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The Big Four - Agatha Christie

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Author: Agatha Christie / Genre: Crime / Thriller

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      05.05.2009 18:31
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      An average read.

      Approximately eighteen months after he said goodbye to Poirot and began a new life with his wife in Argentina, Captain Arthur Hastings returns to London with the intention of surprising his old friend with a visit. Upon his arrival he is astonished to discover that Poirot is himself about to emigrate to Argentina, initially to investigate a case for an immensly rich soap magnate and then to retire and live near Hastings. Stating that he has discovered he has a price and, whilst there are other matters which interest him - the discovery of the probability of a supercriminal global organisation being one - Poirot is nevertheless adamant that he can not refuse such a large offer, nor go back on his word. Yet fate is to decree that events will play a different hand. Minutes after Hastings arrival, the two men are surprised to find that they are not the only inhabitants of the flat, for a door opens and an emaciated stranger appears. Capable only of repeating back Poirot's name and address at first, it is not until Hastings makes a chance remark that a catalyst awakens in the man's thoughts and he recites some astonishing information.

      Poirot's beliefs about what he terms "The Big Four", that group of masterminds, appears increasingly likely, for the visitor provides some very scant details about the quartet. Composed of the greatest powers that the world has known and made up of two men, one woman and a mysterious being who has the role chiefly of assassination, this group has but one main aim, to gain complete world domination through any means necessary. His interest thus raised, Poirot bemoans his decision to accept the case he is to emigrate for, but nevertheless feels he can not refuse it and so he leaves the man in the care of Poirot's landlady and GP. It is only when he and Hastings have boarded a train and are on their way to Southhampton that the true facts of the matter become inherently clear to him. Realising that the actual intention was to remove him from the vicinity he takes advantage of a signal to urge Hastings to jump from the train with him and return to London. Upon their arrival they discover that the stranger has died, seemingly of natural causes, yet Poirot is not convinced and, despite the assurances from a visiting warden that the stranger had escaped from the confines of a local institution, this is brought into doubt by the recognition by Inspector Japp that the traumatised man was, in fact, a member of the Secret Service. It is this discovery - combined with the later known facts that the stranger was murdered that sets Poirot off on one of his greatest and intriguing mysteries. Determined to uncover the identities of "The Big Four" and to prevent their plans the detective from Belgium and his colleague are pitched into a series of life threatening events of the utmost complexities - and all of them overshadowed by the mysterious machinations of the most obscure member of the "Big Four, a master of disguises who will kill without a moment's thought and known simply as "The Destroyer."

      When reading "The Big Four" there are two main considerations which must be taken into account. The first one is to realise that this is not very comparable with Poirit's other mysteries. Uniquely, for a Christie mystery, we are aware of the identity of one of the criminals almost from the start of the novel and we are furthermore furnished with a brief description of two others. Moreover, this is not an investigation in which the detective from Belgium can neatly question witnesses, sit back and ponder and then calmly announce his findings before the police arrest the miscreant. Instead he and Hastings are pushed into examining several seemingly small cases which are all linked up, in some way, with the work of "The Big Four", with the overall intention of preventing this cartel. Even when the identities of numbers two and three of "The Big Four" are discovered, it is impossible for their arrest to occur, due to circumstances beyond Poirot's control. For these first three people, consequently, we cannot even claim that there is much investigative work going on, indeed with one of them the detective is taken almost completely by surprise. It is the attempt to discover the person behind "The Destroyer" which might be said to come closest to the concept of a traditional Poirot mystery and even then these links are only tenuous.It is far better to discard any beliefs that this novel might be comparable to, say, "The Mysterious Affair at Styles" or " Lord Edgware Dies" and instead place it on a parallel with a work like "The Man in the Brown Suit" or "Destination Unknown". Perhaps the only even slightly comparable piece of writing featuring Poirot might be the later mystery entitled "The ABC Murders."

      The second aspect that the reader needs to be mindful of is to employ a fair degree of suspension of disbelief. Conincidences and virtually improbable discoveries feature strongly throughout the writing, allowing Poirot to get ever closer to his quarry through means which seem sometimes almost fantastical. Holes can be picked in several parts of the story, it may be wondered - for example - why the criminals should wait until the mysterious stranger approaches Poirot before killing him. As has been stated before, this is not a novel in which the reader has a chance at puzzling through the motives of a set group of people, determining the likeliest motive and psychological make up of the perpetrator. Instead, the investigations are far more wide reaching. This is a case for Poirot and Poirot alone. Bereft of the usual chance to attempt to imaginatively join him in solving the mystery, the reader must instead sit back and observe how events, conversations and assistance from other quarters allows that detective to reach the conclusions he does. We are truly passive in our examination of the case for the most part, though there are occassions - such as the case against one Robert Grant - in which we are given some opportunity to think for ourselves. However, for the overall arc of the novel, the employment lies chiefly with Poirot.

      If the reader can be said to be participating only in a very quiet way in "The Big Four" then, to some extent, the same may be said for the other characters besides Poirot and Hastings including, oddly enough, the villains. Certaintly they either appear directly, or their presence is made known throughout a large part of the story. However, the impression is given throughout that - in some undefinable way - this is not really their narrative. Their characters all seem to be more viewed as props to Poirot's investigation, they are virtual caricatures of arch enemies rather than actual beings themselves. Chiefly two dimensional in personality, they serve a purpose, yet their hoped for capture does not appear to be the sole focus of the story. It is the chase which Poirot and Hastings embarks upon, the adventures they go through, which appear more important at times. Seemingly attempting to veer away from the Homes - Watson comparisons by making Hastings leave at the end of "The Murder on the Links", Christie returns to it with renewed vigour with "The Big Four", even inserting a brief jibe that all the best detectives have an indolent brother (a reference to Mycroft Holmes) at one point. The actual identities of the criminal gang play second fiddle to the re-established partnership of Hastings and Poirot.

      Whilst I do not intend to reveal any of the identities of "The Big Four" - believing such a discovery should be left for the new readers - it is possible to give a summary of their characters and how they influence events in the story. The brilliant intelligence of Number Three, for example, a French woman who is highly respected in her field, is indicated by the fact she manages to fool Poirot almost completely at one point. Ruthless, believing in no other ideals other than her own and her cohorts, this criminal mastermind may be stated to be a more sinister version of the Countess Rossakoff, who also re-appears in this story after first being witnessed in the short story "The Double Clue" several years earlier. Number Two relies on their status within the economic world to gain the trust of others, they are unusual for their normality in a way. They do not appear to be a stereotypical idea of a criminal bent on global control, yet instead occupy power through far more subtle means. Their financial position along side their reputation ensures their near invincibility. The identity of Number One is revealed almost at the very beginning of the novel, yet - ironically - they occupy almost the most mysterious point of the quartet (the greatest illusion belongs to number four). Making full use of narrow minded and ignorant views about Chinese men - Christie ensures that Number One remains enigmatic throughout the majority of the narrative. The character of Number four is even more difficult to decipher, since their true personality is never really known. Adapting their character to play the various roles used to disguise themselves, Number Four is never fully understood, even when a name is learned. As individuals none of these four criminals really stands out. As a cohesive whole, however, they serve quite well. Indeed, it might be better not to view them as actual criminals, but more as hosts to a concept that Poirot is attempting to prevent. Poirot is opposed to their policies, they represent their policies and thus it is their amibitions, their schemes which play a greater role in the story rather than their actual natures.

      The personalities of Hastings and Poirot are given greater rein to express themselves and it is reassuring to see that there has been no change in the detective's companion. As loyal, inquisitive, imaginative and yet as hopelessly incapable of coming to the right conclusions most of the time, Hastings is as recognisable as ever. Even his liking of red headed women plays a small part in the plot. He is given a couple of opportunities to play a lone hand when Poirot is unable to be with him and Christie manages to steer him away from the predisposed view of him as the "bumbling fool", which makes a pleasing change. However, his intrinsic character does not depart from our familiar concept of him. The combination of an ordered mind, an egoisitical nature and a supreme ability to determine the psychology of others is seen once more with Poirot, who uses all of those to discover not only the people behind "The Big Four", but also their plans.

      Although the fact that this story is primarily plot driven is personally very enjoyable, there is a certain amount of disappointment that we are given virtually no possibilitilites to try and fathom the villains ourselves. With other Poirot stories a large part of the reader's enjoyment derives from attempting to decipher the villain, in this we are not really expected to do so. As a contrast to the other detective stories featuring that investigator it may make a change, yet it is not a path which Christie should have continued to embark upon with Poirot.

      In conclusion "The Big Four" is not one of Christie's greater works, though neither is it an appalling piece of writing. Viewed as a predecessor to ,say, an James Bond Mystery, it works quite nicely. However, in comparison to the other narratives featuring Poirot it has little of the depth and investigative abilities we have come to expect from Christie. For some light reading and to see a slightly different genre featuring Poirot it stands up, when compared to the other narratives concerning him it falters. Hovering between a collection of short stories and a novel which lossely binds them, "The Big Four" must remain one of Christie's more average pieces.


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    • Product Details

      A facsimile first edition hardback of the international Poirot thriller, published to mark the 80th anniversary of his first appearance. Framed in the doorway of Poirot's bedroom stood an uninvited guest, coated from head to foot in dust. The man's gaunt face stared for a moment, then he swayed and fell. Who was he? Was he suffering from shock or just exhaustion? Above all, what was the significance of the figure 4, scribbled over and over again on a sheet of paper? Poirot finds himself plunged into a world of international intrigue, risking his life to uncover the truth about 'Number Four'. To mark the 80th anniversary of Hercule Poirot's first appearance, and to celebrate his renewed fortunes as a primetime television star, this title in a collection of facsimile first editions is the perfect way to experience Agatha Christie. Reproducing the original typesetting and format of the first edition from the Christie family's own archive, this book sports the original cover which has been painstakingly restored to its original glory.

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