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Literature / Towards Zero

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An Agatha Christie novel published in 1944, starring one of her recurring characters (and an acquaintance to Hercule Poirot), Superintendent Battle, as he and his nephew Inspector James Leach tries to solve the murder of the wealthy Lady Tressilian.

Christie adapted the novel into a play on two separate occasions. Her first version, written in 1945, was performed in Martha's Vineyard for one week. The second one was written in 1956 and had its premiere in London's West End later that year. The 1945 version would be performed again in 2019, at a theater in Norwich, England.

Was adapted to TV in 2007 as a part of ITV's Agatha Christie's Marple series, and by BBC Radio 4 in 2010.

Tropes found in Towards Zero:

  • The Ace: Nevile Strange is described as a man who "has it all". He's rich and handsome, he is a successful professional tennis-player and all around a great athlete, he is married to a beautiful woman and is set to inherit a large fortune from his late adoptive father, Matthew Tressilian. He turns out of be a Broken Ace, as he is a possessive sociopath who plotted an elaborate murder and double frame-up in order to have his ex-wife arrested and hanged as a revenge for her trying to divorce him.
  • All Love Is Unrequited: Ted is in love with Kay, who is married to Nevile, who still seems to have feelings for his ex-wife Audrey. Audrey's own feelings for Nevile is ambiguous, but she certainly does not reciprocate Thomas' love.
  • Aggressive Categorism: A very mild example, and likely justified by the prevailing view of gender roles of the time, but when praising Mary Aldin of her intelligence, Lady Tressilian describes how she has the brains of a man.
  • Amateur Sleuth: While his line of work is not specified, it is quite obvious that Angus MacWhirter is not an officer of the law. However, when he became involved in Lady Tressilian's murder via Audrey, he did some snooping around (without the police knowing) with some help by Mary Aldin by finding and securing the damp rope used by the murderer, and managed to deduce the truth of the murder while presenting it as an eyewitness account. Averted in the Radio 4 adaptation, which merges Superintendent Battle into his character and makes him a disgraced ex-detective with the Met.
  • Ascended Extra: Downplayed. Superintendent Battle has been featured in several other works by Christie, such as Cards on the Table, but he was only a supporting character in those books. He has a much more prominent role in this case than in his previous appearances, though his role is still overshadowed by the suspects.
  • Author Filibuster: Christie novels tended to have long Start to Corpse times, something which she was occasionally criticized for. She used the first chapter of Towards Zero to respond to these criticisms by having a character deliver a lengthy speech on how a murder is the culmination of a murderer's plot rather than the instigating point, and thus should come as late in the book as possible.
  • The Beard: Neville married Kay to support the thesis that it was he who left Audrey and not the other way around.
  • Better to Die than Be Killed: Audrey would rather jump off the cliff than be hanged for murder.
  • Birds of a Feather: Angus MacWhirter tried to commit suicide by throwing himself off the cliff near Gull's Point, but survived. A year later, he rescues Audrey from attempting to do the same. The two then bonded together over their shared misfortune, and they decide to marry at the novel's ending. Kay Strange and Ted Latimer are another example, both being glamorous, party loving lounge lizards who don't fit in with the prim and proper (and prejudiced) English gentry.
  • Bluffing the Murderer: Nevile Strange finally confesses to murdering Lady Tressilian after Angus MacWhirter testified seeing someone swim across the creek and climb into the witness's bedroom during the time of the murder, and Nevile was the only person who could possibly do all of that. Angus later reveals that he did not actually witness anything, but deduced what happened after finding the killer's jacket and the rope they used to climb into the Lady's room. Of course, since a deduction doesn't hold as much water as an eyewitness account, he presented it as such.
  • Break Them by Talking: Superintendent Battle causes Neville to have a Villainous Breakdown, through the application of "The Reason You Suck" Speech.
  • Bungled Suicide: Angus MacWhirter had tried to jump off a cliff near the location of the murder roughly a year before the story began, but did not die and was hospitalised instead. He was quite bitter about this at first, though things got better for him at the final chapters.
  • Busman's Holiday: The Superintendent and his nephew were having a vacation near Gull's Point when the tragedy occurred.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: The first chapter introduces a certain Angus MacWhirter, a suicide survivor, who seemingly has nothing to do with the victim or the suspects. However, he reappears in the final act of the story as a key witness who ultimately provided the solution to the crime.
  • Clear Their Name: Inspector Battle has to deal with this a couple of times.
    • First, his daughter is accused of stealing, when the school headmistress pressured the girl to confess to the crime. This incident played a part in his deduction of the murder case.
    • When the Lady Tressilian was murdered, all evidence pointed to her late husband's ward, Nevile Strange — the two had been heard arguing before her death, and her blood was found on Nevile's golf club and coat. Battle delayed making an arrest, to the confusion of the other officers, until one of the maids provided him with a solid alibi.
    • After Nevile Strange has been acquitted, new leads implicate his ex-wife Audrey, who then confessed to the crime. Battle noticed how similar her circumstances was to his daughter's forced false confession, convincing him that Audrey was innocent. He must then find new leads despite the overwhelming odds against it.
  • Contrived Coincidence: A year before the murder took place, Angus MacWhirter attempted suicide and failed. Then, while he was pondering about his life in his "suicide location", he met Audrey Strange and became a key witness to the on-going murder investigation. Superintendent Battle even remarks that his involvement, and his subsequent assistance in solving the crime, was a "miracle".
  • A Day in the Limelight: After a number of minor, supporting, and cameo roles, Superintendent Battle gets to be main detective in Towards Zero.
  • Domestic Abuse: An hellish example with Nevile and Audrey. He is a psycho but keeps up a very believable Mask of Sanity. His first wife had now and then glimpses of something very off about him (and he was subtly very jealous and controlling of her) but no one would believe her.
  • Enfant Terrible: There was an incident in the past where a child had murdered their friend using a bow and arrow. The case was ruled as an accident, but an eyewitness account that the child had practiced using the weapons beforehand suggested otherwise.
  • Everyone Must Be Paired: At the end of the book, everyone that wasn't guilty is happily paired off, in a way that neatly solves the All Love Is Unrequited issues above. Audrey goes to marry Angus, while Ted is free to pursue Kay after her husband is convincted as the murderer. It is implied that Thomas would eventually get over Audrey and get together with Mary instead.
  • False Confession: One of the opening chapters has Superintendent Battle being called to his daughter's school after said daughter confessed to stealing. A brief chat with the girl reveals that she was only confessing due to pressure, and the circumstances of her confession are what made the Superintendent later realize that Audrey's confession to Lady Tressilian's murder was also due to overwhelming pressure. This convinced him that Audrey was innocent.
  • Fiery Redhead: Kay Strange.
  • Fourth-Date Marriage: Angus MacWhirter saves Audrey's life about a week before he's set to leave for South America. The grateful Audrey requests to join him, and suggests that they marry before leaving the country. Angus agrees.
  • Framing the Guilty Party: Neville frames himself in a way that's easily explained away and makes Audrey look like she's framing him, and that she actually committed the murder.
  • Gambit Roulette: The murder of Mr. Treves is done by exploiting his weak heart and inability to wangle ground-floor lodgings, by means of hanging a sign that the elevator was kaput. Superintendent Battle lampshades the chancy nature of this method.
    It might not have come off, but it did!
  • Golf Clubbing: It appears that Lady Tressilian was killed with a golf club. The murder weapon was actually a modified tennis racket. This is important because it means that she was killed not by Audrey Strange, a left-handed golfer, but Nevile Strange, a right-handed tennis player using a backhand.
  • Good Is Not Nice: Superintendent Battle is a just man who refuses to convict an innocent even when all the evidence seemingly point to that person. This doesn't stop him from deliberately throwing one of the suspects, Ted Latimer, into the sea to verify the young man's claims that he can't swim.
  • Graceful Loser: Nevile is famously a good sport who never lets a loss disturb his genial personality. This is all a facade, however, as Nevile is deep down ruthless, self-absorbed sociopath who brutally murdered a defenceless old lady and tried to have his ex-wife arrested and hanged for the crime in a fit of wounded pride after said wife left him for another man.
  • Happily Failed Suicide:
    • While he is quite bitter about his failed suicide at first, Angus's life ends up turning for the better by an eccentric millionaire who admires his integrity, and find a new love.
    • Same with Audrey, she attempts suicide when it seems she's going to be arrested for Lady Tressilian's murder but Angus saves her and helps the police finding the real killer. In the end she agrees to marry him.
  • He Knows Too Much: The killer arranges for Mr. Treves's death after the latter publicly discusses an old case about a child who murdered their friend, and had since adopted a new identity. That child is now an adult and is among Lady Tressilian's guests. Mr. Treves recognizes the child and believes that they are still capable of murder. He's unfortunately correct on that thought.
  • Interrupted Suicide: Audrey Strange tried to commit suicide when she was about to be arrested and hanged for Lady Tressilian's murder. Angus MacWhirter caught her just in time.
  • Kissing Cousins: Thomas Royde is head-over-heels in love with Audrey, who is a distant cousin of his. He comes to Gull's Point intending to propose to her, now that she's divorced. In a subversion, Audrey does not return his feelings. Double Subverted later when it's revealed that Audrey was romantically involved with Thomas's late brother, Adrian.
  • Loving a Shadow: Thomas Royde's affections for Audrey are mostly based on the image of the girl he once grew up with, and not the woman she is now. Audrey then asserts that he'd be better off with Mary Aldin as she prepares to go to South America with Angus, feeling she's a far better match for him.
  • Manipulative Bastard: Neville manipulated the entire situation and carefully planned the murder to frame Audrey.
  • Murder the Hypotenuse: It is implied that Adrian Royde's death was caused by a jealous Nevile Strange when the latter realised that Audrey was about to leave with the former.
  • Propping Up Their Patsy: The murderer frames first himself, which is easily discovered to be a frame-up, then his ex-wife. When she is accused, he is quick to defend her, partly to throw off suspicion from himself and partly as his plan to make her feel guilty for leaving him.
  • The Quiet One: Thomas Royde is said to be a man of few words, often responding to questions in monosyllables.
  • Red Oni, Blue Oni: Kay is the red to Audrey's blue. A character compares them to Snow-White and Rose-Red.
  • Red Right Hand: Mr. Treves mentions that he could recognize his "little murderer" because the child has a very distinctive physical trait. This is a rather unusual example of the trope, since it turns out that most of the guests possess an outstanding attribute: Audrey Strange has a scar on her ear, Thomas Royde has a disfigured hand, Ted Latimer's head is of strange shape, and Mary Aldin has a skunk streak. But only after The Reveal will most readers realize that yet another peculiar physical characteristic was explicitly mentioned in the book - namely, the difference between Nevile Strange's little fingers.
  • The Reveal: Audrey was never in love with Nevile to begin with, and it was never her idea to reunite with him and Kay under the same house. In fact she was scared of him and she was the one who left, but Neville made everyone believe the contrary with some supreme Manipulative Bastard qualities.
  • Reverse Psychology:
    • Nevile, after setting up a meeting with Audrey, arranges that all three Stranges would be present in Gull's Point during the summer holidays, a suggestion that doesn't sit well with any of the other guests. He then makes an over-the-top assertion that the whole thing was his idea, and no, Audrey had not put any ideas in his head about it. This only reinforces the idea that Audrey was the one who manipulated Nevile to let her meet his new wife, and that he's protecting her.
    • Done again when Audrey becomes the new prime suspect, with loud protestations, unconvincing suggestions that this new lead is another frame-up, and so on.
  • Screw the Money, I Have Rules!: Angus MacWhirter refused to lie and say that his boss was driving the speed limit, even though it ended up costing him his job. However, it got him a much better job from somebody who heard about the incident and liked Angus' display of integrity.
  • Second Love: Both Angus MacWhirter and Audrey Strange have married and divorced, and eventually found love in each other.
  • Serial Killings, Specific Target: While the killer was apprehended before they could get the intended victim, Lady Tressilian's death was actually just a means to get Audrey Strange convicted and hanged for her murder. Nevile wanted to see her go through the emotional torment of being accused of the crime and dying of a painful execution as a "punishment" for wanting to divorce him.
  • Sibling Yin-Yang: Thomas Royde is a very quiet and unassuming man. It is said that his late brother Adrian was charming and good with words.
  • A Sinister Clue: The position of the wound and layout of the room seem to indicate that Lady Tressilian's murderer was left-handed. Subverted. Neville, the tennis player, delivered the killing blow with a backhand swing, to implicate the left-handed Audrey.
  • The Sociopath: Nevile Strange is a remorseless killer who, as a child, had murdered their friend and made it look like an accident. Extremely vain and self-absorbed, they committed at least two murders—one of whom was his own, loving adoptive mother—just to get revenge on his ex-wife, Audrey, for having the audacity to try and leave him due to his abuse. In order to pin the blame on Audrey and ensure that she would be convicted and hanged, they thought of a convoluted double bluff that not only made it look like she was guilty, but also that she attempted to frame Nevile beforehand. Their plan was foiled only by Contrived Coincidence, which even the presiding detective considers a miracle.
  • Spanner in the Works: Angus MacWhirter ends up being this to Nevile Strange by manner of Contrived Coincidence of stopping Audrey from killing herself after being accused and then securing a critical piece of evidence in the form of a damp rope used by the culprit to climb into the house after swimming from the creek.
  • Unlucky Childhood Friend: Thomas and Ted are respectively in love with Audrey and Kay, but they married other men. Thomas in the end falls for Mary Aldin, while Ted has another chance with Kay once Neville is exposed.
  • Villainous Breakdown: The killer broke down into a sobbing wreck once their scheme was exposed.
  • Woman Scorned: Gender-flipped. Nevile Strange refuses to accept that Audrey would walk out on him, so he plotted to have her arrested for Lady Tressilian's murder and hanged for it.