- Number One: The Chinese political mastermind, Li Chang Yen.
- Number Two: Representing wealth, symbolised only by a dollar sign.
- Number Three: A French woman
- Number Four: The Destroyer
Together, they form the cabal known as The Big Four, a group fixed on nothing less than world domination, plotting from the shadows until their nebulous-at-best goals are achieved. Only two men stand in their way – Captain Arthur Hastings, who was only in the country to visit his old friend, and Hercule Poirot himself. But when The Big Four only strike from the shadows, and with only the identity of one of them know, is Poirot finally out of his depth?
My Poirot Countup continues with the fifth Poirot title to be published, although the chronology is already a mess. Most, if not all of Poirot Investigates is set, and indeed was originally published, before The Murder On The Links, and the short stories that were the source of this title, originally published as The Man Who Was Number Four, are set and were published before The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd. If the chronology wasn’t clear enough, there is a bit of hint at the end…
I should say that the version that I read wasn’t the adaptation of the short stories, but the recently released, by the Collins Crime Club, of the original twelve short stories. There isn’t a massive difference between them, as I understand it, and I thought for what for me was my final unread Poirot title, I should do something special and read the original stories.
And yes, even though I have been reading Poirot for almost forty years, I have never read The Big Four before. Lucky me, I thought, one for a rainy day. And now I have. Unlucky me.
There’s an argument that The Big Four isn’t very good because of the turbulence in Christie’s life at the time, but I’m not convinced that adds up. The fact that the book was published on the coat-tails of Roger Ackroyd as the second book for her new publisher was due to her life at the time, but she wrote these stories before then, and the originals just aren’t particularly good. There is a claim that it was offered to her first publisher, The Bodley Head, earlier, who refused (presumably they read it!) and when she switched to Collins, she decided to offer them something new (Ackroyd) before giving them this. It was released just after her disappearance/reappearance, so it was a commercial success at least, selling twice as well as the preceding title.
They’re not whodunits, first of all. I suppose a couple are, based on a “who was Number Four disguised as” idea, as Number Four seems to be a disguise artist who can put Sherlock Holmes or Anthony Bathurst to shame, with even Poirot not recognising him from meeting to meeting, but these are thrillers/this is a thriller (not sure if I should use singular or plural here) feeling a little more like a Sherlock Holmes adventure than a Poirot one, with Poirot stating solutions rather than allowing us to deduce them.
There are a couple of nice bits – Poirot actually shows a little affection to Hastings after Hastings is kidnapped, and the bit with his brother is quite clever – but many other odd bits. Japp seems to have forgotten how to say Monsieur (Moosior) which I don’t recall happening before, Poirot has a poison dart blow-pipe hidden in a cigarette – it might be a bluff, but he never says so – and the fact that the Big Four’s plan never gets given any level of detail. Oh, and the word “Chinaman” appears quite a lot, and never in a good way. And as for Hastings’ comment about never being able to tell “them” apart…
All in all, the negatives far outweigh the positives, which is a shame. It really isn’t hard to find it’s place in the list below…
Ranking Poirot (so far):
The only thing I can remember from reading this, which was over 45 years ago at least, was my confusion about how bad it was and how unlike I expected.
When I re-read this one I found it interesting in the way the collection of stories battle it out genre wise thriller vs. detective fiction. Thriller of course wins out overall. Poirot is made to act a bit of character as a consequence. Although it is interesting how Poirot engages with thriller tropes and almost uses these the thriller imagination against itself which swallows incredulous plot events, rather than seeing them as a red herring for something else. As in other short story series Christie is spoofing Holmes and interacting with other earlier detectives such as Father Brown.
I wish I had some clever insight but I always thought the book was poor. Sorry the story collection version is no better. But then, in the main, I am not a fan of her thrillers compared with the detective stories/whodunits. Also not much of an original thought. 🙄
Easily the worst of her pre-1950 novels (Baghdad in 1951 is pretty awful too). I think she is still finding her way. Once you reach the 1930s, however, almost every book is gold.