Originally published 1927
Hercule Poirot #5
Preceded by The Murder of Roger Ackroyd *
Followed by The Mystery of the Blue Train
* 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.