I recently got the urge to read an Agatha Christie novel, an impulse that comes over me from time to time. When I was a kid, I read a lot of Christie novels, the first one being THE BODY IN THE LIBRARY, which I checked out of the school library when I was in the sixth grade. This was back during the days before the balkanization of mystery fandom, when you could read Agatha Christie one day and Mickey Spillane the next and never think anything about it.
Anyway, the book I picked up was THE BIG FOUR, a novel I’d seen mentioned every now and then on the Golden Age of Detection Yahoo group. I knew it was something of an oddity for Christie, not really a straight murder mystery like most of her other books but rather an attempt to write an Edgar Wallace-style thriller. (I say that having never read an Edgar Wallace book myself, you understand, but I seem to remember that from the GAD group.) The plot finds Christie’s most famous detective, Hercule Poirot, facing off against a group of international criminal masterminds, the Big Four of the title. They’re led by Li Chang Yen (a brilliant, sinister Chinaman . . . wonder where Christie got that idea . . . what do you think, Sir Denis Nayland Smith?), and their ranks include an American, a French woman, and the assassin of the group, the mysterious Number Four, a master of disguise who might be anybody. Accompanied by narrator and faithful companion Captain Hastings, Poirot foils half a dozen or so plots by the Big Four in this episodic novel (something else it has in common with the early Fu Manchu books) before finally having a big showdown with them.
I really have to wonder if Ian Fleming ever read this novel, because some of the bizarre assassination methods, as well as the villains’ death ray and their secret stronghold inside a mountain, really reminded me of the James Bond books. Well, probably the movies more than the books, now that I think about it. But for a book originally published in 1927, there’s a lot of stuff that showed up later during the secret agent boom in the Sixties.
Despite the fact that there are elements here I like, I’m not sure the book ever really works. Christie just doesn’t seem suited for global-scale action-adventure. The writing seems rushed in places, but at the same time, there’s never really much sense of urgency. And even though stuff Blows Up Real Good, there’s no real sense of that, either. Still, I enjoyed THE BIG FOUR overall. Several of the individual cases that make up the larger story arc are interesting and well-plotted. Poirot is, well, Poirot, even when he’s taking on antagonists more suited for James Bond. Captain Hastings is as dense as ever, and whether you find that endearing or annoying is up to the individual reader. This seems to be regarded as one of Christie’s worst books, and I can understand why. So if you haven’t read her work before, this isn’t the place to start. But it’s still a pleasant enough way to spend some time if your expectations aren’t too high.