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The Big Four

Page history last edited by Jon 13 years, 9 months ago

Christie, Agatha - The Big Four (1927)


There is also a book with this title by Edgar Wallace


Review by Nick Fuller



Nearly all the (soon-to-be formed) Detection Club rules are broken in this, Christie's worst book for some fifty years. Poirot faces a group of super-criminals — a fiendish Oriental, an American millionaire, a mad scientist ("mad — mad — mad with the madness of genius!") and "the destroyer," who are behind all the world problems: "the world-wide unrest, the labour troubles that beset every nation, and the revolutions that break out in some," as well as Lenin and Trotsky, "mere puppets whose every action was dictated by another's brain." Their ultimate goal is to use a laser beam to take over the world. The bulk of the book concerns various cases only tenuously linked (some of which are ingenious enough, e.g. "A Chess Problem"), but too many episodes are appropriate to a shilling shocker: e.g., Hastings, having refused a fiendish Oriental devil's order to lure Poirot into a trap on pain of death (with typical English understatement, "that Chinese devil meant business, I was sure of that. It was goodbye to the good old world"), capitulates when he learns that his wife will die by the Seventy Lingering Deaths. And so it gets sillier and sillier as it goes on, until, Poirot having died and come back from the dead as an imaginary brother, it ends with the Big Four blowing up the Dolomites in a mass suicide pact.

The Big Four is one I read 3 times, the last one over 20 years ago. “A Chess Problem”, the chapter which stands as a complete short story by itself, was read and additional 3 or more times.

My first read was in Spanish in the mid 1960s, one of 2 or 3 ACs read in my first language. In my “naivete” of those days, I re-read it in English, thinking that it would improve in its original language. Was I ever wrong!

Over time, and with my third read, I came to appreciate this book as I realized AC did not mean it as a detective story, nor as one of her thriller/mysteries. I see in it the following:

1-       A main, ambitious re-telling of the Sherlock Holmes saga in a pastiched/parodied Poirot environment. Poirot is SH, Hastings, of course, is Watson, Japp is Lestrade – all these are obvious and not new. But the countess Vera is Poirot’s Irene Adler, the woman herself. The Big Four are, of course, Moriarty and his criminal organization. And the saga of Poirot’s death and resurrection recreate, in their away, the events in “The Final Problem” and “The Adventure of the Empty House”. And this is worked so that we have Achilles Poirot, the equivalent of Mycroft Holmes – the older,smarter, almost unknown brother! Of course, the French detective (Giraud, if my memory is OK) is a pastiche of the French detectives (Lecoq), who Holmes ridicules.

2-       The interesting thing is that AC may have started pastiching/parodying the Holmes saga with the first 2 novels; Hastings/Watson do not get a wife at the end of their 1st adventure and do get one at the end of the second!

3-       Along the way, there are some other pastiches of some mystery genre pioneers – one of the chapters/stories pays tribute very directly to Chesterton’s “The Invisible Man”. I do not have a copy of the book at hand, but recall some other “tributes” in other stories here.

4-       And, just in case, no, I am not confusing TBF with  the magnificent “Partners In Crime”!

5-       Finally, as a chess master (pardon the immodesty!), “A Chess Problem” incorporates the chess elements in the most intelligent way I have ever seen in a detective story! I have in the past shown this to different people who do not like detective fiction and all have liked it and were surprised how competently AC managed the chess factor!

So, if you try to judge “The Big Four” as a detective story, not merely as an Agatha Christie  detective story, you will be disappointed. If, however, you see it in a different vein, you might regard it in a different light!

Enrique F. Bird Picó


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