The “Big Four” has a particular meaning in this episode of Poirot, but to those of us who love him as played by David Suchet, the “Big Four” can only refer to Captain Hastings (Hugh Fraser), Chief Inspector Japp (Philip Jackson), the inestimable Miss Lemon (Pauline Moran), and the brilliant Belgian himself. (No offense to George the butler, but how often does he actually leave the flat?)
To my delight, and perhaps to yours, Captain Hastings, Miss Lemon, and Japp—as well as George (David Yelland)—all appear in the opening minutes of this episode.
To my horror, and perhaps to yours, they all were preparing to attend Poirot’s funeral.
“Pourriez-vous répéter, s'il vous plaît,” you say.
I repeat: Oui, mes amis, Poirot’s funeral.
A few seconds later we are transported to a date four weeks earlier to learn how an affair so tragique could have occurred.
Captain Hastings has retired to Argentina to gaze at the pampas. Miss Lemon is living in London with her cat, still tut-tutting over a society that will never achieve her standard of efficiency. Japp has been promoted to Assistant Commissioner; a fact we learn when he bumps into Poirot at a special reception hosted by an organization called the Peace Party.
There is to be a chess match between an ultra-wealthy American businessman and a reclusive Soviet grand master—a display of unity and friendship in a time of rocky international relations. The match begins smoothly enough with the Ruy Lopez Opening (which explains the secret message in the end credits, if you’re wondering). The audience at the event is enthralled right up to the third move when the Russian drops dead. The initial ruling is “natural causes,” but we know better. He’s just the first in an episode that’s littered with corpses.
One’s electrocuted, one’s stabbed, one’s had his face burned off by an electric heater, and one’s been “knocked silly and had his throat slit,” according to the housekeeper who found him. All, we are led to believe, have been victims of a sinister cabal known as the “Big Four.” Yet what, one wonders, could an international league of criminal masterminds have to do with the cards and gifts being sent to the dressing room of a fading theater ingénue night after night?
Who better to solve the mystery than Poirot? And yet... if the opening scenes of this episode are to be believed, the Big Four could prove to be the little Belgian’s undoing.
The fact that the televised version of The Big Four, written by Mark Gatiss and Ian Hallard, bears little resemblance to Agatha Christie’s 1927 original isn’t a bad thing. The book, which came out a year after The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, was a collection of short stories strung together on a flimsy thread. Dame Agatha didn’t consider this one of her best and neither did the critics, some of whom assumed she’d set out to write a detective novel parody. This is one reason that The Big Four is among the last five Hercule Poirot books to be dramatized.
The episode gives us the flavor of international conspiracy that Dame Agatha intended and adds a few elements that help the story gel. One is the journalist L.B. Tysoe, who is responsible for the lurid daily headlines about the “Big Four.” He is played by Tom Brooke, whom you’ll recognize from Foyle’s War, Inspector Lewis, Sherlock, Ripper Street, Game of Thrones...he gets around. As Tysoe, he gets around in this episode as well, suspiciously Johnny-on-the-spot whenever a new victim turns up.
As the actress Flossie Monro, Sarah Parish is charming. We’ll see her again on Masterpiece Mystery in Breathless, starting August 24 (check your local listings to confirm).
And seeing the Captain Hastings, Miss Lemon, and Assistant Commissioner Japp together again was a delight. It’s been too long!
Now here’s the thing...
We know that five final episodes of Poirot have been made: “Elephants Can Remember;” “The Big Four;” “Dead Man’s Folly;” “The Labours of Hercules;” and “Curtain.” They are David Suchet’s gift to us; the Poirot completer set. However—and my own little gray cells are having difficulty processing this news—Masterpiece Mystery will only be broadcasting two of the final five episodes. Says a source, “Due to contractual restrictions, Masterpiece Mystery will not be scheduling the final three episodes of the series. We’re encouraging viewers to check with their local PBS station to see what plans they have for scheduling Poirot.”
Next week we’ll have “Dead Man’s Folly” and then it’s on to something else.
I must cry foul, and I suspect you’re with me. True, in late September we’ll have three Miss Marple episodes that we haven’t seen on U.S. TV, despite the fact that they were filmed in 2012. Yet holding Poirot fans hostage seems decidedly unsporting. Captain Hastings certainly would not approve. Miss Lemon would have a word with someone in charge. Poirot would deem it a development most perplexing.
And you? How would you propose to solve this case?
Leslie Gilbert Elman is the author of Weird But True: 200 Astounding, Outrageous, and Totally Off the Wall Facts. Follow her on Twitter @leslieelman.
Read all of Leslie Gilbert Elman’s posts for Criminal Element.