The Big Four by Agatha Christie

The Big Four by Agatha Christie

Hercule Poirot Series Book #5

Is the book flawless? Hardly. Does it maintain tonal cohesion and master its tricky format? Not quite. But in its bravura set pieces, globetrotting intrigue, audacious premise, and willingness to push Poirot into new adventurous domains, The Big Four serves as an entertaining and admirable pivot point for an author unafraid of shaking up her reliable formula in the interest of expanding her already prodigious imagination.
  • Publisher: HarperCollinsPublishers
  • Genre: Mystery Thriller
  • First Publication: 1927
  • Language: English
  • Setting: London, England, Paris (France), Belgium, Italy,
  • Characters: John Ingles, Arthur Hastings, Hercule Poirot, Countess Vera Rossakoff, Abe Ryland, Inspector Japp, Li Chang Yen, Dr. Ridgeway, An unexpected guest, Number Four, Madame Olivier, Achille Poirot
  • Series: Hercule Poirot Book #5
  • Previous Book: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
  • Next Book: The Mystery of the Blue Train

When a desperate, mud-splattered stranger bursts into Hercule Poirot’s London apartment raving about an omnipotent crime syndicate called “The Big Four,” the brilliant Belgian detective finds himself swept into a high-stakes international game of espionage and intrigue. Comprised of a Chinese revolutionary mastermind, an anonymous American millionaire, a French femme fatale, and the lethal “Destroyer,” this shadow organization poses an existential threat on a global scale. To bring down their plot for worldwide chaos, Poirot and his faithful friend Captain Hastings must match wits with the powers behind The Big Four in a breakneck series of adventures that will strain even their legendary deductive skills.

Introduction:

By the time Agatha Christie wrote 1927’s The Big Four, she had already established Hercule Poirot as one of fiction’s most beloved detectives through classic drawing room mysteries like The Mysterious Affair at Styles and Murder on the Orient Express. With this uneven but undeniably ambitious novel, the Queen of Mystery departs from the cozy English village and upends the traditional whodunit formula for a transcontinental spy thriller pitting the deductive genius of Poirot against a criminal empire with world domination in its sights. While its disjointed serialized structure results in a scattered, at times frustrating reading experience, The Big Four retains a pulpy appeal thanks to Christie’s inimitable plotting skills and clever red herrings. More importantly, it signals an author pushing her creative boundaries beyond mere puzzles into the then-emerging spy genre.

The Breathless, Episodic Plot:

The Big Four rockets out of the gates with a bravura set piece of bafflement as Poirot and Hastings are visited by a battered man who mumbles cryptic warnings about a Chinese criminal mastermind assembling a league of lethal cohorts to wreak havoc across the globe. No sooner does this intriguing mystery get introduced than Christie thrusts our duo into a breakneck flight from one international adventure to the next in pursuit of the shadowy syndicate.

From exotic locales like Argentina and the French Riviera to luxurious transatlantic liners and secluded English country estates, Poirot and Hastings find themselves constantly one step behind the elusive leaders of the Four as they dodge assassins, outmaneuver double agents, and confront diabolical deathtraps. Each new chapter brings a whiplash shift of scene and scenario, mimicking the serialized format of pulp adventures while continually ratcheting up the stakes and endangerment for our heroes.

While this whirlwind approach generates bountiful thrills and spills across a truly global canvas, the tradeoff is a muddying of narrative cohesion. By design, The Big Four resembles more a loosely connected collection of short stories than a novel, with characters and subplots sporadically appearing only to vanish again within the space of a few pages, never to be mentioned again. Entire sequences that seem primed to be pivotal detours end up dispatched as mere shaggy dog tangents once their action quotient expires.

It doesn’t help that the shadowy figures behind the Four remain intentionally nebulous until the very end, more conceptual boogeymen than fully fleshed-out characters. While their nefarious umbrella scheme steadily takes shape over the course of the separate adventures, the individual villains tend to be impersonally described hulking henchmen or seductive molls indistinguishable beyond their skillset for deadly mayhem. Only the Chinese mastermind Li Chang Yen makes a memorable impression with his dastardly charisma.

And yet, the disparate fugue chapters remain steadfastly readable thanks to Christie’s facility for crisp set piece construction, clever twists, and audacious storylines that repeatedly turn narrative expectations inside out. While rarely reaching the intricately-engineered complexity of her beloved small-scale murder plots, each individual tale delivers a gratifying hit of pulpy action punctuated by regular doses of that trademark Christie misdirection. One never quite knows whether the next encounter might end in a hairsbreadth escape or a jaw-dropping double-cross.

Christie’s Signature Characters in a New Domain:

While The Big Four may not cohere into a fully cohesive novel, it still offers ample opportunity for Christie’s matchless protagonist Poirot to work his deductive magic amid the high stakes action. As ever, the little Belgian detective charms with his idiosyncratic mannerisms and unapologetic arrogance regarding his “little grey cells.” His ability to cut through subterfuge by cultivating an almost supernatural insight into human psychology and behavior proves clutch amid the parade of shady operatives and impersonations.

Yet the novel also smartly pushes Poirot outside his comfort zone, challenging his deductive process by pitting him against a foe exponentially more slippery and globally resourced than the handful of suspects he typically tangles with. The chase literally takes him to exotic, alien frontiers that thwart his typically insular intellectual process. Christie engineers numerous clever scenarios to upend Poirot’s trademark self-assurance, forcing him to reckon with his own growing sense of doubt and vulnerability to manipulation.

It’s a welcome humanization of a character who can seem maddeningly infallible at times. For as self-assured as Poirot remains, we sense his psyche stretching, straining to process outlandish threats far beyond the standard murder cases. There’s real pathos in the detective’s flashes of frustration and weariness as he struggles to maintain his composure amid so much disinformation and misdirection, only to rally by digging deeper into his bottomless well of determination. The book almost becomes a study of how far his deductive faculties can bend before breaking.

As for Hastings, he admirably earns his stripes as more than just a bumbling comic foil for his friend’s theatrics. While still prone to amusing fits of confusion, here he essentially co-pilots Poirot’s pursuit of the Big Four as an equal partner, doggedly enduring capture and close shaves with appealing stiff-upper-lip resilience. He steps up under the pressure to demonstrate a cool efficiency that nicely balances Poirot’s more fanciful methods. Their banter takes on an extra patina of warmth and mutual admiration that makes the two feel less like brilliant detective and clueless sidekick, and more like brothers-in-arms united against an existential threat.

Vision and Flaws of an Uneven Experiment

For all its frustrating fragmentation and bouts of thinly sketched characterizations, what makes The Big Four such a fascinating experiment is its glimpse of Christie pushing against the boundaries and embracing a more contemporary style and vision. In pitting her beloved detective against a sprawling conspiracy with world domination at stake, she seems to be anticipating the big-canvas global thrillers that would become blockbuster entertainment in the Fleming/Ludlum mold just a few decades later.

The novel showcases a swaggering ambition in scope and scale far beyond Christie’s typical cozy mysteries. We get glamorous international locales, harrowing action setpieces with brutal violence, and an overarching sense of jeopardy beyond just another brilliant genius resolving an ingenious Murder on the Orient Express-style game. While the book’s format and structure struggles to integrate all those pulpy elements with her more subdued storytelling approach, the near-misses are interesting and speak to an impatient creative spirit eager to try something different.

In that regard, some of The Big Four’s most memorable flourishes come from how Christie distorts and twists Poirot’s usual procedural methods to suit the more amped-up world of international intrigue. We see him pursue more physical evidence gathering tactics, indulge in acts of derring-do, and regularly find himself in the thick of white-knuckle danger with death quite literally around every corner. The story still relies on his forensic intellect, but now in service of piecing together a puzzle on a much wider, distressingly murkier canvas than the typical Chez Poirot murder case.

And for all its episodic herky-jerkiness, there is a steadily unfolding thru-line of dread and anxiety that offsets the sillier, more disposable cliffhanger exploits. With each new chapter and seemingly random new scenario, we see the Big Four scheme to destabilize the world order take slightly more coherent shape until its full dimensions become terrifyingly apparent to Poirot by the climax. That tinge of genuine cosmic horror is highly atypical for Christie, giving the overall story an almost literal “world’s at stake” texture well beyond her usual intimate manor home set-ups.

The Final Verdict:

Approached as a simple, straightforward whodunit in the Agatha Christie canon, The Big Four would register as a bit of a misfire – a collection of fitfully engaging pulp adventures awkwardly stitched together around an incoherent conceit about a world-threatening conspiracy. And yet, seen through the wider lens of a pioneering Mystery author branching out into new narrative territory, it casts the book in a more admirable light as an ambitious and uneven proof-of-concept for a new genre fusion.

Much like Hitchcock’s experiments with more atmospheric suspense thrillers, Christie was clearly feeling constrained by her traditional styles and searching for ways to expand her palette while still delivering the intricate plotting and deductive sleights of hand her readers craved. The Big Four may pale compared to her iconic gems like And Then There Were None or Murder on the Orient Express when judged purely as a novel, but it bubbles with authorial ambition and sheer panache that make it a fascinating curiosity for Christie fans all the same.

Is the book flawless? Hardly. Does it maintain tonal cohesion and master its tricky format? Not quite. But in its bravura set pieces, globetrotting intrigue, audacious premise, and willingness to push Poirot into new adventurous domains, The Big Four serves as an entertaining and admirable pivot point for an author unafraid of shaking up her reliable formula in the interest of expanding her already prodigious imagination. While detractors may be put off by its pulpy excess, for fans and literary critics, it represents a highly intriguing early signpost towards the deeper dramatic territory Christie would later mine with unparalleled success in genre masterworks like Witness for the Prosecution and Endless Night. As a pure novel it frustrates, but as an important step in the development of one of literature’s most essential mystery masters, The Big Four packs an undeniable punch.

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  • Publisher: HarperCollinsPublishers
  • Genre: Mystery Thriller
  • First Publication: 1927
  • Language: English

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Is the book flawless? Hardly. Does it maintain tonal cohesion and master its tricky format? Not quite. But in its bravura set pieces, globetrotting intrigue, audacious premise, and willingness to push Poirot into new adventurous domains, The Big Four serves as an entertaining and admirable pivot point for an author unafraid of shaking up her reliable formula in the interest of expanding her already prodigious imagination.The Big Four by Agatha Christie