Towards Zero

THE BOOK  Fontana 1966 pp 192
  
Another cover by Tom Adams: very distinctive, and the reader will wonder what it represents until almost the end of the book. Compare it with its predecessor, which seems to represent someone in PE kit going up the ropes.  The dedicatee is Robert Graves.1 

THE STORY  

A year after a failed attempt to thrown himself off its cliffs, Angus MacWhirter returns to Stark Head, in Devon. He is just in time to prevent a woman in white from throwing herself off the same cliffs, a woman involved in a murder investigation.

Later, after an altercation in a dry-cleaners, he demands that they return to him his suit (unwashed). When it arrives, it turns out not to be his, whereupon he smells something fishy …

A meticulously planned murder attempt reaches its climax at the end, rather than the beginning, of this story.  

CHARACTERS   

The characters are all given time and space (over 100 pages) to establish themselves before the main events of the story and subsequent interrogations.

All-round sportsman Neville Strange has invited his ex-wife Audrey and current wife Kay to stay with him at a house-party given by Lady Tressilian, his ex-guardian’s wife. Other members of the party include Thomas Royde, in love with Audrey since childhood, and Mary Aldin, Lady Tressilian’s companion. During the fortnight of their stay, each character feels a growing tension within the house without being able to put a finger on its root cause.

Then Lady Tressilian is killed. Superintendent Battle, holidaying in the area, is called in (by his nephew) to investigate a seemingly senseless murder.

The psychotic character of the killer is quite convincingly drawn, but many of the other characters seem to be from the author’s stock list: the taciturn Royde, back from the colonies, reads like Hector Blunt (from Roger Ackroyd); the calm, intelligent, 30-ish Mary Aldin is an echo or foreshadow of Midge from The Hollow; Kay Strange is an echo of Elsa Greer in Five Little Pigs … and so on.

One of the more interesting cameos is that of MacWhirter’s nurse as he recovers in hospital at the beginning of the book; I suspect that, for this scene, Agatha Christie drew on her own experience nursing wounded soldiers coming back from the Western Front during WW1.   

QUOTES  

Here are a couple of extracts from a pivotal scene, very early on, between MacWhirter and the red-haired hospital nurse. MacWhirter does not take part in events until the end of the story, but his re-appearance proves the nurse to be prescient:  

“My dear girl, what use am I to anybody?”
She said confusedly: “You don’t know. You may be – someday – “
“Someday? There won’t be any someday. Next time I’ll make sure.”
She shook her head decidedly. “Oh, no,” she said. “You won’t kill yourself now.”
“Why not?”
“They never do …”

 ” … it may be just by being somewhere – not doing anything – just by being at a certain place at a certain time – oh, I can’t say what I mean, but you might just – walk along a street someday and just by doing that accomplish something terribly important – perhaps even without knowing what it was.”

The uncomfortable subject of breeding, heredity and eugenics appears yet again (Agatha Christie seems inordinately interested in it – at least, she keeps introducing it). Thus, Mary Aldin:

She had a good figure, an air of breeding, and dark hair to which one lock of white across the front gave a touch of individuality. 

And Kay Strange:

“I do not like her – she’s quite the wrong wife for Neville – no background, no roots!”
“She’s quite well born,” said Mary placatingly.
“Bad stock!” said Lady Tressilian.  

TITLES

The four main chapter titles are quotations or references, and more pertinent than was often the case:

Open the Door and Here are the People
From the children’s rhyme ‘Here is the Church, here is the Steeple …’ In this chapter, all of the main characters are introduced.

Snow White and Red Rose
Referring to the characters projected by Audrey Strange and Kay Strange. ‘Snow White and Rose-Red’ is a German fairy-tale (nothing to do with the Brothers Grimm / Disney Snow White); in it the two girls marry a prince and his brother rather than, as here, the same person.

A Fine Italian Hand
A phrase used by Battle as he begins to suspect a devious cunning behind what seems to be thuddingly obvious. This phrase began to be used when Italian script (and later Roman type-faces) started to be used instead of the heavy Gothic script in England in the 18th Century. 

Zero Hour 
This refers to the time at which a ‘usually significant or notable event is scheduled to take place’. It is particularly relevant because what most readers would have assumed was the notable event – the murder of Lady Tressilian – had already taken place. The definition of Zero Hour, as far as the murderer is concerned, is the arrest (to be followed by trial and hanging) of Audrey Strange for her murder; he had for a long time been planning the events leading up “towards zero”.

SWIGATHA RATING 7/10

This story is a superb example of what Robert Graves wrote about its author. 1 It also has the added attraction of being different from the usual structure of a work of crime fiction. She was so original.

As a swigatha, however, I don’t think it quite makes the top bracket – this is one of those that feels more like a romantic play than a whodunit. MacWhirter’s leap of the imagination – from a fishy smell on a jacket to someone swimming across a bay, climbing up a cliff via a rope, banging an old lady on the head, swimming back, changing clothes in a cave and going off to play billiards – takes a bit of swallowing. 

WHERE IT LED 

Retirement for Superintendent Battle! Both he and Captain Hastings were pensioned off in the early 1940s. I have wondered whether Battle and Hastings were named deliberately or whether the name Battle came to her subliminally.

ADAPTATIONS 

ITV produced a version of the story for its Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple series in 2007, the character of Superintendent Battle being replaced (obviously) by Miss Marple.2 There was also a French version in 2007 featuring Commissaire Bataille (!). 3

Agatha Christie adapted this story for the stage during her ‘theatrical decade’ (the 1950s).

NOTES

1 Graves was a near-neighbour in Devon at the time. He had written, also in 1944:
Agatha’s best work is, like P.G. Wodehouse and Noel Coward’s best work, the most characteristic pleasure-writing of this epoch and will appear one day in all decent literary histories. As writing it is not distinguished, but as story it is superb.
(Quoted in Talking about Detective Fiction, by PD James).

2 Poor Battle might feel a bit harshly treated by posterity! He was also replaced by Marple in adaptations of The Secret of Chimneys and Murder is Easy, and he didn’t even get to make an appearance in the Poirot production of Cards on the Table.

There’s definitely an opportunity for some bright spark to propose a new series: Agatha Christie’s Superintendent Battle, which would be given the license to shoe-horn him into just about any story Agatha Christie wrote (apart from Death Comes as the End).

3 Mark Aldridge, Agatha Christie on Screen