Source: Review Copy (Harper Collins)
I have been thinking of re-reading this book for a while and the recent reprint of it by Harper Collins gave me the nudge I needed. Back when I first read this book I remember finding it a lot of fun and with those hazy memories was slightly surprised when it came to reading on the blogs how dimly regarded it was by everyone else. Not saying it is Christie at her best, but neither did I feel like it was in the same camp as Passenger to Frankfurt (1970) or Postern of Fate (1973). Although of course Christie herself later referred to this book as ‘that rotten book.’
The novel itself has an interesting publication history, which Karl Pike looks at in the new reprint’s introduction, as I never realised that the novel started life as a short story serial in The Sketch in 1924, entitled The Man Who Was Number Four and it is the serial’s text which is reprinted in this new edition. It was three years later when Christie adapted the serial into a novel, based on a suggestion made by her brother in law Campbell Christie. 1926-27 was not a great time for Christie personally, losing her mother and of course her marriage to Archie was rapidly disintegrating. With financial pressures and an impending divorce Christie needed a quick book as it were and adapting this earlier serial seemed to be the answer.
Karl Pike briefly touches on why this book is not one of Christie’s most popular ones. Firstly there is the ‘unfamiliar milieu’ of espionage, into which Poirot is thrown and Pike also feels it is the spy/thriller context which is ‘the biggest obstacle to any critical consideration of the novel in amongst the author’s many landmark successes in the genre.’ Pike also comments on the decision to revert to the serial’s text, writing that ‘Christie’s intentions are perhaps easier to understand’ using this earlier text and that ‘the re-evaluation of The Big Four is at last possible.’ Quite a tantalising remark in some ways. It is therefore a pity that Pike does not begin this re-evaluation process himself in his own introduction.
The Big Four is narrated by Captain Hastings and at the start of the book he has returned to London from Argentina, hoping to surprise Hercule Poirot with his arrival. Yet it seems Poirot is just about to depart for a boat trip to Argentina, hoping to combine a surprise visit to Hastings with a new case. In the midst of this flustered greeting comes a man who is in a great deal of shock, initially only able to repeat Poirot’s name and address. But soon he begins to talk about a criminal organisation named the Big Four. This enterprise is comprised of a wealthy American, a shadowy Chinese figure named Li Chang Yen, a French woman and a fourth member only known as ‘the destroyer.’ This is an enterprise Poirot has a passing interest in, which soon becomes more so when he realises on the way to his boat that the case in Argentina is a decoy. Returning back to his flat the mysterious shocked man is dead, murdered. It is only later that Inspector Japp reveals that the man was a secret service operative who disappeared many years ago. As Poirot begins to pick up leads as to the identity and plans of the Big Four, ‘the destroyer’ weaves in and out of the text, never appearing as the same man twice but always leaving a string of dead bodies in his wake. These leads could be seen as mini detective cases, allowing Poirot to display his powers of deduction. Of course the Big Four do not sit back and do nothing, instead being on the offensive and Poirot and Hastings have to repel many attacks, traps and deceptions, but are the odds too high for Poirot in this match of 4 against 1?
In this book Christie definitely seems to be espousing the theory of world events being caused or controlled by ‘the man behind it all,’ the big lone individuals behind the scenes, pulling all the strings. Consequently the book does have more of a thriller milieu, with Poirot fighting against unknown forces, having to react to changing situations rather than being allowed to closely examine a specific scene or cast of suspects. Yet having said that I think the mini detective cases I mentioned earlier do allow Poirot some time to use his famous little grey cells. Nevertheless I think there is a tension or battle between the two genres in this book, between the thriller and the detective novel. Captain Hastings is very much of the thriller mode, the man of action and unsurprisingly as a consequence ends up in a lot of pickles, involving him getting knocked out (a wonder he hasn’t suffered any brain damage after this case). Whilst it is Poirot who is representative of the logic and reasoning of early golden age detective fiction and it is Poirot using these skills who retrieves Hastings from the thriller like situations he ends up in. Furthermore, when Hastings thinks in thriller terms and tropes, it is Poirot who brings his head out of the clouds. For instance Hastings says:
‘I suppose the Big Four couldn’t have had some diabolical contrivance concealed in the ceiling – something which descended automatically and cut the old man’s throat and was afterwards drawn up again?’
‘Like Jacob’s ladder? I know, Hastings, that you have an imagination of the most fertile – but I implore of you to keep it within bounds.’
Though having said that there is an incidence where it is not Poirot’s grey cells which save the day but his cigarette disguised blow dart. Yes you did read that correctly and I think this is part of the reason why this book works less well, as Christie is not only placing Poirot in this ‘unfamiliar milieu,’ but she is also from time to time making him act out of character.
SPOILERS! The next section deals with major spoilers in the book so avoid if you haven’t read the book.
Yet part of me thinks this relationship between the thriller and the detective novel is not so easily categorised. One example stays with me in particular. Poirot chides Hastings for his thriller like imagination saying that, ‘I appeal to your imagination, and you can suggest nothing more subtle than bombs in the fireplace.’ Yet later on in the book it appears that a bomb in the fireplace is what has killed Poirot. A triumph for the thriller genre? Only until you realise that this incident was a fake designed to fool the thriller infused Hastings and the Big Four. A case of the thriller imagination being used against itself. This incident also shows that in this book Christie is having a lot of fun with a number of detective fiction components, as Poirot’s death of course plays around with and parallels Sherlock Holmes’ famous fake death at the Reichenbach Falls. Christie also includes a spoof of Mycroft, Holmes brother, who is also very intelligent but unlike Holmes very uninterested in actively using his talents. In The Big Four this spoof comes when Poirot mentions his twin brother Achilles, saying:
Do you not know that all celebrated detectives have brothers who would be even more celebrated than they are were it not for constitutional indolence?’
Of course there is no brother and is a case of Poirot playing on Hastings’ and the readers’ assumptions. The latter of which is also played upon in the chess board murder incident, where we are likely to assume the wrong victim and equally erroneously assume who No. 4 is disguised as. The chess board incident also intrigued me because of the mechanics of the murder, using an electrified chess board. For me this seemed a very un-Christie like way of murdering someone and I think in her hands rather than seeming ingenious, it comes across as ridiculous and bit too farfetched and silly. Conversely I think in the hands of John Dickson Carr this would not be the case and I think this is down to atmosphere, as Carr creates an atmosphere where out of ordinary murders seem reasonable. Christie is best when she uses more subtle machinations.
In itself I did not have a problem with the episodic nature of the book as it all joined well and flowed. These episodes often include entertaining dialogue from Poirot, such as after another attempted attack from the Big Four where he says:
‘Yes, but for my quick eyes, the eyes of a cat, Hercule Poirot might now be crushed out of existence – a terrible calamity for the world. And you too, mon ami – though that would not be such a national catastrophe.’
Additionally there is also an amusing moment where Poirot indulges in the lexicon of the thriller hero undercutting danger in the face of a murderous adversary: ‘Your psychology interests me enormously… It is a pity that I have so short a time to devote to studying it.’ However I do think it is this episodic nature which makes the book less popular as because of it moving from one incident to another, there is little opportunity for Poirot to focus on one case intensely and in detail, unpeeling the layers of the different suspects’ characters. If there had been fewer mini detective cases for Poirot I think he could have been afforded more of these opportunities. Furthermore, I think the revealing of information in this book is a little slow and that a consequence of the story taking place over many months is that the pace and tension is lessened. If it occurred within one week for instance we would have a very different atmosphere in the book. Nonetheless I did enjoy the character of No. 4, an interesting variation on Holmes’ nemesis, Moriarty. Like in Upfield’s The Bachelors of Broken Hill (1950), identity can be a hard thing to pin down and No. 4 is as slippery as they come. Poirot’s unveiling of him was quite cleverly achieved. It is interesting that in a plot involving a world domination plan carried out by criminal leaders of great intellect and who have great sources of wealth at their disposal, it is the actor who is the deadliest. The ending of the book returns decidedly to the world of the thriller, which I felt a shame and again out of keeping with Poirot as we know him.
So overall I think perhaps I see this book with slightly less rose tinted spectacles. I still found the story to be a great deal of fun and Christie certainly takes her readers on quite the adventure. Moreover, especially in the first half of the book the mini cases Poirot enters into are good and if they had been given greater narrative space would have been even better. Something I enjoyed in this re-read and hadn’t noticed in my first reading are the number of tropes Christie plays around with and the ways she interacts with earlier detective fiction writers, as there is even a strong nod to G K Chesterton’s Father Brown stories. Looking at it as a whole text I think I can see why there is something unsatisfying in this encounter with Poirot. Yet I think Pike is right in stating that the book is in need of a re-assessment and re-evaluation. It seems unfair to dismiss it as a not so successful but not too bad Christie thriller, as I think there is a lot more to it than that.