The Big Four is a work of detective fiction by Agatha Christie and first published in the UK by William Collins & Sons on 27 January, 1927 and in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company later in the same year. It features Hercule Poirot, Arthur Hastings, and Inspector (later, Chief Inspector) Japp. The UK edition retailed at seven shillings and sixpence (7/6) and the US edition at $2.00.
Poirot goes after a mysterious organisation headed by four individuals bent on world domination.
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 because it is a single narrative with chapters derived from the following 12 linked short stories which first appeared in The Sketch magazine:
- The Unexpected Guest (the basis for chapters 1 and 2 The Unexpected Guest / The Man from the Asylum)
- The Adventure of the Dartmoor Bungalow (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 (the basis for chapters 5 and 6 of the book – Disappearance of a Scientist / The Woman on the Stairs)
- The Radium Thieves (the basis for chapter 7 also The Radium Thieves)
- In the House of the Enemy (the basis for chapter 8 also In the House of the Enemy)
- The Yellow Jasmine Mystery (the basis for chapters 9 and 10 – The Yellow Jasmine Mystery / We investigate at Croftlands)
- The Chess Problem (the basis for chapter 11 - A Chess Problem)
- The Baited Trap (the basis for chapters 12 and 13 – The Baited Trap / The Mouse walks in)
- The Adventure of the Peroxide Blonde (the basis for chapter 14 - The Peroxide Blonde.)
- The Terrible Catastrophe (the basis for chapter 15 - also The Terrible Catastrophe)
- The Dying Chinaman (the basis for chapter 16 - also The Dying Chinaman)
- The Crag in the Dolomites (the basis for chapters 17 and 18 – Number Four wins the trick / In the Felsenlabyrinth)
The Big Four's characters are typical ethnic and national stereotypes of 1920s British fiction, with the Chinese characters typecast as Fu Manchu-esque bandits. Other key villains include a French femme fatale and a vulgar American multimillionaire. These characters implement conspiracies and undetectable poisonings operated from a super-secret underground hideout.
The book also features Achille Poirot, Hercule's twin brother (later revealed to be Hercule Poirot himself in 'disguise'), and an eventual double agent, the beautiful Countess Vera Rossakoff, who is portrayed as a stereotypical aventurière and down-at-the-heels Russian ex-aristocrat of the pre-October Revolution period.
Literary significance and reception
The Times Literary Supplement review of the book publication struck a positive although incorrect note in its issue of 3 February 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 New York Times Book Review of 2 October 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 reviewer in The Observer of 13 February 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 Scotsman of 17 March 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. If that was the intention of the authoress, she has succeeded to perfection".
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"
Graphic novel adaptation
The Big Four was released by HarperCollins as a graphic novel adaptation on 3 December 2007, adapted and illustrated by Alain Paillou (ISBN 0-00-725065-7). This was translated from the edition first published in France by Emmanuel Proust éditions in 2006 under the title of Les Quatre.
Agatha Christie's Poirot
The novel was adapted for a made-for-televsion film in 2012 with David Suchet as Poirot, as part of the final series of Agatha Christie's Poirot. Mark Gatiss co-wrote the screenplay, and the portrayal of Albert Whally could be considered very similar to Gatiss' Moriarty in Sherlock. This television movie marked the final appearances of James Japp and Felicity Lemon in this British series.
- 1927, William Collins and Sons (London), 27 January 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 0-85456-283-4
- 1984, Berkley Books, Imprint of Penguin Group (USA) (New York), Paperback, 198 pp ISBN 978-0-425-09882-0
- 2006, Poirot Facsimile Edition (Facsimile of 1927 UK First Edition), HarperCollins, 6 November 2006, Hardcover, ISBN 0-00-723451-1
First publication of stories
The Sketch (U.K.)
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: issue 1614, 2 January 1924.
- The Adventure of the Dartmoor Bungalow: issue 1615, 9 January 1924.
- The Lady on the Stairs: issue 1616, 16 January 1924.
- The Radium Thieves: issue 1617, 23 January 1924.
- In the House of the Enemy: issue 1618, 30 January 1924.
- The Yellow Jasmine Mystery: issue 1619, 6 February 1924.
- The Chess Problem: issue 1620, 13 February 1924.
- The Baited Trap: issue 1621, 20 February 1924.
- The Adventure of the Peroxide Blonde: issue 1622, 27 February 1924.
- The Terrible Catastrophe: issue 1623, 5 March 1924.
- The Dying Chinaman: issue 1624, 12 March 1924.
- The Crag in the Dolomites: issue 1625, 19 March 1924.
The Blue Book Magazine (U.S.A.)
In the United States, the majority of The Big Four stories were published in The Blue Book Magazine from 1927 onwards. 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 the original 1924 UK Sketch text. The Blue Book version can therefore be viewed as a serialisation of the book rather than a reprinting of the original short stories. Unlike the Sketch, there were only 11 instalments as the second last incorporated two Sketch stories. All 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: Volume 44, Number 5, March 1927.
- The Dartmoor Adventure: Volume 44, Number 6, April 1927.
- The Lady on the Stairs: Volume 45, Number 1, May 1927.
- The Radium Thieves: Volume 45, Number 2, June 1927.
- In the House of the Enemy: Volume 45, Number 3, July 1927.
- The Yellow Jasmine Mystery: Volume 45, Number 4, August 1927.
- The Chess Problem: Volume 45, Number 5, September 1927.
- The Baited Trap: Volume 45, Number 6, October 1927.
- The Peroxide Blonde: Volume 46, Number 1, November 1927.
- The Enemy Strikes: Volume 46, Number 2, December 1927 issue. Note this incorporates two stories from the Sketch, the ones which formed the basis of chapters 15 and 16 of the book.
- The Crag in the Dolomites: Volume 46, Number 3, January 1928 issue
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 reason for the eventual delay in publication is not known.
Background to 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. 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 (definitely NOT Sleeping Murder which was recently revealed to have been written in 1949.) 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.
This is the second Christie crime book not to carry a dedication, Poirot Investigates being the first.
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."
- Czech: Velká čtyřka (The Big Four)
- Dutch: De Grote Vier (The Big Four)
- Croatian: Velika Četvorka (The Big Four)
- French: Les Quatre (The Four)
- German: Die großen Vier (The Big Four)
- Greek: Οι Μεγάλοι Τέσσερις
- Hungarian: A titokzatos négyes (The Mysterious Four)
- Indonesian: Empat Besar (The Big Four)
- Italian: Poirot e i quattro (Poirot and the Four)
- Japanese: ビッグ４ (The Big Four)
- Chinese (simplied): 四巨头/四大魔头 (The Big Four/The Four Devils)
- Macedonian: Големата Четворка (The Big Four)
- Polish: Wielka czwórka (The Big Four)
- Portuguese: Os Quatro Grandes (The Big Four)
- Russian: Большая четверка (The Big Four)
- Serbian: Велика Четворка (The Big Four)
- Spanish: Los Cuatro Grandes (The Big Four)
- Turkish: Büyük Dörtler (The Big Four)