Monday, 9 July 2012

Agathon #8 - The Big Four [1927]

Tansy and I started out with a challenge to read every book written by Agatha Christie, in order of publication – now we’ve dragged Nick along with us for the ride, and we’re blogging as we go along. We spoil all the things! (see Tansy's post for some of the most eye-opening coverart yet!

Is it me or was this a really, really weird story? It’s like all of the early Agatha spy and espionage capers got crammed into a Poirot tale, and he’s spending most of his time pretending valiantly that he’s not in the wrong book. But he so is!

I liked having Hastings back very much, as I’ve missed his voice, though I am a touch irritated that Cinderella was packed off to South America and we don’t get to see her. The bit at the beginning where Hastings jumps off the boat and finds Poirot about to get on a boat himself to go see him is utterly adorable.

But the rest of it? O.M.G.

Is this the first time that Christie has written Poirot a story that feels like it’s supposed to be his last? Actually you could probably argue that The Murder of Roger Ackroyd had that feeling, but this one seems designed as a swansong – and not a very successful one considering that the next novel up is also a Poirot story.

I’ve left it a bit too long between reading the book and reviewing it, but the whole Big Four guff wasn’t that much clearer while I was reading the thing – the whole elaborate story felt like a massive fake-out, and it was all the more disappointing that it was in the end quite a serious threat.

The relationship between Poirot and Hastings does feel very real and earnest, and is the only thing pinning the flimsy, melodramatic plot to the pages. The scenes where Hastings believes his wife has been kidnapped and that he has to betray Poirot (but still wants to warn him) are marvellous, very heartfelt and chilling, and make the book worthwhile, but the rest of it is pretty ridiculous.

My headcanon will remain that the whole thing was a massive con set up by Cinderella as an entertaining jape for her husband’s birthday, and to get him back with Poirot because he had been so sad without him and their adventures.

See what I mean?

No, Tansy, it’s not just you. This story is very weird. I do actually remember reading this back in my unformed years, when i just read whatever Christie was available in the library. So I was already expecting ‘cracked out’ going in (and was also really intrigued that Christie had followed up the the skill and subtlety of Ackroyd with ‘cracked out’). However, even with forewarning, ‘The Big Four’ appeared even more cracked out than I had remembered.

BUT! BUT! It’s not Christie’s fault! Well it’s still her fault, but there was a reason for this book, as was explained to me in the afterward that accompanied my version of the book (my version lives in a 1920s omnibus with Ackroyd and The Blue Train). Christie had lost her writing mojo, after the death of her mother and the breakdown of her first marriage. She also had a book contact to fill, and needed money. Therefore she took a bunch of short stories already written, which all referenced the idea of The Big Four, wrote some filler and an ending, and the rest is history! So, yes, the book is awful, but it is justifiably awful, and well done her on fulfilling her contract!

Learning this made me forgive a lot of the issues with the book, and it was a relief to learn that my main impression – that story felt like a random collection of short stories, rather than a novel proper – was completely reasonable.

It is also nice to have Hastings back, although he is an awful arse for a lot of the story. I was NOT impressed that he forgot about his wife for months on end. I’m sure Cinderella was perfectly able to take care of herself, but I did feel it reflected a rather large character flaw on Hasting’s – particularly when he goes google eyed over lovely young stenographers at the drop of a hat.

It was also lovely to see portrayal of a Brilliant Lady Scientist. Madame Olivier may have been nuts (and evil), but she’s also kinda Madame Curie on steroids, so I’m happy to have her. It almost makes up for the rather stereotypical portrayal of the Russians, Chinese and French…

So I’m not as disappointed with this book as I might have been, though I do hope it remains an oddity rather than something Christie revisits again.

So, Agatha Christie gets her Sax Rohmer on. And her Conan Doyle. And a few others that haven’t lasted.

Much as I love (some of) the pulps the Big Four owes life to, I really didn’t like this book much.

It has many of the tropes of the pulps – ill-defined weapons that could change the course of naval war, Russian exiles, fancy killing devices, masters of disguise, inscrutable oriental master villains, plots to control the world, even an underground base from which to rule – the ending is almost like a Bond film in some ways.

The book feels almost completely “un-Christie”. Even though she often broke out of the “cosy” mystery genre for which she’s mostly remembered, it still feels very strange when she departs from the genre as thoroughly as she does in the Big Four.

The Big Four is competently written although, while the individual linked mysteries that make up the book are generally competent, I had no connection with the overall plot about the Big Four bad guys trying to control the world. It seemed excessive and overly flamboyant for both Poirot and for Christie herself, who is much better when the motivations of her villians are more venal.

There were some highlights, too. I kind of liked Madame Olivier – but Countess Vera Rossakoff, the fallen Russian adventuress, has always been one of my favourite side characters in the Poirot stories (as much as she owes to Irene Adler). She’s one of the strongest of Christie’s female characters, for mine, in that she acts through her own agency and largely seems in control of the events and not, as many others were, a mere puppet carried along by the events surrounding her.

The Mystery of the Blue Train (1928)
[Hercule Poirot]
The Seven Dials Mystery (1929)
[Eileen “Bundle” Brent, Superintendent Battle]
Partners in Crime (1929)/The Mysterious Mr Quinn (1930)