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When Captain Hastings returns from South America for a visit, he is looking forward to meeting up with his old friend Hercule Poirot and hopes he may also be able to help Poirot with a case or two. Before very long, Poirot and Hastings do indeed become involved in a case - and it could be the biggest one of their lives. A man turns up at Poirot's flat, clearly at death's door, and scribbles the figure 4 on a sheet of paper. He dies, but Poirot soon realises that the man was killed by the Big 4, an almost mystical group of people who are masterminding serious crime over the entire globe. Poirot is soon on the track of this group, but they constantly thwart his plans. Can he and Hastings manage to put a stop to the dastardly foursome? Or are their crime-fighting days over for good?
This audio book is a complete and unabridged version of Agatha Christie's The Big Four, and lasts for five and a half hours over five CDs. Thankfully, this is one of Agatha Christie's shorter books, so there was no need to cut it short, like the majority of her other work on audio CD. The book is narrated by Hugh Fraser, who many people will know plays Captain Hastings in the Poirot TV series. He does an excellent job in the role - he has a separate voice for each character and his Poirot is so similar to David Suchet's that it is hard to believe it is not him. Fraser is strangely good at doing women's voices - he manage to make them sound feminine enough to be believable, without making himself sound ridiculous in the process.
The pacing of the audio book has been well done. There are a few cliff-hangers, each engineered to come at the end of a CD, so that the listener has to wait until the CD has been changed over to hear what comes next. Unfortunately, this isn't the best Poirot story there is. Agatha Christie has taken a diversion from her usual traditional 'cozy' form of crime fiction here. The Big Four is an international crime gang whose activities are much more serious than the usual upper class murder mystery that Christie is so fond of. There are political implications and Poirot takes on almost James Bond 'spy' style characteristics that don't fit in with the way to which people have become accustomed.
As for the story, it could have been taken right out of one of Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories. Poirot uses a number of devices to avoid capture, including a smoke bomb, disguises and an almost supernatural ability to work out other people's movements before they have. It somehow doesn't feel quite right. At times, it is so contrived that I found it almost painful to listen to. Poirot isn't the only one to have apparently supernatural abilities. Two members of the Big Four - the Chinese Number One and the actor Number Four have abilities that are above and beyond even some superheroes. Number manages to have eyes and ears absolutely everywhere and Number Four is such a good actor that he can actually change his appearance. It all smacks of a Boy's Own adventure story and certainly doesn't feel very realistic.
The fact that China and the Chinese are made out to be the epitome of evil throughout the story did make me feel a bit uncomfortable - bearing in mind my personal links to China. There are numerous Chinese agents of Number One, who are invariably described as 'impassive' - something that drives me mad when used to describe the Chinese, because there could be nothing further from the truth. There are other stereotypes in a snobby Frenchwoman, a Russian Countess without morals and a vulgar American. However, it is important to remember that the book was published back in 1927 and at that point, Western relations with China were virtually non-existent and the British still considered Britain to be the centre of the Universe. I also suspect that Christie's work, in its infancy at the time, had not yet reached the realism of her later books.
All the criticism aside, it is still an entertaining story and there is certainly little time to become bored. And although Poirot has taken on some rather out of the ordinary attributes, Captain Hastings is still as fine and upstanding as ever. The descriptions of the friendship between Poirot and Hastings are really brought to the fore in this story. The two old friends haven't seen each other for a long time and are genuinely pleased to meet up again. Then there are a number of life-threatening situations that bring out the loyalty they have for each other. I would actually go as far as to say that Hastings helps save the story - without him, it would have been far too stuffy and dull, whereas he really makes it a lot more appealing.
Audio books aren't everyone's cup of tea - people are often surprised that I listen to so many when I am such an avid reader of books. However, I find them incredibly relaxing, especially last thing at night when I have put out the light, and I sleep much better when I have something to listen to. Of course, anything too exciting or thrilling isn't going to be conducive to helping me relax and there, Agatha Christie's work is perfect. It is compelling enough to be entertaining, yet not so much that I can't drop off easily. Thankfully, it is fairly easy to skip back a chapter or two having missed sections when falling asleep.
On the whole, this is a reasonable story by Agatha Christie and will be enjoyed by fans of her work or fans of novels from the 1920s. Hugh Fraser does a marvellous job of bringing it to life. It is not, however, the best place to start, simply because it is just not that believable. Agatha Christie's work rarely shows its age - she tends to gloss over descriptions of clothing or settings that would make it easy to tell when the story was written. This one does have a very old-fashioned air to it though, which will put some younger readers off. If you're a fan and you like audio books, you'll like this. Otherwise, stay clear. Three stars out of five.
The CD set is available from Amazon for £9.99. Published by HarperCollins, it lasts for five and a half hours. ISBN-10: 0007157568