Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Hercule Poirot Saves The World From Fascism, Communism, and the Chinese

with 5 comments

So,  here’s the thing.

I’ve been trying to write this post for days, and for days I’ve been sort of drifting off away from it, as if my mind isn’t really on it.

It was actually supposed to be somthing fairly fun–I was going to call it Hercule Poirot Saves The World from Fascism, Communism, and the Chinese.

It concerned a book called The Big Four, which is one of the very few Agatha Christie Poirot novels I had never read before this year.  It was written in 1927, and it’s hard to explain and sound as if you’re serious. 

At any rate, it’s impossible to describe the thing without making a post full of spoilers, but I don’t really care, because there’s little to no chance that any of you are going to want to read it. 

It does, though, make me wonder about two things.

The first is–just how much leeway a writer has once he or she had become enormously popular.

This book was written in 1927, remember, so if people were going to be put off by it–and I really don’t know why nobody was–they would have done it at the beginning of Christie’s career, and not the end.

And yet nobody seems to have been, or, if they were, not for long.  Let me just point out that this is not a traditional Poirot number.  It doesn’t concern a murder per se, nor is it an exercise in detection in the way Poirot novels usually are.  It’s not the kind of thing where a regular reader might have gone, “okay, it’s week, but she’s been strong before, and maybe she just had an off year.”

It’s–well.  I’d have to go into all that, and I just don’ t have the energy.

But I do know that it has always been a truism in publishing that if a writer gets popular enough, he can get his laundry lists on the best seller lists. 

I have no idea if that’s true or not, or even if it used to be true and is less so now that we have instantaneous media. 

But if this thing made anybody’s best seller list, my guess is that the truism was at least, at one time, true.

The next thing concerns something that most writers will never have to deal with.  In fact, I’m not sure that anybody but Christie has ever had this kind of deal.

From what I’ve heard, the Christie estate has a quid pro quo for anybody who wants to publish Christie novels–publish one of them, or all of them, but if you don’t keep all of them in print, then none of them stay in print.

If  this is true–and I’ve got no reason to think it’s not, as the person who told it to me is in a position to know–I wonder if this is really a good idea.

I can see the point to it, in a way.  especially if your serious has a continuing story about its main characters–but the Poirots and the Marples really don’t, in any significant way.

And although I’d say that all the Marples were solid, the Poirots–well, the Poirots are saddled with The Big Four.

Okay.  I’ve got to spill it. 

I’m going back up to the top and changing the title of this post, and then I’ll get to it.

Here is the plot of The Big Four.

And remember, this was written in 1927.

The world is being plagued by wars and revolutions–such as the recent Bolshevik revolution in Russia.

Innocent people think this is just a bad time, with everything in chaso, but no.

The world disturbances are being orchestrated by the four most vicious and powerful people in the world, The Big Four, whose goal is nothing short of world domination.

I am not making this up.  The book actually says that what they want is “world domination.”  In fact, Poirot himself says it.

The Big Four consist of a Chinese man (number one, and the brains of the outfit), a Frenchwoman (turns out to be a famous French scientist), an American (businessman, of course) and an unknown fourth, who is such a master of disguise that he can change into anything from a small rabbit to Andre the Giant without being detected by anybody, anywhere.

You think I’m kidding.

Part of the cover copy for the paperback I have reads like this:

“Hercule Poirot has had his share of intruders–yet none more peculiar than the emaciated stranger covered in mud who stumbles into the detective’s apartment, shouts half-crazed warnings about “the Big Four,” and dies.  But not before plunging Poirot into a crazy netherworld of international intrigue, secret weapons, kidnapped, physicists, underground laboratories, hairbreadth escapes, and an employee from a local insane asylum who’s all tooe ager to let the baffled Belgian in on the sinister secret of “the Big Four.”

I told you you thought I was kidding.

At any rate, what to say about this book.

At one point, Poirot and Hastings are captured by the evil Frenchwoman and her henchmen and about to be executed in an underground laboratory.  Poirot protests that in France, it is customary to allow a condemned man to have a last cigarette before he dies. The evil Frenchwoman gets Poirot’s cigarette case from his pocket, gives him a cigarette and starts to light it–

But  no!  Poirot doesn’t want a light.  The cigarette is not a cigarette at all, but a tiny blow pipe, already loaded with a curare-tipped dart, all so cleverly disguised that the evil Frenchwoman didn’t notice when she was putting it in Poirot’s mouth.

And now, the evil Frenchwoman is convined to have her henchmen untie Poirot, because of course, with several of them there and Poirot’s hands tied behind his back, there’s no possibility that they could have overpowered him before he had a chance to actually hit anything with the dart.

I mean…

I  mean…

Oh, never mind.  The whole thing is so silly it’s impossible to know what to do with it, and it’s not the first or even close to the last of silliness.

At one point, the mysterious Mister Four is disguising himself as a great chess master recently escaped from the new Bolshevik government. 

This man is forced to agree to a match with an American chess master–it would look suspicious if he continued to refuse–and, wham, in the middle of the match, the American chess master dies.


Because, in spite of being smart enough to have orchestrated the Bolshevik revolution (Lenin and Trotsky were mere puppets) and most of the labor unrest around the world, Number Four does not know how to play chess.

But that may be made up for by the murder method–so subtle that Scotland Yard could not detect it without the help of Poirot.

Scotland Yard thinks the American died of poison, but he was actually electrucuted as soon as he moved his chess piece onto the proper board square, whereupon a powerful jolt of electricity shot up out of the floor through his fingers and killed him instantaneously.

Apparently without making him do things like writhe and convulse or, you know, anything else common in electrocution.

And we’re still not halfway through the book.

The thing reads like one of those silent movie serials, or a really bad comic book.  There are so many plot holes, it’s impossible to know how to navigate the thing.

For instance, when the book opens, Hastings arrives in London (from South America) to find that Poirot has arranged to take a job in that same South America, one from which he never intends to return.

A scant few pages later, Poirot decides that the South American job offer was in fact just a plot by the Big Four to get him out of the country while they carried out a particularly nefarious plan, and he changes his mind and doesn’t go.

And that’s it.  No problem with the apartment–it’s still his.  Apparently, when he decided to move permanently to South America, he didn’t bother to do anything like get out of his lease or rent the place to new tenants. 

And on and on and on.

I haven’t finished it yet, although I’m close.  In spite of all the things that happen in it (I’m up to at least four murders), it’s very short, shorter than The Mysterious Affair at Styles or Murder on the Orient Express.

I have no idea what Christie thought she was doing when she wrote this thing. 

But I really wonder what the Christie estate thinks it’s doing by keeping it in print.

Written by janeh

January 16th, 2011 at 12:36 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

5 Responses to 'Hercule Poirot Saves The World From Fascism, Communism, and the Chinese'

Subscribe to comments with RSS or TrackBack to 'Hercule Poirot Saves The World From Fascism, Communism, and the Chinese'.

  1. The Christie estate thinks a certain number of people will buy all the Poirots, if they can, and that while one draws little revenue from such a title, one draws NO revenue from those which are out of print.

    I sometimes suspect Christie was a little too influenced by her contemporaries. If you think of the plot in broadest outline, it’s not a Poirot at all: it’s a Bulldog Drummond, except that “Sapper” would have done a better job of it.
    AT BERTRAM’S HOTEL struck me the same way–Miss Marple wandering about in what was obviously a Modesty Blaise situation. Better for Christie to have passed the idea on to Peter O’Donnell and gone back to one-off murders in the Home Counties.

    Both books are like art forgeries: they passed when they were created, but become more obvious with the passage of time.

    But contemporary sales prospects determine publication, and there I think the “laundry list” principle holds. The later “Spenser” novels, the more recent King and Clancy and the last half dozen or so Heinleins just were not the sort of work which established the writers’ reputations. Sometimes, they were experimenting. MOre often, the books just feel in need of a good editor. Clearly no one could or would tell the authors to trim 200 pages of fat any more.

    From a publisher’s point of view, it makes sense. The writer, having established a reputation, starts from a higher sales “base” than he did when he was just breaking into print. And, like the hangman, the publisher knows someone is going to do it, and he might as well be the one who gets the money. But oh, the poor (well paid) author!

    I keep hearing the last lines of a Kipling poem:

    “And we shall be perfectly pleased with ourselves
    And THAT is the veriest hell of it!”


    16 Jan 11 at 3:15 pm

  2. I’m not well versed in the history of the 1920’s but wasn’t it a time of conspiracy theories? The “Great War” was a conspiracy of the arms manufacturers, strikes were a Communist conspiracy, unemployment was a capitalist conspiracy and so on.

    It sounds almost as if Christie was writing a satire of both conspiracy theories and the Bulldog Drummond type of popular literature.


    16 Jan 11 at 5:36 pm

  3. Ah! But Drummond and the “Black Gang” were regularly dealing with conspiracies–those not dealt with by Nayland-Smith, of course. He only went to straight crime later, as I recall. And in HAVE HIS CARCASSE (1932) Lord Peter is complaining about fictional conspiracy literature.
    I say “fictional conspiracy literature” to distinguish those in which the “Big Four” or Fu Manchu will take over the world–normally filed under “Mystery” or “Suspense” from those claiming 9-11 was a conservative put-up job, or that one or more Clintons had Vince Foster killed, generally published as non-fiction. THAT sort of conspiracy literature is still with us–but the fictional conspiracies were generally more plausible.


    16 Jan 11 at 6:39 pm

  4. I read The Big Four as a teenager in French translation*, and I remember thinking it was a hoot. I don’t know that I thought it was a satire, specifically, but I certainly didn’t take it seriously.


    *Bought it in France or Canada to practice my French on something other than Sartre. Fulfilled its purpose well.


    17 Jan 11 at 12:04 pm

  5. I’m currently reading Christie’s “The Pale Horse” and the next story in the three-story volume is “The Big Four”. Coincidence.


    18 Jan 11 at 8:14 pm

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Bad Behavior has blocked 571 access attempts in the last 7 days.