Towards Zero – Agatha Christie

(HarperCollins 2006, in ‘1940s Omnibus’; originally published 1944)

Though this book was published during the Second World War, the war is never mentioned in the book, nor rationing nor any kind of shortages, and thus was probably either written before the war or deliberately set in the pre-war years. The book begins with a long prologue, in which the various characters are introduced.

There’s Mr Treves, an elderly solicitor, who unexpectedly has to cancel his regular summer holiday plans and instead makes the fateful decision to visit Saltcreek, a small village near the resort of Easterhead Bay, somewhere in the west country. Then there’s Angus MacWhirter who has lost his job and wife because of ‘pig-headed honesty’, and tried and failed to kill himself by throwing himself off Stark Head, not far from Saltcreek. There’s Lady Tressilian, at Gull’s Point, with her companion Mary Aldin, and Lady Tressilian’s nephew Nevile Strange, all-round good sport and excellent athlete, together with his current wife, the young and beautiful Kay, and his former wife, Audrey, who plan to visit Lady Tressilian at the same time. There’s Ted Latimer, a decorative young man who’s a long-time friend of Kay’s, and Thomas Royde, finally returning to England from Malaya. Lastly, there’s Superintendent Battle (familiar to readers of Christie’s early works such as The Secret of Chimneys and The Seven Dials Mystery), and his odd experience with his youngest daughter, Sylvia, who confesses to stealing various items at her school, though she is not the thief; he later takes his holiday at Saltington with his nephew Jim Leach, also a policeman. All these characters are brought together at Saltcreek or its environs for perfectly natural reasons.

Once the Stranges and Royde are gathered at Gull’s Point to stay with Lady Tressilian, there’s a good deal of tension in the house, with some antagonism between Kay and Audrey (all on Kay’s side), fuelled by Nevile’s comments: he’s openly regretting having divorced Audrey for Kay and neither woman is happy about the situation. Mr Treves, invited to dinner one evening, mentions a case in which, in his opinion, a child did murder, and that he would know that child again because of some physical peculiarity. Mr Treves dies of a heart attack the next day, but his death is not seen as suspicious until Lady Tressilian is brutally murdered a few days later.

Battle and Leach investigate intelligently, the characters are interesting – I particularly like Kay and Latimer, who are rather out of place, but young and alive – and the reader is very cleverly gulled along with the police. Christie takes quite a long time to set up the situation before the murder, and so it’s particularly shocking – often in her detective novels the murder happens at the beginning of the book – and it’s even worse when we eventually find out who did the crime and why. That denouement is brought off very skilfully by Christie, and it’s rather creepy.

I’ve read so many crime novels by Christie (in my teens I tried to read everything she’d written, apart from the novels she wrote as Mary Westmacott), and re-read many of them so many times that there’s no surprise now in the unravelling in the crime. Why, therefore, do I read them? Well, they’re comfort reading in the best sense: they restore order to the world. Crime is always detected, and the murderer gets his or her comeuppance. And I do like the way, once one’s read a mystery, that one can then re-read and notice all the parts where the writer carefully leads the reader into thinking one thing when they mean another, or presenting clues so slyly that we don’t realise they are clues.

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4 Responses to Towards Zero – Agatha Christie

  1. Jenny says:

    I love rereading mysteries for just that reason. It’s the same reason I read the ends first — it’s brilliant to see the clues get laid down one by one in a nice tidy structure. I feel fond of the authors when I get to see their endgame.

  2. Ela says:

    I rather like the first time, when one’s led up the garden path (or not, depending on the skill of the writer), as well. I’ve recently finished re-reading a couple of Sayers’ mysteries and one of the fun bits of re-reading ‘Five Red Herrings’ is knowing what the police are looking for without having to guess!

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