The Big Four (novel)

infobox Book |
name = The Big Four
title_orig =
translator =


image_caption = Dust-jacket illustration of the first UK edition
author = Agatha Christie
cover_artist = Not known
country = United Kingdom
language = English
series =
genre = Crime novel
publisher = William Collins & Sons
release_date = January 27, 1927
media_type = Print (Hardback & Paperback)
pages = 282 pp (first edition, hardback)
isbn = NA
preceded_by = The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
followed_by = The Mystery of the Blue Train

"The Big Four" is a work of detective fiction by Agatha Christie and first published in the UK by William Collins & Sons on January 27, 1927 ["The Publishers' Circular and Booksellers Record" January 15, 1927 (Page 1)] and in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company later in the same year [John Cooper and B.A. Pyke. "Detective Fiction - the collector's guide": Second Edition (Pages 82 and 86) Scholar Press. 1994. ISBN 0-85967-991-8] [http://home.insightbb.com/~jsmarcum/agatha20.htm American Tribute to Agatha Christie] ] . It features Hercule Poirot, Arthur Hastings and Chief Inspector Japp. The UK edition retailed at seven shillings and sixpence (7/6) ["The English Catalogue of Books". Vol XII (A-L: January 1926 – December 1930). Kraus Reprint Corporation, Millwood, New York, 1979 (page 316)] and the US edition at $2.00.

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 due to the fact that 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 when Christie needed to produce a new book in a time of deep personal unhappiness.

The book also features Achille Poirot, Hercule's twin brother (later revealed to be Hercule Poirot himself in 'disguise', though this is debated by readers) and Countess Vera Rossakoff, an agent of the Big Four that Poirot has met back when she was a jewel thief. It is implied that the Countess is Poirot's love interest, or at least something so close to that that it makes no difference.

The book's colourful plot involves fiendish Fu Manchu-esque villains, global conspiracies, undetectable poison, secret underground bases, masters of disguise, and so on, and combines many of the fanciful characters and situations that Poirot's sidekick Captain Hastings often thought likely in other Poirot novels, only for the detective to reveal much more prosaic solutions. In this sense it is an atypical entry in the series, and can even be seen as a parody.

Plot summary

Captain Hastings visits Poirot to find out that Poirot is leaving for 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 incooperatively. At the eleventh hour an unexpected visitor 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.

Poirot and Hastings fake an exit by train and return to Poirot's flat and 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. 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 ceme 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 Sunday's 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 20th of 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 Madames 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.

Literary significance and reception

The "Times Literary Supplement" review of the book publication struck a positive although incorrect note in its issue of February 3, 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 Times Literary Supplement" February 3, 1927 (Page 78)]

"The New York Times Book Review" of October 2, 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 New York Times Book Review" October 2, 1927 (Page 30)]

The reviewer in "The Observer" of February 13, 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 Observer" February 13, 1927 (Page 5)]

"The Scotsman" of March 17, 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. It that was the intention of the authoress, she has succeeded to perfection" ["The Scotsman" March 17, 1927 (Page 2)] .

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" [Barnard, Robert. "A Talent to Deceive – an appreciation of Agatha Christie" - Revised edition (Page 188). Fontana Books, 1990. ISBN 0006374743]

Graphic novel adaptation

"The Big Four" was released by HarperCollins as a graphic novel adaptation on December 3, 2007, adapted and illustrated by Alain Paillou (ISBN 0-00-725065-7). This was translated from the edition first published in France by [http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emmanuel_Proust_éditions Emmanuel Proust éditions] in 2006 under the title of "Les Quatre".

Publication history

* 1927, William Collins and Sons (London), January 27, 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 0-85-456283-4
* 2006, Poirot Facsimile Edition (Facsimile of 1927 UK First Edition), HarperCollins, November 6, 2006, Hardcover, ISBN 0-00-723451-1

First publication of stories

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 January 2, 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 January 9, 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 January 16, 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 January 23, 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 January 30, 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 February 6, 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 February 13, 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 February 20, 1924. This formed the basis for chapters 12 and 13 of the book - "The Baited Trap / A Mouse walks in".
* "The Adventure of the Peroxide Blond": First published in issue 1622 on February 27, 1924. This formed the basis for chapter 14 of the book with the slightly revised title of "The Peroxide Blond".
* "The Terrible Catastrophe": First published in issue 1623 on March 5, 1924. This formed the basis for chapter 15 of the book with the same title.
* "The Dying Chinaman": First published in issue 1624 on March 12, 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 March 19, 1924. This formed the basis for chapters 17 and 18 of the book - "Number Four wins the trick / In the Felsenlabrynth". 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 Blond": 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 Blue Book Magazine" Volume 42, Number 1. November 1925] . The reason for the eventual delay in publication is not known.

Publication of book collection

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. [Morgan, Janet. "Agatha Christie, A Biography". (Page 163) Collins, 1984 ISBN 0-00-216330-6.] 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 (almost definitely "Sleeping Murder") 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" [ Morgan (Page 163).] .

Book dedication

This is the second Christie crime book not to carry a dedication, "Poirot Investigates" being the first.

Dustjacket blurb

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."

References

External links

* [http://us.agathachristie.com/site/find_a_story/stories/The_Big_Four.php "The Big Four"] at the official Agatha Christie website


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