Title: The Big Four.
Author: Agatha Christie.
Genre: Fiction, mystery, detective fiction, spy fiction.
Publication Date: 1924.
Summary: Framed in the doorway of Hercule Poirot's bedroom stands an uninvited guest, coated from head to foot in dust. The man stares for a moment, then he sways and falls. Who is he? Is he suffering from shock or just exhaustion? Above all, what is the significance of the figure 4, scribbled over and over again on a sheet of paper? Poirot finds himself plunged into a world of international intrigue, risking his life—and that of his "twin brother"—to uncover the truth.
My rating: 7/10
♥ He, I knew, was not likely to be far from his headquarters. The time when his cases had drawn him from one end of England to the other was past. His fame had spread, and no longer would he allow one case to absorb all his time. He aimed more and more, as time went on, at being considered a “consulting detective” - as much a specialist as a Harley Street physician. He had always scoffed at the popular idea of the human bloodhound who assumed wonderful disguises to track criminals, and who paused at every footprint to measure it.
“No, my friend Hastings,” he would say; “we leave that to Giraud and his friends. Hercule Poirot's methods are his own. Order and method, and 'the little gray cells.' Sitting at ease in our own arm-chairs we see the things that these others overlook, and we do not jump to the conclusion like the worthy Japp.”
No; there was little fear of finding Hercule Poirot far afield.
♥ “I thought you always said nothing would induce you to make a long sea voyage?”
Poirot closed his eyes and shuddered.
“Speak not of it to me, my friend. My doctor, he assures me that one dies not of it - and it is for the one time only.."
♥ "..He's suffering from complete exhaustion. Will probably sleep for eight hours on end. I'll have a word with that excellent Mrs. Funnyface of yours, and tell her to keep an eye on him.”
..Leaving our mysterious visitor in the charge of Mrs. Pearson, we drove away, and duly caught the train by the skin of our teeth.
♥ We had a long fit of silence just after we passed Woking. The train, of course, did not stop anywhere until Southhampton; but just here it happened to be held up by a signal.
“Ah! Sacré mille tonnerres!” cried Poirot suddenly. “But I have been an imbecile. I see clearly at last. It is undoubtedly the blessed saints who stopped the train. Jump, Hastings, but jump, I tell you.”
In an instant he had unfastened the carriage door, and jumped out on the line.
“Throw out the suit-cases and jump yourself.”
I obeyed him. Just in time. As I alighted beside him, the train moved on.
♥ "He's a great man in his way - mandarin class and all that, you know - but that's not the crux of the matter. There's good reason to suppose that he's the man behind it all.”
“Everything. The world-wide unrest, the labour troubles that beset every nation, and the revolutions that break out in some. There are people, not scaremongers, who know what they are talking about, and they say that there is a force behind the scenes which aims at nothing less then the disintegration of civilisation. In Russia, you know, there were many signs that Lenin and Trotsky were mere puppets whose every action was dictated by another's brain. I have no definite proof that would count with you, but I am quite convinced that this brain was Li Chang Yen's.”
“Oh, come,” I protested, “isn't that a bit farfetched? How would a Chinaman cut any ice in Russia?”
Poirot frowned at me irritably.
“For you, Hastings,” he said, “everything is farfetched that comes not from your own imagination; for me, I agree with this gentleman. But continue, I pray, monsieur.”
“What exactly he hopes to get out of it all I cannot pretend to say for certain,” went on Mr. Ingles; “but I assume his disease is one that has attacked great brains from the time of Akbar and Alexander to Napoleon - a lust for power and personal supremacy. Up to modern times armed force was necessary for conquest, but in this century of unrest a man like Li Chang Yen can use other means. I have evidence that he has unlimited money behind him for bribery and propaganda, and there are signs that he controls some scientific force more powerful than the world has dreamed of.”
Poirot was following Mr. Ingles's words with the closest attention.
“And in China?” he asked. “He moves there too?”
The other nodded in emphatic assent.
“There,” he said, “although I can produce no proof that would count in a court of law, I speak from my own knowledge. I know personally every man who counts for anything in China today, and this I can tell you: the men who loom most largely in the public eye are men of little or no personality. They are marionettes who dance to the wires pulled by a master hand, and that hand is Li Chang Yen's. His is the controlling brain of the East today. We don't understand the East - we never shall; but Li Chang Yen is its moving spirit. Not that he comes out into the limelight - oh, not at all; he never moves from his palace in Pekin. But he pulls strings - that's it, pulls strings - and things happen far away.”
♥ “What is the day of the week, mon ami?”
“Monday,” I said, rather astonished. “What -?”
“Ah! Monday, is it? A bad day of the week. To commit a murder on a Monday is a mistake.”
♥ "There's no mark of one in particular to be seen.”
“Not with the eyes of the body, perhaps; but with the eyes of the mind, yes.”
♥ “Damned ingenious!” cried Ingles approvingly.
“Yes, he is clever. Number Four.”
“As clever as Hercule Poirot?” I murmured.
My friend threw me a glance of dignified reproach.
“There are some jests that you should not permit yourself, Hastings,” he said sententiously. “Have I not saved an innocent man from being sent to the gallows? That is enough for one day.”
♥ “It is as I tell you, Hastings,” he said to me, after the trial. “He is an artist, this one. He disguises himself not with the false beard and the blue spectacles. He alters his features, yes; but that is the least part. For the time being he is the man he would be. He lives in his part.”
♥ "They are all convinced that my husband has gone off with some other woman. But he wasn't like that! All he thought of in life was his work. Half our quarrels came from that. He cared for it more than he did for me.”
“Englishmen, they are like that,” said Poirot soothingly. “And if it is not work, it is the games, the sport. All those things they take au grand sérieux."
♥ “Won't it be a very difficult task?” I asked. “To find out what an unknown Englishman did on an evening two months ago?”
“Very difficult, mon ami. But, as you know well, difficulties rejoice the heart of Hercule Poirot.”
♥ “I didn't see her face,” I said, staring. “And I hardly see how you could have done. She never looked at us.”
“That is why I said she was an unusual type,” said Poirot placidly. “A woman who enters her home - for I presume that it is her home since she enters with a key - and runs straight upstairs without even looking at two strange visitors in the hall to see who they are, is a very unusual type of woman - quite unnatural, in fact."
♥ He dragged me back - just in time. A tree had crashed down on to the side walk, just missing us. Poirot stared at it, pale and upset.
“It was a near thing that! But clumsy, all the same - for I had no suspicion - at least hardly any suspicion. Yes, but for my quick eyes, the eyes of a cat, Hercule Poirot might now be crushed out of existence - a terrible calamity for the world. And you, too, mon ami - though that would not be such a national catastrophe.”
♥ “You're getting interested, Moosier Poirot,” said Japp, with a twinkle. “Care to come round to the mortuary and see Wilson's body before the doctors start on it? Who knows, his tie-pin may be askew, and that may give you a valuable clue that will solve the mystery.”
“My dear Japp, all through dinner my fingers have been itching to rearrange your own tie-pin. You permit, yes? Ah! that is much more pleasing to the eye.
♥ I was examining one of the ikons which I judged to be of considerable value, and turned to see Poirot prone upon the floor. Beautiful as the rug was, it hardly seemed to be to necessitate such close attention.
“Is it such a very wonderful specimen?” I asked.
“Eh? Oh! the rug? But no, it was not the rug I was remarking. But it is a beautiful specimen, far too beautiful to have a large nail wantonly driven through the middle of it. No, Hastings,” as I came forward, “the nail is not there now. But the hole remains.”
♥ “You guessed this beforehand?”
“'Forecast the probable result of the deal,'” quoted Poirot from a recent Bridge problem on which I had spent much time. “Mon ami, when you do that successfully, you do not call it guessing.”
♥ "The plural of one bishop is two bishops.”
He sounded the final “s” with a great hiss. I was completely mystified.
“But why did you take it?”
“Parbleu, I wanted to see if they were exactly alike.”
He stood them on the table side by side.
“Well, they are, of course,” I said. “Exactly alike.”
Poirot looked at them with his head on one side.
“They seem so, I admit. But one should take no fact for granted until it is proved. Bring me, I pray you, my little scales.”
With infinite care he weighed the two chessmen, then turned to me with a face alight with triumph.
“I was right. See you, I was right. Impossible to deceive Hercule Poirot!”
..“You see it not, Hastings? I will explain. Wilson was not poisoned, he was electrocuted. A thin metal rod passes up the middle of one of those chessmen. The table was prepared beforehand and set upon a certain spot on the floor. When the bishop was placed upon one of the silver squares, the current passed through Wilson's body, killing him instantly. The only mark was the electric burn upon his hand - his left hand, because he was left-handed. The 'special table' was an extremely cunning piece of mechanism. The table I examined was a duplicate, perfectly innocent. It was substituted for the other immediately after the murder. The thing was worked from the flat below, which, if you remember, was let furnished. But one accomplice at least was in Savaronoff's flat."
♥ “Certainement, Hastings,” he said, “there were other ways, but none so convincing. Besides, you are assuming that to kill a man is a thing to avoid, are you not? Number Four's mind, it does not act that way. I put myself in his place, a thing impossible for you. I picture his thoughts."
♥ "No; if Number Four hadn't made a mistake, there would have been no risk.”
“What mistake?” I asked, already suspecting the answer.
“Mon ami, he didn't consider Hercule Poirot's grey cells.”
Poirot has his virtues, but modesty is not one of them.
♥ “As I said just now - I am beginning to know and understand his methods. You may smile, Hastings - but to penetrate a man's personality, to know exactly what he will do under any given circumstances - that is the beginning of success. It is a duel between us, and whilst he is constantly giving away his mentality to me, I endeavour to let him know little or nothing of mine. He is in the light, I in the shade. I tell you, Hastings, that every day they fear me the more for my chosen inactivity.”
♥ “There have been no more attempts on your life, and no ambushes of any kind.”
“No,” said Poirot thoughtfully. “On the whole, that rather surprises me. Especially as there are one or two fairly obvious ways of getting at us which I should have thought certain to have occurred to them. You catch my meaning, perhaps?”
“An infernal machine of some kind?” I hazarded.
Poirot made a sharp click with his tongue expressive of impatience.
“But no! I appeal to your imagination, and you can suggest nothing more subtle than bombs in the fireplace. Well, well, I have need of some matches, I will promenade myself despite the weather. Pardon, my friend, but is it possible that you read The Future of the Argentine, Mirror of Society, Cattle Breeding, The Clue of Crimson and Sport in the Rockies at one and the same time?”
I laughed, and admitted that The Clue of Crimson was at present engaging my sole attention. Poirot shook his head sadly.
“But replace then the others on the bookshelf! Never, never shall I see you embrace the order and the method. Mon Dieu, what then is a bookshelf for?”
♥ Not often in a life-time does a man stand on the edge of eternity, but when I spoke those words in that East End cellar I was perfectly certain that they were my last words on earth. I braced myself for the shock of those black, rushing waters beneath, and experienced in advance the horror of that breath-choking fall.
♥ “Dispose of them, did you say?” I asked feebly. “Single-handed?”
“Oh, there is nothing very clever about that. If one is prepared in advance all is simple - the motto of the Boy Scout, is it not? And a very fine one. Me, I was prepared."
♥ Poirot put his hand on my shoulder. There was something in his voice that I had never heard there before.
“You like not that I should embrace you or display the emotion, I know well. I will be very British. I will say nothing - but nothing at all. Only this - that in this last adventure of ours, the honours are all with you, and happy is the man who has such a friend as I have!"
♥ “My dear Poirot,” I said, “you know now what the enemy thinks of us. He appears to have a grossly exaggerated idea of your brain power, and to have absurdly underrated mine, but I do not see how we are better off for knowing this.”
Poirot chuckled in rather an offensive way.
“You do not see, Hastings, no? But surely now we can prepare ourselves for some of their methods of attack now that we are warned of some of our faults. For instance my friend, we know that you should think before you act. Again, if you meet a red-haired young woman in trouble you should eye her - what you say - askance, is it not?”
Their notes had contained some absurd references to my supposed impulsiveness, and had suggested that I was susceptible to the charms of young women with hair of a certain shade. I thought Poirot's reference to be in the worst of taste, but fortunately I was able to counter him.
“And what about you?” I demanded. “Are you going to try to cure your 'overweening vanity?' Your 'finicky tidiness?'”
I was quoting, and I could see that he was not pleased with my retort.
“Oh, without doubt, Hastings, in some things they deceive themselves - tant mieux! They will learn in due time. Meanwhile we have learnt something, and to know is to be prepared.”
♥ Nothing alters the face so completely as a different set of teeth. You see where all this is leading us?”
“Not exactly,” I said cautiously.
“A man carries his profession written in his face, they say.”
“He's a criminal,” I cried.
“He is an adept in the art of making up.”
“It's the same thing.”
“Rather a sweeping statement, Hastings, and one which would hardly be appreciated by the theatrical world. Do you not see that the man is, or has been, at one time or another, an actor?”
♥ “Oh, go on now, Mr. Poirot!” she exclaimed. “I know what you Frenchmen are like.”
“Mademoiselle, we are not mute like Englishmen before beauty. Not that I am a Frenchman - I am a Belgian, you see.”
♥ “But it's necessary. One must do what one can.”
“Ah, you are a brave man!” cried Poirot with emotion. “If we were not in the street, I would embrace you.”
I fancied that Ingles looked rather relieved.
♥ “That is possibly true enough,” admitted Poirot. “I hope that they will not succeed in massacring Hastings also, that is all. That would annoy me greatly.”
I interrupted this cheerful conversation to remark that I had no intention of letting myself be massacred, and shortly afterwards Ingles parted from us.
♥ The countess whirled round with her usual vehemence of movement.
“God in Heaven!” she cried. “It is the little man! Ah! but he has the nine lives of a cat! Oh, little man, little man! Why did you mix yourself up in this?”
“Madame,” said Poirot, with a bow. “Me, like the great Napoleon, I am on the side of the big battalions.”
♥ “Succeeded, has it?” he snarled. “Do you realise that before many minutes have passed you will be dead - dead?”
“Yes,” said Achille Poirot gravely. “I realise that. It is you who do not realise that a man may be willing to purchase success by his life. There were men who laid down their lives for their country in the war. I am prepared to lay down mine in the same way for the world.”
It struck me just then that although perfectly willing to lay down my life I might have been consulted in the matter.