I was simply delighted when this dropped through my letterbox this morning and my grateful thanks to HarperCollins for sending me this (it was included with the new Maeve Kerrigan book by Jane Casey which was TERRIFIC more on that later). Look at the cover. Isn't it wonderful?
Dame Agatha was rather dismissive of The Big Four calling it a 'rotten book' but this may have had a lot to do with the circumstances in which it was published. Dame A had had the most enormous success with the Murder of Roger Ackroyd which, if you have not read it I urge you to do so, and the publishers, natch, wanted another title as quickly as possible. Ackroyd was published in 1926 and at that time she was having a horrid time in her personal life. Her mother, who she adored, had died and now her husband with impeccable timing told her he wanted a divorce as he was having an affair with another woman. Her famous disappearance followed later in the year and the resultant publicity regarding this made the publishers even more keen to cash in on her notoriety (I personally think she just buggered off for a bit of peace and quiet and when she read that the Press were all over her 'disappearance' and even suspected Archie of doing her in, decided to let him suffer a bit. But it all points to a depressive episode which has never been really explained).
So a new Christie was wanted and it was her bro in law who came up with the solution of adapting twelve short stories Dame A had written for the Sketch Magazine and published in 1924. Great idea and they edited and adapted and wrote new material, abandoning the original title The Man who Was Number Four and calling the finished work The Big Four.
This book is very much in the style of The Man in the Brown Suit, The Seven Dials Mystery full of mysterious China men, glamorous but mysterious women, secret societies and a Master of Fiendish Disguise. I simply loved it and do not think it is rotten at all. The Big Four are determined to take over the world and, naturally, Poirot is the only one who can stop them despite the fact that governments and intelligence agencies have tried and all failed. He has by his side the indefatigable but intellectually challenged Hastings and together they set forth. Each chapter is a mini story in itself, as it would have been for the original serial readers, and so you can pop in and out as you please but I read it straight through.
There is one chapter when Hastings is taken to see one of the Big Four and is told that unless he delivers Poirot into their hands by writing to him to meet him there, his wife Bella (who he has left behind in Argentina who seems perfectly happy for her husband to linger in England for upwards of a year - wonder why) who has been captured by a Big Four minion will suffer the most unimaginable tortures. So he writes but feels the most incredible guilt and just as Hercule arrives he shouts out and warns him. Goes without saying that Poirot had already realised it was a trap and had Inspector Japp and loads of officers with him (to no avail as No 4 gets away) and then blithely informs Hastings that he had moved Bella to a place of safety some months before (cannot help but feel it would have been a good idea if this had been mentioned but no matter) and then realises that Hastings would not sacrifice him even though his wife was, as he thought, in danger:
"They tortured you with a lie".
I turned my head aside. Poirot put his hand on my shoulder. There was something in his voice that I had never heard there before.
"You like not that I should embrace you or display the emotion. I know well. I will be very British, I will say nothing, but nothing at all. Only this - that in this last adventure of ours the honours are all with you and happy is the man who has such a friend as I have"
And that is why Dame Agatha was wrong when she said this was a 'rotten book'.....