The Agatha Christie Challenge – The Big Four (1927)

The Big FourIn which Captain Hastings returns to England to be reunited with his old pal Hercule Poirot, and together they uncover the identities and crimes of an international group of four evil megalomaniacs aiming for world domination, and eventually put a stop to their wicked ways. Normally I make a promise not to spoil the surprise for you so that you can read this blog post before reading the book. I’m not sure that’s possible in this case. There will be spoilers!

Fu ManchuLet’s start by saying that, although this book unquestionably has a lot of fun, in many ways it’s absolutely bonkers and total balderdash. Clearly inspired by the fiendish Dr Fu-Manchu, whose earliest incarnations in print were during the First World War, this is a book that takes as its central tenet the fact that there is a group of four evil criminals, so rich and powerful that the world quakes in their path, plotting their devilish crimes against humanity from a quarry in the Italian Tyrol, like some James Bond/Austin Powers villain. The Fu-Manchu character is Li Chang Yen, known to only a few specialist orientophiles, who masterminds the group’s activities. We know this from the seventh page of the book, so I’m not giving away too many secrets here. The identities of two other members of the Big Four fall into place with relative ease, and it’s only The Destroyer, who flits in and out of the activity with almost farcical regularity, whose identity is concealed until relatively late in the day. But it’s not a whodunit – you’re not faced with a bunch of suspects and one of them is No 4 – so you might ask, where is the suspense, the tension, the thriller, the mystery? Good question.

Cruise shipPart of the problem is its structure, and the story of how it came to be written. Originally, it was a series of 12 short stories that had been published in The Sketch magazine three years earlier in 1924; so Captain Hastings’ return from South America happened much more quickly than it might appear if you only read this as a new book in 1927. It was a time of domestic strife for Agatha Christie. Her marriage to Archie was breaking down; she needed an income, but lacked the creative muse. Her brother in law, Campbell Christie, suggested revising the short stories into a novel; and apparently he assisted her with linking them together.

SubmarineHowever, the episodic nature of the original sequence of short stories remains very apparent when reading The Big Four. It lacks a flowing narrative; it “stop-starts” constantly, picking up and dropping characters like someone struggling with an overfull shopping bag. There’s a point in the story where Poirot is discussing the sinister group with the non-believing French Prime Minister, Desjardeaux (oh yes, Poirot moves in exalted circles in this book). Poirot tries to convince him that the threat is real, and in Hastings’ narrative, the noble captain writes: “for answer, Poirot set forth ten salient points. I have been asked not to give them to the public even now, and so I refrain from doing so, but they included the extraordinary disasters to submarines which occurred in a certain month and also a series of aeroplane accidents and forced landings.” To my mind that’s amongst Christie’s laziest writing. She’s simply making an excuse not to spend an afternoon inventing those events. Perhaps it’s no surprise that in later years, Christie herself described The Big Four to her agent as “that rotten book”. Despite its not being a traditional whodunit, and its not being a very good book, it still sold very well – as it was published a few weeks after Christie’s famous disappearance and re-appearance, which to this day remains probably her biggest mystery. As with Poirot Investigates, Christie did not write a dedication. Presumably there weren’t enough people around in her life at the time worth dedicating it to. Alternatively, maybe she didn’t want to saddle one of her friends or relatives with the dubious honour of having this book dedicated to them.

Vegetable MarrowsSo what extra does this book tell us about our detective heroes? Poirot is still living in London (unlike in the previous The Murder of Roger Ackroyd where he had retired to King’s Abbot to grow vegetable marrows). He’s attracted to his next case – which would take him off to Rio de Janeiro – purely for the money, which is most unlike him. He normally prefers something to tax the little grey cells rather than something that will result in his paying tax. He is still as egotistical as ever, though: “I think he came to see Hercule Poirot, and to have speech with the adversary whom alone he must fear”. In another exchange: “”And his mistake?” I asked, although I suspected the answer. “Mon ami, he overlooked the little grey cells of Hercule Poirot.” Poirot has his virtues, but modesty is not one of them.”” Despite his incredible track record, Poirot’s contemporaries still like to make out that he’s losing his marbles. To Poirot’s cryptic comment about seeing “not with the eyes of the body, perhaps, but with the eyes of the mind”, Inspector Meadows “touched his forehead with a significant grin at me. I was utterly bewildered, but I had faith in Poirot”.

Auburn hairAs for Hastings, he’s still a wry narrator, with a penchant for girls with auburn hair – Abe Ryland’s stenographer Miss Martin takes his fancy for that very reason. But he’s also still a terrible misogynist: “it had always seemed to me extraordinary that a woman should go so far in the scientific world. I should have thought a purely masculine brain was needed for such work.” When infiltrating Ryland’s domestic staff, he notes: “I had, or course, carefully scrutinised all the members of the household. One or two of the servants had been newly engaged, one of the footmen, I think, and some of the housemaids. The butler, the housekeeper, and the chef were the duke’s own staff, who had consented to remain on in the establishment. The housemaids I dismissed as unimportant.” And we are reintroduced to Inspector Japp, whose first appearance in the book is described as “jaunty and dapper” – so there’s a portmanteau name if ever there was one.

KarerseeOne relic of the book’s origin as a sequence of short stories is that it is littered with different locations. We start off at Poirot’s residence; in The Murder on the Links, this is just an unidentified London flat, but in The Big Four we know it to be 14 Farraway Street; a road that, according to Bing Maps, doesn’t exist anywhere in the world! Mayerling, the man who turns up unannounced, is said to have escaped from Hanwell asylum. This definitely existed – and indeed, still does to an extent, as part of the original buildings are now used by the West London Mental Health (NHS) Trust. The story moves to the village of Hoppaton in Dartmoor, the home of Jonathan Whalley. Christie describes it as 9 miles from Moretonhampstead. There is no such village – but in the village of Pyworthy, near Holsworthy, I discovered an old area called Hoppatown; there’s a farm, and one or two other buildings. I expect this was Christie’s inspiration. Other locations like Market Hanford, and Hatton Chase are purely fictional. When the story ends up in the Italian Tyrol, it takes us to Karersee or the Lago di Carezza, which certainly does exist, as you can see in the lovely picture at the top of this paragraph.

CalendarOne interesting side-effect of this mammoth task that Poirot set himself is that – I think – the detection, once it has started, is the longest to come to fruition of all Poirot’s cases. It certainly is of the books I have looked at so far. It is a morning in July when Hastings reaches the White Cliffs of Dover at the end of his long sea voyage. It’s mid-January when Hastings gets the telegram to announce that his wife has been kidnapped. Poirot and Hastings meet the Home Secretary and the French Premier at the end of March, and it’s June before the final showdown in the Italian Tyrol. Often you get the feeling that Christie’s books take place over a relatively short period. Well, here’s one exception to that rule.

Jewel Robbery There are also a number of people who drift in and out of the book, and also several who are referred to, but we don’t meet. Some are people from Poirot’s past. He and Hastings refer to Inspector Giraud of the Sûreté in disapprobatory tones; you might remember their encounter in The Murder on the Links. Countess Rossakoff is clearly an old adversary, for whom Poirot and Hastings have a sneaking regard. Hastings remembers that the Countess masterminded a “particularly smart jewel robbery”. But if you had only read each of Christie’s novels, and none of her magazine publications, reading The Big Four in 1927, you wouldn’t have a clue as to who Countess Rossakoff was. They had indeed come up against the Countess a few years earlier, in the story The Double Clue, which was published in the Sketch magazine in 1923. However, it did not appear in book form in the UK until 1974, as part of the volume Poirot’s Early Cases. So I’m afraid it’s going to be a good while before we get round to reading that one. Pierre Combeau appears to be an old friend of Poirot’s who plays a tiny but crucial role in the story – but he is not referred to in any other books – so this smacks of being another rather limp device of Christie’s in this book.

ChessMme Olivier has colleagues who sound like they could have been genuinely real people, like Professor Borgoneau; I think they’re completely fictitious. There are also chess champions, whom one could believe really existed – Rubinstein, Lasker and Capablanca. And yes they did! Akiba Rubinstein was a Polish chess Grandmaster at the beginning of the 20th century. Emanuel Lasker was a German chess player, mathematician, and philosopher, who was World Chess Champion for 27 years (from 1894 to 1921). José Raul Capablanca was a Cuban chess player, who was World Chess Champion from 1921 to 1927. By combining real and fictional characters in this way, this must have brought the story to life for its first readers in a way we might find hard to appreciate today.

MarconigramAs usual there are some references that might benefit from a little research. In The Murder on the Links, one of the characters is described by a doctor as suffering from brain fever. A few years on, and medical research and knowledge increases at a fast rate in the 1920s just as it does today, and in The Big Four, Hastings suggests another character might be suffering from the same condition. Dr Ridgway retorts: “Brain fever! No such thing as brain fever. An invention of novelists!” In an attempt not to look quite so stupid, Hastings then suggests aphasia, which is a term I hadn’t heard before – but it’s a well-known condition which refers to a combination of a speech and language disorder caused by damage to the brain. Hastings refers to Poirot wanting to send “constant marconigrams”. That wasn’t a term I’d heard before, but it will come as no surprise that it was a telegraphic message sent by Marconi Radio. The term fell out of popular use around 1931.

ApacheHastings chooses not to leave the flat in case the man from the asylum returns, much to Poirot’s scorn. “”Mon ami”, he said, “if you wish you may wait in to put salt on the little bird’s tail, but for me I do not waste my time so.” That reminded me that there was an old song by the Mamas and the Papas when I was a kid called “No salt on her tail”. I didn’t know what it meant then, and up till today I still didn’t! Well apparently, if you put salt on a bird’s tail, it cannot fly away. So now you know. When investigating the disappearance of Halliday in Paris, Japp concludes: “either it’s Apache work, and that’s the end of it – or else it’s voluntary disappearance”. Apache work? Native Americans? No. In the early 20th century Apache was also a term for violent street ruffians in Paris, according to my OED.

HorsesJapp again: “it’s too bad of you, M. Poirot. First time I’ve ever known you take a toss.” Take a what? Taking a toss was literally meant to mean being thrown from a horse; so figuratively it means to fail or to suffer a major setback. New to me. And Poirot also refers to chess “tourneys”; it’s just an informal term for a tournament. Poirot observes to Hastings that there could be a number of ways in which the Big Four could “get at them”, to which Hastings replies, “an infernal machine of some kind?” I don’t know about you, but I have definitely come across the phrase “infernal machine” before without really knowing what is meant by it. At that time, it had a specific meaning of an apparatus designed to cause an explosion.

Let’s now consider my usual at-a-glance summary, for The Big Four:

Publication Details: 1927. My copy is a Pan paperback, published in 1980, priced 90p. The cover picture is by an uncredited artist and depicts a Fu-Manchu type figurine. Not that imaginative.

How many pages until the first death: 9. It’s worth noting the incredibly large number of deaths in this book. Some took place before the narrative of the story started, but were still caused, directly or indirectly, by the Big Four. I’m not sure you could give a definite number of murders all in all, but it’s at least thirteen, not including the fate of the big four themselves.

Funny lines out of context: There are two, one right at the beginning, and one right at the end.

“Our conversation was incoherent and inconsequent. Ejaculations, eager questions, incomplete answers, messages from my wife, explanations as to my journey, were all jumbled up together.”

Poirot: “No, I shall retire. Possibly I shall grow vegetable marrows! I might even marry and arrange myself!” He laughed heartily at the idea, but with a touch of embarrassment. I hope…small men always admire big, flamboyant women.”

Memorable characters: Bizarrely, Li Chang Yen is probably the most memorable character – and we never get to meet him! Number 4 is memorable, for the fact that he is the master deceiver and actor – we meet him many times during the course of the book, and he is a most unusual character. The structure of the book means that we don’t get that close to the majority of the characters – but I do have a soft spot for Flossie.

Christie the Poison expert: With so many deaths it’s only to be expected that at least some of them are brought about by poison. Mayerling was killed by being forced to smell Prussic Acid, or Hydrogen Cyanide, to give it its proper name. When Poirot confronts Number 3 he threatens to use curare on her unless she does what he demands. Curare is that rather romantic (if you can use the word in this context) poison, allegedly favoured by the rural tribes of Central and South America for dipping their darts into and murdering their foes at 50 paces. The Yellow Jasmine that kills Gerald Paynter is a source of strychnine-related alkaloids – interestingly that the all wise Poirot didn’t realise the association between the two, but of course Christie did – and there are traces of antimony in Mr Templeton’s soup. So if you haven’t already read the book, I’ve really spoiled it for you now.

Class/social issues of the time:

Even though we know that the representative from the Hanwell asylum was fake, his rough and ready attitude to his “patient” gives us a very insightful look into how mental health was treated in those days: “I’ve got reason to believe you’ve got one of my birds here. Escaped last night, he did…. ‘Armless enough. Persecution mania very acute. Full of secret societies from China that had got him shut up. They’re all the same…. If he was sane, what would he be doing in a lunatic asylum? They all say they’re sane, you know.”

Li Chang Yen is greatly feared and disliked because of the wickedness of the way he treats his enemies and also performs so-called social experiments: “experiments on coolies in which the most revolting disregard for human life and suffering had been shown”. Today we would associate that kind of activity with the Nazis – interesting that this predates the Nazi experiments by at least ten years. Similarly, Number 3’s apparent discovery of how to liberate atomic energy and use it to her advantage comes eighteen years before Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

There’s a rather charming sequence when Inspector Meadows becomes rather prim when discussing the scene of the crime with Mr Ingles. “The other man had stepped in the bloodstains, and I traced his bloody footprints – I beg your pardon, sir.” This may be a hark back to Eliza Doolittle’s famed use of the adjective in Shaw’s Pygmalion from 1914. But certainly in the earlier part of the 20th century it was considered a very strong swear word. So Meadows feels he must apologise even when he is using it in its “proper” sense.

From the comfort of our domesticated 21st century homes comes a stark reminder of how far we’ve developed over the last hundred years or so. Poirot deduces that the butcher delivery to Granite Bungalow had happened that morning and not on an earlier day because “I found in the larder a leg of mutton, still frozen. It was Monday, so the meat must have been delivered that morning for if on Saturday, in this hot weather, it would not have remained frozen over Sunday.” Not only did people not have domestic freezers in those days, it was also assumed there’d be no deliveries on a Sunday!

In another just lightly touched upon conversation, we remember another aspect of life in 1927. “Captain Kent was a tall, lean American, with a singularly impassive face which looked as though it had been carved out of wood. “Pleased to meet you, gentlemen,” he murmured, as he shook hands jerkily. Poirot threw an extra log on the fire, and brought forward more easy chairs. I brought out glasses and the whisky and soda. The captain took a deep draught, and expressed appreciation. “Legislation in your country is still sound,” he observed.” American prohibition was in place from 1920 to 1933.

As you would expect, especially with a book that concerns itself with foreign enemies from the far corners of the globe, there are plenty of opportunities for those little xenophobic/ anti-foreigner references that Christie found hard to resist. Paynter’s Chinese servant is suspected of being his murderer, primarily because he is Chinese. “I’d bet on the Chink” says Japp, “…but it’s the motive that beats me. Some heathen revenge or other, I suppose.” Ah Ling’s appearance and speech patterns are precisely what you would expect: “The Chinaman was sent for and appeared, shuffling along, with his eyes cast down, and his pigtail swinging…. “Ah Ling,” said Poirot, “are you sorry your master is dead?” “I welly sorry. He good master.” “You know who kill him?” “I not know. I tell pleeceman if I know.” Poirot’s housekeeper Mrs Pearson announces to Hastings: “a note for you, Captain – brought by a heathen Chinaman.” Hastings commits one of the cardinal sins of racism; when he is reminded that he has met Ingles’ Chinese servant before, he remarks: “Then I had seen him before! Not that I had ever succeeded in being able to distinguish one Chinaman from another.”

It’s not only the Chinese who are in for this treatment. When they are investigating the death of chess champion Gilmour Wilson, Hastings interjects with “You suspect Dr. Savaronoff of putting him out of the way?…” “Hardly that,” said Japp dryly. “I don’t think even a Russian would murder another man in order not to be beaten at chess.” And Hastings also puts the boot in on another group of foreigners: “Extraordinary-looking Slavs were constantly calling to see him, and though vouchsafed no explanation as to these mysterious activities, I realised that he was building some new defence or weapon of opposition with the help of these somewhat repulsive-looking foreigners.” Captain Hastings would never have been suited to the Diplomatic Corps.

Classic denouement: No. It isn’t a whodunit as such, so there’s no real denouement. The identity of Numbers 2, 3 and 4 drift in during the course of the book, so there’s no grand unveiling of their names; the equivalent of the denouement is Poirot and Hastings tracking Numbers 2, 3 and 4 to their lair in Italy, which has a rather unsubtle (but useful) climax.

Happy ending? Yes, in that the world lives to survive another day, our heroes remain unscathed, and Mrs Hastings was never in danger. However, so many of the characters fall by the wayside (mainly through being murdered) that there’s not a great feeling of celebration at the end. Countess Rossakoff is reunited with her child who was left in an orphanage, so her future’s bright.

Did the story ring true? Absolute tosh! No way. It’s pure fantasy from start to finish. Even within the book’s own rules, it’s absolutely impossible that the Big Four would have been deceived into thinking that Poirot was dead. But the coincidences and double-crossings are outrageous, and the ability of Number 4 to appear and reappear in constant disguises without detection is beyond a joke. And as for the appearance of Achille Poirot…!

Overall satisfaction rating: 5/10. It’s entertaining, but nonsense.

The Mystery of the Blue TrainThanks for reading my blog of The Big Four and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge we move forward to 1928, and another Hercule Poirot book, The Mystery of the Blue Train. I remember enjoying this a great deal when I was young, but I can’t remember whodunit, or what it was they might have done! So I’m looking forward to rediscovering it. I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

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