I knew I wanted an Agatha Christie for the Back to the Classics challenge #8: to read a classic with a number in the title. There were so many tantalizing titles to choose from. Towards Zero; Three Act Tragedy; One, Two, Buckle My Shoe; 4:50 from Paddington; and the list goes on. I settled on The Big Four.
The first chapter has a good start with a break in by a stranger both mysterious and delirious, and ends with Poirot and Hastings jumping out of a train. This is just chapter one, mind you, but things run along that vein for most of the book.
The stakes are high. Poirot is up against four elusive and intelligent villains, whose influence stretch across the globe. The mysterious and delirious stranger describes them thus:
“Li Chang Yen may be regarded as representing the brains of the Big Four. He is the controlling and motive force. I have designated him, therefore, as Number One. Number Two is seldom mentioned by name. He is represented by an “S” with two lines through it- the sign for a dollar; also by two stripes and a star. It may be conjured, therefore, that he is an American subject, and that he represents the power of wealth. There seems no doubt that Number Three is a woman, and her nationality French. It is possible that she may be one of the sirens of the demimonde, but nothing is known definitely. Number four-”
His voice faltered and broke. Poirot leant forward.
“Yes,” he prompted eagerly, “Number Four?”
His eyes were fastened on the man’s face. Some overmastering terror seemed to be gaining the day; the features were distorted and twisted.
“The destroyer,” gasped the man. Then, with a final convulsed movement, he fell back in a dead faint.
Number Four quickly dominates the story. He is a master of disguise as well as destruction, a villain both fearful and fascinating. This would have been excellent, except that the others are left in shadow. It was thrilling to chase down Number Four, but the other three villains and their plans to ruin the world are placed on the back burner and the large scale story didn’t reach its full potential.
There seemed a different tone in this book than what I was used to, a sense of which could be seen in my description of the first chapter and the snippet I inserted. The story is a little too melodramatic for my taste. There were some scenes that I had trouble taking seriously. I also wish the trump card at the end hadn’t come off as deus ex machina.
The Big Four is an exciting story. But I prefer when the setting and stakes are a little tighter. I find more thrill in subtlety than in sensation.