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the big four

9 january 2023

New Year's 2023 brings Agatha Christie's Big Four into the public domain. This one sounds like it should be a set of four mysteries, and though it has a single frame narrative, it does tend to unravel into briefer yarns. "The Big Four" are a fiendish cabal of international criminals responsible for all the world's ills in the year 1927. They are so fiendish that they kill anyone who even refers to their existence. One keeps wondering why they don't just kill Hercule Poirot. Naturally when they do occasionally capture him and tie him up, he can escape by threatening them with a hollow cigarette that conceals a blowpipe armed with a poison dart. But why they don't just have somebody push him off a Tube platform is one of the book's larger mysteries.

The Big Four is an extremely silly book, and generally seems to rank low in the Poirot canon among critics and fans. I can't come up with a way to recuperate it, but I read it briskly enough. I bet if I'd gotten to it when I was ten or eleven, I'd have enjoyed it even more. The novel plays mostly as a stupid pastiche of master-villain elements. The Number One villain among the Four is the dastardly Li Chang Yen, who never seems truly to appear in person. Li Chang Yen is a rip-off of Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu, or possibly of Shan Tung in James Curwood's River's End: there were a lot of these sinister Orientals around in 1920s fiction. About the best you can say for Christie here is that she doesn't show much of Li Chang Yen, though she is free enough with the inscrutable "Chinamen" who serve as his minions.

Number Two is an American plutocrat named Abe Ryland who seems to be a Jew, though there too Christie goes light on actual details. In fact she went light on actual thought when putting The Big Four together. This is not to excuse the book or its sometimes offensive qualities, just to say that it's pretty flimsy both as literature and as ideology.

Christie's postmodern tics come out in the book in the form of elaborate paranoia and an obsession with mousetraps. The Big Four are behind everything, untraceable, elusive, omnipresent and undetectable. Unless you are as paranoid as Hercule Poirot, whose sensibilities match theirs precisely. It's as if the Four cannot kill Poirot lest they be committing a kind of suicide.

And the traps – practically every scene in the book involves Hastings and Poirot walking into a trap, or alternatively setting one. And practically every trap turns out to be a counter-trap set by the walkers-in who know that the trap is a trap and turn it into a trap for the trappers. Perhaps when a writer isn't paying much attention, their signature concerns emerge all the more clearly.

Christie, Agatha. The Big Four. 1927. Kindle Edition.

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