The Labours of Hercules (Agatha Christie)

By Agatha Christie

First published: USA, Dodd Mead, 1947; UK, Collins, September 1947

Contains:

  1. The Nemean Lion
  2. The Lernean Hydra
  3. The Arcadian Deer
  4. The Erymanthian Boar
  5. The Augean Stables
  6. The Stymphalean Birds
  7. The Cretan Bull
  8. The Horses of Diomedes
  9. The Girdle of Hyppolita
  10. The Flock of Geryon
  11. The Apples of the Hesperides
  12. The Capture of Cerberus

The premise of the collection is simple: Poirot, intent upon retiring once again, decides to take twelve final cases based on those of his mythical namesake. The parallels drawn are subtle and intelligent: centaurs become “horsy men,” race track gangsters; Hell becomes a fashionable nightclub; and the Hydra is rumour.

The Nemean Lion

The Nemean Lion is, in fact, a Pekinese dog. The ingenious tale relies on “the surprising invisibility of the star performer — the Nemean Lion himself,” and a method of leaving letters at, and recovering them from, small hotels. Poirot solves the case twice, much to the reader’s delight.

The Lernean Hydra

In this tale, the hydra refers to rumours that a husband poisoned his wife with arsenic to marry a younger woman. This is the classic formula, appearing again and again in the works of Anthony Berkeley (The Wychford Poisoning Case, Not to Be Taken, “The Wrong Jar”) and R. Austin Freeman (As a Thief in the Night), and in Christie’s own work, in Sad Cypress and “The Cornish Mystery”. Like his classical forebear, Poirot solves the case by tracing the abundant rumours to the fountain-head, aided by a knowledge of psychology.

The Arcadian Deer

An interesting story, with little detective interest, but with sharp characterisation; in fact, a continuation of The Mysterious Mr Quin (1930). As in “At the Bells and Motley”, Poirot’s car breaks down in the middle of nowhere, leading him into a minor case; here, he is approached by a mechanic, Ted Williamson, to find a missing lady’s-maid. Poirot’s detection consists of travelling around Europe and serially interviewing people; a similar plot gimmick, much expanded to that novel’s detriment, was used in Elephants Can Remember (1972). The solution to the story is related to the final story in the Mr. Quin collection.

The Erymanthian Boar

While the other stories have resembled stories by Anthony Berkeley or earlier tales by Christie herself, Labours now moves into H.C. Bailey territory. This short story takes place at the Swiss resort of Rochers Neiges, the Alps reappearing again and again in the Mr. Fortune canon. As with several Bailey stories, the criminal is a professional: a race-course gangster, who may be any one of the guests or staff. Poirot, to whose lot it falls to apprehend the killer, acts out of character, although the little grey cells are unimpaired. The good surprise solution relies, unsurprisingly, upon disguise.

The Augean Stables

An ingenious and satirical tale, straying, oddly enough for the apolitical Christie, into politics. Parodying the opening to many a Sherlock Holmes tale, Poirot is called in by the Prime Minister and Home Secretary to prevent a major political scandal: a newspaper is preparing to accuse John Hammett, the very popular former P.M., of embezzlement. How Poirot deals with the situation makes for an entertaining yarn.

The Stymphalean Birds

Oddly enough, Poirot features very little in this story, and does even less; he appears only three pages from the end, and captures a loathsome pair of blackmailers. The setting is Czechoslovakia; and the plot is cunning, a more successful variation on the earlier Double Sin.

The Cretan Bull

Christie returns to H.C. Bailey territory once again in the best of the twelve. Hugh Chandler breaks off his engagement because he believes he is going mad, mutilating and murdering farm animals. Poirot, at the top of his form as he attempts to prevent murder, is called in by Chandler’s fiancée. The motive and means are devilishly ingenious, and contain the seeds of the later A Caribbean Mystery and Sleeping Murder.

The Horses of Diomedes

Enjoyable, but minor: the villain is not particularly well hidden. The plot concerns drug smuggling, is set both in London and in the country — Mertonshire, a popular setting for H.C. Bailey (The Great Game, 1939; Dead Man’s Effects, 1945).

The Girdle of Hyppolita

The story opens with a parody of H.C. Bailey’s stylistic trick:

One thing leads to another, as Hercule Poirot is fond of saying without much originality.

He adds that this was never more clearly evidenced than in the case of the stolen Rubens.

He was never much interested in the Rubens. For one thing Rubens is not a painter he admires, and, then, the circumstances of the theft were quite ordinary. He took it up to oblige Alexander Simpson, who was by way of being a friend of his, and fora certain private reason of his own not unconnected with the classics—

but is vintage Christie throughout. Poirot investigates the theft of the Rubens and the disappearance of a schoolgirl, and discovers an ingenious conjuring trick based on a pair of shoes. The motive for kidnapping is similar to The Adventure of the Clapham Cook.

The Flock of Geryon

There is little mystery in this story, but it is an entertaining tale. The heroine, Miss Carnaby (who appeared in the earlier “The Nemean Lion”), and is clearly based on Sayers‘ Miss Climpson, craves excitement and seeks to help Poirot, which she does by infiltrating a sinister cult, the Flock of the Shepherd, several of whose members have recently died. Humour provided by the erotic visions of Mr. Cole.

The Apples of the Hesperides

One of the author’s more religious tales, simple but effective. Poirot is employed by the millionaire Emery Power, a man “so unhappy that he does not know he is unhappy”, to find the goblet of Pope Alexander VI, which, like the Blue Carbuncle, has been “followed through the ages by … a trail of bloodshed”, and was stolen by a criminal gang whose members are now dead.

The Capture of Cerberus

The final and twelfth Labour of Hercule, opening in the Tube, where Poirot encounters the Countess Rossakoff, a thief whom he had last met some twenty years earlier (in The Big Four, 1927). Following her parting cry that they shall meet in Hell, Poirot’s hideous and highly efficient secretary Miss Lemon books a table for Poirot in Hell, a popular night-club doubling as a front for a drug racket, which Chief Inspector Japp feels really is hell because it “destroys people body and soul.” The solution is ingenious, and the story is a fitting close to the best Poirot short collection.


Blurb (UK)

Nobody would say that Hercule Poirot bore the slightest physical resemblance to his mythological namesake.  But with his usual disarming vanity the little Belgian detective whimsically decides that before he retires—“to grow the vegetable marrow”—he will undertake twelve more cases, choosing each because of its resemblance to one of the twelve Labours of Hercules.  From the affair of the Nemean Lion to the capture of Cerberus literally from Hell he carries out his task.  There fortunately the analogy ceases, for the famous little detective does not die from wearing a poisoned shirt, but lives to labour for our enjoyment another day.  Each of these twelve episodes is a perfect gem, varied in subject and setting but all finely polished examples of the unrivalled craftsmanship of Agatha Christie.

Blurb (US)

Hercule Poirot, the famous Belgian detective, was very different from that classical Hercules with the bulging muscles and massive club.  Poirot was modern, a small compact man, attired in correct urban wear and with a moustache, both magnificent and sophisticated.  And the weapon he used was a keen-edged intelligence, which both friend and foe had learned to respect.

Yet between Hercule Poirot and the mythological hero there was one resemblance.  Both had rid the world of certain pests.  Poirot decided the resemblance should go further.  The original Hercules had performed twelve super-human labours.  Poirot, who was at the pinnacle of his long career, would undertake twelve similar cases, especially chosen, problems which would put his powers to their utmost test.

Here, then, is Hercule Poirot at his superb best, challenging the reader to follow him into desperate adventure against modern monsters of evil, as he matches the giant strides of his great predecessor in a war against as nefarious a band of criminals as ever preyed on human society.


Contemporary reviews

NY Herald tribune Wkly Bk R (Will Cuppy, 29th June 1947, 140w): Fine all-around entertainment.

San Francisco Chronicle (Anthony Boucher, 6th July 1947, 80w): A uniquely shaped book, richly devious and technically brilliant—by far the best volume yet of Poirot shorts.

New Yorker (12th July 1947, 60w): A dozen short stories of the brisk, workmanlike type that Mrs. Christie’s admirers have come to expect.  All right if you happen to favour Poirot, or mysteries in this abbreviated form.

Sat R of Lit (19th July 1947, 30w): Characteristic Poirot puzzlers.  Classical tie-ins sometimes far-fetched—and collection notable for dullest single Poirot tale ever published anywhere, anytime.