Monday, 3 August 2009

The Big Four (1927)

Plot: Can Hercule Poirot defeat the Big Four, a mysterious conspiracy with a magnetic death ray and plans for global domination? Blimey.

James: Prepostorous, magnificent tosh. The Big Four is the very last Agatha Christie book you'd expect. It's like Poirot written by a 9 year old. And yet it's also the accomplished work of someone well-read in her field.

This came out in 1927, the same year as the final Casebook of Sherlock Holmes. And here Poirot and Hastings are as close to Holmes and Watson as possible. They even have a long-suffering landlady, a fireplace, and I'm fairly convinced Poirot smokes a pipe.

But if this is a Holmes pastische, then it's Professor Moriarty's sinister conspiracy of The Final Problem, as Poirot must try and elude an enemy as cunning as he is, with eyes everywhere. The book is similarly full of fake notes, plausible messengers and impostors.

It's more than a Holmes pastische, though. The global conspirators come from John Buchan's The Power House and the 39 Steps, which also gives us The Destroyer, the charming master of disguise. There are also elements from Fu Man Chu in the unseen Li Chang Yen who operates through sinister East End Tongs. And then there's an air of Guy Barlow's Dr Nikola - Master Criminal, a master of international kidnap and murder, who is always one step ahead of the game, with his eyes on the prize of Tibetan immortality.

But to go from reading the archetypal country house murder of The Mysterious Affair At Styles to this is eye watering. Originally conceived as a short-story collection, stuff just happens. And keeps happening at a relentless pace that leaves poor Hastings dizzy.

Poirot may solve the individual cases but he frequently loses his opponent. The actual cases are a mixed bag - for every fiendish puzzle that relies on a tiny hole in a rug or a partially defrosted leg of lamb, there are stories that are lame coincidence disguised with sheer dash.

Thus we bump into Poirot's villainous old flame, Countess Rossakoff. Before we can even think it's not the smartest move of The Big Four to employ her, luckily, she tries to drop a tree on our heroes (Brilliant described by Poirot as "Hercule Poirot might now be crushed out of existence - a terrible calamity for the world. You too, mon ami - though that would not be such a national catastrophe.")

Similarly, when our adventurers try and track down that Master of Disguise, Number Four, aka "The Destroyer", Poirot unmasks him through a classified advert as a failed actor called Claude. We would be reeling from the bathos of all this, were it not that Christie introduces Claude's old girlfriend, the splendidly down-at-heel Flossie Monroe. Christie shows a surprising flair for the tart-with-the-heart-of-gold. Flossie is a great creation ("'Ah, you Frenchmen! Naughty, naughty!' she wagged her finger at him in an excess of archness."), and it is a shame that she's an all-too brief cameo.

The rest of the book is given over to dazzling events in dizzying locations. Poor Hastings gets to yell "My god! You fiend! Not that!" to sinister foreigners, is gassed several times, tied up frequently, bamboozled, dangled over rivers and generally treated like Penelope Pitstop. It is a sad oversight that he is not fastened to a railway track.

Oddly for such an unreal book, his relationship to Poirot is at its most fond. Poirot is as dismissive and manipulative as ever of his friend's mental powers, but deeply fond of him. "I hope they will not succeed in masssacring Hastings," he muses, "That would annoy me greatly."

You have to wonder why a genius would go around with such a bumbler. I guess it's similar to the way that pretty people have a plain friend, just to make sure they stand out.

But the relationship also allows the book's greatest coup - that of the introduction of the marvellously named Achille Poirot. Yes, Poirot has a twin brother. As he admits archly, all detectives have a cleverer brother.

And it is to Achille that the last third of the book belongs. With Hercule dead, we find ourselves in a rerun of The Empty House, only with Mycroft Holmes making a reluctant appearance. Of course, Achille turns out to be a trick. Then he doesn't. Then he does again, in a switch of events that's breathless and cunning but also a bit of a cheat. Poor Hastings.

The resolution is disappointing. Naturally it takes place in the villains' secret lair, but after all of the build up, it is rather brief, no matter how explosive.

But overall, this is is a thrilling book, not short on incident, although oddly impersonal. It's refreshing, if disconcerting, to see Poirot so out of his normal setting. As the dastardly Number Four comments at one point: "Return to your former avocations, and solve the problems of London society ladies."

Kate:I shall start by ‘fessing up that I remember very little about this one and get it confused with The Seven Dials Mystery (which we’ll be covering in the not too distant future).

But passing over that for a moment….it’s almost impossible not to read Poirot and Hastings as a response to Holmes and Watson, albeit with the dashing man of action transformed into a neat little man with tisanes and moustache wax. The travel sick Poirot is ill-equipped for the sort of jet-setting international thrillers demand, and it does seem like a strange segue for the Christie of country house mysteries and village gossip. But she’d obviously done her research among the works of other crime writers; this definitely has the air of Conan Doyle about it and later short story collection “Partners in Crime” sees Tommy and Tuppence very much playing detectives in a series of affectionate parodies of other authors.

“The Big Four” has a sheer adventurous bonkerness that isn’t common in Christie; Poirot’s known for solving mysteries sitting in his chair, moustaches in perfect order, but in this story he’s a much more active detective. Trains and escapes from them feature heavily, in a very Sherlockian fashion, with Poirot and Hastings leaping off a train in the opening chapter and using the emergency cord to sneak away in “Radium Thieves”.

There’s a definite note of melodrama; any novel in which Hastings can describe the villain (with no irony whatsoever) as “Mad – mad - with the madness of genius!” is clearly to be taken with a pinch of salt. Christie uses the clich├ęs of mystery fiction with great verve, from a dying victim leaving a clue to their killer, to a curare blowpipe and transparent disguises. Hastings as a proxy for the slow-witted reader is a common theme in the series, and here he is repeatedly lead right up the garden path by Poirot, on the excuse that he has “a nature so beautiful and so honest….unless you are yourself deceived, impossible for you to deceive others!”.

When the book was written in 1927, genuine international conspiracies and espionage must have been a fairly recent memory, but these sinister Chinamen and mysterious Russians inhabit a completely different fictional universe. Either Christie or her readers must have been quite fond of the colourful Countess Rossakoff, since she reappears in “Poirot’s Early Cases” and “The Seven Labours of Hercules”, and is the closest eternal bachelor Poirot ever comes to romance.

The book’s origins as a short story collection are evident in the sheer number of different problems and villains presented to us, and the speed at which they’re dealt with. “Radium Thieves” is a prime example of this, wit Poirot detecting a dastardly plot, the real plot behind the fake plot, being captured, discovering the villain and moving swiftly on – all within 40 pages. In the bigger picture of saving the world from A Fate Worse Than Death, none of this seems to achieve much, but it’s certainly a fun way to pass the time.

Next book: following the theme of international intrigue, I offer you The Secret Of Chimneys (almost certainly to be followed by The Seven Dials Mystery.


  1. I shall trawl the local second hand bookshops looking for The Secret of Chimneys which I assume is not about pushing small boys up tight orifices but named after the goings-on at some leafy but delapidated country house or boarding school. Maigret will have to be put on hold (though the one I am reading is rather marvellous)...

  2. bumbler schmumbler - there has to be a Sidekick.
    Cisco Kid nothing without Pancho,
    Lone Ranger too lonely without a Tonto,
    and where would Robinson Crusoe go on Saturday night without a Friday?

  3. You're absolutely right - Poirot needs a sounding board!