“The Big Four” by Agatha Christie (1927)

Leave a comment

“I have met people who enjoy a channel crossing; men who can sit calmly in their deckchairs and, on arrival, wait until the boat is moored, then gather their belongings together without fuss and disembark.”

Famed for her murder mysteries, it’s not so well known that Agatha Christie also penned a few thrillers. Some of them I’ve covered before, and rarely are they among my favourites, but they’re generally still entertaining. They’re also important because Christie wrote some of them after a belief was shared in society that only men could write thrillers. She set out to prove them wrong and, as usual, did it with aplomb.

The Big Four opens with Captain Hastings returning from Argentina only to find that Poirot is on his way out to South America. However, when a man covered in dust and dirt appears at the door of Poirot’s apartment and falls down dead, Poirot decides he has to stay and is soon learning all about a shady cabal of criminal masterminds known as the Big Four. Everywhere he turns, he sees their handiwork and a number of supposedly unconnected cases begin to tie up together as he gets closer to unmasking the four.

What he, or indeed anyone, knows about them is very little. Number One is a brilliant Chinese man who is said to have the world’s greatest brain. Number Two is a very wealthy American with a stack of investments and an almost limitless supply of cash. Number Three is France’s most skilled scientist, a woman who makes Marie Curie look like an amateur. And no one seems to know anything at all about Number Four. Poirot and Hastings find themselves drawn deeper and deeper into a world of espionage, lies and disguises, and they soon learn that the Big Four will stop at nothing to get their nemeses out of the way so they can fulfil their plans.

Although Christie edited some of her earlier works to reflect changing times as the century drew on (see the original title of And Then There Were None, and her characters attitudes towards the Jews), it appears that The Big Four got missed out, or else progress didn’t come to quickly to racism against the Chinese. True, there’s nothing that declares them evil as a whole or anything like that, but the dialogue of her Chinese characters and their heavily cliched appearances, not to mention Hastings asserting that he could never tell any of them apart and Japp using an outdated racial slur about them, has definitely not aged well. It was the time, of course, but it’s damn jarring to read suddenly now.

Fortunately, aside from that, the book holds up. In other places it’s curiously modern and is perhaps the “biggest” story Christie ever told, being the novel that comes closest to an apocalyptic scenario. We’re far removed from a body in the parlour, as here we deal with potential atomic weapons (almost twenty years before they became a reality), international surveillance and an evil troupe controlling the planet from the shadows. Whether she can do these big blockbuster type stories remains up in the air, and personally I think she’s better when she’s dealing with the little people, but it’s still a fascinating tale that also plays fast and loose with the ten commandments of writing detective fiction.

Because it isn’t a traditional murder mystery, we also get to see a different side of Poirot. He seems a touch more emotional than usual here, and shows signs of a man who, despite constantly being surrounded by people who need him, has been lonely and feeling detached. The return of Hastings into his life, and later Japp, gives him a new sense of vitality and urgency, and despite his age, he is soon whizzing around the place once more, outsmarting everyone else. Although it isn’t my favourite Christie, it’s one for the completists and for anyone who tires of a necklace stolen from the drawing room and wants to see the world burn.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll check it out!

“Destination Unknown” by Agatha Christie (1954)

1 Comment

“The man behind the desk moved a heavy glass paperweight four inches to the right.”

Agatha Christie is, of course, most known for her murder mysteries, but she never limited herself to just one genre. She wrote romance stories under a pseudonym, dabbled in supernatural fiction and ghost stories, and now and again wrote thrillers, as the Sunday Times said, “just to show that she can.” Her best one, as I’ve gone on about on the blog before, is The Seven Dials Mystery, but Destination Unknown is to be ignored at your peril.

The world is in crisis. Leading scientists from across the world are disappearing, and those working in international intelligence are completely stumped. Bodies are never recovered, so there’s no consensus on whether these people are dead or alive, and a whole host of countries are losing their greatest biologists, chemists and researchers. Mr Jessop, a shady figure in the British government, is at his wits end. That is, until he encounters Hilary Craven.

Hilary sits in a Casablanca hotel room, preparing to commit suicide. Her attempts are interrupted however by Jessop who lets himself in and declares he has a more exciting way for her to die. She is to pretend to be Mrs Betterton, the wife of one of the missing scientists who is believed to be on her way to find her husband. However, in her travels, she has died in a plane crash, leaving the space open. Hilary is asked to take over the role and find out where Mr Betterton, and presumably the other missing scientists, are being held. With nothing left to lose, Hilary agrees and soon finds herself embroiled in something much larger than anyone could have imagined. With no idea who she can trust or who is working to what ends, Hilary is soon brought before Tom Betterton – and his reaction is perhaps the most surprising thing of all…

OK, so it’s not the most famous or well-regarded of her novels (indeed, it’s one of only four to never receive an adaptation for screen, stage or radio), but it’s still an interesting adventure story. Penned less than ten years after the end of World War Two, its events are shadows over what happens here. A character is introduced with ideas that may not be particularly welcome to many people, but Hilary finds herself almost hypnotised by the rhetoric, even going so far as to mention the similarities to Hitler – the words were ordinary, but the way he spoke was apparently very engaging. In a week where we’ve seen Nazis and white supremacists marching openly in America, it really struck home how dangerous words can be in the wrong hands. I try not to bring up topical events while discussing books, but the reason we read is to better understand the world, I think, and sometimes the parallels are too real or shocking to ignore.

The final scenes feel a bit rushed, and some of the explanations as to how the solution came about bypassed me really, but it doesn’t matter. How we got there is fascinating enough, and it’s a great look at how the real rulers of the world are those with the money, rather than those in obvious positions of power. As the book says, “one is never surprised to find out that behind the importance and magnificence there is somewhere some scrubby little man who is the real motive power”. Judge not on appearances, trust no one, and know that things mayn’t always be as they seem.

A quick read, a fun jaunt with inspiration obviously taken from Christie’s own travels, and a story that, while titled Destination Unknown, shows that journeys in novels so often end in the same place.

“The Seven Dials Mystery” by Agatha Christie (1929)

1 Comment

It's murder o'clock...

It’s murder o’clock…

“That amiable youth, Jimmy Thesiger, came racing down the big staircase at Chimneys two steps at a time.”

Agatha Christie was absolutely known as an expert at plotting tight mysteries but it’s also hugely accepted that the woman couldn’t write thrillers. I beg to differ as anyone who has read The Secret Adversary knows (although perhaps not those who have seen the recent TV adaptation, which was good but very different from the original text). The reason for this reputation is because of this novel, The Seven Dials Mystery. A sequel of sorts to The Secret of Chimneys, containing the same location as the original and a return of a number of the characters (including one of my favourites, Lord Caterham), it is not your average thriller, simply because it is a parody of thrillers. No one at the time understood this and so Christie was written off as a thriller novelist, possibly simply because the big boys at the time couldn’t believe someone – let alone a woman – would mock them.

The novel opens with a group of young friends staying at Chimneys, a grand country house, as guests of the current occupants Lord and Lady Coote. One of them, Gerry Wade, has enormous trouble in waking up and getting down in time for breakfast so the others decide to play a prank on him. They purchase eight alarm clocks and, when Wade is asleep that night, set them up in his room to go off at intervals starting at 6.30 the following morning. Happy with their prank, they retire to bed.

But the next day it’s lunchtime and Gerry still hasn’t arrived downstairs. There’s no way he couldn’t have heard the noise as it woke everyone else up, so is he just stubbornly ignoring it? No. He’s dead. The group feel guilty about their prank, but there’s a further twist in the tale – the alarm clocks have been lined up on the mantelpiece and one of them is missing, leaving just seven. And when another member of the party is discovered dead, things begin to look very sinister, with everyone wondering if they’re next.

Gerry’s half-sister Loraine Wade, his friends Jimmy Thesiger and Bill Eversleigh, and the daughter of Chimneys’ owner, Bundle Brent, take it upon themselves to work out what happened. Bundle contacts Superintendent Battle who was so helpful to them when there was last a murder at Chimneys but he advises her to keep out of it. When she refuses to do so, she and her fellow amateur sleuths stumble into a world of secret societies, highly valuable political secrets, and more trouble than they quite know what to do with.

So why is this not considered a thriller? It contains a secret society, eager young girls, fast cars, loaded guns and the threat of Communism looming over everyone’s heads, so surely it perfectly fits the bill? Unfortunately, as mentioned above, Christie was, to put it bluntly, pretty much taking the piss. Oh, she was definitely not a revolutionary figure by any stretch of the imagination – she spoke poorly of the lower classes and there are definite racial undertones to some of her earlier works.

But above all, and what people forget given her reputation as a private individual, is that she was very funny. She had a hugely dry sense of humour, notable in both the Poirot and Marple novels in particular. Christie here takes the basis of what we expect from a thriller, and with the sleight of hand of the finest magician inserts her own twists and turns into it, meaning that by the end what we expect to happen doesn’t and, once again, the rug is pulled from under our feet and we are left in awe at what she manages to achieve. If written today, this would be considered postmodern and meta-fictional, so it’s way ahead of its time. It’s even something of a feminist piece, with the men routinely having to be saved by the more daring and intelligent women.

Above all, though, this does work as a thriller, a mystery and a comedic piece of work. The laughs start as we chuckle at the hapless aristocracy, and the narrator’s asides about what does and doesn’t need to be mentioned. It isn’t actually unlike a Jeeves and Wooster story, the language being more akin to that of Wodehouse. Perhaps the funniest moment comes when Bundle is proposed to by someone she’d rather not marry, and not knowing how to say no without breaking the rules of etiquette, merely gives a flat response of “no” and jumps out of the window. The only thing perhaps funnier than that is her suitor’s message to her father saying that she is merely coming around to the idea.

It’s an early one, but it’s one of the best. Christie has hit her stride and she’s away, with no end in sight for a good fifty years yet. And I’ve only got nineteen left to go…