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 first edition, hardcover|
|ISBN||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.
Lady Tressilian invites her ward for his annual visit at Gull's Point. He insists on bringing both his former wife and his present wife, though Lady Tressilian finds this awkward. Her old friend dies, and Superintendent Battle and his nephew are called in. The book is the last to feature her recurring character of Superintendent Battle.
The novel was well received at publication, noted for the well-developed characters. A later review called it superb as to the plot, noting also how well the novel depicted the gentlemanly behaviour expected at the main tennis tournament in 1944.
Lady Tressilian is now confined to her bed, and still invites guests to her seaside home at Gull's Point during the summer. Tennis star Nevile Strange, former ward of Lady Tressilian's deceased husband, incurs her displeasure. He proposes to bring both his new wife, Kay, and his former wife, Audrey, to 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; a long time family friend, Thomas Royde, home after a long stretch working overseas and still faithfully waiting on the sidelines for Audrey; and Mr Treves, an old solicitor and long time friend of the Tressilians.
The dinner party is not so comfortable, as Lady Tressilian had predicted. That night, Mr Treves told a story of an old case, where a child killed another child with an arrow, which was ruled an accident. The child was given a new name and a fresh start, despite a local man having seen the child practising assiduously with a bow and arrow. Mr Treves remembers the case and the child as a result of a distinctive physical feature that he does not describe. Next morning, Treves is found dead in his hotel room, presumed to be heart failure from unnecessary walking up the stairs to his room the previous night, greatly upsetting Lady Tressilian. Thomas and Ted are mystified, as they walked Treves back and saw the note stating that the lift was out of order - they learn from hotel staff that the lift was in working order that night. His death is ruled to be from natural causes.
Lady Tressilian is brutally murdered in her bed, and her maid drugged. Her heirs are Nevile and Audrey. The first evidence points to Nevile Strange as the murderer, including one of his golf clubs with his fingerprints on it. When the maid wakes up, she tells Superintendent Battle that she saw Lady Tressilian alive after Nevile's visit. The evidence then points to Audrey: one of her gloves bloodied and found in the ivy next to her window, and 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 narrated by Mr Treves, and his claim that he could recognize that child with certainty; Battle is certain that the lift sign was placed in reaction to that claim.
Angus MacWhirter is standing at the cliff where, a year earlier, he had attempted suicide, when Audrey attempts to run off the same cliff. He grabs her before she can jump. She confesses her fear, and he promises she will be safe. The local cleaners inadvertently give MacWhirter an 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 has stains in a certain pattern. He visits Gull’s Point, and requests Mary Aldin's help to find a rope in the house. They find a large damp rope in an otherwise dusty attic, and she locks the door until the police come.
Battle arrests Audrey on this evidence. However, Battle's daughter had previously confessed to a theft she never committed due to overwhelming pressure, and so he suspects that Audrey is in a similar situation. MacWhirter meets Battle and tells him what he has learned about this case, including his observation of a man swimming across the creek on the night of the brutal murder, and climbing into the house on a rope. Then, Thomas reveals that Audrey had ended their marriage, not Nevile, as she had grown afraid of him. She was about to marry Adrian Royde, 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. He had planned events and circumstances to cumulate into his first wife being hanged for the murder of Lady Tressilian – the "Towards 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 explained, Battle charges him with the murder of Lady Tressilian. Audrey seeks out MacWhirter to thank him, and they decide to marry. They will travel to Chile where he begins his new job. Audrey expects that Thomas will come to realize that he really wants to marry Mary Aldin instead.
- 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.
- Angus 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.
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 the 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."
- 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.
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).
In 1956, Christie adapted the book into a play.
In 1995, a film adaptation lost its support from Agatha Christie's estate. When Rosalind Hicks, Christie's daughter and controller of her estate, reviewed the script, with such issues as incest in the script, she 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.
- Nevile – Hugh Bonneville
- Lady Tresselian – Marcia Warren
- Tom MacWhirter – Tom Mannion
- Audrey – Claire Rushbrook
- Mary – Julia Ford
- Kay – Lizzy Watts
- Latimer – Joseph Kloska
- Royde – Stephen Hogan
- Treves, Constable – David Hargreaves
- Umpire/Butler, Inspector Leach – Philip Fox
- Receptionist – Annabelle Dowler
- Porter, Doctor Lazenby – Benjamin Askew
- Sergeant – Matt Addis
- Marcum, J S (May 2007). "American Tribute to Agatha Christie: The Classic Years: 1940 - 1944". Retrieved 13 October 2015.
- Peers, Chris; Spurrier, Ralph; Sturgeon, Jamie (March 1999). Collins Crime Club – A checklist of First Editions (Second ed.). Dragonby Press. 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
- "Towards Zero". Fantastic Fiction. Retrieved 22 January 2014.
- fr:L'Heure zéro (film)
- Marple: Towards Zero at the Internet Movie Database
- "Agatha Christie: Towards Zero". BBC. Retrieved 10 October 2015.