I have recently finished reading Agatha Christie’s The Big Four – one of the early Poirot novels (it is actually the fifth book in the sequence).
It is easy to devour The Dame’s murder mysteries in one or two sittings: on a Sunday afternoon, perhaps or, as is more likely in my case, shut up in the peace of my book-lined study. The prose is simple enough and the plots well-constructed enough that you can read them very quickly.
My reading of The Big Four was slightly different. Instead of reading it at home I worked my way through the text in that most Christie-like of locations: the train. The book accompanied me on a series of research trips that I recently took by rail.
And what a delight it was. The sun streamed in through the carriage windows and, as we sped past, the countryside seemed to unfurl itself before us. The book itself was great fun. It is an intriguing, entertaining and occasionally absurd novel. What is more, the characters are placed in serious jeopardy on a number of occasions, which is actually quite unusual for a Poirot novel.
The nature of my rail journeys meant that I was forced to read The Big Four in several sittings. I was able to mark off the chapters by the stations at which we stopped.
Strange to say, though, that whilst I enjoyed reading the novel immensely, I was actually a little reluctant to pick the text up at the beginning of each of new trip. Having put the book down I felt no compulsion to pick it up again. This despite the desire to know what would happen, to learn how it would turn out, and to discover how Captain Hastings would extricate himself from his latest scrape. And I ask myself: Why?
One obvious and well documented fact is that, outside of the main detective characters, the participants in murder mystery novels are only functions of the plot, counters moved around in a board game of motives. As a reader I hadn’t invested in the development of the characters’ story arcs.
Then there is the fact that The Big Four reads like a series of short stories. It is very episodic – perfect for reading between railway stations but not conducive to sustained reading over a long stretch of time. It is also a surprising book. It is a novel that reads more like a spy thriller than a classic country house whodunit in the typical Christie mould. It is a book that defeats generic expectations.