Published in 1927, so still early days in Agatha Christie’s literary career, yet already “The Big Four” is quite different from what we have come to think of as Ms Christie’s “typical” style of writing.

After reading the book – and enjoying it, but not enormously so, if I’m being honest – I did some background checking.

Let Wikipedia explain better than I probably can:

“The structure of the novel is different from other Poirot stories, as it began from twelve short stories (eleven in the US) that had been separately published. This is a tale of international intrigue and espionage, therefore opening up the possibility of more spy fiction from Christie.

In 1926 Christie was already deeply affected by the death of her mother earlier in the year and the breakdown of her marriage to Archibald Christie. Her brother-in-law, Campbell Christie, suggested that, rather than undergo the strain of composing a completely new novel, Christie should merely compile her most recent series of Poirot stories into a full length book. Campbell helped her revise the stories, which had been written for The Sketch, into a more coherent form for book publication.”

Voilà, as M Poirot might well say, that’s why the book doesn’t read as “fluently” as her earlier works – she was avoiding “the strain of composing a completely new novel” and so this book is more a collection of stories welded together.

The follow-up to the writing of this book is equally interesting.

Apparently an unidentified manuscript was rejected by her publishers, and Ms Christie – perhaps acknowledging that the book (thought to be “The Big Four”) wasn’t up to the mark – went on to write “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd” to great acclaim.

So much for her brother-in-law’s theory, by the way.

Subsequently, in December 1926, Ms Christie disappeared for 11 days, sparking a massive manhunt, and when “The Big Four” was published, the surrounding controversy and speculation about her disappearance helped drive sales.

So, that’s a bit of the back story.

Now to the book itself.

Hercule Point and Captain Hastings, whom we met in “The Mysterious Affair at Styles” and “Murder on the Links”, become involved in a shadowy international conspiracy aimed at world domination. At great personal risk, the pair set out to track down the ringleader.

This is no murder in a country house, as in earlier Christie novels, with butlers and house guests, but rather a tale of code names and shadowy figures, including a sinister Chinese criminal, and (dare I say it?) it sometimes reads almost like a precursor of SPECTRE in the James Bond books.

Definitely worth reading – all of Ms Christie’s books are worth reading, let’s be honest – but this is not a classic.

But you know what? Despite some of the lukewarm reviews at the time, and the subsequent analysis of the book by later critics, I bet it made for pretty exciting stuff to the reading public almost a century ago, with international criminals and spies, and foreigners meeting in dodgy East End lodgings…


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