Monday, 5 July 2010

Towards Zero (1944)

Plot: "When murder is the end and not the beginning"

Towards Zero keeps reminding you that it is an experimental book, but it's easy to forget that it is. It says at the start that the murder will happen at the end. Despite this, two murders happen roughly where you'd expect them to in a Christie book - one early on, and then a major one at about the halfway point. Duly, you at this point forget that this is all a sideshow and decide "ah, look at that, there's a definite murder". This is a mistake - when Christie tells you you should be thinking about a major murder to come and you don't, you're asking for trouble.

This is a book about predestination, about people being moved into place - some of them by a mad manipulator, and some of them by fate. It's about celestial clockwork being set in motion - although, that said, there are some odd things about this book:

1) Too many characters
Seriously, if you can remember who everyone is throughout, you're doing well. I've picked this book up to make notes on and am thinking "no, now hang on, is he the colonial adventurer or the noble suicide?". There's an equally baffling splay of girls and boys and it all gets quite confusing - not in the sense of "Who can the murderer be?" so much as "Who are all of you?".

2) Clever stuff
Inspector Battle is back, and is introduced in a brilliant mini-adventure about solving theft at his daughter's school which shows him off as the master of subtle social observation. It seems like a throw-away incident, but Christie reminds you at the end, it is not - it is vitally important to how Battle later works out who has done what.

3) Good lies
The resolution of the mystery relies on a good and clever character (who only now enters the story) guessing the remarkable way in which the murder was committed... and lying about it. This is interesting - especially as Battle knows and approves of the lie.

4) Things to be wary of
The story hinges on a dashing man trying to win back his first wife. Now, given what you know of how Christie looks at dashing ex-husbands, wounded first wives and troublesome second wives, see if you can guess who might be at the heart of the murder mystery?

5) Naming
Yes, it's very funny that a character is called Mr Royde. But there's also someone called Neville Strange. Which, when you get to the end of the book, appears all too clearly peculiar.

6) Something fishy
This book features an actual red herring in the form of a fishy smell which is... a fishy smell. I'm racking my head for a similar scent-related clue occuring in Christie, and I can't think of one, beyond the occasional mention of a whiff of bitter almonds.

7) The dancing boy
The book features Ted Latimer - the second Mrs Strange's best friend. He's curiously written - referred to as "a gigolo" or as something bright and loud and entertaining. But he's not actually gay - his flamboyance merely hides a broken heart. Curiously, it is his bitter observance of the characters of the book as "animals... happy and superior in your roped-off enclosure" that gets to the real nature of the people in the book (and the deceit they're wrapped up in).

8) Fate and clockwork
Interestingly, at the end of the book it's like a purging of a plague - not only is everyone now in the right place to marry the right people, but a curse has been lifted, and for the first time, if you think about it, you can perceive why everyone is in the position that they've been put in. It's quite a subtle trick that goes on - sometimes re-reading of various passages shows you that the reasons for something happening have been quite different to how the people involved have thought them.

1 comment:

  1. Towards Zero is one of my favourite Christies. I like the 'murder by heart attack'....