The biggest surprise of re-reading this book was discovering that, contrary to my memory, it wasn’t actually a Poirot novel. In many respects it feels like it should have been a Poirot mystery, since the setting and the psychology behind the murder feel like such a natural fit for the little Belgian.
The setting is a classic scenario where a number of people are gathered together for what should ideally be an enjoyable stay in a beautiful location, except that instead everyone has to endure an awkward and tense atmosphere. In this case, the guests gathered at the seaside home of old Lady Tressilian can’t believe that Nevile Strange, a tennis star and a former ward of Lady Tressilian’s deceased husband, had a bright idea of paying a visit with his brand new, younger wife Kay while his first wife Audrey was staying as well. This idea that they could all be friends is in fact so inexplicably dumb it leaves everyone wondering if Nevile actually came up with it himself, or under someone else’s influence.
The two Mrs Strange are chalk and cheese – Snow White and Red Rose, as one character puts it rather more evocatively, and just as everyone predicted this triangle under the same roof turns very uncomfortable indeed. No one could have predicted though that it’s Lady Tressilian who is found murdered one day, with all evidence pointing at Nevile. In fact there’s perhaps too much convenient evidence against him.
While I don’t love all aspects of Towards Zero, it has stayed with me for its strong characterisation, especially the contrasting personalities of Kay and Audrey Strange: one vividly beautiful and full of vitality, passionate, extroverted; another ethereal and self-contained, detached and hard to know. Another standout character is Mary Aldin, Lady Tressilian’s calm and capable companion who is quietly chafing at her secluded life and lack of life experiences – even painful ones. The complicated and knotty human relationships, the clash between modern and traditional, the characters’ dynamics and hidden emotional undercurrents are all very well drawn.
The idea of a ticking clock and all the disparate individuals moving unknowingly “towards zero” is an intriguing central premise of this book, as articulated by one of the characters in the prologue:
“…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… All converging towards a given spot… And then, when the time comes… Zero Hour.”
This unsettling idea is made even more unsettling by a brief window into the mind of the murderer carefully working out the details of the “project” near the beginning of the book, who we are given to understand is not quite sane. Christie obviously had fun teasing the reader, daring them to guess which character is secretly insane, while pushing them towards wrong conclusions.
Even though he doesn’t appear in the story, Poirot does get name-checked by the actual investigator, Superintendent Battle, who has a great admiration for Poirot’s methods and brilliant mind. While you wouldn’t describe Battle as brilliant in the same way, he’s got reserves of stolid good sense and insight into human nature. He’s already popped up in my re-readathon once as one of the guests in Cards on the Table, but his introduction here, dealing with a family problem that seems completely unconnected to the main crime, is definitely more memorable.
A couple of things sour Towards Zero for me, however. One is the fact that the entire resolution hinges on a character who is briefly introduced at the start of the story, and then disappears for the bulk of the novel until the very end. I suppose it all connects to the greater idea of people pulled towards a certain place and time, but I simply find it an unsatisfying way to tie up a detective story. Another thing is one of Dame Agatha’s worst and least believable insta-romances, which ends on a weirdly sinister and controlling note. So unfortunately I finished the book with a mix of eye-roll and wince, but I could hardly claim that this spoonful of tar ruins the entire book.