The Big Four - Agatha Christie
Captain Arthur Hastings returns to England after an 18-month-long stay in Argentina. 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. 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. 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.
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.
Poirot and Hastings summon a doctor who examines the patient and prescribes rest. 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. He and Hastings take advantage of a train stop open terrain to exit the train. They return to London by car, only to find their visitor dead.
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. Japp soon enters and recognises the dead man as Mayerling, a prominent figure in the Secret Service who had disappeared five years before. 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.
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 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
The novel ends with Hastings returning to Argentina and Poirot considering retirement. He says that he wants to grow vegetable marrows.
ebook en anglais / English ebook