Towards Zero by Agatha Christie

Originally Published 1944
Superintendent Battle #5
Preceded by Murder is Easy

What is the connection among a failed suicide attempt, a wrongful accusation of theft against a schoolgirl, and the romantic life of a famous tennis player?

To the casual observer, apparently nothing. But when a house party gathers at Gull’s Point, the seaside home of an elderly widow, earlier events come to a dramatic head. As Superintendent Battle discovers, it is all part of a carefully laid plan – for murder.

I have previously suggested that one of the important questions to consider when looking at non-series Christie is why she opted not to use one of her more established sleuths as a hero. One can only assume that a Poirot, Marple! or Tommy and Tuppence title would have been a bigger draw in terms of sales and so, I believe, there must be some purpose behind that choice.

There are, of course, a wide range of possible reasons for Christie not to use her most popular characters but usually these are quite clear from the structure or themes of the novel. In many cases there is no formal sleuth at all with the story either adhering to more of an adventure or thriller story structure or telling the case from the perspectives of the suspects themselves. That is not the case here however and, as some will no doubt point out, Christie does actually provide us with a recurring sleuth of sorts in the form of Superintendent Battle (even if his previous appearance – Murder is Easy – was little more than a cameo).

The problem is that no matter how hard I try I cannot believe Christie ever considered Battle to be leading man material – at least, not after his first pair of outings. He is a solid and competent detective but he lacks the personality quirks of a Hercule Poirot as evidenced by a point in this story where he tries to imagine how Poirot would see some details of the crime. It feels like Christie was perfectly aware of his shortcomings as a protagonist but chose to use him regardless.

Before I can explain why I believe Battle was the right choice to lead this novel I need to explain what the book is about. Towards Zero is the story of the brutal murder of an elderly widow in bed during a family gathering. The physical evidence of the crime scene seems to indicate a possible suspect and yet that person’s motives would seem to make no sense.

Superintendent Battle happens to be on a short holiday in the area when he learns of the crime and the local police request his help in solving it. This process involves untangling the deceased’s will and the complicated personal relationships of the house guests who include a famous tennis player and both his current and ex-wife.

Could Poirot have solved this case? Absolutely. I think there is nothing in this case that requires Battle’s quiet yet dogged approach to sleuthing and so I do think that he would likely have performed just as well. They would however solve it quite differently as Poirot would have sought to play a more active role in sorting out the truth whereas Battle allows things to play out and applies his experience and knowledge of people to the situations he is witnessing to good effect. In other words, by using Battle I think Christie is able to give the other characters more space and attention – we are paying attention to them, not the sleuth.

While Battle does not prove an overbearing presence on the story, he does enjoy quite a few moments where I think his qualities and view on the world come through effectively, often reinforcing the broader themes of the novel. I particularly enjoyed his first appearance in this story where we see him solving a much more minor crime that takes place in a school and I loved the way Christie was able to tie that moment into the bigger and more important themes of her novel. By the end of the novel I found I liked him far more than I remembered doing in any of his previous outings and I did feel it was a shame that this would be his last appearance.

(As a sidebar to this discussion, I really wish that the Christie estate was publishing new Battle stories rather than Poirot – I feel that the character would offer a writer more space to develop new ideas and expand on his core traits and history)

In terms of the specifics of this story and its plot, I did appreciate the interesting and colorful cast of characters that Christie creates here. Some characters make only brief appearances or are just mentioned in passing while others are much more significant but I felt almost all were lively and interesting enough to justify the attention. I particularly appreciated the extremely minor character of the elderly lawyer Treves whose story about the prepubescent murderer at the start of the book is genuinely quite chilling and unsettling.

I want to try and be careful about giving away the solution but I will say that it is quite a clever one and it was pretty fair in how it presented itself. The mechanics of the crime are explained well and I appreciated the way Christie was able to tie the seemingly disparate strands of the novel back in together at the end.

So, what didn’t work? Well, I think a romantic subplot falls pretty flat, occurring rather suddenly and seeming quite unconvincing. This is a hazard of the final chapter whirlwind romance structure in general but, though sweet, I do think that it is not properly earned as it feels as though it is a little tacked on to the story. It is hardly unique to this story but regardless it is not done well.

I would also say that while I was reading the novel I was a little frustrated by how several elements were established and then were not returned to for a long time. I trusted that moments involving a man who had attempted suicide, Mr Treves and the school theft would ultimately prove important (I even remembered how – at least in the first two cases) but we are left waiting a long time for Christie to return to them. Happily I think the eventual reveal is worth the wait.

One of the most impressive aspects of the novel is the way it develops the meaning behind its title which is derived from a conversation with the elderly lawyer Mr Treves who describes how the act of murder should be the culmination of a mystery novel rather than its genesis. This is an interesting idea that makes more sense once it is explained and I feel it is one that generally works well and makes more sense of the narrative as a whole.

Overall I think Towards Zero is an accomplished piece of mystery writing. The situation developed is interesting and the characterizations of the various figures in the case are pretty compelling. Perhaps its most effective aspect though is the development of the novel’s key themes and ideas which are powerful and, at times, quite chilling.

The Verdict: A triumph of thoughtful development of theme and characterization.

Second Opinions

Brad @ ahsweetmystery describes this as Battle’s best case and lavishes praise on Christie’s development of the killer’s character, placing it in the context of her other work in this period of her writing.

Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime appreciated the complex and ‘knotty’ presentation of human relationships here – I love that word which is perfect to describe what we have here – and makes an interesting point about the relationship at the end which had not occurred to me (it is in the spoilers section of the review).

Les @ Classic Mysteries described the book as one of Christie’s most carefully constructed and praises the use of misdirection.

10 thoughts on “Towards Zero by Agatha Christie

  1. I enjoyed reading your review. I liked the attention you gave to Battle and why he was included. I am intrigued by your idea of continuation novels featuring him – he’s a character who could coped with being continued by another pair of hands. Fans might perhaps be more flexible about him being used by a different writer.


    1. Thank you. That was exactly my thinking. I feel that the problem with Poirot is that he has such an identifiable voice that you have to work around that and because we know how his career ends you have to wedge your work in the middle. Battle is far more open to further adventures.

      Though, having said that, I think a series of Ariadne Oliver adventures would make even more sense…


  2. I, too, am a sucker for stories with disparate events that all get connected satisfyingly in the end. (Have you seen the movie Crazy, Stupid Love? It operates a little differently but, despite being a very good romantic comedy, there’s a moment toward the end where something happens that provides as satisfying a twist as you would find in a fine mystery.) I particularly love the schoolgirl bit, and the only reason I figured it might have something to do with the case was because the back cover blurb on my old paperback copy sought to point that out. So much joy has been lost due to back cover blurbs . . . . . .

    I, too, think your idea of using Battle for continuation novels is great, Aidan. He has always been presented as, almost literally, a stick, and a new author would be able to expand on/deviate from that without getting into so much trouble with fans. One of my greatest silly fears is that one day I will run into Sophie Hannah, a woman I admire but with whom I’m so angry for what she has done to Poirot (or made Poirot do??)

    I also think that TZ makes a great case for Christie’s prowess at what I would call “trappings.” The basic tricks of this plot have been used before, sprinkled across the canon, as it were, but the author knows how to recycle beautifully so that you hardly notice what has been drawn from Column A, which from B, and so on.


    1. The title is familiar but I don’t think I have. I will have to check it out!

      It does seem to me that you could have a lot of fun with Battle and I did enjoy the glimpse of his family life that we get here and I would love to see that expanded on.

      As for your point about the trappings, I think you make it well. This story uses an idea Christie revisits in A Caribbean Mystery and while the setup is similar, Christie makes the two incidents feel different in how they are used.


  3. I guess I have to be the one throwing cold water …
    Why is there no TV series flaunting the Sarah Phelps name? Because her name doesn’t sell.
    This is why there will never be The Superintendent Battle Mysteries.
    A more likely chance is to give Japp a series …


    1. Oh, I am aware this is a total impossibility. I am under no illusions at all that any such thing could happen.

      A Poirot title is an easier sell for sure. I just wish that they had decided to build up one of the lesser characters instead.


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