Murder comes late but with shocking force in this compact puzzle about a gathering, over the course of a fortnight in September, at Gull’s Point, the seaside home of Lady Camilla Tresillian. The long setup enables Christie to dwell more extensively than usual on the knotty series of relationships that bind together her principal characters. Among this group are Nevile Strange, a callow sportsman who seems to have all that a man could want, including a beautiful wife and no less beautiful ex-wife; Audrey Strange, the ex-wife, whose ethereal presence haunts the scene at Gull’s Point; and Thomas Royde, a tight-lipped colonial planter who has spent the long years of his Malayan exile nursing an unrequited passion for Audrey. In revealing just enough about these people to allow for the play of potentially homicidal motives—and, equally important, for the camouflaging of motive—the author puts her artistry in high relief. Yes, artistry. The rules of the detective-story game keep its practitioners from delving honestly into the minds of suspects, and that circumstance in turn keeps the genre from earning the respect that accrues to so-called serious fiction. Yet art and artifice go hand in hand, and in this instance the art takes the form of carefully blending revelation with concealment. Christie practices this kind of literary magic with an adroitness that few highbrow writers could match, even as she displays (within the limits of the whodunit form) a fine knack for the exploration of character. Who committed the brutal bludgeoning that takes place shortly after the book’s halfway point? Superintendent Battle sifts the clues, both physical and psychological, and comes to a solution that is not just clever but also meaningful.
AGATHA CHRISTIE. Towards Zero (1944).