A really clever mystery with an unconventional plot and
The past few weeks have been enormously busy and so I have found it quite tricky to find the time to read anything. When I do, I find I cannot hold my concentration for more than a few dozen pages. Fortunately I remembered that I had something in my TBR pile that was that sort of length – the last of Edgar Allan Poe’s three Auguste Dupin short stories.
The Purloined Letter sees G-, the prefect of the Paris police, approach Dupin for advice on the matter of a stolen letter written by the queen’s lover. That letter is being used by the thief to blackmail her and gain influence.
The prefect is certain of the culprit’s identity and has executed a thorough search of his property but cannot find any sign of that letter. This puzzles him as he is sure that the thief must have the letter somewhere close at hand to keep it safe and enable him to produce it if necessary. The prefect asks for Dupin’s help and gives him a description of the letter.
We then jump forward a month as G- returns to speak with Dupin. The search has been fruitless and he tells Dupin he will pay 50,000 francs to anyone who can find the letter. Dupin tells him that he should write him a check as he knows where the letter is and proceeds to explain how he found it.
If that brief synopsis of the plot sounds familiar, it is because this story shares a lot of common elements with Doyle’s later Sherlock Holmes adventure, A Scandal in Bohemia. In both cases we know the thief’s identity from close to the start of the story and each features a document related to an affair with a royal that could destroy a monarchy. On top of that, there are also a few story beats that the two short stories seem to have in common.
Obviously we cannot suggest that Poe’s work, as the older, is in any way to blame for those similarities. The problem is that it is impossible not to be aware of them as the later story, as one of Doyle’s most celebrated, will likely be one that readers have already encountered. That is unfortunate as I think that may serve to blunt the impact of one of the story’s most satisfying ideas.
I should probably also take a moment to say that while I think there is a lot of shared intellectual ground between the two stories, they differ in enough elements and themes to feel quite distinctive from each other. Several of the tweaks Doyle makes serve to make those themes feel all the stronger.
Getting back to the basic scenario, I think this story does a fine job of establishing the facts of the case in a consice manner. We understand the stakes and the circumstances surrounding the crime, the question is how they managed to execute that plan.
Structurally I feel that this story also represents a pretty significant improvement over its two predecessors. Where the relating of the facts in those stories seemed a little awkward, the more conversational approach used here not only helps break up the material into smaller, more manageable chunks, it also helped me engage more with the information being provided.
I also appreciated that Dupin feels more engaged in the action here than in his other two adventures. He even plays an active role in the case, travelling to a crime scene rather than remaining as a purely armchair detective. This more active approach works pretty well .
All in all, I think that each of these characters did an amazing job today.
Season One, Episode Three Preceded by Jack in the Box Followed by No Trace of Tracy
Written by David Renwick Directed by Marcus Mortimer
Though the image of a body appearing in a previously empty wardrobe is intriguing, I felt unsatisfied by the explanation.
Zola Zbzewski goes onto a television show to promote her autobiography. The book, Finding My Form, details her experiences undergoing plastic surgery and discusses her affair with her plastic surgeon. During the interview he is produced as a surprise guest and angrily accuses her of lying, threatening to destroy her.
A short while later the surgeon is found murdered in his home and Zola has become a prime suspect. Maddy takes an interest in the case and begins to look to prove her innocence but the situation become more complicated when her body is found in a wardrobe that Maddy had just transported up several flights of stairs at her home and that had previously been empty.
While it is the less mechanically interesting of the two deaths, I do want to start with the murder of the surgeon. I think Renwick does a good job of giving us a good understanding of the background to that crime in just a few short scenes. The murder itself offers little to grab the imagination – it is a simple killing – but it does provide enough of a hook to involve Maddy in the case and allow for a short investigation.
During that investigation we get to meet the other members of Zbzewski’s household and circle of friends, setting things up for the second investigation. This does mean that we can jump into exploring that second death much faster and focus on the mechanics rather than defining relationships but I do think structurally it is awkward to have the second case be the more imaginative one.
If the first death is mundane, the second is much more in Jonathan’s usual line of seemingly fantastic crimes. Of all of the cases so far, this is the one that seems to be most like a magic trick – a reversal of the traditional disappearing person in a box trick. Certainly that moment in which the body is discovered is one that I could vividly remember from watching this the first time it aired so it clearly caught my imagination then.
Sadly I can’t really speak to how clever it is because I also had a vivid recollection of its solution. I can say though that while I think the explanation is interesting, I do not feel that every aspect of that solution was properly clued or that the explanation really feels satisfying although it seems quite logical. Instead this second death, while it appeals more to the imagination than the first, feels almost like an afterthought – an impossibility added to a more conventional case to make it fit the show’s style.
That is frustrating to me because there is a much better idea used here that I think gets overshadowed by the novelty of that corpse in the wardrobe. What impressed me was the way Renwick makes use of a familiar plot point that you see in many older works but finds a way to update it to fit into a more modern era. The result is that this element feels quite fresh here and is, for me, the most clever part of the case.
I think the other reason that this story doesn’t quite work for me is the amount of time given over to its b-plot: Maddy’s awkward blind date and the pair’s subsequent awkward interactions. Nigel Planer is entertaining and the way Jonathan gets worked into the date scene is amusing but the time given to it feels excessive given it neither moves the overall mystery plot or the relationship between Jonathan and Maddy forward much at all.
Other than the image of the body in the wardrobe, the most memorable moments of the episode all belong to that b-plot. That strikes me as unfortunate because it made me more aware of my lack of engagement in the main storyline. While there are certainly a few good moments and ideas here, I found the case to be rather unsatisfying, particularly when compared to its immediate predecessor.
Originally published 1959 87th Precinct #10 Preceded by ’til Death Followed by Give the Boys a Great Big Hand
For a wealthy businessman, a kidnapping puts him in a predicament as troubling as any he has ever experienced. For Detective Steve Carella and the men at the 87th Precinct, their troubles are even worse. Their only hope is that he will play ball—at least long enough for them to catch the perps before the kidnapping turns into a homicide.
A punchy read that develops some powerful themes well but its conclusion feels rushed.
King’s Ransom is the story of a businessman who is plotting to take over the firm he works for. We learn how he has been silently acquiring extra shares and that he has mortgaged everything he owns to enable him to buy enough extra shares to enable him to take over the company in one decisive move.
While he makes some final arrangements to send his assistant to complete the purchase he receives a phone call from a group of kidnappers who claim to have grabbed his eight year old son, Bobby, who had been playing outside with his chauffeur’s son, Jeff. The kidnappers demand hundreds of thousands of dollars for his safe return but when Bobby turns up, it becomes clear that they grabbed the wrong child…
I first became interested in reading this book nearly a decade ago when I first watched Kurosawa’s film adaptation, High and Low. That film remains one of my favorite crime movies ever and I had been curious to read the source material to see how faithful the film adaptation was and what new elements were introduced. A recent repeat viewing reminded me of that ambition and after failing to get through Cop Hater, I decided to ignore my typical discomfort at reading a series out of order to jump ahead to the book I most wanted to read.
One of the things that interests me most about this story are the choices that McBain makes about which elements he chooses to focus on. Perhaps the most striking example of this is that Jeff’s father remains largely in the background throughout the novel, only making one short but extremely memorable interjection. That is not only a strong storytelling choice in the way it forces so much emotion into a single moment, it also reflects that this story is about Douglas King as much as it is about the crime itself.
McBain further demonstrates this by his decision to reveal the identities of the kidnappers very early in the story. While we do not spend much time with them, we understand their motives and their reactions to the way their plan is unfolding. By giving this to us very early in the story, we are encouraged to instead see the moral debate about King’s responsibility for Jeff’s fate as its focus.
I should say at this point that this debate is not exactly evenly balanced. For pretty much every character in this book there is no question at all of what King ought to do. McBain emphasizes this by giving several of the other characters around him moments in which they critique him and urge him to become involved and save the boy.
On the other hand, McBain is also able to really give us a strong sense of exactly what the impact of paying that ransom would be on King. The moments leading up to the first ransom call for instance went into quite some detail about how he was overextending himself to grab this opportunity to buy a controlling interest in the firm. We also see that his rivals within the company are aware that he had this move planned, meaning that if he cannot close his deal then he will almost certainly be ousted and his career would be essentially over. Sure, he’s not in the right but when he argues it comes from a point of understandable desperation.
Although the events of the novel are obviously a consequence of the kidnapping, it seems fair to suggest that King’s Ransom is as much a piece of human drama or character study as it is a crime novel. Some of the most interesting parts of the novel are those passages in which we learn about his personal history. The story related to his marriage, for instance, gives us a clear motivation for him to place such importance on financial and career success and while I cannot say I liked him for this (or anything – the man is pretty cold and rigid), I did feel I understood the character better from those moments.
The other major character in the King household who makes a significant impact on the story is his wife, Diane. The discussions between this pair are not only hugely important to the development of the plot, they also do a great job of expressing and exploring the themes of the piece. I was also interested in some of the choices she makes in the course of this story which I think are both powerful and decisive.
The kidnappers are, in contrast, less developed as characters. We spend comparatively little time with them and of them really just two stood out as being more dimensional. I think that is fine considering that the details of the crime are largely designed as background material but those hoping for a juicy motive will likely be disappointed.
On a more positive note, there are some rather interesting ideas about using some technology that must have been fairly new at this time and I think McBain explains these well. Some of these ideas seem quite creative and I think they make an otherwise fairly mundane kidnapping case seem that little bit more exciting.
So, where does that leave me overall? Well, I think the plotting and the development of the novel’s key themes are superb. While I think it cannot reach some of the emotional heights of the movie High and Low such as its rushed ending (the movie has a more satisfying conclusion in my opinion), the book is so punchily written that I had great difficulty putting it down.
No doubt I will make a return trip to Isola soon and hopefully in doing so I will get to know the various detectives a little bit better.
Written by David Renwick Directed by Marcus Mortimer
Key Guest Cast
Maureen O’Brien is perhaps best known for her role as Vicki, one of the earliest companions on Doctor Who. In addition to her acting work, O’Brien was also a mystery writer and I have reviewed several of her excellent novels here. Check out Close-Up On Death and Mask of Betrayalfor more information. I recommend both!
A fine impossible murder puzzle with a clever and well-explained solution.
As much as I enjoyed The Wrestler’s Tomb, I think this second episode is an improvement on it in pretty much every respect. From the background of the case to the characters involved and the central impossibility, I think this is a really engaging and entertaining hour of television.
Jack Holiday, played by John Bluthal from The Vicar of Dibley, is an aging comic actor whose life has been touched with personal tragedy. Around a decade earlier his first wife was found murdered in a back street while Jack was filming abroad. Alan Rokesmith was arrested and convicted of the murder but is freed thanks to a media campaign led by Maddy who argued that the evidence was circumstantial.
Shortly after Rokesmith is freed he disappears and Holiday is found dead in a sealed bunker from an apparently self-inflicted gun wound. His second wife disagrees, pointing the finger at Rokesmith and blaming Maddy for his release. Maddy decides to recruit Jonathan to take a look at the scene in the hope of convincing her that it was suicide. When evidence is produced though that shows he could not have killed himself, Jonathan has to find out how Holiday could have been killed inside a bunker that was firmly locked from the inside.
One of the disappointments about the first episode for me was that it wasn’t really an impossible crime story. Well, this does give us a much stronger and clearer impossibility to resolve and I think it is a good one. A large part of the reason I really rate it well is that the show does an excellent job of showing the physical space, demonstrating that the lock was solid and in tact and exploring a variety of possible explanations, only to dismiss each of them as flawed.
After establishing that the door really was locked, the next most important point is that the possibility of suicide is clearly and decisively dismissed. I found the sequence in which that happens to be really quite good, in part because it ties into material we had already seen that might otherwise have felt a little irrelevant and demonstrates it in a pretty humorous way.
With these basic facts of the case established, Jonathan and Maddy are able to start exploring more creative explanations. Here I think Renwick does an excellent job of balancing the need to consider a variety of options with not dwelling on any of them too long.
Now at this point I ought to confess to having been unable to solve the crime – a particularly pitiful effort on my part given I have actually seen this story before. The important point though is that Renwick plays fair and gives the viewer enough to work out the explanation for themselves. The result is a strong explanation that manages to be simultaneously clever mechanically yet simple enough to explain and follow.
The other aspect of this episode that particularly stands out to me is its portrayal of its victim, the aging comic whose physical comedy style has fallen decidedly out of fashion. Jonathan for instance makes his distaste for Jack’s work pretty clear when he is alone with Maddy and we get a little taste of his work in the form of the commercial that opens the episode.
While his comedy style may be broad and dated, the character himself is well drawn and recognizable – particularly for those of us who grew up on the saucy British comedies of the sixties and seventies. I think the depiction of his frustrations at having fallen out of vogue and of the way he was used in the commercial are quite relatable and take the character in a surprisingly interesting and poignant direction.
Similarly, I found the character of Jack’s second wife – played by Maureen O’Brien – to also have a pleasing complexity. We soon learn that Kirsten had been Jack’s secretary for years prior to marrying him and her pride in how her husband had brought amusement to so many people is plain to see. It is easy to understand why she decides to write to Maddy and why she blames her for the death.
Jonathan and Maddy’s investigation has several interesting twists and turns. Once again both play an active and pretty equal role in investigating the case (though Jonathan will ultimately solve it as usual) and there are some entertaining relationship-building and simple comedic scenes shared between the two.
Overall then I have very little negative to say about this episode. I think it does an awful lot right to build an interesting scenario and provide us with a compelling solution. While I tried to think of some negatives to throw out there about this story, the most I can come up with is that I think some of the Rokesmith material plays out a little too directly. Still, some directness in the storytelling is understandable given that this case has to be set up and resolved in less than an hour which I think is done very well.
This just leaves me with one last (pretty irrelevant) question – does anyone happen to know for sure where this was filmed? I feel that I have seen Jack’s cottage which leads me to think it may have been shot in Cornwall or Devon.
Originally published in 1956 as Le Bourreau pleure English translation first published in 2017
On a quiet mountain road near Barcelona, a woman steps out in front of a car. When the driver, a well-known artist, stops to some to her aid, he finds she is alive, but without any memory of who she is or where she has come from. As he tries to help her remember her past, the artist finds himself falling in love, but as secrets from the woman’s forgotten life start to come to light, he finds his new romance turning into a nightmare…
A powerful and effective noir story which delivers a suitably punchy climax.
Frédéric Dard was tremendously prolific author and only a tiny fraction of his work has so far been translated into English. I have previously read and reviewed two of his other novellas on this blog, both of which were also part of the Pushkin Vertigo range, and I liked both tremendously. Happily I am able to say that this my experiences with this book were equally pleasing.
I had found both of the other Dard titles I read to be short but punchy reads and this is no exception. He writes with a splendid sense of economy that helps focus on what he establishes as the themes of his work, really immersing the reader in the dilemma the protagonist finds themselves in.
This novella, like the others I had read, belongs to the noir style of storytelling. Here the protagonist is Daniel Mermet, a French artist who is on vacation near Barcelona. Here he finds himself in a situation in which his actions, though generally well-intentioned, only seem to lead him towards misery and disaster.
Daniel is driving late at night when a woman carrying a violin steps in front of his car. Everything happens so suddenly that he cannot avoid the collision and she is knocked to the ground, her violin and the case smashed in the impact. Daniel is worried but finding that she is still breathing decides to take her back to his hotel and get her some medical attention.
It is easy to empathize with Daniel as he finds himself in a difficult and possibly dangerous situation. We are told in the first couple of pages that the collision was no accident – that the woman had leapt in front of the car. With no witnesses and a very limited command of the Spanish language or knowledge of the area, his choice to take her to his hotel and summon medical attention there is understandable. It may not be the perfect choice but it was certainly not malicious either.
The physical damage from the accident is fortunately quite limited so she makes a swift recovery. Unfortunately though when the woman wakes she has no memory at all of who she is beyond that she is French. When the consulate tells Daniel they are unable to help her, he decides he will piece together the mystery of the woman’s identity.
The mystery of the woman’s identity sits at the heart of the story. Daniel will play investigator, using small clues and observations about the woman and her possessions to try and discover who she is. This is necessary both because he cannot leave her alone without a memory but also because he is falling in love with her. Something within him needs to know.
Based on the circumstances of the injury though the reader will already be aware that the answers will not provide happiness or the closure Daniel seeks. This realization on the reader’s part is the source of the tragedy of the uncomfortable situation he finds himself in. The woman she is now is someone he loves but he will not feel comfortable unless he can be sure of the woman she was.
Dard handles this simple idea extremely well, setting up a credible scenario in which Daniel will have to confront this question. The choice he has is either to abandon her or to see the investigation through in the hope it will enable them to be together. As we follow that brief investigation we are aware of how his discoveries are affecting him and how he struggles with the question of what to reveal to the woman.
Just as it was easy to empathize with the very likeable Daniel at the moment of the accident, it is equally easy to understand how difficult each of his decisions are. Dard is really effective at communicating Daniel’s shifting emotional state as well as that of the woman, all the while building to a dark and devastating conclusion. This emotional journey is really effective and I found myself completely engrossed in the story, aware that what I wanted and what was likely to happen were clearly not going to be the same thing.
I am reluctant to write much more about the plot for fear of spoiling it too much – this is, after all, a very brief work. I should probably take a moment however to judge the mystery elements of the novella in their own right.
Earlier I described this as a brief investigation and what I meant by that is that while the mystery has enormous significance, Daniel will not need to work particularly hard to uncover the truth. This is a matter of following up on the leads he already has – the question is whether he will have the nerve to see the matter through to the end.
The reader may well deduce some aspects of the woman’s past based on the early clues but too much is revealed to the reader right before the solution is given to be able to effectively play armchair detective. I think that fits Dard’s focus on the emotional component of this story and was broadly in line with my expectations but were someone to read this primarily for the mystery I think they would be underwhelmed. For Dard the mystery is a device to instigate uncertainty and drama rather than the point of his tale.
It is a superbly well crafted story with some strong characterization and a compelling problem to explore. I was, once again, impressed with Dard and I am certainly not regretting having previously bought up all the other Dard titles published in translation. It seems I have some good reading ahead of me!
If you follow me on Twitter you may have seen that I found myself in a bit of confusion about exactly what I had planned to follow up on my Columbo posts. Well, after much thinking and feeling inspired by the recent discussion between Jim and John about magic in detective novels in the In GAD We Trust podcast, I decided it would be fun to take a look at and discuss Jonathan Creek.
Unlike Columbo I come to these having seen them all before though. I remember watching these episodes together with my family when they first aired. This first season however is probably the one I remember least – partly because I was much younger when it broadcast but also because, until recently, the US BritBox service only offered the second, third and fourth series.
I look forward to rediscovering these stories over the next few weeks and chatting about them with you.
Written by David Renwick Directed by Marcus Mortimer
* Originally broadcast as a single ninety minute episode – it is now often split into two episodes.
Key Guest Cast
Our victim is played by Colin Baker, the Sixth Doctor in Doctor Who. He had previously played Paul Merroney, a ruthless banker in The Brothers.
Anthony Head was not intended to be a guest cast member – his role of the magician Adam Klaus was supposed to be an ongoing one. The filming of this show overlapped with his casting as Giles in the fantasy TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer. He is replaced in the show’s second season by Stuart Milligan.
This episode does the important work of establishing the characters and their relationship well. Unfortunately the case is not particularly compelling and has a rather underwhelming conclusion.
A note: The thoughts below, while not explicitly revealing the solution, may well push you much further towards it than you would like. If you haven’t seen this episode I would suggest you do so before reading them to avoid being spoiled.
Although I don’t write much about it here, I am a huge Doctor Who fan so I was particularly interested in rewatching the Colin Baker episode. I only started watching Who when the radio pilot for Death Comes to Time was released so when I watched this I had no idea who Baker was.
Strangely though I had misremembered which story he appeared in, thinking it was the season closer The House of Monkeys – I have no idea why given he doesn’t look at all like Charles Kay – so it was a lovely surprise to find I was getting to see him much earlier than expected!
Here he plays an artist, Hedley Shale, whose output seems to consist of nudes. We first meet him at an exhibition where he openly flirts with a model to his wife’s disgust. We see the pair in conversation as she prepares to leave for work the next morning and he works on a new painting. He insists that he has not had a live model in some time but shortly after she leaves he makes a phone call, telling his lover to “make me bark like a sea lion”.
Yeah, that’s an image that’s not going away any time soon…
A short while later his cleaner arrives to find him lying shot dead on the bedroom floor with a blonde woman tied up and gagged a short distance from him. Jewels had been stolen from a locked drawer but they had been dropped on the lawn, making it seem more like a plant to suggest robbery rather than murder. When a local thief is apprehended he confesses to other robberies with the same method but insists that he did not commit this crime, seeking the assistance of investigative journalist Maddy Magellan in proving his innocence.
Hedley’s wife, the editor of Eve Magazine, is the prime suspect but she has what appears to be a cast-iron alibi. Her assistant vouches for her that she had not left her office all morning. There is only one exit out of the office and the windows were sealed shut. Maddy, certain that the wife must be guilty, seeks help from illusion creator Jonathan Creek to find a way she could have pulled it off.
Okay, we have a fair amount we can discuss here in terms of the case but I think it would be best to start by talking about our two series leads – Alan Davies and Caroline Quentin. A significant part of this episode is devoted to introducing these characters and building a relationship between them that is an entertaining mixture of flirtation and aggravation.
This episode not only has to bring these two characters together but it has to do it in such a way that, given their very different professions and personalities, we accept that they will seek each other out to solve mysteries in the future. I think this story accomplishes this in a couple of ways – firstly, by making it clear that the two bounce ideas off each other effectively (and sometimes competitively). Secondly, because of the chemistry between the pair. I think there is a sense, even in this first episode, that the cases provide a reason for these two people to spend time together.
The idea of someone with a stage magic background solving mysteries is hardly unique to this show. For proof of that (and some great reading recommendations) check out that podcast I linked at the start of this post. What Renwick does very effectively though is combine this sense of stagecraft with a consideration for the practical. This episode provides us with a clear example of that with the first solution which is pretty acceptable as a way to work around the facts of the case but unsatisfactory for logical and practical concerns.
I also really appreciate that Maddy plays an active role in the investigations, often proposing ideas that are helpful – even if they do not always turn out to be the actual solution. Her skill set is different than Jonathan’s but it is still important to solving the crimes, particularly given that she has an ability to persuade people to talk to her through means fair and foul. Well, mostly foul…
Turning to the case itself, I think this is a fairly typical mystery series pilot in that its focus is on developing the continuing series elements. I think this comes at the expense of the case itself which I found a little underwhelming once you get past that eye catching problem about the office door.
Let’s start with that problem because it so quickly becomes the focal point of the episode. The direction very effectively demonstrates that the layout of the office and the sight lines make it impossible that Serena Shale could have left it once the door was closed, assuming that the personal assistant’s statement that she never was out of sight of the door is to be believed. It seems wonderfully impossible and is built up so much that the resolution cannot match what the viewer was likely hoping for – to be dazzled by a very clever piece of logical reasoning.
The story instead chooses to reinforce an idea that Jonathan has already expressed – that the explanation for a magic trick is inherently disappointing. Establishing that from the beginning of the series may well have been a wise move in the long term but I feel later episodes manage to develop a second explanation that feels as compelling as the first in terms of motive, means and opportunity. Unfortunately, I just cannot buy that here.
My problem with the story is that while I think there is a mechanical ingenuity to the explanation, the killer’s motivations to commit the murder are beyond weak and their plan seems ludicrously risky. I cannot really say much more than that without explicitly discussing those elements but this killer either needed to have a better motive or there needed to be a better explanation of why the motive given would lead to them taking the enormous risks they do here.
Now, that being said, I was impressed with a couple of pieces of clueing in the episode. One of the best examples of this relates to information we find out in the second half of the episode that significantly changes our understanding of what has happened. When you look back at the episode you see that there are several moments that visually (and logically) hint at what that will be.
I guess you could sum up my view as I don’t love the ultimate destination but the path to that point is pretty good.
That just leaves me with one other thing I want to touch on – Adam Klaus.
I mention in the guest cast section above that Anthony Stewart Head plays this key role in this episode but due to scheduling conflicts with Buffy he had to drop out of the rest of the series. What strikes me on revisiting this episode is that he has a rather different take on the character than his successor in the role, playing it relatively straight.
The problem with Head’s Klaus is that he is too handsome and too dashing to make it feel ridiculous that everyone swoons over him. There is one moment that clearly ought to be comedic – in which he offers his protection to a young woman – but which ends up feeling almost gentlemanly and heroic. Two adjectives I would never associate with the more bumbling Klaus of the later seasons who I think better fits the tone of the series, becoming a very effective source of comic relief.
I did enjoy this return visit to the world of Jonathan Creek. I was impressed by just how many elements of the series’ success fell into place here and I still love the chemistry between the two leads. Unfortunately the motive given for the murder doesn’t work for me but the mechanics of the crime are clever and I did enjoy following our investigators as they work out what happened.
* Based on publication order. The events of this story may be taken to suggest that it is placed before that one.
Framed in the doorway of Hercule Poirot’s bedroom stands an uninvited guest, coated from head to foot in dust. The man stares for a moment, then he sways and falls. Who is he? Is he suffering from shock or just exhaustion? Above all, what is the significance of the figure 4, scribbled over and over again on a sheet of paper?
Poirot finds himself plunged into a world of international intrigue, risking his life—and that of his “twin brother”—to uncover the truth.
A tedious attempt at a espionage thriller. Largely dull, this suffers from poorly defining the aims and motivations of its villains.
Having thoroughly enjoyed rereading The Murder of Roger Ackroyd I approached The Big Four with a little less enthusiasm. While it has probably been fifteen years since I last read it, my memories of it were of being a pretty underwhelming experience. Still, I tried to approach it in the hope that the memory may have cheated or that perhaps I might enjoy it more as an adult.
The book opens with Captain Hastings returning to London from his new home in Argentina. He looks forward to catching up with his old friend Poirot during his trip but arrives to find the detective will shortly head to Argentina on a case that he had accepted, in part, because of his hopes of seeing Hastings. His imminent departure means that their conversation is brief but Poirot expresses some regret about how he is having to put another investigation to one side – a look into the activities of a worldwide crime syndicate called The Big Four.
This book is composed of a series of cases, each of which work Poirot a little closer to discovering the identities of the four crime bosses who make up this shadowy organization. Typically Poirot finds himself engaged in solving a smaller problem, only to find there are links to that wider case.
The reason for this unusual, more episodic storytelling style was that Christie reworked a number of previously published short stories into this novel, altering the openings to tie them into a wider thriller narrative. This does seem to be a creative approach to generating a novel from previously existing material and I feel on balance that Christie manages to wrangle her material into enough of a coherent form that it feels purposeful.
The problem is that while the stories are linked, the narrative still feels somewhat disjointed. In this sort of story I think there should be a sense of progressing deeper into the mystery yet each case seems to be pretty much in line with the others in terms of the dangers and the information to be gained. As a consequence, Christie’s storytelling seems flat to me.
I believe that the problems start with the way that Christie introduces us to the idea of the Big Four. At the start of the book we learn that Poirot is already basically aware of what they are and the extent of their power. This is not dissimilar to the way that Moriarty is introduced in The Adventure of the Final Problem which I think works in the context of a short story but I feel it is unsatisfactory in a novel-length work.
Christie could have shown us Poirot slowly becoming aware of the group but by jumping into the middle of the investigation there is no sense of discovery of the scale or scope of their operation. The only question for Poirot and the reader to solve is who the four individuals at the top of the organization are.
Once again, this is not in itself a bad question to focus on. After all, The Man in the Brown Suit had charmed me with its hidden villain – wouldn’t four such villains be four times the fun?
Well, no. Where that novel had fun with its game of finding the villain, The Big Four makes no attempt to play the game with the reader at all. We are never invited to find spot the villains among the seemingly innocuous supporting characters – it is all done for us (the exception to this is a reveal so obvious that it is hard to fathom how it takes Poirot so long to think of it).
Nor are the characters that make up this group particularly interesting. There is no real sense of an ideology or character to this group or their activities. We get no real sense of the scale or meaning behind their ambitions. Christie certainly hints at a significant threat to world order but the nature of that threat never seems to be spelled out, nor is there a clear time limit imposed. If it is a race against time, we lack the context to understand how near we are to destruction.
Contributing to the problem is the presentation of the mastermind of the group, Li Chang Yen. This characterization evokes ideas of the Yellow Peril with its suggestion of secretive Chinese societies controlled by a mandarin-style figure. Yes, it evokes the Fu Manchu stories but it neither offers a counterpoint, nor does it do anything particularly new or inventive with the trope. This idea was tired in 1927 and time has only rendered it more uncomfortable and offensive.
The one thing that I think Christie does achieve with her four crime bosses is a sense of a global organization. We are frequently reminded that our focus is on just one aspect of their operations and that stopping Poirot is critical to them because they regard him as the greatest threat to their own rise. I do have big questions about how they came to join forces that Christie never really answers but the scale of operations certainly impresses and makes them appear a more formidable group of opponents for Poirot.
While I am striking a positive note (don’t blink – this won’t last long), I should also say that I enjoy the treatment of Hastings here. Not only does Christie have Poirot show some real warmth and affection for his old friend, she also allows Hastings to make some smart and strong choices under enormous pressure. Sure, he is sometimes wanting in the application of methodical, logical thinking but it is nice to see him looking quite competent for long stretches of this novel.
Having dispensed with the compliments, I do need to comment on the adventures our heroes have in this book. With the exception of the section involving a chess match, the stories here are drab and slight. Several feel quite trivial and almost all lack the sort of imaginative elements that usually pull me into Christie’s story. I think there is some truth to the idea that Christie worked much better in longer form fiction and this seems to me to be pretty clear evidence of that.
With no detection to speak of, this work is best compared with Christie’s other thrillers but even if we look at it through that lens I think it is pretty lacking. Sure, it makes more sense than Passenger to Frankfurt but at least that seemed to be about something.
In contrast The Big Four is simply dull and not a patch on the stories that preceded it. For that reason, I would certainly not suggest this as an early stop if you are getting to know the author or Poirot – this is a distinctly lesser work and can be easily skipped.