The Big Four (novel)
Dust-jacket illustration of the first UK edition
|Cover artist||Not known|
|Publisher||William Collins & Sons|
|27 January 1927|
|Media type||Print (hardback & paperback)|
|Pages||282 pp (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 and in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company later in the same year. It features Hercule Poirot, Arthur Hastings, and Inspector (later, Chief Inspector) Japp. The UK edition retailed at seven shillings and sixpence (7/6) and the US edition at $2.00.
The structure of the novel is different from other Poirot stories, as it began from eleven short stories that had been separately published.
- 1 Plot summary
- 2 Characters
- 3 Literary significance and reception
- 4 Adaptations
- 5 Development of the novel from short stories
- 6 Dustjacket blurb
- 7 Publication history
- 8 International titles
- 9 References
- 10 External links
||This section's plot summary may be too long or excessively detailed. (August 2012)|
Captain Hastings visits Poirot only to find that he is leaving for South America, having been offered a huge amount of money by the American 'soap king' millionaire Abe Ryland. Poirot inquires if Hastings has ever heard the phrase "the Big Four". An unexpected visitor called Mayerling comes in, saying, "M. Hercule Poirot, 14 Farraway Street." When he is given a piece of paper by a doctor he writes the number 4 many times. When Hastings mentions the Big Four, the man begins speaking, and tells them that Number 1 is a Chinese political mastermind named Li Chang Yen. He represents the brains of the Big Four. Number 2 is usually not named but is represented by a '$' 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.
Returning to the flat, they find the man dead. He died of asphyxiation and has been dead about two hours. A man visits them and tells them that the dead man had escaped from his asylum. Japp soon enters and recognises the dead man as Mayerling, a prominent figure in the Secret Service. 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 using 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.
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, barely 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 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 Mme 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.
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.
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 dipped his finger in ink and written "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. Poirot suspects the servant of the flat and Savaronoff's niece of 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.
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.
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.
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 to be given after his death 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. 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.
The man is not 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; and 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.
The Big Four's characters are typical ethnic and national stereotypes of 1920s British fiction, with the Chinese characters typecast as Fu Manchu-esque bandits. Other key villains include a French femme fatale and a vulgar American multimillionaire. These characters implement conspiracies and undetectable poisonings operated from a super-secret underground hideout.
The book also features Achille Poirot, Hercule's twin brother (later revealed to be Hercule Poirot himself in 'disguise'), and an eventual double agent, the beautiful Countess Vera Rossakoff, who is portrayed as a stereotypical aventurière and down-at-the-heels Russian ex-aristocrat of the pre-October Revolution period.
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".
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."
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."
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".
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"
Graphic novel adaptation
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; 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 is revealed to have 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 heavily restructures the novel, considered by writer Mark Gatiss to be "an almost unadaptable mess." 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 (although she does appear in the adaptation of The Labours of Hercules). However, 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 (whose real name is Albert Whalley, and whose most prominent disguise in the adaptation is that of Paynter's physician, Dr Quentin) 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 Claud 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 Tysoe (an original character not in the novel), who drops a safety curtain on him. 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, however, 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, and it also marks the final appearances of Philip Jackson and Pauline Moran as their respective characters.
Development of the novel from short stories
This novel began as a series of eleven short stories.
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:
- The Unexpected Guest: First published in issue 1614 of The Sketch on 2 January 1924. This formed the basis for chapters 1 and 2 of the book – The Unexpected Guest / The Man from the Asylum.
- The Adventure of the Dartmoor Bungalow: First published in issue 1615 on 9 January 1924. This formed the basis for chapters 3 and 4 of the book – We hear more about Li Chang Yen / The Importance of a Leg of Mutton.
- The Lady on the Stairs: First published in issue 1616 on 16 January 1924. This formed the basis for chapters 5 and 6 of the book – Disappearance of a Scientist / The Woman on the Stairs.
- The Radium Thieves: First published in issue 1617 on 23 January 1924. This formed the basis for chapter 7 of the book with the same title.
- In the House of the Enemy: First published in issue 1618 on 30 January 1924. This formed the basis for chapter 8 of the book with the same title.
- The Yellow Jasmine Mystery: First published in issue 1619 on 6 February 1924. This formed the basis for chapters 9 and 10 of the book – The Yellow Jasmine Mystery / We investigate at Croftlands.
- The Chess Problem: First published in issue 1620 on 13 February 1924. This formed the basis for chapter 11 of the book with the slightly revised title of A Chess Problem.
- The Baited Trap: First published in issue 1621 on 20 February 1924. This formed the basis for chapters 12 and 13 of the book – The Baited Trap / The Mouse walks in.
- The Adventure of the Peroxide Blonde: First published in issue 1622 on 27 February 1924. This formed the basis for chapter 14 of the book with the slightly revised title of The Peroxide Blonde.
- The Terrible Catastrophe: First published in issue 1623 on 5 March 1924. This formed the basis for chapter 15 of the book with the same title.
- The Dying Chinaman: First published in issue 1624 on 12 March 1924. This formed the basis for chapter 16 of the book with the same title.
- The Crag in the Dolomites: First published in issue 1625 on 19 March 1924. This formed the basis for chapters 17 and 18 of the book – Number Four wins the trick / In the Felsenlabyrinth. It was also the final Poirot story that Christie wrote for The Sketch.
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 Unexpected Guest: First published in the March 1927 issue (Volume 44, Number 5) which formed chapters 1 and 2 of the book.
- The Dartmoor Adventure: First published in the April 1927 issue (Volume 44, Number 6) which formed chapters 3 and 4 of the book.
- The Lady on the Stairs: First published in the May 1927 issue (Volume 45, Number 1) which formed chapters 5 and 6 of the book.
- The Radium Thieves: First published in the June 1927 issue (Volume 45, Number 2) which formed chapter 7 of the book.
- In the House of the Enemy: First published in the July 1927 issue (Volume 45, Number 3) which formed chapter 8 of the book.
- The Yellow Jasmine Mystery: First published in the August 1927 issue (Volume 45, Number 4) which formed chapters 9 and 10 of the book.
- The Chess Problem: First published in the September 1927 issue (Volume 45, Number 5) which formed chapter 11 of the book.
- The Baited Trap: First published in the October 1927 issue (Volume 45, Number 6) which formed chapters 12 and 13 of the book.
- The Peroxide Blonde: First published in the November 1927 issue (Volume 46, Number 1) which formed chapter 14 of the book.
- The Enemy Strikes: First published in the December 1927 issue (Volume 46, Number 2) which formed chapters 15 and 16 of the book.
- The Crag in the Dolomites: First published in the January 1928 issue (Volume 46, Number 3) which formed chapters 17 and 18 of the book.
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. The reason for the eventual delay in publication is not known.
Timing of publication in Christie's life
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. 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.
In 1942, Christie wrote to her agent, Edmund Cork of Hughes Massie, asking him to keep a manuscript in reserve (definitely NOT Sleeping Murder which was recently revealed to have been written in 1949.) 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.
This is the second Christie crime book not to carry a dedication, Poirot Investigates being the first.
Number One was a Chinaman – the greatest criminal brain of all time; Number Two was a multi-millionaire; Number Three was a beautiful Frenchwoman; and Number Four was 'the destroyer,' the ruthless murderer, with a genius for disguise, whose business it was to remove those who interfered with his masters' plans. These Four, working together, aimed at establishing a world dominion, and against them were ranged Hercule Poirot, the little Belgian detective with the egg-shaped head, the green eyes and 'the little gray cells,' and his friend Hastings. It was Hercule Poirot's brain, the 'little gray cells,' which brought about the downfall of the Big Four, and led to their destruction in the cave in the Dolomites.
- 1927, William Collins and Sons (London), 27 January 1927, Hardcover, 282 pp
- 1927, Dodd Mead and Company (New York), 1927, Hardcover, 276 pp
- 1957, Penguin Books, Paperback (Penguin number 1196), 159 pp
- 1961, Pan Books, Paperback (Great Pan G427), 155 pp
- 1964, Avon Books (New York), Paperback
- 1965, Fontana Books (Imprint of HarperCollins), Paperback, 159 pp
- 1965, Dell Books (New York), Paperback, 173 pp
- 1974, Ulverscroft Large-print Edition, Hardback, 414pp ISBN 0-85456-283-4
- 1984, Berkley Books, Imprint of Penguin Group (USA) (New York), Paperback, 198 pp ISBN 978-0-425-09882-0
- 2006, Poirot Facsimile Edition (Facsimile of 1927 UK First Edition), HarperCollins, 6 November 2006, Hardcover, ISBN 0-00-723451-1
- Arabic: الأربعة الكبار (The Big Four)
- Czech: Velká čtyřka (The Big Four)
- Dutch: De Grote Vier (The Big Four)
- Croatian: Velika Četvorka (The Big Four)
- Estonian: Suur nelik (The Big Four)
- Finnish: Neljä suurta (The Four Great Ones)
- French: Les Quatre (The Four)
- German: Die großen Vier (The Big Four)
- Greek: Οι Μεγάλοι Τέσσερις
- Hungarian: A titokzatos négyes (The Mysterious Four)
- Indonesian: Empat Besar (The Big Four)
- Italian: Poirot e i quattro (Poirot and the Four)
- Japanese: ビッグ４ (The Big Four)
- Macedonian: Големата Четворка (The Big Four)
- Malayalam: നാല് കുറ്റവാളികൾ (Four Criminals)
- Norwegian: De fire store (The Big Four)
- Polish: Wielka czwórka (The Big Four)
- Portuguese: As Quatro Potências do Mal (Four Evil Potencies) and Os Quatro Grandes (The Big Four)
- Romanian: Cei Patru Mari (The Big Four)
- Russian: Большая четверка (The Big Four)
- Serbian: Велика Четворка (The Big Four)
- Spanish: Los Cuatro Grandes (The Big Four)
- Swedish: De fyra stora (The Big Four)
- Turkish: Büyük Dörtler (The Big Four)
- The Publishers' Circular and Booksellers Record 15 January 1927 (Page 1)
- John Cooper and B.A. Pyke. Detective Fiction – the collector's guide: Second Edition (Pages 82 and 86) Scholar Press. 1994. ISBN 0-85967-991-8
- American Tribute to Agatha Christie
- The English Catalogue of Books. Vol XII (A-L: January 1926 – December 1930). Kraus Reprint Corporation, Millwood, New York, 1979 (page 316)
- The Times Literary Supplement 3 February 1927 (Page 78)
- The New York Times Book Review 2 October 1927 (Page 30)
- The Observer 13 February 1927 (Page 5)
- The Scotsman 17 March 1927 (Page 2)
- Barnard, Robert. A Talent to Deceive – an appreciation of Agatha Christie – Revised edition (Page 188). Fontana Books, 1990. ISBN 0-00-637474-3
- The Blue Book Magazine Volume 42, Number 1. November 1925
- Morgan, Janet. Agatha Christie, A Biography. (Page 163) Collins, 1984 ISBN 0-00-216330-6.
- ”Secret Notebooks John Curran, 2009 (Page 252-256).
- Morgan (Page 163).
- The Big Four at the official Agatha Christie website