Published in 1927, The Big Four is different than most of Christie's novels in that it consists of a series of seemingly unconnected crimes, not one single crime or one single murder. This is because the book is actually based off a series of short stories written by Christie and published in a magazine three years previous. It was only when she found herself dealing with very personal hardships and a loss for a new story that she chose to combine, add to, and weave the short stories together to present a new Hercule Poirot mystery.
The Big Four refers to four criminal masterminds: Number 1 is Li Chang Yen, a great and powerful man from China who is the brains of the organization. Number 2 is unknown but represented by a $ sign or two stripes and a star (so likely American). Number 3 is only known as a Frenchwoman. And Number 4 is unknown but for the title, "The Destroyer". Their collective goal is world domination and their detection and capture or death becomes the obsession of Poirot.
Told in the first person by Captain Hastings, like so many of the Hercule Poirot cases, this story is an enjoyable read for any fan of the Belgian detective with his ingenious "little gray cells", the Scotland Yard Chief Inspector Japp (though he appears only a little throughout the book), and of course the ever loyal, sometimes clever, but usually dense, Captain Arthur Hastings.
That being said, there are a few noticeable differences between this novel and Christie's previous. First, as critics have noted, Hastings appears...well a little more gullible, a little more dense in this story than in the past. And then there's Hercule Poirot. He prides himself on his ability to outwit his enemy and yet falls again and again for traps laid out for him. He just doesn't seem to be his sharpest in this story... but then perhaps that is due to the fact he has encountered some of the greatest criminal minds of his career. The story weaves in and out of England and the continent (France, Belgium, Italy) over the course of nearly a year. Again, this is most likely due to the fact it is based off a short story series. Overall, The Big Four is clearly not one of Christie's greatest works, but it still a clever story and an excellent read and one that I am glad to have read. Honestly, if this is the definition of a "bad" novel from Agatha Christie than I don't mind. She is truly the "Queen of Crime".
At 194 pages, The Big Four is a fast read. As usual I borrowed my copy from my local library. You are very likely to find a copy at your local library, but will probably have to order from your bookstore or online if you wish to own a copy as it is not one of the more easily accessible Christie novels.
Regular readers of this blog may remember my goal to read through all of Christie's crime/mystery novels starting with the first published and reading each consecutively published novel. And so, one might note that after finishing The Secret of Chimneys I skipped over the next published novel, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd to read The Big Four instead. This was intentional. I read The Murder of Roger Ackroyd years ago and while it might behoove me to read it again just to post a review, I couldn't bring myself to spend the time since I so clearly remember the whole plot. However, for those of you curious -- The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is the only Agatha Christie novel included in the online "Books You Must Read Before You Die" lists that I've browsed. It is considered by many to be her greatest works. Ironic then that it was followed by two she considered not up to par -- The Big Four and The Mysterious Blue Train.
And so, in closing I encourage the fans of Agatha Christie or even those of mystery and crime novels to add The Big Four to their lists, but not before some of the others I've mentioned in previous reviews. And probably not before The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.