Dustjacket illustration of the UK First Edition (Book was first published in the US

Towards Zero is a work of detective fiction by Agatha Christie first published in the U.S. by Dodd, Mead and Company in June 1944, and in the UK by the Collins Crime Club in July of the same year. The book is the last to feature her recurring character of Superintendent Battle.

Summary[edit | edit source]

Lady Tressilian, an old and humourless woman confined to her bed, invites several guests into her seaside home of Gull's Point for two weeks at the end of the summer. Tennis star Nevile Strange, former ward of Lady Tressilian's deceased husband, incurs her displeasure by bringing both his new wife, Kay, and his ex-wife, Audrey, thus causing awkward romantic misunderstandings. But events soon become sinister when Lady Tressilian is killed and Superintendent Battle, who is holidaying nearby in the home of his nephew, Inspector James Leach, finds himself in a labyrinthine maze of clues and deception.

Plot[edit | edit source]

Lady Tressilian is now confined to her bed, and still invites guests to her seaside home at Gull's Point during the summer. Tennis star Nevile Strange, former ward of Lady Tressilian's deceased husband, incurs her displeasure. He proposes to bring both his new wife, Kay, and his former wife, Audrey, to visit at the same time – a change from past years. Lady Tressilian grudgingly agrees to this set of incompatible guests. Staying in hotels nearby are Kay's friend, Ted; a long time family friend, Thomas Royde, home after a long stretch working overseas and still faithfully waiting on the sidelines for Audrey; and Mr Treves, an old solicitor and long time friend of the Tressilians.

The dinner party is uncomfortable, as Lady Tressilian had predicted. That night, Mr Treves told a story of an old case, where a child killed another child with an arrow, which was ruled an accident. The child was given a new name and a fresh start, despite a local man having seen the child practising assiduously with a bow and arrow. Mr Treves remembers the case and the child as a result of a distinctive physical feature which he does not reveal. The next morning, Treves is found dead in his hotel room and his death is attributed to heart failure from climbing up the stairs to his room the previous night, greatly upsetting Lady Tressilian. Thomas and Ted are mystified, as they saw a note stating that the lift was out of order when they walked Treves back. They learn from hotel staff that the lift was in working order that night. His death is ruled to be from natural causes.

Lady Tressilian is brutally murdered in her bed, and her maid drugged. Her heirs are Nevile and Audrey. Evidence suggests Nevile Strange as the murderer. One of his golf clubs that was found at the scene with his fingerprints on it. Nevile's quarrel with Lady Tressilian was overheard as well. However, when the maid wakes up, she tells Superintendent Battle that she saw Lady Tressilian alive after Nevile's visit to her room, before he left for Easterhead Bay to find Ted. The evidence then points to Audrey: a bloodied glove belonging to her is found in the ivy next to her window together with the real murder weapon. It was fashioned from the handle of a tennis racket and the metal ball from the fireplace fender in Audrey's room. Mary Aldin relates the story narrated by Mr Treves, and his claim that he could recognize that child with certainty; Battle is certain that the lift sign was placed in order to silence Mr Treves.

Angus MacWhirter is standing at the cliff where, a year earlier, he had attempted suicide, when Audrey attempts to run off the same cliff. He grabs her before she can jump. She confesses her fear, and he promises that she will be safe. The local cleaners inadvertently give MacWhirter an uncleaned jacket belonging to someone else. Though he is not one of the party at Gull's House, he is aware of the progress of the investigation, well reported in the local newspapers. He realizes why the jacket has stains in a certain odd pattern. He visits Gull's Point, and requests for Mary Aldin's help to find a rope in the house. They find a large damp rope in an otherwise dusty attic, and she locks the door until the police come.

Battle arrests Audrey on the evidence and her ready admission of guilt. However, Battle's daughter had previously confessed to a theft she did not commit due to overwhelming pressure, and so he suspects that Audrey is in a similar situation. MacWhirter meets Battle and tells him what he has learned about this case, including his observation of a man swimming across the creek on the night of the brutal murder, and climbing into the house on a rope. Then, Thomas reveals that Audrey had ended their marriage, not Nevile, as she had grown afraid of him. She was about to marry Adrian Royde, Thomas' brother, when Adrian was killed in a road accident. With the parties on a motor launch, Battle uses this information to force a confession from Nevile Strange. He was the mastermind behind all the events and circumstances that should have converged into "zero" – the hanging of his first wife for the murder of Lady Tressilian.

Nevile may have been behind two other deaths (Mr Treves and Adrian Royde) but there is insufficient evidence to prosecute. With his confession, the rope, and the ruse with the bell pull explained, Battle charges him with the murder of Lady Tressilian. Audrey seeks out MacWhirter to thank him, and they decide to marry. They will travel to Chile where he begins his new job. Audrey expects that Thomas will come to realize that he really wants to marry Mary Aldin instead.

Twist[edit | edit source]

Mid-way through the book, Neville Strange is convicted of the murder, his finger prints on the golf club used to murder Lady Tressilian. However, he is soon exonerated when a maid claims seeing him leave the house when Lady Tressilian was still alive. Later in the book, Superintendent Battle and Inspector James Leach discover another object with blood stains on it, which was obviously the murder weapon which the killer hid after murder. Audrey Strange is soon accused when evidence, such as her blood stained glove, are found. However, the man who attempted to commit suicide at the resort a year before helps her clear her name, and Neville Strange soon admits that he murdered Lady Tressilian. Although Audrey is left handed and the blows are left handed, he struck her with his backhand, his strong shot in tennis.

Characters[edit | edit source]

  • Camilla, Lady Tressilian: host of her seaside home near Saltcreek, widow in her early seventies.
  • Mary Aldin: Lady Tressilian's companion, in her mid-thirties.
  • Nevile Strange: a handsome athlete and tennis player, 33 years old, former ward of Lady Tressilian's late husband.
  • Kay Strange: his beautiful and emotional second wife, 23 years old.
  • Audrey Strange: Strange's first wife, age 32. She was orphaned young, raised with her cousins and aunt, the Roydes.
  • Ted Latimer: a friend of Kay since she was 15 years old.
  • Thomas Royde: Audrey's cousin, on vacation from his work in Malay states, man of few words.
  • Adrian Royde: brother to Thomas; barrister, loved Audrey Strange, recently killed in road accident.
  • Mr Treves: solicitor, an old friend of Lady Tressilian, about 80 years old.
  • Angus MacWhirter: man who attempted suicide from the cliff near Lady Tressilian's home, and survives to become a part of the solution to the crime.
  • Inspector James Leach: Battle's nephew, assigned to the Saltcreek area.
  • Superintendent Battle: Vacationing with his nephew, he is assigned to the case with him; husband and father of five children, youngest of whom gives him an insight useful to solving this case.
  • Dr Lazenby: A physician.

Publication and reception[edit | edit source]

The novel was first serialised in Collier's Weekly in three installments from 6 May (Volume 113, Number 19) to 20 May 1944 (Volume 113, Number 21) under the title Come and Be Hanged! with illustrations by Charles La Salle. The first U.S. edition of the novel retailed at $2.00 and the UK edition at seven shillings and sixpence (7/6). The review by Maurice Willson Disher in The Times Literary Supplement of 22 July 1944 was overwhelmingly positive: "Undiscriminating admirers of Miss Christie must surely miss the thrill of realizing when she is at her best. If this argument is sound then Towards Zero is for the critical. By virtue of masterly story-telling it makes the welfare of certain persons at a seaside town seem of more importance at the moment than anything else in the world. Mechanized brains may object that the murderer "perfects" his mystery by methods imposed upon fiction's police, but even when the maze is vaguely recognized the tale still grips. The characters become so much a part of the reader’s existence that he must know what their ultimate fate may be before he will rest satisfied. How alive they are is apparent when two men, both dogged, laconic, poker-faced, never seem alike. The wife and the ex-wife, who neither like nor dislike one another, also reveal creative power. As an exhibition of the modern brand of human nature, Towards Zero deserves higher praises than any that can be awarded to it as an excellent detective story."

Maurice Richardson in the 6 August 1944 issue of The Observer wrote, "The new Agatha Christie has a deliciously prolonged and elaborate build-up, urbane and cosy like a good cigar and red leather slippers. Poirot is absent physically, but his influence guides the sensitive inspector past the whiles of the carefully planted house party, and with its tortuous double bluff this might well have been a Poirot case. How gratifying to see Agatha Christie keeping the flag of the old classic who-dun-it so triumphantly flying!"

Robert Barnard: "Superb: intricately plotted and unusual. The murder comes later, and the real climax of the murderer's plot only at the end. The ingenuity excuses a degree of far-fetchedness. Highly effective story of the child and the bow-and-arrow (part II, chapter 6) and good characterization of the playboy-sportsman central character – very much of that era when one was expected to behave like a gentleman at Wimbledon."

Adaptations[edit | edit source]

  • 1956: Christie adapted the book into a play.
  • 1980: Verso l'ora zero, Italian adaptation.
  • 1995: A film company was going to turn Towards Zero into a film and included such issues as incest in the script. Rosalind Hicks, Christie’s daughter and controller of her estate, reviewed the script and ordered that the name of the film be changed as well as the names of the characters. The film became Innocent Lies and was met with mediocre success.
  • 2007: Adaptation as part of the third season of the new Agatha Christie's Marple ITV television series.
  • 2007: L'Heure zéro, French adaptation.
  • 2010: radio play for the BBC Radio 4.

Publication history[edit | edit source]

  • 1944: Dodd Mead and Company (New York), June 1944, Hardcover, 242 pp
  • 1944: Collins Crime Club (London), July 1944, Hardcover, 160 pp
  • 1947: Pocket Books (New York), Paperback, 210 pp (Pocket number 398)
  • 1948: Pan Books, Paperback, 195 pp (Pan number 54)
  • 1959: Fontana Books (Imprint of HarperCollins), Paperback, 192 pp
  • 1972: Ulverscroft Large-print Edition, Hardcover, 347 pp; ISBN 0-85456-126-9
  • 1973: Greenway edition of collected works (William Collins), Hardcover, 224 pp
  • 1974: Greenway edition of collected works (Dodd Mead), Hardcover, 224 pp; ISBN 0-00-231827-X
  • 1977: Penguin Books, Paperback, 192 pp

International titles[edit | edit source]

  • Czech: Nultá hodina (Zero Hour)
  • Finnish: Kohti nollapistettä (Towards Zero)
  • German: Kurz vor Mitternacht (Just Before Midnight)
  • Norwegian: Mot nullpunktet (Towards Zero)
  • Polish: Godzina zero (Zero Hour)
  • Russian: Час ноль (Zero Hour)
  • Swedish: Klockan K (K O'clock)
  • Turkish: Sıfıra doğru (Towards Zero)
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