occurs in After the Funeral, but it’s a technique she does brilliantly, and I always love a book that includes it.

    In a way, I’m grateful that I read her when I was very young and that I cut my mystery-loving teeth on her books. Nowadays, I often get the solution just because of a feeling that I’m seeing an old trope get trotted out again. (Reading Christie contributed to my figuring out Carr’s The Emperor’s Snuff-Box BEFORE the murder happened.) As it is, she fooled me nine out of ten times! It felt GREAT!!!

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  2. Might wanna curb that shade you’re throwing at Rupert Penny…

    I thoroughly enjoyed the scheme of this, and remember being surprised at the eventual surprise, but at the time I was a huge Superintendent Battle fan and was disappointed by how little he appeared. I sort of held this against the book at the time, but down the years I’ve managed to forgive Christie for sidelining him and I really look forward to rereading this at some point.

    Glad you had so much fun with it, because I remember it feeling like an Agatha Christie plot as imagined by Ealing Studios…which combaines two of my favourite things 🙂

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    1. …at the time I was a huge Superintendent Battle fan…
      Is… is that a thing? I know Battle had a core role in four of the Christie novels, but I’m under the impression that the first two are the thrillers that people seem to grown about (although we’ll see one day what my opinion is) and the other is Murder is Easy, which seems to be well regarded. This is my first encounter with Battle (unless he had a cameo maybe in another book… ah yes, Cards on the Table) and although he was pleasant enough character I couldn’t characterize him much beyond him having a wife and daughter.

      Ha, I wasn’t throwing Shade at Penny! I’ve really enjoyed the three books that I’ve read by him, and that was exactly the point. His writing somewhat captures that essence of Christie where you can take some random chapter, in which not much happens on the surface, and it’s still a joy to read. And indeed, if there’s some other author out there who was producing Towards Zero quality material of a frequent enough basis, let me know. I have a sense though that a lot of the reprinted authors of the moment didn’t.

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      1. Is… is that a thing?

        Well I was, and still am, so it must be, right? 🙂 Battle was, I think, the first genuinely competent professional policeman independent of a Genius Amateur who I encountered in my GAD reading, and you can find in his conduct and stolidity the seeds of my enthusiasm for the likes of Penny’s Edward Beale and Crofts’ Joseph French. I have much to be thankful to the man for…

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      2. Battle appears in five books. In addition to the ones you mentioned, he’s one of the four investigators in Cards on the Table. But he is arguably never the main detective of the book. Of course there’s Poirot in Cards on the Table and there’s a a guest sleuth in all of the other books. I would actually say that he comes closest to being the main detective in this one. Though in one of the other four he had a pretty surprising role and in yet another one he has what is basically a cameo appearance at the very end.

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      3. I gotta agree on this one. Battle was just…there. Not a hateful character, but not a particularly memorable one either. He kind of serves the same purpose to the story as Inspector Japp, and I’d argue Japp, while incompetent, is a much more defined and memorable character.

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