Towards Zero by Agatha Christie

Title: Towards Zero
Author: Agatha Christie
First published in 1944

Plot summary from Goodreads: What is the connection among a failed suicide attempt, a wrongful accusation of theft against a schoolgirl, and the romantic life of a famous tennis player?

To the casual observer, apparently nothing. But when a house party gathers at Gull’s Point, the seaside home of an elderly widow, earlier events come to a dramatic head. As Superintendent Battle discovers, it is all part of a carefully laid plan — for murder.

This is the fifth, and last, of the Superintendent Battle interconnected mysteries. Superintendent Battle wasn’t one of Christie’s favorite creations, apparently, since she only wrote 5 books with him, but to my mind, they are five of the most enjoyable! He does exist within the same universe as Hercule Poirot, as he appears with Poirot, Colonel Race and Ariadne Oliver in Cards on the Table, although none of them appear in this book. Superintendent Battle does, however, make reference to Hercule Poirot while he investigating the murder of Lady Tressilian, noting Poirot’s attention to detail and its usefulness in crime solving.

The obsessive need for revenge takes center stage in this book. Agatha Christie has previously plumbed the depths of the obsessive personality, in books like Death on the Nile and And Then There Were None, and she will return to the theme in her psychological thriller Endless Night. The more I read – and reread – Agatha Christie, the more convinced I am that she had a way of cutting through societal niceties to see the blood and bone beneath, and frequently the true sight was terrifying. Her character sketches are quite compact, and while the negative or positive traits can be exaggerated, they are also remarkably perceptive given their brevity. This book demonstrates the devious and malicious undercurrents that can flow between two people – a victim and a perpetrator – while society sees something entirely different. And, until the very end, as is so often the case, Christie hides the truth in plain sight.

There are several supporting characters in this book that I particularly like, including Mary Aldin. About Mary Aldin, Christie said:

She has really a first-class brain—a man’s brain. She has read widely and deeply and there is nothing she cannot discuss. And she is as clever domestically as she is intellectually. She runs the house perfectly and keeps the servants happy—she eliminates all quarrels and jealousies—I don’t know how she does it—just tact, I suppose.”

If there is one thing that this book needed, it was more Mary Aldin!

One significant weakness to this book, I think, was Christie’s failure to develop the character of Angus McWhirter, using him as a prop to jump in and save the day, and the damsel, at the end. Christie had a thing for literal (not figurative) love at first sight, in which her male characters are constantly plunged into deep passionate love with a pretty face at first glance. While I am perfectly willing to buy lust at first sight, or infatuation at first sight, the shallow manner in which her characters profess love at first sight annoys me, and demeans the emotion. I also didn’t care particularly for the ending, although the promise of a legitimate happy ending for Mary was pleasant.

If you’re a fan of Dame Agatha, and you’ve somehow missed this one, I recommend it. If you are coming to Christie as a new reader, there are others that I would recommend before Towards Zero, although it is an enjoyable read and shows many of her skills to advantage.

A note on the television adaptation: the Miss Marple series grabbed this one for an adaptation, along with several other of the non-Marple independent mysteries, a fact which I personally consider a travesty. It was poorly done, so don’t bother with it. I really wish that someone would do a solid adaptation of the Christie mysteries that don’t involve Marple and/or Poirot. There are some really good books, and trying to shoehorn them into the Marple series doesn’t do them justice!

The Eternity Ring by Patricia Wentworth

Title: The Eternity Ring
Author: Patricia Wentworth
Series: Miss Silver #14
First Published: 1948

Plot Summary from Goodreads: Mary Stokes was walking through Dead Man’s Copse one evening when she saw, in the beam of a torch, the corpse of a young woman dressed in a black coat, black gloves, no hat and an eternity ring set with diamonds in her ear. But when she and Detective Sergeant Frank Abbott went back to the wood, the body had vanished. This would have been mystery enough for Miss Silver…but then a woman reported that her lodger had gone out on Friday dressed in a black coat, black beret, black shoes and large hoop earrings set all around with little diamonds like those eternity rings. She never came back…

I have really started to develop a soft spot for Patricia Wentworth, which is awesome because she wrote so many books that I’ll be busy with her backlist for years. Decades, maybe.

Eternity Ring is nominally a Miss Silver mystery, although she barely appears in the book at all. The main investigator is Frank Abbot, who is a likeable Scotland Yard Inspector. As has been in the case in the two prior Miss Silver mysteries that I’ve read, this one also had a strong romantic subplot, with a young married couple, Cicely and Frank Hathaway who have separated before the murders begin. When the shadow of suspicion begins to fall on Frank, their future is seriously in jeopardy.

I figured out the murderer pretty early in the book by process primarily of elimination. It’s a good mystery, though, and has some tense moments of real danger near the end of the book. I enjoy Wentworth’s romantic subplots more than Georgette Heyer’s romantic subplots (in her mysteries), and wondered that she never wrote straight up romance until I went digging around on the internet and found that, actually, she came to crime writing by way of a few historical novels and mysteries.

Her first novel, A Marriage Under the Terror, was a piece of historical fiction set during the French revolution. It’s available as a kindle book from Open Road. Her second novel, A Little More Than Kin, seems to be entirely out of print at this point, and doesn’t even show up on Goodreads. I don’t know if it was published under another title, which could explain it’s absence, or if its just wholly lost. Her third and fourth novels were romances: The Devil’s Wind and The Fire Within. The Devil’s Wind looks particularly gripping, set in India, which is also where Wentworth was born, during the Cawnpore Massacre. These are both available from Open Road. Her first mystery, The Astonishing Adventure of Jane Smith, is a bit more difficult to locate, but is still available used.

I still think that I liked Latter End a bit better than this one, and the first one I read, Grey Mask, remains my least favorite of her books. I have a few more on my kindle, and my library has about 25 available, so it’ll be a while before I exhaust my ready supply.

The Saltmarsh Murders by Gladys Mitchell

Title: The Saltmarsh Murders
Author: Gladys Mitchell
Series: Mrs. Bradley #4
First published: 1932

Plot Summary from Goodreads: Noel Wells, curate in the sleepy village of Saltmarsh, likes to spend his time dancing in the study with the vicar’s niece, until one day the vicar’s unpleasant wife discovers her unmarried housemaid is pregnant and trouble begins.

It is left to Noel to call for the help of sometime-detective and full-time psychoanalyst Mrs Bradley, who sets out on an unnervingly unorthodox investigation into the mysterious pregnancy, an investigation that also takes in a smuggler, the village lunatic, a missing corpse, a public pillory, an exhumation and, of course, a murderer.

Mrs. Bradley is easily one of the most memorable personalities in crime fiction and in this classic whodunit she proves that some English villages can be murderously peaceful.

Opinionated, unconventional, unafraid… If you like Poirot and Miss Marple, you’ll love Mrs Bradley.

This was my first foray into the long-running Mrs. Bradley series by Gladys Mitchell. Ms. Mitchell was born in 1901, and published her first Mrs. Bradley mystery, A Speedy Death, in 1929. She was a prolific author, publishing 66 of the Mrs. Bradley mysteries. She was also a teacher in girls schools for many years (now I’m thinking Miss Bulstrode, from The Cat Among the Pigeons), and was an early member of the Detection Club along with Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers. She was more prolific than both.

The Saltmarsh Murders is book #4 in the series. I’ve never seen the Diana Riggs BBC adaptation, from 1998-2000, and this series didn’t really make it onto my radar screen until a friend referenced it in a blog post. After seeing the reference, I jumped over to Amazon to find out more and noted that all of the Mrs. Bradley books are available in the Kindle Unlimited Library. I’ve not yet cancelled my KU subscription, so I decided to check out one of them and see what I thought. This was literally a stab in the dark. I liked the title – it sound appropriately atmospheric – so I downloaded it and started reading.

Mrs. Bradley’s full name is Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley, which is just too good for me to overlook. The book is partially narrated by a young curate, and I was getting some (erroneous) Murder of Roger Ackroyd vibes from his narration. It’s a quirky tale, and I was frankly surprised, and not really convinced, by who-actually-dun-it. Mrs. Bradley herself was eccentric, and somewhat peculiar, not to mention physically hideous (she is variously described as crocodilian and reptilian, her hands clawlike). But it was fun to read, and I want to read more so I can get a better handle on the series.

According to Wikipedia, critical opinion is divided on what is her best work, her strengths and style can be gleaned from the following 16 books: The Saltmarsh Murders (1932), Death at the Opera (1934), The Devil at Saxon Wall (1935), Come Away, Death (1937), Brazen Tongue (1940), When Last I Died (1941), The Rising of the Moon (1945), Death and the Maiden (1947), The Dancing Druids (1948), Tom Brown’s Body (1949), Groaning Spinney (1950), The Echoing Strangers (1952), Merlin’s Furlong (1953), Dance to Your Daddy (1969), Nest of Vipers (1979), and The Greenstone Griffins (1983). This provides a helpful entree into the series.

There is a Gladys Mitchell tribute site, which can be found here, and which provides additional resources.