It seems but a few days since I picked up a small little white paperback and looked at the title curiously 18 years ago. The Big Four was my introduction to the ‘little grey cells’ of Hercule Poirot and his faithful amanuensis, Captain Hastings. Most of Christie’s Poirot books are written in first person perspective, with Hastings providing the point-of-view. A couple of the exceptions, however, are considered the best of her novels – The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and Murder on the Orient Express, as well as a couple of my personal favourites – Cards on the Table and Murder in the Clouds. While I’d heard of Sherlock Holmes and Ellery Queen, Poirot was the first idiosyncratic private detective I really read about. My mother was a huge detective fiction fan, so we had quite a good collection at home, and, when you get right down to it, there’s no one more mainstream/classic than the great Agatha, is there?
The Big Four, it has to be said, doesn’t fall into the typical who-dun-it category. It’s about world domination, a theme that crops up more in Christie’s later work, usually involving megalomaniac dictators in remote fortresses, mostly in the Middle East. The way her life and journeys parallel the evolutions in her writing style are most interesting, but beyond the scope of a review, which I should get back to.
So the Big Four are exactly that, an evil cabal of the incredibly powerful bent on world domination (WD). It begins with Hastings returning to England, only to find Poirot about to make the journey to see him in south America. As it transpires, this is merely a ploy by the Big Four to ensure that Poirot will be out of the way as the WD plans take fruition. Realizing this, Poirot returns. In a wonderful if slightly incredible coincidence, a British secret agent breaks into Poirot’s house and reveals the nature of the Big Four before promptly dying. So who are the Big Four? Number one is Li Chang Yen, a Chinese mandarin, the greatest criminal genius alive, the instigator and controller of the Russian revolution (this book is set roughly between the World Wars, around 1930 or so, but before the rise of Hitler) and the mastermind behind every plot, scheme, and cunning contrivance that Poirot and Hastings get embroiled in as they dig further and deeper into the global machinations of the Big Four. Number two is a French scientist who makes the Curie’s look like school children with a chemistry set, Number Three is the wealthiest man alive, and Four is…the destroyer!
As it unfolds, it becomes a series of little mysteries and who-dun-its of various interpolated types inked together by the over-arching WD plot line. Number Four, being a master of disguise and a psychopathic killer is the antagonist in most of the plot arcs, but not all of them. Some of the mysteries are quite ridiculous, especially the chess one, as it employs precisely the same sort of ultra-diabolical mechanical contrivance that Poirot criticizes Hastings for having thought of earlier in another context. Still, all of them are interesting and exciting. All the regular twists of a good potboiler mystery are there, the triumphant return from death, enigmatic (to Hastings, at any rate) messages from mysterious Chinamen, the use of curare tipped blow-dart disguised as a cigarette to escape capture, and, of course, the ubiquitous Number Four, the diabolically clever killer whom Poirot and Hastings are always just a step behind. Until the final build up to the fairly standard ‘retreat-to-a-remote-mountain-fastness-and-rule-the-world-from-there’ scenario, that is.
The twists and political angles that she builds in make my personal favourite of her WD books, and definitely in my top-five WD favourites. I must say though, I still think her short stories, best exemplified in three other books – The Labours of Hercules, The Thirteen Problems, and The Mysterious Mr. Quinn – are by far and away her best work.
From Bangalore but based primarily in New Delhi, India, Samir has variously been and continues to be a professional musician, a pub quiz host, a political campaign aide, and a student of the guitar, as well as history and international relations. He is currently Research Director for the Global Security Centre in India. He is also a freelance editor and research consultant, having worked for the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs, the Public Health Foundation of India, and a McKinsey-IBM KPO, as well as Random House and Oxford University Press. He can be contacted at email@example.com