The structure of the book is different from that of most Christie novels in that The Big Four is a series of short cases involving the Big Four villains rather than the investigation of a single crime. This is because it is derived from a series of linked short stories that first appeared in The Sketch magazine (see First publication of stories below) and which were amalgamated into one narrative.
Captain Hastings visits Poirot and finds that Poirot is leaving for South America. He has been offered a huge amount of money by the American 'soap king' millionaire Abe Ryland. Poirot inquires if Hastings has ever heard the phrase the Big Four. Hastings responds uncooperatively. At the eleventh hour an unexpected visitor called Mayerling comes in saying only "M. Hercule Poirot, 14 Farraway Street." When he is given a piece of paper by a doctor he writes the number 4 many times. When Hastings mentions the Big Four, the man begins speaking, he tells them that number 1 is a Chinese political mastermind named Li Chang Yen. He represents the brains of the Big Four. Number 2 is usually not named but represented by a '$' or two stripes and a star so he is probably American and he represents wealth. Number 3 is a Frenchwoman and Number 4 is the destroyer.
After an aborted start on Poirot's trip to South America, they return to the flat to find the man dead. The doctor is summoned and says that the man died of asphyxiation and has been dead about two hours, he cannot be closer because the windows were open. A man from an asylum visits them and tells them that the man had escaped from his asylum. Japp soon enters and recognizes the man to be Mayerling, a prominent figure in the Secret Service. Poirot asks Hastings if he opened the windows to which Hastings replies in the negative. Poirot examines the man and announces that Mayerling was gagged and poisoned using cyanide. The hands of the lounge clock were turned to 4 o'clock and Poirot realizes that the murderer was the man from the asylum.
Poirot and Hastings pay a visit to John Ingles, a wealthy man, and ask him about Li Chang Yen and the Big Four. He has heard of both, the former he heard of recently in a note from a fisherman who asked him for a few hundred pounds to hide himself from the Big Four. He had also heard of stories of four men who opposed Li Chang Yen, who had been murdered from stabbing, poisoning, electrocution and cholera. He had also heard a similar story of a chemist who was burned to death in his residence. The note came from Hoppaton so Poirot, Hastings and Ingles go to Hoppaton and find out that the man who wrote the note, a Mr. Jonathan Whalley has been murdered. There are two suspects his maid, Betsy, and his manservant Grant. Whalley had been hit on the head and then his throat had been cut and some jade figures he had had been stolen. Grant is the main suspect as his footprints covered in blood are found around the room, the jade figures were in his room and there is a smear of blood on his room's doorknob. Another reason is the fact that Grant has been imprisoned before, Grant got this job by a prisoner help society. Poirot finds a frozen leg of mutton which interests him very much. Poirot hypothesizes that the murderer was a young man who came in a trap and killed Whalley and went away. His clothing was slightly bloodstained. Poirot talks to Grant and asks him whether he entered the room twice to take the jade figures. When negatived Poirot reveals that no one noticed the murderer because he came in a butcher's cart. Mutton is not delivered on Sundays and if it had been delivered on Saturday it would not have been frozen. The man who gave Grant this job, Poirot assumes, was Number 4.
Poirot then introduces Hastings to Captain Kent who tells them of the sinking of many U.S. boats after the Japanese earthquake. After this they rounded many crooks up all of them referred to an organization called the Big Four. They have made a form of wireless energy capable of focusing a beam of great intensity on any spot. A British scientist called Halliday experimented on this and was said to be on the eve of success when he was kidnapped while on a visit to France. Poirot talks to Halliday's wife who tells him that her husband went to Paris on Thursday the 20 July to talk to some people connected with his work among them the notable French scientist Madame Olivier. After lunch Halliday had gone to Madame Olivier. He had left her at six o' clock, dined alone at some restaurant and gone to his hotel. He had walked out next morning and had not been seen afterwards. As a result Poirot goes to Paris with Hastings.
Poirot and Hastings visit Madame Olivier, question her but while leaving they catch a glimpse of a veiled lady who Poirot is interested in. As soon as they exit the villa a tree falls down barely missing them. Poirot then explains to Hastings how Halliday was kidnapped he was walking away when a lady caught up with him and told him Madame Olivier wanted to talk to him again. She led him and turned into a narrow alley and then into a garden told him that Madame Olivier's villa was on the right side then and there Halliday was kidnapped. Poirot goes to the villa and asks to speak to the woman who just came. She comes down, after initially refusing, when Poirot sends his card. It turns out she is the Countess Vera Rossakoff. When confronted with the theory she phones the kidnappers to send Halliday back to the hotel. When Halliday returns he is too scared to speak. Then a man in a cloak, who is a participant in the big four, comes and tries persuading Hercule Poirot to stop and Hastings gets into a small fight with the stranger who evades Poirot, Hastings, and the hotel manager with a clever disguise.
Poirot is told by Madame Olivier that two men broke into her laboratory and attempted to steal her supply of radium. Poirot and Hastings board a train, and in the confusion of a signal failure caused by Poirot's friend, they return to Mme. Olivier's villa to find the thieves. however, they are ambushed by thugs, and Olivier reveals herself to be Number 3, and that the two shall die by her hands to prevent their interference. However, Poirot tells her that the cigarette he has contains a poisonous dart, and Olivier unties Hastings, who unties Poirot and binds and gags Olivier.
Shortly afterwards the two receive a letter from Abe Ryland who was annoyed at Poirot for refusing his offer. Then Poirot tells Hastings that Abe Ryland is Number 2, an American millionaire. Ryland soon releases news that he is looking for an efficient secretary, and Hastings applies and gets the job, imposing as a man called Captain Neville. He becomes suspicious of the manservant Deaves, and he learns that Ryland received an encoded letter telling him to go to a quarry at eleven o'clock. Hastings spies on Ryland, but is captured by Ryland and Deaves, who wait for Poirot. When he arrives he ambushes Ryland and Deaves with the help of ten Scotland Yard officials. Ryland is released after his manservant informs the police that all of it was just a wager, and Poirot realises that the manservant was Number Four.
A month later, they leave London due to the death of a Mr Paynter in Worcestershire. He had six Chinese servants, as well as his bodyguard Ah Ling, who Poirot is interested in. Paynter was living with his nephew when he felt ill after a meal and a Doctor Quentin was called. He told the nephew, Gerald, that he had given Paynter a hypodermic injection and proceeded by asking strange questions about the servants. Paynter was found the next morning in a room locked from the inside, dead. It seemed that he had fallen off his chair and into the gas fire, and the Doctor was blamed for leaving him in such a position. Before his death, Paynter had dipped his finger in ink and written "yellow jasmine" on his newspaper, a plant growing all over the house, as well as drawing two lines at right angles under the words, a sign similar to the beginning of the number 4. At the inquest, Quentin was accused in a number of ways, such as that he was not the regular doctor and his recalling of the events. According to him, Paynter told him as soon as the door was shut that he was not feeling ill at all and that the taste of his curry was strange. It was claimed that Quentin injected him with strychnine rather than a narcotic. Later, after the curry was analysed, the results showed that it contained a deadly amount of opium, implicating the servant Ah Ling as he was the one to cook it. Also, Inspector Japp tells the two that the key was found near the broken door and that the window was unlatched. Japp believes that the charred face was to cover up the identity of the dead man, but Poirot believes the man to be Paynter. Poirot reveals that Doctor Quentin was number 4, who entered the house and gave Paynter an injection of yellow jasmine rather than strychnine. He locked the door and exited through the window, returning later to put opium in the curry sample, throw Paynter into the fire and steal a manuscript-the reason for the murder.
A month after the case, Japp informs Poirot of another mysterious death- the chess grandmasters Gilmour Wilson and Doctor Savaronoff were playing chess when shortly into the game Gilmour Wilson collapsed dead due to heart failure. Japp suspects he was poisoned, and Poirot is called in. Japp suspects that the poison was intended for Savaronoff, a former Revolutionist in Russia who just escaped from the Bolsheviks. He refused several times to play a game of chess with Wilson but eventually gave in. The match took place in Savaronoff's flat, with at least a dozen people watching the game. Wilson's body had a small burn mark on his left hand and was also clutching a white bishop when he died, part of Savaronoff's set. As Poirot and Hastings enter the Doctor's flat, Poirot notices that the antique Persian rug has had a nail driven through it. After the proceedings in the flat, Poirot and Hastings return home and Poirot takes out a second white bishop. He weighed the one he took with the one Wilson was holding and discovered that the one he was holding was heavier. He explains that the bishop has a metal rod inside it, so that the current passing through the recently refurbished flat below is powered through the nail, into the also tampered table and into the bishop. The bishop was chosen because of Wilson's predictable first few moves, and Poirot suspects the servant of the flat and Savaronoff's niece of working for the big Four. However, when they arrive at the flat Savaronoff's niece is gagged and unconscious and Ivan and the Doctor are nowhere to be seen. Poirot explains that Savaronoff did die in Russia and that number Four impersonated him as a cover. He killed Wilson because if Savaronoff was the second greatest chess master in the world, people would soon realise that number Four was nothing like the chess player Savaronoff was. With number Four gone, the two are back to square one again.
Soon afterwards, Hastings is given a message that his wife has been kidnapped in Argentina by the big Four, as well as another note saying that if he wants to see his wife again he must follow a Chinese servant. He leaves four books on the table as a message for Poirot, and follows him to an abandoned house in Chinatown and he is taken to an Arabian- like room. One of the Chinese servants tries to make him write a letter in order to get Poirot and threaten him with death. He is eventually forced to write it to Poirot and he is soon seen across the street. As Hastings is forced to beckon him into the house, a man from Scotland Yard throws a drugged smoke bomb into the house, knocking everyone unconscious and Hastings is saved. Hastings is not only greeted by Poirot, but by the fact that his wife has been safe for over three months in a place Poirot set up.
Later, Poirot's agents return from their work of identifying number 4 and produce four names, with a Mr Claud Darrell looking suspicious as he has visited both China and America. Very soon, Darrell's friend, Florence Monro, calls Poirot to tell him information about Darrell. She gives one important point, that when he eats he always picks up a pice of bread and dabs up the crumbs with it. She also promises to send him a photo of Darrell. Twenty minutes later Miss Monro is hit by a car and killed, while number Four had taken her latch-key, gone into her flat and stolen the photograph. Poirot, Hastings and Ingles meet with the home secretary and his client. Ingles leaves for China, and Poirot reveals an odd fact- he has a twin brother. The two arrive home to a nurse who says that her employer, Mr Templeton, often has gastric attacks after eating. When a sample of soup is tested and found to contain antimony, they set off again. The arrival of Templeton's adopted son causes a disturbance; he tells Poirot that he thinks his mother is trying to poison his father. Poirot pretends to have stomach cramps, and when he is alone with Hastings, he quickly tells him that Templeton's son is number Four, as he dabbed up the crumbs with a small slice of bread at the table. The two climb down the ivy and arrive at their flat. The two are caught by a trap; a matchbox filled with a chemical explodes knocking Hastings unconscious and killing Poirot.
Another shock greets Hastings shortly after the funeral; John Ingles had fallen overboard on his boat to China, but Hastings knew this to be murder, of none other than Claud Darrell, number Four himself. After being warned twice by a disguised number Four and Countess Rosakoff to leave for South America, Hastings is called to a hospital because Ingles' Chinese servant was stabbed and had a message in his pocket for Hastings. The servant managed to say 'Handel's Largo', 'carrozza' and a few other Italian words before dying. He also receives a letter from Poirot to be given after his death saying to leave for South America, as it was part of the plan. The big Four would think he was leaving and he could 'wreak havoc in their midst'. This is confirmed when a gentleman in a fur coat (number Four) sends him a letter saying 'You are wise'. Hastings is put on board a ship for Belgium, where he is reunited with his supposedly dead friend, Poirot. Hastings is shocked, and Poirot states it was to make his death look certain to the big Four. The two set off for Italy to Lago di Carrezza, which Hastings thought was 'largo' and 'carrozza'. The two find a café where they go to drink coffee. However, upon their arrival, they see a man jump up from his table, and fiddle with his bread- undoubtedly number Four. This was all Poirot's plan- to scare a man as soon as he thinks he is safe. But it was an act; the lights went out and Poirot and Hastings are knocked unconscious and dragged away. They are taken to the headquarters of the Big Four- The Felsenlabyrinth. They are confronted by Ryland, Olivier and number Four, with Chang Yen being in China, and later Vera Rossakoff.
It soon becomes clear that the man is not Hercule Poirot, but in fact his twin, Achille. The man has a deeper voice, has no moustache and has a scar on his lip. He makes the four people aware of the fact that the mountain has been cordoned off, and that the police were about to raid the headquarters. Knowing their defeat, the three members retreat to a laboratory and Vera decided to bargain with Poirot. He claimed that he could bring the dead back to life, and she said that she would save them if he returned her dead child. The three run out of the mountain just as it explodes, and Hastings awakes to yet another surprise. Achille Poirot didn't exist- it was Hercule Poirot in disguise all along. He manages to give the countess her child back, who was really left in an orphanage, and the newspapers reveal that Li Chang Yen, the famous Chinese politician, has committed suicide. The story ends on Poirot lamenting that all his other cases will seem boring and tame to this case.
The Big Four's characters are typical ethnic and national stereotypes of 1920s British fiction, with the Chinese characters typecast as Fu Manchu-esque bandits. Other key villains include a French femme fatale and a vulgar American multimillionaire. These characters implement conspiracies and undetectable poisonings operated from a super-secret underground hideout.
The book also features Achille Poirot, Hercule's twin brother (later revealed to be Hercule Poirot himself in 'disguise'), and an eventual double agent, the beautiful Countess Vera Rossakoff, who is portrayed as a stereotypical aventurière and down-at-the-heels Russian ex-aristocrat of the pre-October Revolution period.
Literary significance and receptionEdit
The Times Literary Supplement review of the book publication struck a positive although incorrect note in its issue of 3 February 1927 when they assumed that the different style of the book from its immediate predecessor, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was a deliberate ploy: " M. Poirot, the Belgian detective who has figured in others of Mrs Christie's tales, is in very good form in the latest series of adventures. The device which made "Who killed Roger Ackroyd?" (sic) such a puzzling problem for the reader of detective fiction is one that a writer cannot easily employ a second time, and indeed the present story is not so much the clearing up of a mystery as a recital of Poirot's encounters with one of those familiar groups of international crooks of almost unlimited power who seek to dominate the world." Hastings was described as "dense as ever".
The New York Times Book Review of 2 October 1927 outlined the basics of the plot and stated "'Number Four' remains a mystery almost to the end. This, of course, makes it more difficult for the detective to guard against attack and to carry on his investigation, and it provides most of the thrills of the story."
The reviewer in The Observer of 13 February 1927 did not expect originality when reading a book dealing with the themes of The Big Four but did admit that, "When one opens a book and finds the name Li Chang Yen and is taken to subterranean chambers in the East End 'hung with rich Oriental silks,' one fears the worst. Not that Mrs. Christie gives us the worst; she is far too adroit and accomplished a hand for that. But the short, interpolated mysteries within the mystery are really much more interesting than the machinations of the 'Big Four' supermen." The conclusion of the book was, "pretentious" and, "fails to be impressive" and the reviewer summed up by saying, "the book has its thrills – in fact, too many of them; it seeks to make up in its details what it lacks in quality and consistency."
The Scotsman of 17 March 1927 said, "The activities of Poirot himself cannot be taken seriously, as one takes, for example, Sherlock Holmes, The book, indeed, reads more like an exaggerated parody of popular detective fiction than a serious essay in the type. But it certainly provides plenty of fun for the reader who is prepared to be amused. If that was the intention of the authoress, she has succeeded to perfection".
Robert Barnard: "This thriller was cobbled together at the lowest point in Christie's life, with the help of her brother-in-law. Charity is therefore the order of the day, and is needed, for this is pretty dreadful, and (whatever one may think of him as a creation) demeaning to Poirot"
Graphic novel adaptationEdit
The Big Four was released by HarperCollins as a graphic novel adaptation on 3 December 2007, adapted and illustrated by Alain Paillou (ISBN 0-00-725065-7). This was translated from the edition first published in France by Emmanuel Proust éditions in 2006 under the title of Les Quatre.
Agatha Christie's PoirotEdit
The novel was adapted for a made-for-telvsion film in 2012 with David Suchet as Poirot, as part of the final series of Agatha Christie's Poirot. Mark Gatiss co-wrote the screenplay, and the portrayal of Albert Whally could be considered very similar to Gatiss' Moriarty in Sherlock.
- 1927, William Collins and Sons (London), 27 January 1927, Hardcover, 282 pp
- 1927, Dodd Mead and Company (New York), 1927, Hardcover, 276 pp
- 1957, Penguin Books, Paperback (Penguin number 1196), 159 pp
- 1961, Pan Books, Paperback (Great Pan G427), 155 pp
- 1964, Avon Books (New York), Paperback
- 1965, Fontana Books (Imprint of HarperCollins), Paperback, 159 pp
- 1965, Dell Books (New York), Paperback, 173 pp
- 1974, Ulverscroft Large-print Edition, Hardback, 414pp ISBN 0-85456-283-4
- 1984, Berkley Books, Imprint of Penguin Group (USA) (New York), Paperback, 198 pp ISBN 978-0-425-09882-0
- 2006, Poirot Facsimile Edition (Facsimile of 1927 UK First Edition), HarperCollins, 6 November 2006, Hardcover, ISBN 0-00-723451-1
First publication of storiesEdit
All of the stories in The Big Four first appeared in The Sketch magazine in 1924 under the sub-heading of The Man who was No. 4. The original publication details of the stories (which were carried without illustrations) are as follows:
- The Unexpected Guest: First published in issue 1614 of The Sketch on 2 January 1924. This formed the basis for chapters 1 and 2 of the book – The Unexpected Guest / The Man from the Asylum.
- The Adventure of the Dartmoor Bungalow: First published in issue 1615 on 9 January 1924. This formed the basis for chapters 3 and 4 of the book – We hear more about Li Chang Yen / The Importance of a Leg of Mutton.
- The Lady on the Stairs: First published in issue 1616 on 16 January 1924. This formed the basis for chapters 5 and 6 of the book – Disappearance of a Scientist / The Woman on the Stairs.
- The Radium Thieves: First published in issue 1617 on 23 January 1924. This formed the basis for chapter 7 of the book with the same title.
- In the House of the Enemy: First published in issue 1618 on 30 January 1924. This formed the basis for chapter 8 of the book with the same title.
- The Yellow Jasmine Mystery: First published in issue 1619 on 6 February 1924. This formed the basis for chapters 9 and 10 of the book – The Yellow Jasmine Mystery / We investigate at Croftlands.
- The Chess Problem: First published in issue 1620 on 13 February 1924. This formed the basis for chapter 11 of the book with the slightly revised title of A Chess Problem.
- The Baited Trap: First published in issue 1621 on 20 February 1924. This formed the basis for chapters 12 and 13 of the book – The Baited Trap / The Mouse walks in.
- The Adventure of the Peroxide Blonde: First published in issue 1622 on 27 February 1924. This formed the basis for chapter 14 of the book with the slightly revised title of The Peroxide Blonde.
- The Terrible Catastrophe: First published in issue 1623 on 5 March 1924. This formed the basis for chapter 15 of the book with the same title.
- The Dying Chinaman: First published in issue 1624 on 12 March 1924. This formed the basis for chapter 16 of the book with the same title.
- The Crag in the Dolomites: First published in issue 1625 on 19 March 1924. This formed the basis for chapters 17 and 18 of the book – Number Four wins the trick / In the Felsenlabyrinth. It was also the final Poirot story that Christie wrote for The Sketch.
In the United States, the majority of The Big Four first appeared in the Blue Book Magazine in so far as the publication of the book version occurred part way through the publication of the stories in the Blue Book. In addition, the version published in the Blue Book was that of the book text (with small abridgements) and not that of the 1924 UK Sketch text (see Publication of book collection below). In can therefore be viewed as a serialisation of the book rather than a reprinting of the short stories. All of the instalments carried an illustration. The artist for the first five instalments was L.R. Gustavson while William Molt provided the illustrations for the latter six.
The publication order was as follows:
- The Unexpected Guest: First published in the March 1927 issue (Volume 44, Number 5) which formed chapters 1 and 2 of the book.
- The Dartmoor Adventure: First published in the April 1927 issue (Volume 44, Number 6) which formed chapters 3 and 4 of the book.
- The Lady on the Stairs: First published in the May 1927 issue (Volume 45, Number 1) which formed chapters 5 and 6 of the book.
- The Radium Thieves: First published in the June 1927 issue (Volume 45, Number 2) which formed chapter 7 of the book.
- In the House of the Enemy: First published in the July 1927 issue (Volume 45, Number 3) which formed chapter 8 of the book.
- The Yellow Jasmine Mystery: First published in the August 1927 issue (Volume 45, Number 4) which formed chapters 9 and 10 of the book.
- The Chess Problem: First published in the September 1927 issue (Volume 45, Number 5) which formed chapter 11 of the book.
- The Baited Trap: First published in the October 1927 issue (Volume 45, Number 6) which formed chapters 12 and 13 of the book.
- The Peroxide Blonde: First published in the November 1927 issue (Volume 46, Number 1) which formed chapter 14 of the book.
- The Enemy Strikes: First published in the December 1927 issue (Volume 46, Number 2) which formed chapters 15 and 16 of the book.
- The Crag in the Dolomites: First published in the January 1928 issue (Volume 46, Number 3) which formed chapters 17 and 18 of the book.
The announcement of the publication of these stories in the Blue Book had been made as far back as November 1925 when, at the end of their publication of The Lemesurier Inheritance, the editors announced, "Further stories by Agatha Christie, who is firmly established in the front line of writers of mystery and detective tales, will appear in forthcoming issues of The Blue Book Magazine. Watch for The Big Four. The reason for the eventual delay in publication is not known.
Publication of book collectionEdit
In 1926 Christie was already deeply affected by the death of her mother earlier in the year and her marriage to her husband, Archibald Christie, was breaking down. Needing funds, her brother-in-law, Campbell Christie, suggested compiling the Sketch stories into one novel and helped her revise them into a more coherent form for book publication, rather than undergo the strain of composing a completely new novel. His assistance mainly took the form of revising the beginnings and ends of the stories to make them flow better into a novel – the substance of each story remains the same between the short story version and the novel version. Unlike the later Partners in Crime (1929), the order of the stories was retained.
In 1942, Christie wrote to her agent, Edmund Cork of Hughes Massie, asking him to keep a manuscript in reserve (definitely NOT Sleeping Murder which was recently revealed to have been written in 1949.) and stated "I have been, once, in a position where I wanted to write just for the sake of money coming in and when I felt I couldn't – it is a nerve wracking feeling. If I had had one MS 'up my sleeve' it would have made a big difference. That was the time I had to produce that rotten book The Big Four and had to force myself in The Mystery of the Blue Train.
This is the second Christie crime book not to carry a dedication, Poirot Investigates being the first.
The blurb of the first edition (which is carried on both the back of the dustjacket and opposite the title page) reads:
"Number One was a Chinaman – the greatest criminal brain of all time; Number Two was a multi-millionaire; Number Three was a beautiful Frenchwoman; and Number Four was 'the destroyer,' the ruthless murderer, with a genius for disguise, whose business it was to remove those who interfered with his masters' plans. These Four, working together, aimed at establishing a world dominion, and against them were ranged Hercule Poirot, the little Belgian detective with the egg-shaped head, the green eyes and 'the little gray cells,' and his friend Hastings. It was Hercule Poirot's brain, the 'little gray cells,' which brought about the downfall of the Big Four, and led to their destruction in the cave in the Dolomites."
- Czech: Velká čtyřka (The Big Four)
- Dutch: De Grote Vier (The Big Four)
- Croatian: Velika Četvorka (The Big Four)
- French: Les Quatre (The Four)
- German: Die großen Vier (The Big Four)
- Greek: Οι Μεγάλοι Τέσσερις
- Hungarian: A titokzatos négyes (The Mysterious Four)
- Indonesian: Empat Besar (The Big Four)
- Italian: Poirot e i quattro (Poirot and the Four)
- Japanese: ビッグ４ (The Big Four)
- Macedonian: Големата Четворка (The Big Four)
- Polish: Wielka czwórka (The Big Four)
- Portuguese: Os Quatro Grandes (The Big Four)
- Russian: Большая четверка (The Big Four)
- Serbian: Велика Четворка (The Big Four)
- Spanish: Los Cuatro Grandes (The Big Four)
- Turkish: Büyük Dörtler (The Big Four)