Towards Zero is a work of detective fiction by Agatha Christie first published in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company in June 1944, and in the UK by the Collins Crime Club in July of the same year. The first US edition of the novel retailed at $2.00 and the UK edition at seven shillings and sixpence (7/6).
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 Treves dies, then she is murdered as well; Superintendent Battle and his nephew are called in. The book is the last to feature Superintendent Battle.
Lady Tressilian is now confined to her bed, but 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 uncomfortable, 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 which he does not reveal. The next morning, Treves is found dead in his hotel room and his death is attributed to heart failure from climbing up the stairs to his room the previous night, greatly upsetting Lady Tressilian. Thomas and Ted are mystified, as they saw a note stating that the lift was out of order when they walked Treves back. 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. Evidence suggests Nevile Strange as the murderer. One of his golf clubs was found at the scene with his fingerprints on it. Nevile’s quarrel with Lady Tressilian was overheard as well. However when the maid wakes up, she tells Superintendent Battle that she saw Lady Tressilian alive after Nevile’s visit to her room, before he left for Easterhead Bay to find Ted. The evidence then points to Audrey: a bloodied glove belonging to her is found in the ivy next to her window together with the real murder weapon. It was fashioned from the handle of a tennis racket and the metal ball from the fireplace fender in Audrey’s room. 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 order to silence Mr Treves.
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 that 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 odd 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 the evidence and her ready admission of guilt. However, Battle’s daughter had previously confessed to a theft she did not commit 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, Thomas’ brother, 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 was the mastermind behind all the events and circumstances that should have converged into “zero” – the hanging of his first wife for the murder of Lady Tressilian.
Nevile may have been behind two other deaths (Mr Treves and Adrian Royde) 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.
- 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
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.
In October and November 1944, it was serialized with illustrations under that same title as a supplement to The Mail (Adelaide), in Australia. Portions are missing from the newspapers scanned by Trove, so the exact dates are not certain, save for the start on 7 October 1944.
Towards Zero – First Edition Book Identification Guide
The books are listed in the order of publication. While the majority of Agatha Christie’s books were first published in the UK. There are many titles that were first published in the US. The title of the book may differs from the UK edition in some cases.
|Year||Title||Publisher||First edition/printing identification points|
|1944||Towards Zero||Dodd, Mead & Co, NY, 1944||First edition. Date on the title & copyright page matches. No statement of later printings. Rdecorative gray cloth, lettered in black. Price $2.00.|
|1944||Towards Zero||William Collins & Sons, London, ||First English edition. "1942" on single line stated on the copyright page. No statement of later printings. Red cloth lettered in black. Price 7/6.|
Note about Book Club Editions (BCE) and reprints:
UK: You can see statements of later reprint dates or of book club on the copyright page.
US: The US reprint publishers usually use the same sheets as the first edition and are harder to identify by looking at the title page or the copyright page. One may identify a BCE by looking at the DJ, which doesn’t have a price on top of the front flap and a “Book Club Edition” imprint at the bottom. If the dust jacked is clipped at both the top/bottom of the front flap. You can safely assume it’s a BCE . If the book is missing the dust jacket. Later BCE editions can be identified by its plain boards, while first printings are issued in quarter cloth.
Please refer to the gallery for detailed images of true first edition bindings and dust jackets.
Towards Zero – First Edition Dust Jacket Identification Guide
First edition bindings and various dust jacket printings identification.