Notes On The Big Four

Rating: 3.5-4 out of five

Year of Publication: 1927

Motive for Murder: Power

Plot:

Four is English and a master of disguise. Posing as the keeper of an Asylum centre, he sees Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings about the dead man in the Belgian’s flat. Little do the duo realise that the man was a British agent, who had been tailing Four for years. Then, as a butcher he slips under the radar after slitting a man’s throat, who tried to warn Poirot’s acquaintance in the Intelligence. Furthermore, he scores again having imitated himself as his gang fellow; an American millionaire known as Two.

From left: Inspector Japp, Hercule Poirot, Captain Arthur Hastings and Miss Lemon will appear in The Big Four’s adaptation into television series broadcast on ITV UK on 23rd October 2013.

Three is a French woman of renowned reputation in her field of work. Nobody would think of linking her to the disappearance of a fellow scientist. The French Prime Minister is offended when Poirot laying the facts about her untraceable crimes.

Two’s attempt to have lured the sleuth to retire to South America comes to an end after a stranger turns up an hour before the voyage and become unconscious.  Two’s identity is confirmed after an Intelligence operation on the grounds of Hastings’s tip-off fails to catch Two.

One is Li Chang Yen, a Chinese man who runs an underground organisation in England and has great influence and networking on the world economy. His name is almost unheard of in England owing to the cell approach deployed, which leaves no evidence to One.

‘The Big Four’ with their sheer intelligence and resources is behind a number of catastrophes and political upheavals in many countries. More importantly, they are able to obliterate their enemies but the one and only little man with an egg-shaped head.

So when the news of his death arrives, will it be the end of the game?

Highlights:

Poirot’s retirement plan comes to an end (once again). An hour before his departure, an unexpected guest stands at the door and ten flops onto the floor. ‘M. Hercule Poirot, 14 Farraway Street,’ he repeats the words and faints.  Shocking it might seem to be to the detective, earlier in the day Captain Hastings’ turning up from Argentine is a great surprise.

Poirot-Hastings realise what is in store after Four’s gallant visit to see himself the dead body of a man he has poisoned with arsenic. What follows next primarily is the game of cat and mouse between the duo and Four, whose  masterly skill in changing appearance is incredible. In a fast-paced plot with myriad sub-plots, unravelling the identity of Four’s is the hardest.

The villain resembles the uncanny serial killer in ABC Murders (1936  – see the Notes). If in the latter book the killer plants evidence that will lead to a naive war hero Alexander Bonaparte Cust; Four’s playing the game by a wide range of approaches; framing an innocent person, albeit an ex-convict, electrocuting a chess player and looking ten years younger a young nephew of  a great traveller are some of them. Coupled with a meticulous plan for killing, this psychopath also ensures the satisfaction from each method employed.

Donald Douglas plays as Franklin Clarke in 1992’s ABC Murders adaptation into Poirot series.

As far as I am concerned, critics have been divided about the book plot: the world domination. On the one hand, Poirot does not suit as Ian Fleming’s James  does not seem to agree with the idea of global trotting, let alone hopping from one city to another. It is Poirot/Hastings against four powerful people in addition to the fact that Four is apparently fitter and his junior many years.  I suppose in the plot the duo have deviated from their usual domestic cases, eg. the death of a French millionaire (Murder In The Links) and the murder attempts of an orphan young woman (Peril at End house).

On the other hand, Four as a serial killer is a most intriguing character because nobody can guess what he will appear next. Interestingly. this unravelling of identity is done through three seemingly unrelated cases – a break for Poirot/Hastings in between- after a breakthrough in the case when a crucial witness appears and claims to know a certain man and his habit. Personally, such is a clever technique on the part of Christie’s. My objection is the too many characters and details in each sub-plot that might have thrilled but confused readers at the same time. And therefore those sub-plots could have been a short story in their own merits.

Admittedly, it is not one of my favourites of Christie’s. The details do interest me nevertheless with her political aptness about the changing map in Europe post-Ottoman Empire. At home she discusses the shadows of the Great War and its consequences to individuals. While social unrest and recessions blight the lives of many, she appears to remind readers that individuals/an organisation may seize the opportunity to take control of the rest. I wonder why she omits German and instead of ‘The Big Four’ it could have been ‘The Great Five.’

I only wish Christie knew how different the world is less than a century later; the bloody uprising in the Middle East, Turkey’s turning to its Islamic root and the waning US power might have arrested her.  Plus, she could have been surprised concerning the UK economy nowadays in which its condition is not pretty much different than in the roaring twenties’ era.

In hindsight, I recall the murder of Mr. Paynter (in the chapter of The Mystery of Yellow Iris) resembles the deaths of  the Crackenthorpes from food poisoning (4.50 From Paddington –see the Notes).  There lies the same question: when is the poison put into the food concerned – after or before the dinner? This recurring scene speaks volumes of Christie’s thoroughness in planning her plot to the minute details. Would her loyal readers be delighted by a recollection of a familiar thing thirty years afterwards?

Yellow Yasmine – the trailing plants often found in the neighbourhood in England.

Last but not least, her mentioning of yet another poisonous plant: Yellow Yasmine (Gelsemini Radix). Readers may remember other poisonous plants in other books for killing, namely Foxgloves (The Thirteen Problems),  Strophanthus (Triangle at Rhodes), Hemlock (Five Little Pigs) and Strychnine. Maybe I ought to put Torre Abbey be in my list of future destination.

The ending of the book is an open question to readers about the identity of One, Li Chang Yen. Poirot/Hastings never meets him and a line in the book states about his suicide. I am dejected. And what will occur to Four? Who is he after all?

In the meantime, I will look forward to putting my feet up for the upcoming The Big Four’s adaptation in the last Poirot series on ITV. What’s not to miss from the trio Poirot-Hastings-Japp and Patricia Hodge as Madame Olivier?

         

The Twists:

-Jonathan Whalley is killed on Monday and the village butcher usually delivers on Wednesdays and Fridays. The village weather has been warm before the murder but the leg of mutton Poirot found in the ladder at the victim’s cottage is still frozen.  Hence, Four’s presence at the crime scene.

-Miss Martin tells Hastings about the wrath of her employer, Abe Ryland, about a letter she accidentally read.

– John Ingles’s servant, who is aware of The Big Four, manages to warn Hastings about their headquarter in the Dolomites, Italy

-Cinderella, Hastings’s wife, is detained by The- Big Four

-Four has a habit of putting a piece of bread in his fingers and dabbing the crumbs

-Poirot brings Countess Vera Rossakoff’s child ‘alive’

-Poirot is temporarily died.

Lago di Carezza or Karersee in South Tyrol, Italy, where the headquarter of The Big Four is.

Cast of Characters:

-Ah Ling (Mr. Paynter’s Chinese servant)

-Captain Arthur Hastings

– Abe Ryland (the American millionaire)

-Monsieur Desjardeux  (the French Prime Minister)

-Flossie Monro (Four’s friend – see The Most Fascinating Character)

Countess Vera Rossakof and Hercule Poirot. She is the one Poirot fancies and their paths cross in some of Christie’s novels.

-The Hallidays (the husband is the missing scientist)

-Captain Harvey (of the Intelligence Service)

-Hercule Poirot

-Inspector Japps (who identifies Mayerling as the agent whose whereabouts has been unknown for five years)

-John Ingles(a retired civil servant and an expert on Chinese politics)

-Miss Martin (Abe Ryland’s stenographer)

-Mayerling (the British agent)

-Mr. McNeil (Poirot’s lawyer)

-Madame Olivier (Three, a French scientist)

-Dr. Ridgeway (Poirot’s friend, who examines the dead bodies of Mayerling’s and Poirot’s)

-Robert Grant (the ex-convict, of whom Four frames for the murder of Jonathan Whalley)

-Dr. Savaronoff (a Russian chest player. He plays with an American rising star, Gilmour Wilson and Wilso dies shortly after the opening).

– Sonia Daviloff (Dr. Savaronoff’s niece).

– The Right Honourable Sydney Crowther (The Home Secretary)

-Countess Vera Rossakof (as Inez Veroneau, Madame Olivier’s secretary)

The Most Fascinating Character: Flossie Monro

She comes into the scene after Poirot receives a phone call from his lawyer that a woman has information about Claud Darrell, whose profile matches with Four. In fact, Monro once sounds to be Darrel’s ex-girlfriend, but she has not seen him any more after the war.

Poirot and Hastings then take her to a fine restaurant for lunch whereby, after a sumptuous meal, she is willing to tell him her private knowledge of Darrell. In the conversation she provides Poirot a crucial clue; his habit of fiddling with his bread at table. That in response to Poirot’s saying:’…Women are such wonderful observers – they see everything, they notice the little detail that escapes the mere man. I have seen a woman identify one man out of a dozen others – and why, do you think? She had observed that he had a trick of stroking his nose when he was agitated. Now would a man ever have thought of noticing a thing like that?’

Twenty minutes after they part, Monro is run over by Four.

Monro comes because of the reward money. Apparently she is, in Hastings’s term, in “exceedingly low water”. Probably out of jobs, she represents an army of other young independent women in Christie’s books failing to find employment, eg. Tuppence Beresford, Jane Cleveland or Anne Beddingfield to name a few. Thus, her great appreciation for a good meal.

Neither beautiful nor ugly, she is the kind of person who does her best to look well.  She lives in a squalid part of London that does not suit for a Lady due to its cheap rent. I wonder what makes her come to London and if anyone would miss her. Did Darrell persuade her to come with him to the capital? Or did they meet in London?

When seeing her in the morgue, Hastings describes her appearance: ‘….poor Flossie Monro, with her rouge and her dyed hair. She lay there very peacefully with a little smile on her lips.’

I am rather unhappy that she is not in the list on the cast of characters in the book’s adaptation.  Without her, Four would not be captured.

Clues:

Hercule Poirot and Arthur Hastings: (before Poirot leaving London for Rio De Janeiro)

‘…Tell me, what is commonly meant by the phrase, “The Big Four”?’

‘I suppose it had its origin at the Versailles Conference, and then there’s the famous “Big Four” in the film world, and the term is used by hosts of smaller fry.’

‘I see. I have come across the phrase, you understand, under circumstances where none of those explanations would apply. It seems to refer to a gang of international criminals or something of that kind; only –‘

‘Only what?’

‘Only I fancy that is something on a large scale. Just a little idea of mine, nothing more…’

Miss Martin to Arthur Hastings (as Arthur Neville, Abe Ryland’s new secretary):

[after she tells him of Ryland’s anger of her having opened his letter]

‘What was there in the letter, I wonder, to upset him so?’

‘Absolutely nothing – that’s just the curious part of it. I had read it before I discovered my mistake. I can still remember it word by word and there was nothing in it that could possibly upset anyone.’

‘You can repeat it, you say?’

‘Yes.’

Dear Sir – The essential thing now, I should say, is to see the property. If you insist on the quarry being included, then seventeen thousand seems reasonable. 11 per cent commission too much, 4 per cent is ample.

Yours truly,

Arthur Levesham

Poirot to Hastings (about the murder of Mr. Panyter):

‘…..There was no trace of powdered opium in the curry served to Mr. Paynter, but acting in obedience to the suspicions Dr. Quentin [Four] had aroused, the old man eats none of it, and preserves it to give to his medical attendant, whom he summons according to plan. Dr. Quentin arrives, takes charge of the curry, and gives Mr. Paynter an injection – of strychnine, he says, but really of yellow yasmine – a poisonous dose. When the drug begins to take effect, he departs, after unlatching the window. Then, in the night, he returns by the window, finds the manuscript, and shoves Mr. Paynter into the fire. He does not heed the newspaper that drops to the floor and is covered by the old man’s body. Paynter knew what drug he had been given, and strove to accuse the Big Four of his murder. It is easy for Quentin to mix powdered opium with the curry before handing it over to be analysed.’

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