Note: This novel is a stitched together series of short stories originally published in 1924, so although published after “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd”, it actually precedes it.
After dealing with business in France, Hastings is back in England for some months (quite what his wife makes when this is extended to almost a year is never mentioned) and so looks up his old friend Hercule Poirot. He has only just arrived when a mysterious guest arrives and utters the following words before collapsing completely:
“Li Chang may be regarded as representing the brains of the Big Four. I have designated him as Number One. Number Two, it may be conjectured, 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. Number Four – the destroyer.”
He is soon found dead, presumably at the hands of the unknown Number Four, and Poirot determines to take down the Big Four. The body count mounts almost with every chapter, but while the Big Four win the first few rounds, Poirot is able to build up evidence little by little until once again he is triumphant.
This is a fun book, but as with “Poirot Investigates” we are still in Holmes and Watson territory. In fact it could easily be adapted to fit the Holmes canon and would provide a more fitting series of events leading up to the fateful encounter at the Reichenbach Falls and give much more detail of Moriarty’s schemes than we are shown in “The Final Problem” where Holmes does all the work behind the scenes that is needed to wrap up Moriarty’s criminal apparatus.
Recurring character development
Describes himself at the start of the book as “ a very lonely old man”.
Lives at 14 Farraway Street and his landlady is now Mrs Pearson.
Is prepared to jump from a moving train, but insists on taking his suitcase.
Has encountered Countess Rossakoff before in a short story collected in “Poirot’s Early Cases”. He describes her as “a woman in a thousand”.
Claims to have a blowpipe, disguised as a cigarette, which contains a dart tipped with curare.
Has saved the Home Secretary from a grave scandal.
Has secret service contacts in India, Russia, and China.
Rendered a service to a famous chemist who provided him with a small smoke bomb.
The Big Four’s dossier notes that he has an “overweening vanity” and a sense of “finicky tidiness”.
His solicitors are McNeil & Hodgson.
Has a moustache-less twin brother, Achille, who has great abilities but is of a singularly indolent disposition.
Whilst waiting for the Big Four to strike again he works on the affair of the Duchess’ necklace.
At the conclusion of the case he decides to retire to grow vegetable marrows.
Has been living in the Argentine with his wife for the last year and a half.
Is reading “The Clue of Crimson” – sadly another fictitious book.
The Big Four’s dossier notes that he is impulsive and has a penchant for redheads.
Signs of the Times
The story is set between July 1922 and June 1923.
Hastings notes that “The Big Four” has its origin at the Versailles Conference, but could also be a famous group from the film world. The former were Woodrow Wilson, David Lloyd George, Vittorio Emanuele Orlando, and Georges Clemenceau, respectively the leaders of the USA, Great Britain, Italy, and France, who were responsible for negotiating the Versailles Peace Treaty with Germany that formally ended World War I. The latter brought to my mind the founders of United Artists, D. W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks, but I cannot evidence that – does anyone else have any ideas for this?
Poirot says “if you wish you may wait in to put salt on the little bird’s tail”, a phrase that I had not heard before. Apparently folklore says that if you shake salt on a bird’s tail, then you will be able to catch it.
When Hastings notes that the frozen lamb comes from New Zealand, Poirot responds: “He knows everything – but everything. How do they say – Inquire Within Upon Everything. That is my friend Hastings.” “Enquire Within Upon Everything” was a how-to book for domestic life, first published in 1856, and regularly updated and reissued up to 1994.
Halliday read a paper to the British Association. This is probably the British Association for the Advancement of Science (now the British Science Association), founded in 1831 to aid in the promotion and development of science.
Hastings is taken to Chinatown. This was originally in the Limehouse area of the East End of London, which was seriously damaged by bombing during World War II. Modern day Chinatown is a neighbourhood in the City of Westminster.
The chess player Wilson is said to be a second Capablanca, whilst Savaronoff is second to Lasker. Emanuel Lasker was a German chess player and world champion from 1894 to 1921. He was defeated by the Cuban player, Jose Raul Capablanca y Graupera, who held the title until 1927.
In the match with Savaronoff, Wilson opens Ruy Lopez, named after a Spanish bishop of the 16th century.
References to previous works
Joseph Aarons, the theatrical agent who assisted Poirot in “The Murder on the Links”, is again of assistance.
Vintage Reading Challenge
Fulfils “What – Number in the title”.