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Towards Zero

Page history last edited by PBworks 16 years, 5 months ago

Christie, Agatha - Towards Zero (1944)


Review by Nick Fuller


One of Christie's half-dozen best. The characterisation of the gloomy house party caught in an emotional storm is brilliant; one can easily see how this would make a good play. Unlike The Hollow, characterisation is combined with the classic detective story, for as we come to know the people involved, we come to see how and why each of them would commit a murder. The misdirection is superb: suspicion bounces back and forth like the ball in a tennis match, causing the reader to dismiss the guilty party, particularly when one is unsure which murder is the central one.


Similar to Murder is Easy.

Christie in the forties was in a mood for experiment and envelope-pushing: The Hollow or Five Little Pigs, to name just two, come to mind. Though not as radically innovative as the two above, Towards Zero is definetely an odd book, so odd that one has difficulty to decide whether it's one of the author's finest works or a glorious misfire.


The plot, brilliant as it is, is not what makes Towards Zero so particular. The book's singularity lies in its construction. AC starts with a choral prologue reminiscent from the one in And Then They Were None, introducing the characters and puzzling the reader as to where all that is leading. Then she moves to a Bernstein-like bourgeois drama about a man and his two wives spiced with an intriguing story about a homicidal child and a dubious "natural" death. Reader at that point is slowly working out what's cooking there - only to realize he was fooled when the actual, long-awaited murder finally occurs; the victim is not the expected one.


Towards Zero then finally turns in a detective novel - but not of the traditional Christie kind. The least omniscient of Christie's detectives, Superintendent Battle's persona and methods are quite remote from Poirot's or Marple's. He is basically a pre-Golden Age figure and that part of the book reads like Christie visiting and paying tribute to her elder and betters, most notably A.E.W. Mason or even Gaboriau. The final explanation is another stunner and reversal of perspective, not only because of the murderer's identity but also because the reader realizes he got everything wrong - not just the guilty party, but all that preceded. As a literary experiment, Towards Zero has very few equivalents. As a proper novel, however, it doesn't rank in my view with the best of Christie; the characters are stiff and bland, and the dialogue not as lively as usual. More Battle would've been welcome, though.



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