Notes On Towards Zero

Rating: 4.5 out of five

Year of Publication: 1944

Motive for Murder: Hatred

Plot:  Audrey Strange is on the verge of facing the court, having become a suspect for the murder of an elderly aristocrat woman at her house, Gull’s Point. With all evidences points to her, there is little doubt about her being guilty to anyone but Superintendent Battle. For the look in her eyes reminds him of his daughter’s.

Sylvia Battle admits to have stolen a number of things at school. Miss Amphrey, the headmistress, summons her father to lay all the facts against the sixteen-year-old girl. Interestingly, there is no evidence in the case but Sylvia’s confession. ‘I wanted, not to confront her with her guilt, but to get her to admit it herself. I set a little test for her – a word association,’ says Amphrey. Whilst Superintendent Battle does not answer to her accusation, to his daughter he says: ‘…you are not a thief. You’re a very unusual type of liar…’

On a night in September Angus McWhirter revisits Sharkhead near Gull’s Point. For months beforehand he attempted to take his life on that spot. Then he happens to see a woman who is about to do the same. He stops her. ‘Afraid,’ says Audrey Strange. ‘What are you afraid of?’ he asks. ‘I am afraid of being hanged..’

What does McWhirter’s presence at Sharkhead have to do with the murder? Meanwhile, Superintendent Battle is running out of time. For the blow in the head of the woman has been planned to its minute detail in order to implicate Strange for the killing. Can he prove Strange’s innocence by way of evidence? While his daughter’s case gives Battle an idea, he has realised that he  deals with a most peculiar mind he has ever known in his career.

 

Highlights:

Superintendent Battle to the rescue! After thirteen years of absence, “the cool man” makes a comeback with a case similar to Murder Is Easy (1931) – see the Notes.

A teenage daughter in trouble, a man’s failure of committing suicide and a hate crime do not seem to yield any association at first to readers. As for Christie, weaving three separate issues into a thread of mind of a murderer is vital, if not how the seemingly confounding case will be resolved. Although the image of a murderer is captured through varied viewpoints, it is far from the technique the authoress used to unmask a number of murderers in a picturesque English village. Unlike Luke Fitzwilliam, Superintendent Battle is an active officer, albeit being called on duty during holiday to assist his nephew, Inspector James Leach, on the case. More importantly, he is a father having to deal with a delicate domestic issue; not a single ex-policeman just coming back from India.  Murders follow him, just as Hercule Poirot in the preceding war-time novel Evil Under The Sun (1941) – see the Notes.

Furthermore, halfway through the plot readers will see Christie’s mirroring a scene to another as in the case of Battle’s teenage trouble and the framing of Audrey Strange to the murder of Lady Tressilian.

To begin with, four people come to stay for a fortnight at Gull’s Point: Audrey’s ex-husband Nevile,   his pretty second wife Kay and Audrey’s childhood friend Thomas Royde. A recipe for disaster as the ‘triangle of love’ among Audrey-Kay-Nevile develops into continual tension between Kay and Audrey, for Nevile wants both women to be “friends.” Coupled with Royde’s shadowing  Audrey, the conflicts that erupt in the house lead to Nevile’s dispute with Lady Tressilian moments before she is killed with a blunt instrument.

Then Christie drops vital clues to the crime in the first few chapters, which also serves as an introduction to a number of minor characters. Besides the above-mentioned names, there are others: an ex-judge who is a friend of Lady Tressilian’s late husband, Edward Latimer, Kay’s friend who stays at a nearby hotel opposite Sharkhead and Angus McWhirter for sure (see Clues).

At this point, here are the questions: what makes Thomas Royde visit Gull’s Point after being abroad for quite a few years? Does Edward Latimer choose his hotel near to Kay’s husband’s godmother on purpose?

Be that as it may, what is most fascinating to my mind is the title. It is neither an irony nor pleasant in the least, for the killing is a goal: the zero hour. In fact, somehow it bears the same spirit as Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty.

At the beginning of the book, the octogenarian ex- judge Mr. Treve – Lady Tressilian’s late husband’s friend- is perceived to be vague, having said that a murder is an end result of careful planning.  ‘All converging towards a given spot…And then, when the time comes – over the top! Zero Hour. Yes, all of them converging towards zero..’ Words that then are dismissed as having no meaning to his audience and will be reflected by readers after his death. The cause? Heart attack – quite a natural one for his age. Yet, the night before, he was resigned to take flights of stairs to his room as the lift had apparently been ‘out of order’ (see The Twists). Then he had dinner in his hotel near to Gull’s Point with two guests of the house.  During the time Treves made a remark about a certain physical mark that recalls him to a convicted man (see Clues). His passing words then alarmed someone, much as it was simply a reflection. Intriguingly, what triggered him to say it?

In the meantime, there is Kay’s secret admirer, Edward Latimer. Curiously he worries about her staying at Gull’s Point. What does Edward have to worry about – the jealousy of an ex-wife? Or, does he feel something more sinister would happen when two women who love the same man are under one roof?

Angus McWhirther’s revisiting the scene of his failed suicide attempt is interesting. Here is a man who has come back from death, saved by the trees jutting into the sea. His being there saves Audrey Strange; a heroic act that is alike to Harley Quin’s in The Man From The Sea (The Mysterious Mr. Quin, 1932 – see the Notes). It is a prophecy fulfilled; the one uttered by a nurse at a nursing home where McWhirter recuperates. ‘It may be just by being somewhere – not doing anything – just by being at a certain place at a certain time…’ The rest for McWhirter and Strange is the same as Luke Fitzwilliam and Bridge Conway. You know the latter, don’t you?

What is most interesting about Latimer, Treve and McWhirter are their brief but brilliant appearance. The three of them are strangers which alter things. For Superintendent Battle, McWhirter is a God’s send for a main witness. Treves almost recognises a murderer despite many years have passed. Most importantly, Latimer’s statement of a pungent smell in his hotel on the night of the murder and his having kept missing to spot Nevile Strange are crucial to the investigation.

In this book Christie enquires the nature of a crime: is it an act of taking life by either a weapon or a physical force or is it an act of mind, who means to get away from it and awaits the fruit of their labour?

Despite her brilliant way of telling tales and drawing readers’ attention to another suspect, my criticism to the plot concerns with little details and references.

First of all, it is unusual for the authoress to have left some loose ends. What happened to Sylvia Battle after her father having challenged the Headmistress to call police? Was her name cleared afterward and how? Will she find a better school pending the investigation?

Second of all, Mary Aldin, Lady Tressilian’s companion (see The Most Fascinating Character).  She is mentioned to have entertained herself by some ‘childish experiment’ out of boredom. What kind of things? I have to wonder about it and whether one of them is to leave a placard ‘out of order’ in front of a hotel lift.  Perhaps ringing a bell in the Lady’s room to call her maid?

Third of all, I have my reservation with Battle’s experiment to get the murderer’s confession. Here he meets one of the most cunning minds that strikes an old woman without a blink of an eye. In the end, the murderer falls into believing that there was a witness. Would he believe Battle then? I sincerely doubt it. Not for someone who has planned a murder for nearly a year.

Nonetheless, Christie’s witty humour wins her readers’ heart after all. The choice of the name ‘Strange’ for a suspect, although there is Mrs. Lestrange in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Then a launderette girl who is confused with two very similar dark blue suits and an unhappy customer Angus McWhirter.

On the whole, I would recommend this book as it requires readers to look into crime as a culmination of events and a lesson on human’s limited intelligence.

 

The Twists:

-Angus McWhirter has the same dark blue suit as Nevile Strange’s

-Angus McWhirter states that he sees a man climbing up a rope towards Gull’s Point on a rainy night on Monday

-Kay Strange believes that Lady Tressilian’s money would have come to her upon the other’s death

-Thomas Royde loves Mary Aldin

-The wire of Lady Tressilian’s bell runs along the ceiling in the house

-Edward Latimer cannot swim

– Jane Barrett gives Nevile Strange an alibi

 

Cast of Characters:

Audrey Strange (Nevile’s ex-wife)

Superintendent Battle

Lady Camilla Tressilian (Nevile’s godmother)

Edward Latimer (Kay’s friend)

Inspector James Leach (Battle’s nephew)

Jane Barrett (Lady Camila’s maid)

Kay Strange (Nevile’s second wife, Edward’s friend)

Mary Aldin (Lady Camilla’s companion)

Sylvia Battle (Superintendent’s daughter)

Thomas Royde (Kay’s cousin and childhood friend)

Treves (ex-judge, Lady Camila’s late husband’s friend)

 

The Most Fascinating Character: Mary Aldin

 

Julie Graham is Mary Aldin in the novel adaptation into television series (Miss Marple’s – series three) in 2007

What is a life of a companion? We know some of her kind: Katherine Grey   (The Mystery of The Blue Train– see the Notes), Amy Carter (The Labours of Hercules – see the Notes) and Miss Gilchrist (After The Funeral – see the Notes). A supposedly altruistic personae whose status is higher than a maid but an equal wage with no pension. It is by their mistress’s favour that they see to their companions’ welfare; some are fortunate but others might not get a cent and are left worried silently about their future.

It is interesting that most companions in Christie’s book occur to be a single woman. With no clear job description and working hours they also have to attend to the whims of their mistresses and hear about family feuds and past life. I wonder to what extent those would insult their intelligence, for they must play part as a listener, in addition to be obedient at all times.

Mary Aldin has served Lady Tressilian’s for twelve years prior to the aristocrat’s death. A distant cousin of the other, Aldin knows Nevile Strange, Audrey Strange and Thomas Royde well. She manages the servants and knows the habits of her mistress and her maid, Jane Barrett.

During her interview with Battle and James Leach, she refuses the idea of the killing of Lady Camilla as ‘a defenceless old woman in bed.’ Furthermore, she does not believe that it was Nevile’s idea that Audrey and Kay should meet at Gull’s Point.

Aldin’s calm nature makes her uneasy to be read. Battle’s visit to her room sums up the kind of personality Aldin is. ‘She’s not so conservative. No photographs either. Not one who lives in the past.’

Yet to Mr. Treves, the old ex-judge, she compares notes during the dinner at Gull’s Point about the others. After his death she relays to Superintendent Battle about Treves’s words concerning  a murderer to Battle. ‘I took it that it was a boy the story was about – but it’s true Mr. Treves didn’t actually say so – in fact I remember now – he distinctly stated he would not give any particulars as to sex or age.’

Her statement confirms McWhirter’s that the ex-judge held information he had not supposed to. Was the judge then murdered because the murderer had remembered who he was?

In the end, all ends well for Mary Aldin; the way Christie did for Katherine Grey.

 

Clues:

Superintendent Battle to Sylvia Battle:

‘…I am a policeman I know well enough you’re not a thief. You never took a thing in this place. Thieves are of two kinds, the kind that yields to sudden and overwhelming temptation – (and that happens damned seldom – it’s amazing what temptations the ordinary normal honest human being can withstand) and there’s the kind that just takes what doesn’t belong to them almost as a matter of course. You don’t belong to either type. You’re not a thief. You’re not a very unusual liar.’

Sylvia began, ‘But -’

‘You’ve admitted it all? Oh, yes, I know that. There was a saint once –went out with bread for the poor. Husband didn’t like her. Met her and asked what there was in her basket. She lost her nerve and said it was roses – he tore open her basket and roses it was – a miracle! Now if you’d been Saint Elizabeth and were out with a basket of roses , and your husband had come along and asked what you’d got, you’d have lost her nerve and said “Bread”.’

Mr. Treves to Mary Aldin:

‘Rather an interesting shaped head – a curious angle from the crown to the neck- rendered less noticeable by the way he has his hair cut, but distinctly unusual. The last man I saw with a head like that got ten years’ penal servitude for a brutal assault on an elderly jeweller.’

‘Surely,’ exclaimed Mary,’you don’t mean -?’

‘Not at all, not at all. You mistake me entirely. I am suggesting no disparagement of a guest of yours. I was merely pointing out that a hardened and brutal criminal can be in appearance a most charming and personable young man. Odd, but so it is.’

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