Guys, this book is legitimately terrible.
I knew, given Agatha Christie’s prolific output, that not all of her books, not even all of her Poirot mysteries, could be good. There was bound to be a few stinkers in there. But The Big Four is to Poirot what “Threshold” is to Star Trek: Voyager—which is to say, it is a well-intentioned attempt that might have once held interesting ideas but, when executed, became a shambles of a story that is best forgotten.
I’m not even sure where to begin, because this is like the opposite of a Hercule Poirot story. It’s like the Robert Downey version of Sherlock Holmes. Instead of a quaint country house mystery that subtly reveals the innate darkness in every human’s psychology, we get an over-the-top spy thriller in which Poirot and Hastings must stop four people from total world domination.
I’m not kidding. It sounds like a bad fanfic, right?
The book opens with Hastings coming back from South America for a bit of a visit and catch-up with Poirot. He learns that Poirot is becoming obsessed with a shadowy secret organization called “the Big Four”, after the codenames the four of them use. Over the course of the book—its constituent chapters having first been published as a series of short stories—Poirot and Hastings uncover the identities of the Big Four while solving mysteries, which sometimes don’t initially appear to be related. Along the way, the Big Four tend to be several steps ahead of our intrepid duo, although Poirot more often than not uses his little grey cells to escape whatever traps they’ve sprung before he and Hastings come to serious harm.
That is, of course, until Poirot has to fake his own death, pose as his “long lost twin” Achille Poirot, so that he and Hastings can stop the Big Four from unleashing some kind of superweapon on the world.
I am not joking. That is the plot of this book. No, I cannot believe it either. It sounds like a James Bond plot, but Christie wrote it. And it’s just so bad.
We can even put aside, for the moment, the outsized world domination plot. I get where Christie is coming from with this, because at the time she was writing The Big Four, fascism was on the rise in Europe. The idea that secret societies might be plotting to start another war didn’t always seem far-fetched. That being said, the idea that four individuals alone could run such a secretive apparatus, and that they would choose to dispose of people through a costume-wearing assassin, is a little out there.
Even ignoring this part of the story, however, The Big Four is a disappointing array of mysteries. When Hastings opens the book with his disclaimer that Poirot doesn’t go in for measuring footprints and using disguises, à la Holmes, I cheered a little. Yet he does exactly that! At first I thought Christie was lampshading all the way—but it feels genuine. I think Christie is genuinely trying to write a Poirot novel that is also a thriller. And it just doesn’t work. Look, I love the little bursts of action when Hastings gets to sweep the leg as much as any Poirot fan. At its core, however, these novels are always about Poirot puzzling out aspects of human psychology. And Christie knows it too, which is why the story always comes back to framing the plot as a game of wits, Poirot versus the Big Four, and how the turning point proves to be Poirot’s careful analysis of the psychology of Number Four.
I am a Poirot completionist, i.e., I want to read all the novels there are. But I don’t ever want to read this one again, and unless you are as diehard as me, you should skip this one too. My only consolation is that, according to Wikipedia, the ITV Poirot adaptation of this story is almost entirely different because Mark Gatiss agrees with me! So at least I don’t have to watch them struggle to realize this on screen.
Here’s hoping the next Poirot mystery I read has more of the little grey cells and less disguises, hmm?