Dust-jacket illustration of the US (true first) edition. See Publication history (below) for UK first edition jacket image.
|Publisher||Dodd, Mead and Company|
|Media type||Print (hardback & paperback)|
|Pages||242 pp (first edition, hardcover)|
|ISBN||0002318520 / 9780002318525 (1976 UK edition)|
|Preceded by||The Moving Finger|
|Followed by||Absent in the Spring|
Towards Zero is a work of detective fiction by Agatha Christie first published in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company in June 1944, selling for $2.00. and in the UK by the Collins Crime Club in July of the same year
The book is the last to feature her recurring character of Superintendent Battle.
Lady Tressilian, now confined to her bed, annually invites guests to her seaside home of Gull's Point during the summer. Tennis star Nevile Strange, former ward of Lady Tressilian's deceased husband, incurs her displeasure when he proposes that both his new wife, Kay, and his former wife, Audrey, visit at the same time, a change from past years. Lady Tressilian grudgingly agrees to this set of incompatible guests. Staying in hotels nearby are Kay’s friend Ted, long time family friend Thomas Royde, home after a long stretch working overseas, and Mr. Treves, an old solicitor, long time friend to the Tressilians. The group is not so comfortable, as Lady Tressilian had predicted. The night of his visit to her home, Mr. Treves told stories of an old case, where a child killed another child with an arrow, ruled an accident. The child was given a new name and a fresh start, despite a local man having seen the child practicing assiduously with a bow and arrow. Mr. Treves remembers the case and the child for a distinctive physical feature that he does not describe. Treves is found dead in his hotel room, presumed to be heart failure from walking unnecessary stairs to his room, greatly upsetting Lady Tressilian. It mystifies Thomas and Ted, who walked him back, and saw the note saying lift out of order, to learn from hotel staff that the lift was not out of order. His death is ruled natural.
Lady Tressilian is brutally murdered in her bed, and her maid drugged so as not to hear the bell if she had been called. Her heirs are Nevile and Audrey. The first evidence points very directly to Nevile Strange as the murderer, including one of his golf clubs with his fingerprints on it. When the maid finally wakes up, she tells Superintendent Battle she saw Lady Tressilian alive after her visit with Nevile, and saw Nevile as well. The next evidence is found more slowly, and points to Audrey: one of her gloves bloodied and found in the ivy next to her window, and more seriously, the actual murder weapon. It was fashioned from the handle of a tennis racket and the metal ball from the fireplace fender in Audrey’s room. Then Mary Aldin relates the story of Mr. Treves, and his claim that he could recognize that child with certainty; Battle is clear that the lift sign was placed in reaction to that claim.
Audrey attempts suicide by running off the same cliff used by Andrew MacWhirter a year earlier. He is standing there contemplating his changed fortunes, and grabs her before she can jump. She confesses her fear, and he promises she will be safe. The local cleaners give MacWhirter the uncleaned jacket belonging to someone else. Though he is not one of the party at Gull’s House, he is aware of the progress of the investigation, well reported in the local newspapers. He realizes why the jacket accidentally given him has stains in a certain pattern. He visits Gull’s House, and requests Mary Aldin to find a rope in the house; they find a large damp rope in an otherwise dusty attic, which door she locks until the police can see the rope.
Battle arrests Audrey on this evidence, and his judgment that she is acting as his daughter did, willing to confess to what she did not do. MacWhirter then meets with Battle to tell him what he has learned about this case, including observation of a man swimming across the creek the night of the brutal murder, climbing into the house up a rope. Thomas reveals that Audrey had ended their marriage, not Nevile, as she had grown afraid of him. She and Adrian Royde were about to go off together, when Adrian was killed in a road accident. With the parties on a motor launch, Battle uses this information to force a confession from Nevile Strange, who planned to have his first wife hanged for the murder of Lady Tressilian – the "zero" of the title.
Two other deaths (Mr. Treves and Adrian Royde) may be due to Nevile, but there is insufficient evidence to prosecute. With his confession, the rope, and the ruse with the bell pull understood, Battle charges him with the murder of Lady Tressilian. Audrey seeks out MacWhirter to thank him, and they decide to marry; both will travel to Chile where he begins his new position. Audrey expects that Thomas will realize that he really wants to marry Mary Aldin.
- Camilla, Lady Tressilian: host of her seaside home near Saltcreek, widow in her early seventies.
- Mary Aldin: Lady Tressilian's companion, in her mid-thirties.
- Nevile Strange: a handsome athlete and tennis player, 33 years old, former ward of Lady Tressilian's late husband.
- Kay Strange: his beautiful and emotional second wife, 23 years old.
- Audrey Strange: Strange's first wife, age 32. She was orphaned young, raised with her cousins and aunt, the Roydes.
- Ted Latimer: a friend of Kay since she was 15 years old.
- Thomas Royde: Audrey's cousin, on vacation from his work in Malay states, man of few words.
- Adrian Royde: brother to Thomas; barrister, loved Audrey Strange, recently killed in road accident.
- Mr Treves: solicitor, an old friend of Lady Tressilian, about 80 years old.
- Andrew MacWhirter: man who attempted suicide from the cliff near Lady Tressilian's home, and survives to become a part of the solution to the crime.
- Inspector James Leach: Battle's nephew, assigned to the Saltcreek area.
- Superintendent Battle: Vacationing with nephew, he is assigned to the case with him; husband and father of five children, youngest of whom gives him an insight useful to solving this case.
Publication and reception
The novel was first serialised in Collier's Weekly in three instalments from 6 May (Volume 113, Number 19) to 20 May 1944 (Volume 113, Number 21) under the title Come and Be Hanged! with illustrations by Charles La Salle. The first US edition of the novel retailed at $2.00 and the UK edition at seven shillings and sixpence (7/6). The review by Maurice Willson Disher in The Times Literary Supplement of 22 July 1944 was overwhelmingly positive: "Undiscriminating admirers of Miss Christie must surely miss the thrill of realizing when she is at her best. If this argument is sound then Towards Zero is for the critical. By virtue of masterly story-telling it makes the welfare of certain persons at a seaside town seem of more importance at the moment than anything else in the world. Mechanized brains may object that the murderer "perfects" his mystery by methods imposed upon fiction's police, but even when the maze is vaguely recognised the tale still grips. The characters become so much a part of the reader's existence that he must know what their ultimate fate may be before he will rest satisfied. How alive they are is apparent when two men, both dogged, laconic, poker-faced, never seem alike. The wife and the ex-wife, who neither like nor dislike one another, also reveal creative power. As an exhibition of the modern brand of human nature, Towards Zero deserves higher praises than any that can be awarded to it as an excellent detective story." 
Maurice Richardson in 6 August 1944 issue of The Observer wrote, "The new Agatha Christie has a deliciously prolonged and elaborate build-up, urbane and cosy like a good cigar and red leather slippers. Poirot is absent physically, but his influence guides the sensitive inspector past the wiles of the carefully planted house party, and with its tortuous double bluff this might well have been a Poirot case. How gratifying to see Agatha Christie keeping the flag of the old classic who-dun-it so triumphantly flying!"
Robert Barnard: "Superb: intricately plotted and unusual. The murder comes later, and the real climax of the murderer's plot only at the end. The ingenuity excuses a degree of far-fetchedness. Highly effective story of the child and the bow-and-arrow (part II, chapter 6) and good characterization of the playboy-sportsman central character – very much of that era when one was expected to behave like a gentleman at Wimbledon."
- 1956: Christie adapted the book into a play.
- 1995: A film company was going to turn Towards Zero into a film and included such issues as incest in the script. Rosalind Hicks, Christie's daughter and controller of her estate, reviewed the script and ordered that the name of the film be changed as well as the names of the characters. The film became Innocent Lies and was met with mediocre success.
- 2007: Adaptation as part of the third season of the Agatha Christie's Marple television series produced by ITV. Miss Marple replaces Superintendent Battle as the detective in this adaptation. Geraldine McEwan plays Miss Marple.
- 2010: radio play for the BBC Radio 4
- 1944: Dodd Mead and Company (New York), June 1944, Hardcover, 242 pp
- 1944: Collins Crime Club (London), July 1944, Hardcover, 160 pp
- 1947: Pocket Books (New York), Paperback, 210 pp (Pocket number 398)
- 1948: Pan Books, Paperback, 195 pp (Pan number 54)
- 1959: Fontana Books (Imprint of HarperCollins), Paperback, 192 pp
- 1972: Ulverscroft Large-print Edition, Hardcover, 347 pp; ISBN 0-85456-126-9
- 1973: Greenway edition of collected works (William Collins), Hardcover, 224 pp
- 1974: Greenway edition of collected works (Dodd Mead), Hardcover, 224 pp; ISBN 0-00-231827-X
- 1977: Penguin Books, Paperback, 192 pp
- 2012: Center Point USA hardcover edition, ISBN 1611734584 / 9781611734584, 292 pp
In 2010, two Kindle editions were issued: one from HarperCollins, ISBN B0046A9MV8, and one from William Morrow Paperbacks, ISBN B005CL8DA6. Numerous editions of audio books have been issued from May 2004 to February 2010.
- Czech: Nultá hodina (Zero Hour)
- Estonian: Haripunkti poole (Towards the Peak)
- Finnish: Kohti nollapistettä (Towards Zero)
- German: Kurz vor Mitternacht (Just Before Midnight)
- Hungarian: Éjféltájt (Towards Zero)
- Norwegian: Mot nullpunktet (Towards Zero)
- Polish: Godzina zero (Zero Hour)
- European Portuguese: Contagem até Zero (Countdown to Zero)
- Brazilian Portuguese: Hora Zero (Zero Hour)
- Russian: Час ноль (Zero Hour)
- Turkish: Sıfıra doğru (Towards Zero)
- American Tribute to Agatha Christie
- Chris Peers, Ralph Spurrier and Jamie Sturgeon. Collins Crime Club – A checklist of First Editions. Dragonby Press (Second Edition) March 1999 (p. 15).
- The Times Literary Supplement, 22 July 1944 (p. 353)
- The Observer, 6 August 1944 (p. 3)
- Barnard, Robert. A Talent to Deceive – an appreciation of Agatha Christie (revised edition, p. 208). Fontana Books: 1990; ISBN 0-00-637474-3
- Marple: Towards Zero at the Internet Movie Database
- fr:L'Heure zéro (film)
- "Towards Zero". Fantastic Fiction. Retrieved 22 January 2014.
- Towards Zero at the official Agatha Christie website
- Dustjacket of the first US edition at the New York Public Library digital gallery
- Innocent Lies (1995) at the Internet Movie Database
- Marple: Towards Zero (2007) at the Internet Movie Database
- L'Heure zéro (2007) at the Internet Movie Database