The Big Four (novel)

The Big Four

Dust-jacket illustration of the first UK edition
Author Agatha Christie
Cover artist Thomas Derrick
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Genre Crime novel
Publisher William Collins & Sons
Publication date
27 January 1927
Media type Print (hardback & paperback)
Pages 282 (first edition, hardback)
Preceded by The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
Followed by The Mystery of the Blue Train

The Big Four is a work of detective fiction by Agatha Christie, first published in the UK by William Collins & Sons on 27 January 1927[1] and in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company later in the same year.[2][3] It features Hercule Poirot, Arthur Hastings, and Inspector (later, Chief Inspector) Japp. The UK edition retailed at seven shillings and sixpence (7/6)[4] and the US edition at $2.00.[3]

The structure of the novel is different from other Poirot stories, as it began from twelve short stories (eleven in the US) that had been separately published. This is a tale of international intrigue and espionage, therefore opening up the possibility of more spy fiction from Christie.[5]:24


The opening chapters are set in Hercule Poirot's apartment in London. There is an abortive railway trip to Southampton and the return trip to London. There is then a visit to an unnamed village in Devon, situated in the vicinity of Dartmoor. The village of Chobham which Poirot visits next is an actual location in Surrey.[6]:43–47 The action then moves to France, in the Passy area of Paris.[6] The action returns to the United Kingdom in the fictional location of Hatton Chase, seat of the Duke of Loamshire. Followed by a visit to Market Hanford, Worcestershire.[6] The action next returns to London and to London's Chinatown. There is also a visit to a restaurant in Soho. The action then moves abroad to Belgium. There are two trips on ocean-going ships. Finally there is a railway trip from London to Paris and from there to South Tyrol in Italy.[6]

Plot summary


Captain Arthur Hastings returns to England after an 18-month-long stay in Argentina.[6] He intends to visit his old friend Hercule Poirot and is shocked to find Poirot about to leave for South America. Poirot wants to go to Rio de Janeiro where his newest client Abe Ryland awaits.[5] The imminent departure of Poirot has to be postponed, however. An unexpected visitor called Mayerling comes in through Poirot's bedroom. There is no clue of how the man entered the upper floor apartment. Perhaps through the bedroom's window which is, however, at some distance from the ground.[6] The man is covered from head to toes with dust and mud. He is emaciated as though he has been long imprisoned and with little access to food. He collapses on the floor. The only clue to what he wants is his saying Poirot's name (his only words) and his writing on a piece of paper. Again no words on the paper, only the number 4 many times.[5]

When Hastings mentions the Big Four, the man begins speaking about an international crime cartel of that name. He knows little of the four leaders, and tells them that Number 1 is a Chinese political mastermind named Li Chang Yen. He represents the brains of the Big Four. Number 2 is usually not named but is represented by a '$' or two stripes and a star, so he is probably American and he represents wealth. Number 3 is a Frenchwoman, and Number 4 is the destroyer and otherwise unknown.[5]

Poirot and Hastings summon a doctor who examines the patient and prescribes rest.[6] Poirot and Hastings leave the man in the care of Poirot's housekeeper and set off to catch a train to Southampton. During the journey, Poirot suspects his South American mission was an excuse to get him out of the way. Deciding there is a case waiting for him in England, Poirot aborts his trip.[5][6] He and Hastings take advantage of a train stop open terrain to exit the train. They return to London by car[6] They return to Poirot's apartment to find their visitor dead.[5]

A doctor is summoned. And also an uninvited man arrives, claiming to work for a lunatic asylum and to be in search of an escaped inmate. He identifies the dead man as the escapee in question then departs. Poirot calls the asylum and learns that there have been no recent escapes.[6] Japp soon enters and recognises the dead man as Mayerling, a prominent figure in the Secret Service who had disappeared five years before.[5] Poirot asks Hastings if he opened the windows, to which Hastings replies in the negative. Poirot examines the man and announces that Mayerling was gagged and poisoned by inhaling "prussic acid" (hydrogen cyanide). The hands of the lounge clock have been turned to 4 o'clock, and Poirot realises that the murderer was the man from the asylum. He was the Destroyer.[5]


Poirot and Hastings visit John Ingles, a wealthy man, to ask him about Li Chang Yen and the Big Four. He saw a note from a fisherman who asked him for a few hundred pounds to hide himself from the Big Four. He has also heard stories of four men who opposed Li Chang Yen, and who were murdered by stabbing, poisoning, electrocution and cholera; and he has heard a similar story of a chemist who was burned to death in his residence. The note came from Hoppaton, so Poirot, Hastings and Ingles go to Hoppaton and discover that the man who wrote the note, a Mr Jonathan Whalley, has been murdered.

There are two suspects: his maid, Betsy, and his manservant, Grant. Whalley was hit on the head and then his throat was cut; and some jade figures of his have been stolen. Grant is the main suspect as his bloody footprints are found around the room, the jade figures were in his room, and there is blood on his room's doorknob. Grant is also under suspicion because he has been imprisoned before: he obtained this job through a prisoner help society.

Poirot finds a frozen leg of mutton which interests him very much. Poirot hypothesizes that the murderer was a young man who came in a trap, killed Whalley, and went away. His clothing was slightly bloodstained. Poirot talks to Grant and asks him whether he entered the room twice to take the jade figures. When he replies in the negative, Poirot reveals that no one noticed the murderer because he came in a butcher's cart. Mutton is not delivered on Sundays and if it had been delivered on Saturday it would not have been frozen. The man who gave Grant this job, Poirot assumes, was Number 4.


Poirot introduces Hastings to Captain Kent who tells them of the sinking of many US boats after the Japanese earthquake. In the aftermath many crooks were rounded up, who referred to the Big Four. The latter have produced a form of wireless energy capable of focusing a beam of great intensity on any spot. A British scientist called Halliday was near success on this same concept when he was kidnapped on a visit to France. Halliday's wife tells Poirot that her husband went to Paris to talk to some people connected with his work. Among them was the notable French scientist Madame Olivier. Halliday had visited Madame Olivier; he had left her at six o'clock, dined alone at some restaurant, and gone back to his hotel. He walked out next morning and has not been seen since.

Poirot goes to Paris with Hastings. Poirot and Hastings visit Madame Olivier and question her. Upon leaving, they catch a glimpse of a veiled lady. A tree falls down, missing them. Poirot then explains to Hastings how Halliday was kidnapped: he was walking away when a lady caught up with him and told him Madame Olivier wanted to talk to him again. She led him into a narrow alley and then into a garden, telling him that Madame Olivier's villa was on the right-hand side. Then and there, Halliday was kidnapped. At the villa, Poirot asks to speak to the woman who just came in. She is the Countess Vera Rossakoff. When confronted with Poirot's theory, she phones the kidnappers to send Halliday back to the hotel. When Halliday returns he is too scared to speak. Then a man in a cloak, one of the Big Four, tries to persuade Poirot to stop his investigation. Hastings gets into a small fight with the stranger who then evades Poirot, Hastings, and the hotel manager with a clever disguise.

Madame Olivier

Madame Olivier tells Poirot that two men broke into her laboratory and attempted to steal her supply of radium. Poirot and Hastings board a train, and in the confusion of a signal failure caused by Poirot's friend, they return to Madam Olivier's villa to find the thieves. They are ambushed by thugs, and Olivier reveals herself to be Number 3. She says the two shall die by her hands to prevent their further interference. However, Poirot tells her that his cigarette contains a poisonous dart, and Olivier unties Hastings, who unties Poirot and binds and gags Olivier.

Abe Ryland

The two receive a letter from Abe Ryland who is annoyed at Poirot for refusing his offer. Poirot tells Hastings that Abe Ryland is Number 2, an American millionaire. Ryland soon releases news that he is looking for an efficient secretary, and Hastings gets the job, posing as a Captain Neville. He becomes suspicious of the manservant Deaves, and he learns that Ryland received an encoded letter telling him to go to a quarry at eleven o'clock. Hastings spies on Ryland, but is captured by Ryland and Deaves, who wait for Poirot. When he arrives he ambushes Ryland and Deaves with the help of ten Scotland Yard officials. Ryland is released after his manservant informs the police that all of it was just a wager, and Poirot realises that the manservant was Number Four.

Mr Paynter

A month later, they leave London to investigate the death of a Mr Paynter in Worcestershire. He has six Chinese servants, as well as his bodyguard Ah Ling, in whom Poirot is interested. When Paynter fell ill after a meal, Doctor Quentin was called; he told Paynter's nephew, Gerald, that he had given Paynter a hypodermic injection, and proceeded to ask strange questions about the servants. Paynter was found dead the next morning in a room locked from the inside. It seemed that he had fallen off his chair and into the gas fire, and the Doctor was blamed for leaving him in such a position.

Before his death, Paynter had written in ink "yellow jasmine" on his newspaper. (Yellow jasmine is a plant growing all over the house.) Paynter had also drawn two lines at right angles under these words – a sign similar to the beginning of the number 4. At the inquest, Quentin comes under suspicion: he was not Paynter's regular doctor, and his recall of events is questioned. According to him, as soon as the door was shut Paynter told him that he was not feeling ill at all, but that the taste of his curry was strange.

It was claimed that Quentin injected him with strychnine rather than a narcotic. The curry was analysed, showing that it contained a deadly amount of opium, implicating the cook Ah Ling. Inspector Japp tells Poirot and Hastings that the key was found near the broken door and that the window was unlatched. Japp believes that victim's face was charred to cover up the identity of the dead man, but Poirot believes the man to be Paynter. Poirot reveals that Doctor Quentin was Number 4, who entered the house and gave Paynter an injection of yellow jasmine rather than strychnine. He locked the door and exited through the window, returning later to put opium in the curry sample, throw Paynter into the fire, and steal a manuscript – the reason for the murder.


A month later, Japp informs Poirot of another mysterious death , the chess grandmasters Gilmour Wilson and Doctor Savaronoff were playing chess when Gilmour Wilson collapsed and died from heart failure. Japp suspects he was poisoned, and Poirot is called in. Japp suspects that the poison was intended for Savaronoff, a former Revolutionist in Russia who escaped from the Bolsheviks. He previously refused several times to play a game of chess with Wilson, but eventually gave in. The match took place in Savaronoff's flat, with at least a dozen people watching the game.

Wilson's body had a small burn mark on his left hand and he was clutching a white bishop when he died, part of Savaronoff's set. As Poirot and Hastings enter the Doctor's flat, Poirot notices that the antique Persian rug has had a nail driven through it. After the proceedings in the flat, Poirot and Hastings return home and Poirot takes out a second white bishop. He weighed the one he took with the one Wilson was holding and discovered that the one he was holding was heavier. He explains that the bishop has a metal rod inside it, so that the current passing through the recently refurbished flat below is powered through the nail, into the also tampered-with table and into the bishop. The bishop was chosen because of Wilson's predictable first few moves (Wilson was electrocuted after playing the Ruy Lopez as White, consisting of the moves 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 (see algebraic chess notation) - the square b5 was electrified and the white bishop with the metal rod was the light-squared one).

Poirot suspects the servant of the flat and Savaronoff's niece are working for the Big Four. When Poirot and Hastings arrive at the flat, Savaronoff's niece is gagged and unconscious, and Ivan and the Doctor are nowhere to be seen. Poirot explains that Savaronoff did die in Russia and that Number Four impersonated him as a cover. He killed Wilson because, he could not fool Wilson or the observers. With Number Four gone, the two are back to square one again.

Hastings in peril

Soon afterwards, Hastings is given a message that his wife has been kidnapped in Argentina by the Big Four, and that if he wants to see his wife he must follow a Chinese servant. He leaves four books on the table as a message for Poirot, and follows the servant to an abandoned house in Chinatown, where he is taken to an Arabian-like room. He is forced to write to Poirot, who is soon seen across the street. As Hastings is forced to beckon him into the house, a man from Scotland Yard throws a drugged smoke bomb into the house, knocking everyone unconscious, and Hastings is saved. Hastings is greeted by Poirot with the news that his wife has been safe for over three months in a place Poirot organised.

The identity of Number 4

Poirot's agents return from their work of identifying Number 4 and produce four names. A Mr Claud Darrell looks suspicious as he has visited both China and America. Very soon, Darrell's friend, Florence Monro, calls Poirot for information about Darrell. She mentions one important point, that when he eats he always picks up a piece of bread and dabs up the crumbs with it. She promises to send him a photo of Darrell. Twenty minutes later Miss Monro is hit by a car and killed, and Number Four has stolen the photograph.

Poirot, Hastings and Ingles meet with the Home Secretary and his client. Ingles leaves for China, and Poirot reveals an odd fact – he has a twin brother. The two arrive home to a nurse who says that her employer, Mr Templeton, often has gastric attacks after eating. When a sample of soup is tested and found to contain antimony, they set off again. The arrival of Templeton's adopted son causes a disturbance; he tells Poirot that he thinks his mother is trying to poison his father. Poirot pretends to have stomach cramps, and when he is alone with Hastings, he quickly tells him that Templeton's son is Number Four, as he dabbed up the crumbs with a small slice of bread at the table. The two climb down the ivy and arrive at their flat. The two are caught by a trap; a matchbox filled with a chemical explodes knocking Hastings unconscious and killing Poirot.

Faking defeat

Another shock greets Hastings shortly after the funeral; John Ingles had fallen overboard on his boat to China, but Hastings knew this to be murder, by Claud Darrell, Number Four himself. After being warned twice by a disguised Number Four and Countess Rossakoff to leave for South America, Hastings is called to a hospital because Ingles's Chinese servant was stabbed and had a message in his pocket for Hastings. The servant managed to say 'Handel's Largo', 'carrozza' and a few other Italian words before dying. He also receives a letter from Poirot saying to leave for South America, as it was part of the plan. The Big Four would think he was leaving and he could 'wreak havoc in their midst'. This is confirmed when a gentleman in a fur coat (Number Four) sends him a letter saying 'You are wise'. Hastings is put on board a ship for Belgium, where he is reunited with his supposedly dead friend, Poirot.

Hastings is shocked, and Poirot states it was to make his death look certain to the Big Four. The two set off for Italy to Lago di Carezza, which Hastings thought was 'largo' and 'carrozza'. The two find a café where they go to drink coffee. Upon their arrival, they see a man jump up from his table, and fiddle with his bread – undoubtedly Number Four. This was all Poirot's plan – to scare a man as soon as he thinks he is safe. But it was an act; the lights go out and Poirot and Hastings are knocked unconscious and dragged away.

Final confrontation

They are taken to the headquarters of the Big Four – The Felsenlabyrinth. They are confronted by Ryland, Olivier and Number Four, with Chang Yen being in China, and later Vera Rossakoff. But there is a surprise waiting for them. The man they have captured does not seem to be Hercule Poirot, but his twin, Achille. The man has a deeper voice, has no moustache and has a scar on his lip.

He makes the four people aware that the mountain has been cordoned off, and that the police are about to raid the headquarters. Knowing their defeat, the three members retreat to a laboratory and Vera decides to bargain with Poirot. He claims that he can bring the dead back to life, and she says that she will save them if he returns her dead child. The three run out of the mountain just as it explodes, in which Ryland, Oliver and Number Four are killed.

Hastings awakes to yet another surprise. Achille Poirot did not exist – it was Hercule Poirot in disguise all along. He manages to give the countess her child back, who was really left in an orphanage, and the newspapers reveal that Li Chang Yen, the famous Chinese politician, has committed suicide. The story ends with Poirot lamenting that all his other cases will seem boring and tame compared to this case.[7]

The novel ends with Hastings returning to Argentina and Poirot considering retirement. He says that he wants to grow vegetable marrows.[6]


The Big Four

A Multiethnic gang of four persons working towards world domination.[7] They have a secret hideaway in a quarry of the Dolomites. It is owned by an Italian company which is a front company for Abe Ryland. The quarry conceals a vast subterranean base, hollowed out in the heart of the mountain. From there they use the wireless to transfer orders to thousands of their followers across many countries.[8] The characters comprise typical ethnic and national stereotypes of 1920s British fiction. They are:


These characters are described by Zemboy.[6]:43–47 Most are also described by Bunson.[5]:24–25

Unnamed characters

These characters are all described by Zemboy.[6]


Jerry Speir points that the novel departs from the formula of the Hercule Poirot series. The novel is not set in the manor house or a rural area like a number of its predecessors, nor do the characters represent the British gentry. The villains are a gang of international criminals, controlling a secret, global organization. Their goals include the so-called disintegration of human civilization. They control an unspecified "scientific force", a weapon of some kind. Speir speculates that they could hold the secrets to gravity or nuclear power.[9] Armin Risi agrees that this was to be the great case of Poirot's life, as the character himself claims that all other cases will seem tame by comparison. Poirot does not track down a murderer; he must face and expose supranational association of high-ranking personalities who are working towards world domination.[7]

Risi sees the book as a work of secret history which was inspired by the events and causes of World War I and the October Revolution. He points out that Agatha Christie herself may not have been an objective historian. She was a member of the high society in the British Empire. She would then have access to first-hand observers of world politics and the secret affairs behind them.[7] During the interwar period, World War I and the October Revolution were still significant topics of conversation. He theorizes that Christie may have learned of conspirative organizations active in the era, at least those active in the City of London. There were already rumors that secret forces were planning World War II or even World War III.[7]

The basic scenario of the novel has secret powers (the Four) influencing humanity and the course of history. To Risi it seems to be Christie's warning about real-life organizations doing the same. The novel describes the Four: "There are people, not scaremongers, who know what they are talking about, and they say that there is a force behind the scenes". ... "A force which aims at nothing less than the disintegration of civilization. In Russia, you know, there were many signs that Lenin and Trotsky were mere puppets whose every action was dictated by another's brain."[7] Elsewhere in the novel, Poirot states that their aim was to destroy the existing social order, and to replace it with an anarchy in which they would reign as dictators."[7]

The menace of the Four seems to originate in China. One of the murder victims of the Four is seafarer John Whalley, who had returned from Shanghai. It is hinted this voyage indirectly caused his death, since he encountered something sinister in China. Another victim is wealthy globetrotter Mr Paynter whose remains burned in his own fireplace. Near the body was a cryptic message in ink: "Yellow Jasmine". Paynter was writing a book called The Hidden Hand in China, which seems to provide the motive for his murder.[9]

The Big Four are at some point testing new technology and weapons. A powerful wireless installation is used to concentrate energy "far beyond anything so far attempted". It is capable to focus a beam of great intensity and destructive power. It was tested against torpedo boats of the Royal Navy which were completely destroyed.[7]

James Zemboy observes that this novel lacks the unity of plot of a proper novel. It is a series of episodes, only unified by the theme of Hercule Poirot investigating and uncovering the identity of one of the villains. The Big Four themselves are unique characters, each one representing a personification of evil. But Zemboy finds these characters lacking in traits to make them amusing, engaging, or personally interesting. The minor characters are not unique. They are generic messengers or information providers. John Ingles serves only to provide information on Li Chang Yen, Flossie Monro is only significant in providing a single clue, and Sonia Daviloff only serves to show Poirot the position of the chess table.[6]

Zemboy finds the book atypically boring for Christie. He believes that readers whose only exposure to her work is this novel, will be unlikely to pursue more of her books. The episodic nature of the book could have led to it being twice as long or half as long, without making any difference. The pattern of the novel is a series of dangerous encounters and failures to catch the criminals. Poirot repeatedly sets traps for the enemy. Repeatedly the enemy knows in advance and does not fall for them. On the other side, the Big Four set traps for Poirot. He evades most of them, only to find that the Four anticipated his moves as well. He does fall for some "real" traps.[6]

The novel offers more information on Hastings. He did marry his "Cinderella" and did move to South America. Both events were mentioned briefly in The Murder on the Links.[6] The novel could also serve as a finale for Poirot. At the end, he decides to retire to the countryside and to pursue his new hobby of growing vegetable marrows.[6] This seemingly contradicts The Murder of Roger Ackroyd where Poirot was already in retirement and growing vegetable marrows. Zemboy suggests that The Big Four was written before The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. He notes a reference in Agatha Christie: An Autobiography where the writer notes that between The Man in the Brown Suit and The Secret of Chimneys, she had written another novel.

Literary significance and reception

The Times Literary Supplement review of the book publication struck a positive although incorrect note in its issue of 3 February 1927 when it assumed that the different style of the book from its immediate predecessor, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was a deliberate ploy: "M. Poirot, the Belgian detective who has figured in others of Mrs Christie's tales, is in very good form in the latest series of adventures. The device which made "Who killed Roger Ackroyd?" (sic) such a puzzling problem for the reader of detective fiction is one that a writer cannot easily employ a second time, and indeed the present story is not so much the clearing up of a mystery as a recital of Poirot's encounters with one of those familiar groups of international crooks of almost unlimited power who seek to dominate the world." Hastings was described as "dense as ever".[10]

The New York Times Book Review of 2 October 1927 outlined the basics of the plot and stated "'Number Four' remains a mystery almost to the end. This, of course, makes it more difficult for the detective to guard against attack and to carry on his investigation, and it provides most of the thrills of the story."[11]

The reviewer in The Observer of 13 February 1927 did not expect originality when reading a book dealing with the themes of The Big Four but did admit that, "When one opens a book and finds the name Li Chang Yen and is taken to subterranean chambers in the East End 'hung with rich Oriental silks,' one fears the worst. Not that Mrs Christie gives us the worst; she is far too adroit and accomplished a hand for that. But the short, interpolated mysteries within the mystery are really much more interesting than the machinations of the 'Big Four' supermen." The conclusion of the book was, "pretentious" and, "fails to be impressive" and the reviewer summed up by saying, "the book has its thrills – in fact, too many of them; it seeks to make up in its details what it lacks in quality and consistency."[12]

The Scotsman of 17 March 1927 said, "The activities of Poirot himself cannot be taken seriously, as one takes, for example, Sherlock Holmes. The book, indeed, reads more like an exaggerated parody of popular detective fiction than a serious essay in the type. But it certainly provides plenty of fun for the reader who is prepared to be amused. If that was the intention of the authoress, she has succeeded to perfection".[13]

Robert Barnard: "This thriller was cobbled together at the lowest point in Christie's life, with the help of her brother-in-law. Charity is therefore the order of the day, and is needed, for this is pretty dreadful, and (whatever one may think of him as a creation) demeaning to Poirot"[14]

Connection to the other works

Jeremy Black, a historian, points out that a number of Agatha Christie's novels of the interwar period record the standard fears of affluent society in the era. She added the "paranoid" conviction of an underlying conspiracy. This is an element present in her literary work and absent in the Adaptations of Agatha Christie for television and film.[15]

Black adds that Christie's work in its way typical of the literature of the interwar period. Much of this literature reflected a concern about foreign threats. In these works there was a link between domestic and international challenges. The Big Four belonged to this genre of works. The Big Four, the characters, are positioned as the hidden cause and connecting threat between the world-wide unrest, labor disputes, and the revolutions of the period. In particular the October Revolution, with Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky described as their puppets. The Big Four also have advanced technology in their arsenal.[15]

Li Chang Yen is both a creature of sinister Orientalism and an echo of an earlier literary character: Fu Manchu by Sax Rohmer. The character was described as "the greatest genius which the powers of evil have put on the Earth for centuries", the foe of the British Empire and British civilization in general. The character combined great cruelty with advanced scientific research. In The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu (1913), the eponymous character is presented as a figure behind Anti-Western actions in British Hong Kong and Chinese Turkestan. He is striking against Western politicians and administrators who are aware of the secret geopolitical importance of Tonkin, Mongolia, and Tibet. Using these areas as a keyhole to the gate of the Indian Empire.[15]

Fu Manchu's agents were omnipresent even in England. His organization was likened to a yellow octopus with Fu Manchu as its head with dacoits and thugs as its tentacles. These agents killed secretly, swiftly, and leaving no clue behind.[15] These were the literary predecessors of the Four and their agents.

David Suchet, an actor, had a different suggestion as to the origins of the Big Four. He found them to be an evil counterpart of the The Four Just Men series by Edgar Wallace. He agrees, however, that Li Chang Yen was inspired by Fu-Manchu.[16]

Development of the novel from short stories

This novel began as a series of twelve short stories (eleven in the US).

First publication of stories

The structure of the book is different from that of most Christie novels in that The Big Four is a series of short cases involving the Big Four villains rather than the investigation of a single crime. The novel is derived from a series of linked short stories that first appeared in The Sketch magazine, then amalgamated into one narrative. All of the stories in The Big Four first appeared in The Sketch magazine in 1924 under the sub-heading of The Man who was No. 4.

The original publication details of the stories (which were carried without illustrations) are as follows:

In the United States, the majority of The Big Four first appeared in the Blue Book Magazine in so far as the publication of the book version occurred part way through the publication of the stories in the Blue Book. In addition, the version published in the Blue Book was that of the book text (with small abridgements) and not that of the 1924 UK Sketch text. In can therefore be viewed as a serialisation of the book rather than a reprinting of the short stories. All of the instalments carried an illustration. The artist for the first five instalments was L.R. Gustavson while William Molt provided the illustrations for the latter six.

The publication order was as follows:

The announcement of the publication of these stories in the Blue Book had been made as far back as November 1925 when, at the end of their publication of The Lemesurier Inheritance, the editors announced, "Further stories by Agatha Christie, who is firmly established in the front line of writers of mystery and detective tales, will appear in forthcoming issues of The Blue Book Magazine. Watch for The Big Four.[17] The reason for the eventual delay in publication is not known.

Timing of publication in Christie's life

This novel was published a year after the groundbreaking The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926) and was overshadowed by its predecessor.[5]

In 1926 Christie was already deeply affected by the death of her mother earlier in the year and her marriage to her husband, Archibald Christie, was breaking down. Her brother-in-law, Campbell Christie, suggested compiling the Sketch stories into one novel and helped her revise them into a more coherent form for book publication, rather than undergo the strain of composing a completely new novel.[18] His assistance mainly took the form of revising the beginnings and ends of the stories to make them flow better into a novel – the substance of each story remains the same between the short story version and the novel version. Unlike the later Partners in Crime (1929), the order of the stories was retained.

The novel was offered for publication to The Bodley Head and was rejected. No other information exists on the novel. Zemboy suggests it was The Big Four.[6] His theory continues with Christie's relationship to her new publisher William Collins, Sons. Christie would have realized that The Big Four was an inferior novel and went to work writing The Murder of Roger Ackroyd for the new publisher.[6]

The book was published a few weeks after the disappearance and reappearance of Christie. The resulting publicity over her name caused the new novel to become a sales hit. Sales were good enough to more than double the success of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. It sold despite not being a traditional murder mystery. This is a tale of international intrigue and espionage. Opening the possibility of more spy fiction from Christie.[5]

In 1942, Christie wrote to her agent, Edmund Cork of Hughes Massie, asking him to keep a manuscript in reserve (probably Sleeping Murder) and stated

I have been, once, in a position where I wanted to write just for the sake of money coming in and when I felt I couldn't – it is a nerve wracking feeling. If I had had one MS 'up my sleeve' it would have made a big difference. That was the time I had to produce that rotten book The Big Four and had to force myself in The Mystery of the Blue Train.[18]

Book dedication

This is the second Christie crime book not to carry a dedication, Poirot Investigates being the first.

Publication history


Graphic novel

The Big Four was released by HarperCollins as a graphic novel adaptation on 3 December 2007, adapted and illustrated by Alain Paillou (ISBN 0-00-725065-7). This was translated from the edition first published in France by Emmanuel Proust éditions in 2006 under the title of Les Quatre.


The novel was adapted for television with David Suchet as Poirot, as part of the final series of Agatha Christie's Poirot. The film premiered on ITV on 23 October 2013 and on PBS on 27 July 2014 in the United States;[19] it also guest-starred Sarah Parish, Patricia Hodge, Tom Brooke, Nicholas Burns, and Simon Lowe. Suchet's former co-stars Hugh Fraser, Philip Jackson, and Pauline Moran reprised their roles as Hastings, Japp, and Miss Lemon (who was added to the proceedings despite not appearing in the novel) after an approximately ten-year absence from the show itself. The episode explains their absence by implying that Hastings has been living on his Argentinian ranch, and Miss Lemon enjoying a quiet life on her own after leaving Poirot's employ. Japp has been promoted to Assistant Commissioner of the Met, and in the episode he assumes the role of Poirot's sidekick, whereas it was Hastings who filled the position in the novel. The guest cast includes Nick Day as Ingles, James Carroll Jordan as Ryland, Patricia Hodge as Madame Olivier, Steven Pacey as Paynter and Sarah Parish as Flossie.

The episode is very loosely based on the novel, considered by writer Mark Gatiss to be "an almost unadaptable mess."[20] Most of the novel's plot points, for instance, have been removed, including the death of Mayerling in Poirot's flat, the radium exploit involving Madame Olivier, Hastings' time as Ryland's secretary, and Poirot's subterfuge as Achille, his purported sibling. Instead, prominence is placed on the leg of mutton case, the chess murder, and the yellow jasmine (in the adaptation, gelsemine) mystery. The cast of characters is pared down considerably as a result of these omissions, and this includes the deletion of Countess Vera Rossakoff. The most significant changes involve the villains themselves. In the novel, all four members of the Big Four are indeed guilty of their crimes, although they live separate lives. In the adaptation, Olivier and Ryland are stalwarts of a Peace Party founded by Li Chang Yen, who is a pacifist rather than a dissident. Both Olivier and Ryland are connected to one of the murders, and quickly vanish when suspicion is cast upon them. It is revealed at the end, however, that Li Chang Yen, Olivier and Ryland are all innocent, and were deliberately framed by the sole villain, Claud Darrell. Darrell is one of several disguises of Albert Whalley, also including Paynter's physician, Dr Quentin. Whalley is a brilliant but insane character actor who orchestrates the entire Big Four setup, feeding the press with sensational clues and threatening letters and killing his victims to implicate the Peace Party members (whom he then kidnaps and drugs with immobilising gelsemine) thus validating the organisation's existence. His motive in doing all of this is to attract the admiration of Flossie Monro, who becomes an unrequited lover whom he showers with anonymous gifts and cards expressing his love for her. It transpires that Flossie told him he wasn't good enough for her in the past, and the mad scheme is an attempt to make himself the international celebrity he believes she desires. Unlike in the novel, the climactic showdown does not take place in an elaborate headquarters within a mountain, but in the old repertory theatre where Darrell and Flossie had acted as young adults. There is no deadly explosion, either, although Darrell attempts to set off dynamite; only Poirot reminding Darrell that he cannot kill Flossie persuades him to dismantle the explosive. Instead when the madman tries to shoot Poirot, he is killed by the journalist Lawrence Boswell Tysoe (an original character not in the novel), who drops a safety curtain on him. Li Chang Yen (in absentia), Olivier and Ryland escape death, and continue their work as Peace Party advocates; Flossie (who was murdered in the novel and therefore played no role in the solution) also survives her original fate.

As in the novel, Poirot does stage his own death. When Darrell learns that Poirot is getting close to the truth, he tries to lure him into a flat rigged with explosives, observing him in the guise of an old woman. Poirot spots the danger just in time, and manages to escape the scene before the explosives go off, planting his walking stick at the scene to create the impression that he died in the blast. Japp notifies Hastings and Miss Lemon, and together with George the valet they attend Poirot's "funeral," none of them having any idea that he survived until after the final showdown with Darrell. Poirot later explains that the charade was necessary to make Darrell overconfident, and thus reckless enough to unravel his own schemes. The episode ends with Poirot reuniting with his old friends. This marks the final appearances of Philip Jackson and Pauline Moran as their respective characters.


  1. The Publishers' Circular and Booksellers Record 15 January 1927 (Page 1)
  2. Cooper, John; Pyke, B.A. (1994). Detective Fiction – the collector's guide (Second ed.). Scholar Press. pp. 82, 86. ISBN 0-85967-991-8.
  3. 1 2 Marcum, J S (May 2007). "American Tribute to Agatha Christie: The Classic Years 1920s". Retrieved 13 October 2015.
  4. The English Catalogue of Books Vol XII (A L: January 1926 – December 1930). Millwood, New York: Kraus Reprint Corporation. 1979. p. 316.
  5. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 Bunson, Matthew (2000). "The Big Four". The Complete Christie: An Agatha Christie Encyclopedia. Simon & Schuster. ISBN 978-0671028312.
  6. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 Zemboy, James (2008). "The Big Four (1927)". The Detective Novels of Agatha Christie: A Reader's Guide. McFarland & Company. ISBN 978-0786451685.
  7. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 Risi, Armin (2004). "The Big Four". TranscEnding the Global Power Game: Hidden Agendas, Divine Intervention, and the New Earth. Light Technology Publishing. ISBN 978-1622337132.
  8. 1 2 3 4 5 Boltanski, Luc (2014). "Theme and variations". Mysteries and Conspiracies: Detective Stories, Spy Novels and the Making of Modern Societies. John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 978-0745683447.
  9. 1 2 Speir, Jerry (2001). "The Big Four". The Bedside, Bathtub & Armchair Companion to Agatha Christie. Continuum International Publishing Group. pp. 30–32. ISBN 978-0826413758.
  10. The Times Literary Supplement 3 February 1927 (Page 78)
  11. The New York Times Book Review 2 October 1927 (Page 30)
  12. The Observer 13 February 1927 (Page 5)
  13. The Scotsman 17 March 1927 (Page 2)
  14. Barnard, Robert (1990). A Talent to Deceive – an appreciation of Agatha Christie (Revised ed.). Fontana Books. p. 188. ISBN 0-00-637474-3.
  15. 1 2 3 4 Black, Jeremy (2004). "The Geopolitics of James Bond". Understanding Intelligence in the Twenty-First Century: Journeys in Shadows. Routledge. p. 136. ISBN 978-1135769741.
  16. Suchet, David (2013). "It is never finished with a murder. Jamais!". Poirot and Me. Hachette. ISBN 978-0755364206.
  17. The Blue Book Magazine Volume 42, Number 1. November 1925
  18. 1 2 Morgan, Janet (1984). Agatha Christie, A Biography. Collins. p. 163. ISBN 0-00-216330-6.
  19. "TV review: Suchet splendidly wraps up Poirot". SFGate. Retrieved 17 May 2015.
  20. "Mark Gatiss on Twitter". Twitter. Retrieved 17 May 2015.


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