As any serious reader of hers can tell you, Agatha Christie couldn’t write thrillers. Her area was domestic murders in tidy living-rooms, performed by devious monsters usually acting alone or in pairs. Though she wasn’t a notable prose stylist – publishing at a rate of about one book a year, her writing isn’t very textured – she was a master of plot and caricature, populating ingenious stories with witty little character sketches.
Thrillers, however, were beyond her abilities, even though she tried them at various points throughout her life. Her scope as a storyteller, I think, just wasn’t large enough to encompass governments and secret societies. Couple this with her extreme political naiveté, conservatism and even racism (this book breaks one of Ronald Knox’s “ten commandments” for detective fiction, that no cheap Chinese caricature be used to add superficial atmosphere) and you’re left with possibly her worst novel, The Big Four.
Possibly taking a hint from Sax Rohmer, creator of Asian master-criminal Fu Manchu, the book follows Poirot and his Dr-Watson, Captain Hastings, as they unravel the plans of Li Chang Yen, a mysterious Chinese figure also known as Number Four. He leads the titular Big Four, a quartet of megalomaniacs; Number Two is an American, symbolised by a dollar sign, two stripes and a star (Christie’s Americans always amuse me; for one thing, they all have names like Abe and Elmer, and smoke fat cigars).
Number Three is a Frenchwoman. (Symbolised, I assume, by some onions, a baguette, and a note of surrender.) Number One, however, is a totally unknown master of disguise, present whenever a gruesome murder occurs. There’s lots of murders in this book; so many, in fact, that I half-realised how it was tied together before knowing: it originated as eleven short stories which were then boiled into one narrative.
Sadly, the transparency of this is a major flaw. The individual murders and their investigations are somewhat compelling; for instance, an early case involving a leg of mutton, bloody footprints and some figurines is clever in Christie’s usual sleight-of-hand way. But when presented as one plot, with a supposed mastering force, the novel grows monotonous in the extreme, especially when you realise that said mastering force will never be adequately explained. (We don’t get to know any of the “four” that well.)
Furthermore, Christie’s attempts at thriller-like adventures, in the style of such pulp magazines as Black Hand (which is name-checked here), are just silly. If a scene in a Chinatown basement, riddled with divans, trapdoors, secret exits and chain-smoking Orientals, doesn’t make you wince, you’ve a more credulous heart than I. Christie was probably trying for a Sherlock Holmes-type appeal, but the lack of depth and texture strangles that.
Also, Holmes isn’t Poirot. One can imagine Holmes climbing ivy-caked walls, disguising himself as his twin and jumping off of trains at the last moment. To picture our favourite fat little Belgian doing that, though, is absurd. Christie might as well have cast Miss Marple as Indiana Jones, high-kicking Arabs while her glasses-on-a-chain fly, before rescuing her flowered hat at the last moment. You wonder why this didn’t occur to Christie.
Although, as author Robert Barnard (A Talent to Deceive: An Appreciation of Agatha Christie) observed in his summation of this book, it “was cobbled together at the lowest point in Christie’s life, with the help of her brother-in-law.” Clearly, then, like James Dean wearing leather to church, The Big Four was destined to be bad. Even Mark Gatiss, whose unenviable task it was to adapt it for an episode of David Suchet’s Poirot, called it “an almost unadaptable mess of a book”.
The only way it might have been saved, in my opinion, is if it stayed as eleven short stories, all published in one volume; omitted Poirot and Hastings in favour of, say, Tommy and Tuppence, the married sleuths whom Christie used for some of her thrillers; and revised the ending so that the big four remain shadowy (as well as removing some truly awful James Bond stuff, including, so help me God, a mountain lair with a secret boardroom).
The Big Four is a profoundly terrible book, unworthy of Christie and Poirot. At 160 pages it’s blessedly short, shorter than Christie’s usual length of around 300. If it was any longer it might be unreadable. The characters are stick-figures, the plot makes no sense (really, none, if you think about it, which I don’t advise) and the action-thriller elements howlingly bad. Christie was a great storyteller – read something like Appointment with Death if you want proof of that – but Robert Ludlum she weren’t.