The Big Four [1927]

I’d hazard that most of the major writers of Spy Thrillers owe a lot of their story mechanics to the Detective genre. Jason Bourne pieces together the puzzle of his life by fitting together fragmentary memories and following information trails. Smiley’s main role is to determine who’s lying and who’s telling the truth. Bernard Samson wombles from claim to claim, looking for evidence, trying to uncover the truth. Even James Bond, the least stealthy spy ever, engages in the odd bit of investigation and deduction. Spies owe detectives most of their scene-by-scene story beats and plot points. This debt naturally raises the contra question in my mind – what do Detectives owe to Spies? Where’s the reciprocity?

The Big Four is particularly interesting because Agatha Christie places the most famous Golden Age detective directly into a Spy story. This allows a direct comparison between story mechanics and moral construction across the two genres. It was not her first or only espionage tale, but the use of Hercule Poirot makes it particularly instructive.

The novel begins with Hercule Poirot convinced that there is a conspiracy known as “The Big Four”. They represent four of the great nations of the early 20th century – a Chinamen, Frenchwoman, American & a Britain. He decides to defeat their plans for world domination, and sets about making inquiries and interfering in their operations. He is accompanied by Hastings, whose narrative focuses on several specific and tangible episodes where the chameleonic number 4 has committed murder on behalf of his organization. Poirot engages in far wider-ranging scheming and information gathering that Hastings reports only in passing. The novel as written is thus a sequence of short mysteries where the challenge is to link the crime to the Big Four, rather than genuine puzzlement over guilt.

The Golden Age tale is essentially reassuring in nature – I’ll point you once again to Stephen Knight’s Form and Ideology and John G Cawelti’s Adventure, Mystery, and Romance. Both are essential reading for anyone interested in detectives. If we believe W.H. Auden, the role of the detective is to restore innocence to society as a whole. George Grella put a slightly different spin on the idea, he argued that the murderer and victim are two halves of an obstacle facing a potential couple, who are united in marriage at the conclusion of the narrative. Beyond the Golden Age, we can be less supportive of either statement, but there remains a general expurgation of the guilty and innappropriate. All agree that it is an intrinsically conservative genre.

Solving the murders that occur in the novel doesn’t really advance either Auden nor Grella’s high-level summary of the functions of Golden Age mysteries. The structure of each resolution also deviates from the Golden Age norms, because while there is a summary of the crime, there is no confrontation with the killer. In case the reader is somehow unaware of the inconclusivity of these solutions, Hastings voices frustration at the lack of overt progress in defeating the Big Four. He openly questions the value of the solutions, given that they do not result in a permanent victory – in fact, do not do more than prevent a miscarriage of justice subsequent to each crime. The structure of events has changed from the Golden Age norm to reflect the change overall objective. Poirot has entered the potentially inconclusive world of the spy.

After a number of these encounters, the novel reaches a climax. Poirot has, largely off-screen, marshalled the forces of Law and Order, who converge on the main staging ground of the Big Four’s plot. During explosions and action, they obligingly die. Number 1, the leader of the four, is not on the scene, but commits suicide in far-off China. In the hands of Ian Fleming, at least some of these deaths would prove to be faked – but Christie never returned to the Big Four, as far as I know, and the strong presumption is their deaths are real.

What immediately strikes me about this exploration of the world of Espionage and large-scale organised crime is that it uses trappings of the espionage genre, while still essentially conforming to the needs of the detective structure. Ultimately, there is a single villain that can be defeated, and he is defeated essentially by knowledge of his plans. He commits suicide once presented with the evidence of his guilt, as so many of Christie’s villains do. Number 1 is described as being the only man that counts in China – in which case, the whole endeavour of the Big Four is little more than a side-show in scope. As strange as it seems, this is generally the template for espionage thrillers at the time.

Christie wrote a number of other espionage thrillers – most notably the Tommy and Tuppence sequence and They Came From Bahgdad, and I think this general approach applies to all of them. Christie offers a representation of spies that are essentially detectives, and by using Hercule Poirot, explicitly a detective, as a spy in The Big Four, she helps demonstrate that other spies are essentially detectives too. The genre will need to wait for the Cold War proper to develop beyond this – I’d hazard that Graham Greene can be seen as the crucial sea-change. Even then, the more action-oriented spies will still use what is essentially a detective formula, rather than enter the Wilderness of Mirrors in a serious way. Ian Fleming’s Bond will find that the troubles he’s sent to stop devolve down eventually to one key person that he needs to kill – Blofeld, essentially. When Raymond Chandler met Ian Fleming, he said that they wrote essentially the same kind of fiction, what he termed “thrillers” – and I think this structural congruence was what he meant.

Most kinds of modern spies live in a compromised world and achieve limited successes. The spy’s enemy may be represented by one or two key characters, but lurking beyond that specific figure is generally an organisation of some kind that doesn’t really go away as its agents are defeated. If we try and reconcile this with Auden, we essentially add Hell alongside his notion of Eden. Individual sinners are cast out, but Hell remains. Innocence is always provisional and temporary. Another way of thinking about this is that Auden’s sinners are aberrations, while the spy novel points to a systemic creation of problems. Consequently, the spy and his adversary are also close to symmetrical – it’s not that one performs the evil act and then the other detects the evil act. Both are engaged in obfuscation and investigation. That kind of morally compromised world makes it tempting to explicitly link second-wave spy fiction with hard-boiled detectives – a post for another time.

To an extent then, we can see Spy stories as essentially based on detective formulae, differentiated by the ideological spin.

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