THE BOOK PAN, 1962 pp 156
Slightly tatty, but it held together ok – you can tell it’s been read by the seaside. It cost me 9d (just under 4p) from a second-hand bookshop. The cover, alluding to the death of a chess Grandmaster, is better than the contents!
The Ian Robinson cover for Fontana was from 1965, and also better than the book deserved; the Chinese figure depicted alludes to Li Chang Yen, The Big Four’s ‘Number One’.
Hastings returns from his ranch in Argentina and drops in on Poirot only to find him packed for a trip to South America … within minutes someone has staggered into Poirot’s rooms and died, but not before revealing the existence of a ‘Big Four’ 1 conspiracy to provoke world disorder and then take over.
Originally a series of short stories for The Sketch magazine, it is another of Christie’s “World Domination Conspiracy” plots, but the only one to be foiled by Poirot and Hastings.
The stories were published together in novel form in 1927, but they had clearly been written before Roger Ackroyd was published in 1926.
The author herself gives some background into what was clearly a ‘rushed job’: 2
Ever since my mother’s death (in 1926) I had been unable to write a word. A book was due this year, and having spent so much on Styles I had no money in hand … It was vital that I should write another book as soon as possible … My brother-in-law … suggested that the last twelve stories published in The Sketch should be run together, so that they would have the appearance of a book … He helped me with the work – I was still unable to tackle anything of the kind. In the end it was published under the title of The Big Four, and turned out to be quite popular.
She might also have added that, at the same time, her husband had just walked out on her, leaving her a single parent and thus even more desperate for the money.
CHARACTERS AND ATTITUDES
Countess Vera Rossakoff, who had previously appeared in a couple of short stories on the edge of a criminal activity, returns to captivate Poirot further. The individuals comprising The Big Four are mere ciphers; indeed, Li Chang Yen never even appears.
There is also a rare outing for one Achille Poirot, Hercule’s ‘brother’.
Because of the origins of this ‘novel’, there is no room for the exposition and development of any of the characters, so there is nothing else to say here.
SWIGATHA RATING 2/10
It doesn’t work as a novel, and the ending is just dashed off. The quote from her autobiography above shows how much she thought of it and how little time she spent on it. I “quite enjoyed it” at the age of 12 but it is an embarrassment to read it again as an adult.
WHAT HAPPENED NEXT
Let Poirot tell us:
‘Yes, mon ami, together we have faced and routed the Big Four; and now you will return to your charming wife, and I – I shall retire. The great case of my life is over. Anything will seem tame after this. No, I shall retire. Possibly I shall grow vegetable marrows! I might even marry and arrange myself!’
Indeed, Poirot next appears in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd as The Man Who Grew Vegetable Marrows, and Hastings returns to his ranch in ‘the Argentine’. These were the last of the 41 Hastings/Poirot short stories to be written, although some earlier ones were not collected and published in book form until 1974 (Poirot’s Early Cases).
ITV produced a version for its final Poirot series in 2013. In this adaptation, far from trying to foil a dastardly conspiracy, as in the novel, Poirot sets out to prove that there is no such thing as the Big Four. It is a better film than the book deserves (another example!). The Countess and Achille, and various cartoon foreigners, were ditched, mercifully, and Inspector Japp and Miss Lemon inserted – allowing one final outing for the real Big Four.
1 1 In the aftermath of World War 1, there was a huge swathe of civil unrest and civil war around the globe; the expression ‘The Big Four’, however, was used in reference to the recently victorious Allied Powers (the US, the UK, France and Italy) rather than some background figures apparently orchestrating it all it all. Maybe the author was being mischievous; maybe she was making a subtle point!
2 Agatha Christie, An Autobiography