"Towards Zero – Superintendent Battle #5" by Agatha Christie

One of the best Agatha Christie books: modern, innovative, people-focused and with a detective who feels like a real person

This is one of the best Agatha Christie books I’ve read. Although it was published in 1944, it feels very modern. The pace is brisk. The paths of multiple characters are followed simultaneously without any initial explanation of how they relate to each other or the murder. The characters, including the detective, feel like real people rather than cogs in the plot. The denouement requires a little bit of a stretch but Christie carries it off because, by then, the reader is less invested in the solution to a puzzle than they are in seeing justice done.

I rather liked the “Towards Zero” idea that a murder is not the start but the culmination of something and so, to be properly understood, the story of the murder needs to start not with the death but by following, over months, the paths of people who will collide with or contribute to the murder.

It was also nice to have an Agatha Christie murder where the protagonists were not filtered through the eyes and ego of a “great detective” but exist in their own right and are primarily interested in each other.

For once, the detective who will hunt down the killer is shown as a normal person: a man with a wife and a daughter. He’s competent, confident and thoughtful without being arrogant or inappropriately curious about the lives of others. I wanted to applaud him for the way he dealt with his daughter’s headmistress, and with his daughter when there is an incident at her school.

By the time we reached the first death, Superintendent Battle had barely made an appearance but the air was heavy with scents of both victims and predators.

What makes this such a good novel is Agatha Christie’s ability to make all the characters relatable and memorable with very few words. I liked that she avoided making it clear who the author approves of. This added to the challenge of figuring out who did what with whom.

I think this is the first Christie novel that I’ve read where I felt some empathy with each of the characters, even the ones that were hard to like.

I listened to the audiobook version in which Hugh Fraser delivered his usual flawless performance, making a good novel even easier to enjoy. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear a sample

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