Title: Towards Zero (Superintendent Battle #5)
Author: Agatha Christie
First published on 1 June 1944
Genre: Mystery & Thrillers
I am participating in this year’s Read Christie Challenge. The theme for January’s Read Christie 2023 is JEALOUSY.
The book chosen for January was Sad Cypress. Alternate options included Towards Zero, Elephants Can Remember, Five Little Pigs, Death on the Nile, The Murder on the Links, Cards on the Table, Murder in Mesopotamia and The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side.
I had initially decided on reading Sad Cypress (eBook) but since I had Towards Zero and Five Little Pigs in paperback, I thought why not start the challenge by reading a paperback.
Let me start the review with a quote from the book. I must say this particular piece of dialog forms the basis for the story.
‘I like a good detective story,’ he said. ‘But, you know, they begin in the wrong place! They begin with the murder. But the murder is the end. The story begins long before that – years before sometimes – with all the causes and events that bring certain people to a certain place at a certain time on a certain day.’
Neville Strange divorced his wife of eight years to marry Kay. Neville met her during Kay’s Riviera days and was smitten by her. This soon led to Neville divorcing Audrey. Audrey paid the brunt of a broken relationship and she lost her mind. She spent days recovering from the heartbreak and is currently doing okay.
Kay and Neville are discussing about their trip to Gull’s Point in September. The late Matthew Tressilian had taken a liking to Neville and left half of the estate to him, which Neville would inherit in the event of Matthew’s wife’s death. Neville then tells Kay that his ex-wife Audrey will also be visitng Gull’s Point at the same time. Audrey always visited Gull’s Point in September and nothing would change that.
But Kay is not happy with the arrangement. Neville insists that Kay make friends with his ex. When Lady Tressilian hears of this, she too expresses her displeasure. She does not understand modern relationships but feels two wives (one ex, one current) under one roof is a recipe for disaster.
Meanwhile, Angus MacWhirter tried to end his life. I say tried because the police managed to save him and he’s currently recuperating in a hospital. When he expresses his frustration at failing to kill himself, his nurse tells him that his survival might serve a greater purpose. Soon, he’s offered a job in South America and while his passage is booked, he has some time to spare. He decides to spend it in Saltcreek.
Thomas Royde is visiting England after eight years. He’s eagerly waiting to meet a woman he’s been in love with since he was a teenager. She’s his distant cousin and is recently divorced from her husband of eight years. Thomas wishes to pursue Audrey and wants to marry her. They have known each other since they were children and he’s been in love with her since then.
Old Mr. Treves is well-known amongst the law community. He decides to spend sometime at Saltcreek – and has plans to visit Lady Tressilian.
So, going back to the quote from the book – now you know how these characters (each playing a vital role in the story) have arrived at the same place. We already have Lady Tressilian and her companion, Mary Aldrin, at Gull’s Point.
As Kay, Audrey and Neville arrive at Gull’s Point, there’s a sense of impending doom. The servants at the house feel it too. It’s like the calm before a storm. Then… someone dies. It turns out to be a natural death…
‘Something’s been queer. There’s been a feeling – I can’t describe it. Something in the air. A menace.’
Finally, tragedy strikes. In a way, everybody saw it coming. But it’s just that the wrong person is murdered. Or, were they?
This story features Superintendent Battle. Mr and Mrs. Battle receive a letter from their youngest daughter’s headmistress, asking them to meet her at the earliest opportunity to ‘discuss the position.’ Turns out, Battle’s youngest child, Sylvia, has confessed to a series of thefts occurring at her school. The headmistress has a bit of knowledge in ‘psychology’ and she deduced that Sylvia is guilty. But Superintendent Battle knows his daughter is no thief.
Battle is soon asked for assistance on a case in Saltcreek. The case is of a “Foreign Office’ matter. He decides to extend his stay by a week and spend some time with his nephew, Inspector James Leach of Saltcreek division.
When someone is killed (withholding name of the victim – no spoilers), James and his team are asked to investigate. Superintendent Battle too decides to tag along. I couldn’t help but note the two references (one of which is quoted below) that Battle makes to Poirot’s detection skills. There’s something from the crime scene that bothers him.
‘I wish I knew what keeps putting Hercule Poirot into my head.’
‘You mean that old chap – the Belgian – comic little guy?’
‘Comic my foot,’ said Superintendent Battle. ‘About as dangerous as a black mamba and a she-leopard that’s what he is when he starts making a mountebank of himself! I wish he was here – this sort of thing would be right up his street.’
‘In what way?’
‘Psychology,’ said Battle. ‘real psychology – not the half-baked stuff people hand out who know nothing about it.’
Once the victim is found and evidence is gathered, the local bobbies are quite sure as to who the murderer is. But Superintendent Battle has a theory. Things are obvious – too obvious so he wonders if things are as they really seem to be.
Suspense is at an all-time high since the discovery of a dead body. Remember, we are already given a sense of impending doom from the time Audrey and Kay meet at Gull’s Point.
As the story ended and the truth was out – identity of the killer and their motive, I was shocked. This book not only fits the theme Jealousy, but also gives a clear-cut picture of how hatred can change a person for good. Sometimes, money is not the only motive for crime.
I absolutely enjoyed reading every bit of this book. It’d been ages since I read Towards Zero so I hardly remembered the story – and a revisit was all I needed to freshen up those grey cells. If I had a mustache, I would have twirled it while saying ‘grey cells.’ 😉
Glad you enjoyed this one. It is one I got a lot out of when I re-read it for my blog a few years back. Great characters and as you say a great twist. I think it is one of Christie’s underrated books.
I agree. In fact, books/tv series/movies featuring Poirot, Marple, Tommy and Tuppence are well-known. Not many know of superintendent Battle, or even Mr. Quinn for that matter.
I need to refresh my grey cells too. Forgotten the story. Will catch up. But would really like to know more about this Christie Challenge. I may too participate.
It’s on their site : https://www.agathachristie.com/en/news/2023/read-christie-2023