Towards Zero (1944) by Agatha Christie
Superintendent Battle is spending his holiday with his nephew Inspector James Leach near Gull's Point, the home of Lady Tressilian, a wealthy widow. It is September and the time of year when her husband's ward, Neville Strange, would come to visit. In previous years, he would have brought his lovely wife Audrey. But this year he's arranged for both his wives to be present...Audrey, his ex-wife, and the current Mrs. Strange, Kay. Lady Tressilian can't understand these modern ideals of let's "all be friends together" (and quite frankly prefers Audrey to Kay). But when Audrey tells her that she doesn't mind at all, Lady Tressilian decides to let the plan go forward.
That would be a terrible mistake. Neville and Kay arrive with Kay's friend Ted Latimer trailing along. It's obvious that Ted still loves Kay. Also in attendance is Thomas Royde, who has been in love with Audrey since they were young. And then there's Mary Aldin, young companion to the elderly widow, who is attracted to Thomas. To say that there is all kinds of undercurrents would be an understatement. Then Mr. Treve, a solicitor and old friend of Lady Tressilian, arrives for dinner and tells a story of a murderous youngster who got away with killing someone with a bow and arrow years ago. It was deemed an accident and the child was given a new name and a new chance at life. He almost seems to force the story on the company and says that he doesn't know what happened to that young person, but that he'd know them anywhere if seen again because of a physical deformity of some sort. He does not elaborate.
The next day Mr. Treve is found dead in his bed--apparently his weak heart gave out when he was forced to climb stairs because an out of order notice was on the lift. Except...the hotel management says that there was nothing wrong with the lift. But both Thomas and Ted (who had walked the older gentleman back to his hotel) had seen the sign plain as day. Next on the murderer's agenda is Lady Tressilian herself. She is found beaten over the head with the proverbial blunt instrument. It's clear that it must have been someone from the house and Battle is called upon to assist his nephew in ferreting out the truth.
"I like a good detective story," [Mr. Treve] said. "But, you know, they begin in the wrong place! They begin with the murder. But the murder is the end. The story begins long before that--years before sometimes--with all the causes and events that bring certain people to a certain place at a certain time on a certain day....All converging towards a given spot....And then, when the time comes--over the top! Zero hour! Yes, all of them converging towards zero...."
Battle and Leach will have to figure out the story that came before zero hour in order to discover that truth.
Christie does a find job spreading the suspicion around. Just about everybody at that dinner party has something a bit odd about them physically. And even though I spotted the killer (based on other clues), she had done her job so well that I couldn't even remember that this person's physical attribute had been mentioned. The plot is a bit convoluted, but it still works. The one real quibble I have is the coincidence of Angus McWhirter having had attempted suicide near Gull Point (at the very beginning of the book) and then showing up just at the right moment at the end. Two coincidences (Mr. Treve also being on hand to tell his little story) seem almost too much, but Dame Agatha writes such a good story, I'm willing to go along with it. ★★★★
First line: The group round the fireplace was nearly all composed of lawyers or those who had an interest in the law.
Last line: "You'll never escape now..."
Deaths = (two natural; one drowned; one auto accident; one hit on head)