Sunday, June 29, 2014

Ground Zero

Many years ago, I recall reading an article in a news magazine that traced the steps of a killer and his victim, who were strangers to each other, in the hours leading up to their fatal encounter.

Countdown style.

The victim was a clerk in a convenience store. As the story followed the killer toward the time and place, the author inserted a neat little sentence that went something like this: "The stars were coming into line."

There are times in life when it really seems to be that random, even ironic. A person walks into a convenience store, thinking about how to make a healthier choice for a snack or a drink, and finds himself in the middle of a robbery and gets shot, for instance — or perhaps a typically meek person is thrust, by circumstance or fate or what have you, into a situation in which he/she has no choice but to act heroically.

And, of course, we really don't have to look beyond the headlines in the daily paper for examples of people who had to react when someone in their midst — in a mall or on a school campus — started shooting.

That kind of thing has been happening in America a lot longer than you probably think. Thirty years ago this summer, a man killed 21 people and injured 19 more at a McDonald's in California.

Surely, we have all, at one time or another, contemplated the apparent randomness of life. If something bad is prevented or avoided, it affects not only those who are there but also other things and people in the future.

Hasn't that very "what–if" theme shown up at the movies many times? "Schindler's List" told the story of how about a thousand people were physically saved from death during the Holocaust — and from them were born thousands more, the generations that were saved. The initial generation that was saved multiplied by all the generations that came to be.

"Towards Zero," which was published 70 years ago this month, was kind of like that. Not nearly as dramatic as "Schindler's List," of course, but it kind of explored that "what–if" theme.

In "Towards Zero," Christie showed how she felt about suicide by using suicide as a plot device. In this case, a character attempted to commit suicide and was foiled. It was one of a series of apparently unrelated events that took the reader to a zero point, a murder.

Christie once told an interviewer that her philosophy about life was "any moment before the end might be the important one."

And that, I think, tells the reader everything he/she might want to know before starting to read "Towards Zero."

Along with the fact that the murder occurs comparatively late in "Towards Zero," which put off some readers. Some reviewers, too.

That could be part of the reason why, although it is written as well as others that were written in the 1940s, it has never been as popular.

Maurice Richardson of The Observer liked that element. The murder had "a deliciously prolonged and elaborate build–up," he wrote, "urbane and cosy like a good cigar and red leather slippers."

He noted the absence of Hercule Poirot, Christie's far more popular detective, and noted that it "might well have been a Poirot case," which could be another reason why "Towards Zero" never got the recognition it deserved. "Towards Zero" was the last appearance of Superintendent Battle, one of Christie's lesser sleuths.

Battle always struck me as being an early 20th–century version of TV's Columbo. I never got the impression that Battle was disheveled, but he did show remarkable good sense, which he managed to keep hidden most of the time, and he depended a lot on appearing to be stupid. It gave his adversaries a false sense of security.

Who knows? Maybe Columbo got that from Battle.