By 1944, World War II had been raging for nearly six years. Started by a madman, the widespread death and devastation on the battlefield was matched by the enemy’s constant attempts to undermine the morale of the Allied nations through frequent random bombings of cities and towns and through vicious radio programs designed to shake even the indomitable spirit of the British people. The Allies fought back with every bit of muscle and brain-power at their command, and nations were at least temporarily united in their efforts to push back the Axis powers. But there was no doubt that the horrors of the war seeped into every corner of civilization, including the world of arts and letters.
And yet, on the outside, this did not seem to faze Agatha Christie. The 1940’s found her writing at the height of her powers. She ushered in the decade with her masterpiece, And Then There Were None and followed that with one of her most subtle and character-rich Poirot novels, Sad Cypress. Still, World War II affected Christie as it did everyone else in Great Britain. Frightened as she was, she chose to stay in London and work once again in a hospital dispensary, and in between turning out some of her best Poirot and Miss Marple mysteries, including Evil Under the Sun, The Moving Finger, and Five Little Pigs, Christie found the time to compose (and archive) the final adventures of both sleuths just in case she herself did not survive the Blitz.
Aside from her 1941 spy thriller, N or M – which resulted in Christie being investigated by the government since one of her characters shared the name of the code-breaking center, Bletchley Park – her works made scant reference to the war. (I find it interesting that in the recent television adaptation of The Moving Finger, Jerry Burton was made a WWII vet, which makes a lot of sense given his age, while in the novel he is merely recovering from a private flying accident.) She would go on to address the post-War world around her in subsequent novels, including Taken at the Flood and A Murder Is Announced, but by 1944, Christie may have been writing to distract herself – and her readers – from the lengthy conflict. Isn’t that why people read Golden Age mysteries anyway – as an escape from the more insolvable cares of the real world?
And yet, something darker seeps into the three novels Christie wrote that year. Her favorite Mary Westmacott novel, Absent in the Spring, which she feverishly completed in three days, is a dark character study of an unhappy woman waiting at a train station who, through deep reflection, realizes that she is unloved. And the two mysteries she penned are subtly darker and more devastating than some of her other works. They are missing the sturdy anchors of Poirot or Marple to restore order to a shattered community, and while crimes are solved in both books, the malice of both killers is so deep – to the point of insanity – that the lives of the survivors can never be the same. This is not a permanent shift in Christie’s perspective. Move ahead a few years to Mollie Ralston in The Mousetrap, who faces down a serial killer, after which her suspicions over the other guests and, more tellingly, the strain in her marriage to Giles, evaporates completely, and she is left worrying about whether she has burnt her pie. No, I maintain that the darkness found in the 1944 novels, to some extent, is a reflection on the toll taken by the lengthy war that surrounded Christie at the time.
Towards Zero is outwardly the more traditional mystery, a “country home” murder (although it takes place at the seaside) featuring a close-knit group of dysfunctional people. This is the only novel to feature a recurring character from Christie’s canon: Superintendent Battle (from The Seven Dials Mystery and Cards on the Table) who arrives at Gull’s Point to solve the brutally violent death of Lady Camilla Tressilian, a charming lady without an enemy in the world. Christie tries to present a new way of looking at a murder case through Battle as he declaims:
“Murder is the culmination of a lot of different circumstances, all converging at a given moment at a given point. The murder itself is the end of the story. It’s Zero Hour.”
Of course, for mystery readers this isn’t an original viewpoint. We’ve read books by the dozen that begin with the gathering of the suspects and the presentation of relationships and situations that will blossom into opportunity and motive. The murder is the culmination of all that, but it’s hardly the end of the story, for the readers or for the police. Next comes the sifting of evidence, the interviews and conversations that glean more information, right up to the actual zero hour where everyone is gathered in the library for the unmasking of the killer.
So when Battle goes on to say, “In this case, I believe this murder is only the beginning. We are still headed Towards Zero,” he speaks the truth about any police investigation. But what he is really referring to here is his gut feeling that the killing of a harmless old lady is only the first chapter of a deeper and nastier murder plot. And because he is a Christie sleuth, he turns out to be quite right.
The convergence of characters and events in this novel is particularly complex as we do not understand for a long time the significance of some of these people or occurrences. Yet Christie does end up linking the failed suicide of a depressed Scotsman, an elderly solicitor’s story of a child murderer, and Superintendent Battle’s concern for his bullied daughter with a traditional gathering of the suspects at Lady Tressilian’s home. What makes this a more difficult mystery to solve is the apparent lack of motive on anyone’s part. But Christie lets the reader in on a secret that nobody else knows: the killer is mad. She takes us into the killer’s mind only once, early in the novel:
“There was only one person in the room and the only sound to be heard was the scratching of that person’s pen as it traced line after line across the paper. There was no one to read the words that were being traced. If there had been, they would hardly have believed their eyes. For what was being written was a clear, carefully detailed project for murder . . . Across the serious face a smile came. It was a smile that was not quite sane. As man was made in the image of his maker, so there was now a terrible travesty of a creator’s joy.“
This short scene is beautifully written and quite chilling. I remember as a teenager reacting strongly to it. When we learn old Mr. Treves’ story of a child murderer, we immediately leap to the understanding that this young killer is probably not so far away. Christie even provides a clue as to this person’s identity and then stuffs the novel with hints that lead from one person to another. It reminds me of the insane smile on the face of a killer in Murder Is Easy, except that that quality is never shown until the killer is unmasked, while in Towards Zero, Christie drops red herrings by the ton to implicate one after another of the house party. I think this is one of her most successful examples of misdirection, which I will leave to readers to discover for themselves. Meanwhile, this is a mature piece of work, with particularly rich female characters. Ultimately, it may not rank in many people’s top ten Christie list, but it’s unusual enough to merit attention in that it showcases Christie’s skills as a plotter while the character interactions work along the lines of a non-genre novel. The ending might not be quite the jaw-dropper for adult readers that it was for me as a teenager, but the disparate strands of the plot all converge to a satisfying end.
Here is how the second novel of 1944, Death Comes As the End, begins: “Renisenb stood looking out over the Nile.” Before one follows her gaze to see if the S.S. Karnak might be chugging down the river carrying Linnet Doyle’s corpse, Christie starts to pile on the details that will carry the reader not only to faraway Egypt but backwards in time to 2,000 B.C.. Death Comes As the End has the distinction of being the first of a new sub-genre, the historical mystery. But before you get too carried away with the impressive attention to detail culled from the author’s experiences with her archaologist husband, Max Mallowan and the friendship and support of noted Egyptologist Stephen Glanville, take a gander at the author’s note at the beginning of the novel:
“The action of this book takes place on the west bank of the Nile at Thebes in Egypt about 2000 B.C.. Both places and time are incidental to the story. Any other place at any other time would have served as well . . . “
And truth to tell, for all its historical trappings, this book reads much like a typical country house mystery. (Robert Barnard snidely referred to it as “Hercule Poirot’s Christmas transported to Egypt.”) The large family consists of father Imhotep, who could easily be an agricultural industrialist but is here a ka-priest, his three sons and beautiful daughter, his two daughters-in-law, a wise grandmother, a studly scribe, an equally studly distant kinsman (to provide a nice romantic choice for the recently widowed Renisenb) and a whiny female servant who in tone resembles Uriah Heep. Into this ménage Imhotep drops a bomb in the form of a shapely concubine named Nofret, all curves and attitude, who inflames the men and ticks off their women folk to such a degree that ultimately murder is inevitable.
Certainly many family members have a motive to kill Nofret since her beauty, coupled with her open disrespect for everyone, inspires all the requisite passions of lust, jealousy, and anger. But the real mystery has just begun, for Nofret’s death kicks off a murder spree that we haven’t seen since And Then There Will None and will never see in Christie’s work again. As the population rapidly halves itself, the family wonders if the ghost of the murdered concubine has come back to exact her revenge. Given that we are operating in an ancient society, this turns out to be the preferable theory, since the alternative is that somebody in the household is killing off members of their own family, and that way lies madness.
I find either possibility significant. During and between the great wars, mysteries served a purpose of some social significance by providing readers with a sense of stability in a world that held little political or economic certainty. A group of upper middle class citizens are disrupted by the evil machinations of one of their number, usually motivated by greed, sometimes by hate. By book’s end, the detective has caught the killer, and, in almost every sense, the other characters return to their original state. In both 1944 tales, order is restored at the end, but the shake-up to the small circle of characters in each book is massive, and lives are significantly changed on a large scale we don’t always see in a Christie mystery. If the killer is a ghost, then the family is dealing with a raging outside force over which it has no control – shades of Hitler. If the killer is insane – making the solutions to both 1944 mysteries two for two on that score – we’re dealing with another antagonist with the fragile psyche of Herr Schicklgruber. And if the killer is seized by an ancient thirst to shed blood, then one only has to look at the motives of Hitler to cleanse the world of its loathsome versatility and restore a small, select population to the top of the chain. I don’t want to belabor this too much, but one can sometimes argue about the “coldness” of a classic mystery, the reduction of human pain and suffering to the pieces of a puzzle. Here in ancient Egypt, Christie presents evil as a terrible force let loose on a well-run society, and the impact leaves devastation in every corner.
I have read Death Comes As the End many times, and it is a tour de force to be admired for the vast array of details about daily life that Christie includes. But this very setting allows her to slack off in the detection department. The situations that occur mirror scenarios found in other Christies: the mass poisoning, the “over the shoulder” look of terror before death, several deaths related from the point of view of the victim. But none of these are accompanied by much in the way of clues or ratiocination, making this novel feel more like a Mary Roberts Rinehart “had I but known” romantic mystery, swaddled in fine linen with lots of kohl eye make-up. I jest a bit, but even if Death Comes As the End ultimately comes off as relatively minor Christie, it’s lots of fun and well worth reading. I would argue even more strongly for Towards Zero, a mature novel and a fine, well-clued mystery, one of the best stand-alones in the Christie canon.
Every month at Rich Westwood’s great blog, Past Offenses, Rich throws out a year for everyone to discuss. This month, it’s 1944, and I offer this post to that discussion. I look forward to what other folks have to say about these and other great mystery novels and films of that year.