“I like a good detective story . . . 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 . . . all converging towards a given spot and then when the time comes– over the top! Zero hour. Yes, all of them converging towards zero . . .”
I’m heading toward zero hour myself. After a jolly summer of bridge tournaments (I’ve made almost twomaster points), energetic walks (lost nearly four hundred micro-ounces), New York theatre and a surprising dearth of mystery reading, I’m careening toward that horror of horrors – the first day of school! Naturally, this put me in mind of one of my favorite Agatha Christie mysteries, certainly one of her strongest non-Poirot/Marple titles: 1944’s Toward Zero.
Christie’s puzzle-rich 1930’s output had reached its apotheosis with her acknowledged masterpiece, And Then There Were None, which among other things signaled her willingness to experiment even further with the form. What followed may not have been, in form, exactly experimental. As I’ve written before, however, 1940’s Sad Cypress marked a new direction for Christie from the classic pure puzzle plot and into richer, more character-driven territory.
Not that the course ran smoothly! Cypress was followed in quick succession by a problematic jumble of domestic mystery and political thriller (One, Two, Buckle My Shoe) and a richly entertaining whodunit that returned to the pure classic Christie of the 30’s (Evil Under the Sun). Both of these featured Poirot, and they were followed by the long-awaited returns of Tommy and Tuppence, in their most straightforward whodunit that nevertheless – and perhaps unfortunately – also included Christie’s penchant for espionage (N or M) and Miss Marple in the delightful The Body in the Library. The very title here suggested that Christie was ready to poke some holes in the classic tropes of the 1920’s; after a brilliant opening that is the quintessence of GAD fiction, Libraryunfolds in a more modern vein, featuring a believable younger cast and a strong, if tasteful, whiff of sex.
Next came The Moving Finger, in many ways Christie’s best village mystery – but not her best Miss Marple village mystery, even though Miss Marple solves it – and Five Little Pigs, her first retrospective crime story and easily one of the best Poirot novels of her career. Christie then took a two-year break from her most celebrated sleuths and went in fascinating new directions. Towards Zero features the return of Superintendent Battle, in his best case and Sparkling Cyanide features Colonel Race at his best; sandwiched between them is Death Comes As the End, a stand-alone unique in the annals of Christiedom and one of the first published historical mysteries.
These opening paragraphs could serve to introduce any of these 1940’s novels, but today our focus is on Towards Zero. Besides being a compelling whodunit, the novel illustrates Christie’s increased commitment to character development. The structure of this book also allows me to bring up an interesting point about mysteries themselves.Discussing mysteries is a fascinating pastime, not least because the genre doesn’t always conform to the general ideas of literature. For example, please answer the following quiz question: who is the protagonist in a mystery?
Most people would say it’s the detective, right? I mean, it says there right on the cover, “An Hercule Poirot mystery!” At least throughout the 1930’s, mysteries most often followed the detective’s investigation. They may begin with the detective ensconced, in Holmesian coziness, in his study when a knock on the door ushers in a new adventure! Or we may get an extended prologue setting up the murder, perhaps narrated by a figure who will become a sort of Watson to our sleuth once the murder occurs and the detective/hero has made his or her splashy entrance.
I’m happy to agree with those of you who believe this, except . . . well, there are instances where this concept might be called into question. For example, in the aforementioned The Moving Finger, Miss Marple doesn’t appear until Chapter XX! The person whose fortunes we are following from start to finish is Jerry Burton, who has a personal stake in all that occurs in the village of Lymstock and who, as is normal for a literary protagonist, undergoes a profound change from semi-bitter cripple/social outsider to happily married hero/member of the community. In many of his later novels, Poirot’s appearance mounted to little more than a cameo.
In truth, the detective of the 1920’s – 30’s doesn’t much conform to the literary precepts of the protagonist. With the exception of Lord Peter Wimsey, whose love affair/marriage with Harriet Vane arguably heals and matures him, most detectives do not change a jot. Roderick Alleyn falls in love, marries, and has a son, with nary an alteration to his nature. E.R. Punshon’s Bobby Owen rises in rank and marries his girl, but does he change? Sir Henry Merrivale grows insufferably silly, and Ellery Queen shifts personality over and over, but in both cases this is due to the restlessness of the authors. In Queen’s case, events in his life to do not effect a change in his character until 1940 when he visits Wrightsville for the first time; from then on, Queen’s career is a model for the modern detective
Mostly, classic detectives were the constant, and the array of crimes and suspects that differentiated their cases had no more effect on their personalities, their confidence in their powers or their general emotional make-up than a ham sandwich. Thus, if we think of the protagonist as somebody who changes from beginning to end, one could make an argument that the protagonist of a murder mystery is – the murderer.
Of course, this is problematic in the extreme. First, the act of murder is, for the most part, rendered as an act of evil, and while many protagonists have done bad things, we still tend to root for them. We don’t want to root forthe murderer in a mystery; we want to root him out! Secondly, with the exception of inverted crime stories, which I hate, it’s hard to pinpoint the murderer as the protagonist, when by the very nature of the game, we don’t know who the murderer is until the end. I guess the concept of the murderer-as-main-character doesn’t work.
Except . . . that is exactly what Christie experiments with in Towards Zero. This is not an inverted mystery at all, but it embraces the theme that a whodunit exists because a person has planned it so, and that person is the murderer. Near the top of the novel, Christie introduces us to this leading character thusly:
“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.”
Sure, there are plenty of mysteries where the crime is barely premeditated, if at all. The catalyst – the victim – brings about his or her own destruction through a raising of the emotional temperature to a point where, theoretically, any of a closed circle of folks could do something they never dreamed of doing: kill another human being. Zero is not that kind of mystery – although for the longest time it seemslike it is. The people gathered at Gull’s Point, the charming seaside home of Lady Camilla Tressilian, are for the most point likable, but they are caught up in an emotional maelstrom centered around the romantic triangle of professional athlete Neville Strange, his ex-wife Audrey, and his new wife Kay. Kay’s ex-boyfriend, Audrey’s worshipful cousin, and Lady Tressilian’s outwardly composed companion make up a party abounding in romantic entanglements and increasingly bruised feelings
Equally intriguing is that the identity of the victim is as much of a surprise as that of the killer! (Never has it seemed more necessary for a reader notto read the back/inside cover blurb of a book. In fact, I have purposely not included certain cover illustrations because they give way too much of the game away.) Despite my predilection for breaking down a Christie novel with spoilers, you will find nary a one here. Watching the civilized veneer of this house party break down until a surprising and violent death intrudes is half the fun.
The other half is Christie showing us how a murderer’s plan can unravel. The passage I quoted above is set in a vacuum: killers can plan their crime down to the last detail, yet events beyond their control will occur and converge along with each element of the murder plot, leading to a different Point Zero than the villain intended. InZero, the semi-tragic life of Andrew MacWhirter, failed suicide, intrudes. So does the adolescent angst that besieges Superintendent Battle’s daughter – which gives us our most human portrait of that most wooden of Christie sleuths yet, And an added bonus is that Sylvia Battle’s’s pain allows her father to store an insight that will later help him solve two murders.
Likewise, the presence of the old solicitor Mr. Treves, author of the quotation with which I began this post, intrudes – and shakes the killer’s plans most of all. Treves is a problematic character. Clearly, he represents the law at its wisest and weariest. In a way, Treves is cousin to another famous Christie jurist, And Then There Were None’s Lawrence Wargrave. Both men can see into the dark heart of humanity; both have gathered secrets along the way of their illustrious careers. Christie clearly liked Mr. Treves, for in her dramatic adaptation of the novel, she made him the detective and once again reduced Battle to the stolid Scotland Yard secondary. (The TV adaptation thrusts Miss Marple into this sophisticated roundelay, which is foolish, even if the story is basically faithful to the original.
Mr. Treves can’t be the detective here because, wise as he is, he makes a fatal mistake. He introduces one of the most chillingly delicious threads to the plot, that of a pre-pubescent murderer Treves once met, and then he stupidly tells his story to the gathered assembly. This satanic child weaves shadow-like through the subsequent investigation, providing Christie with the opportunity to show off her always uncanny ability to hide clues in plain sight.
Yet even as once again she shows off her technical prowess, Christie embraces a new idea about mysteries, one which will gain force throughout the decade and provide the impetus for the modern crime novel, and it is simply this: murder mysteries are about more than clues and alibis. They are about people. The vagaries of human nature and human action mean that we can no longer look at a detective story as a timetable of events or a rarified logic puzzle. More and more, Christie’s novels, and those of the next generation of writers, will be psychologically acute and, for good or ill, looser in terms of logic. Her killers will become more than ciphers, and her detectives’ actions will be driven as much by feelings and fate as by logic.