“An ingenious and amusing conceit!” – The Labors of Hercules, by Agatha Christie

September 12, 2010 at 10:59 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, Short stories)

The Labors of Hercules is a story cycle comprising twelve tales. These are preceded by a foreword which is a must-read, as it sets up the premise of all that is to follow.

Hercule Poirot and his friend Dr. Burton are taking their ease in Poirot’s flat. Poirot is discussing his plans to retire to the countryside. The following exchange is initiated by a seemingly idle query from Dr. Burton:

“Why Hercule?”
“You mean, my Christian name?”
“Hardly a Christian name,” the other demurred. “Definitely pagan. But why? That’s what I want to know. Father’s fancy? Mother’s whim? If I remember rightly – though my memory isn’t what it was – you also had a brother called Achille, did you not?”
Poirot’s mind raced back over the details of Achille Poirot’s career. Had all that really happened?
“Only for a short space of time,” he replied.
Dr. Burton passed tactfully from the subject of Achille Poirot.

(Want to know more about the mysterious Achille? Click here.)

Dr. Burton inquires of Poirot as to whether he is conversant with the classics. When his interlocutor admits that he is not, the good doctor holds forth on his love of the literature of that period. Almost inevitably, he makes mention of the famous twelve labors of Hercules.

After Dr. Burton has left, Poirot admits to being intrigued by the subject. He sends Miss Lemon forth to obtain a reference work on classical mythology. At first, after studying this  famous legend, Poirot is at first dismissive: “Take this Hercules – this hero! Hero indeed? what was he but a large muscular creature of low intelligence and criminal tendencies!”  (Can’t you just picture David Suchet spluttering indignantly?) And yet, and yet…a seed has been planted…

Poirot decides to take on twelve more cases before he retires. Each one of these must in some way be analogous to a Herculean undertaking from classical literature. Each story title corresponds to one of the labors. In each case, I’ve linked to an explanation of what that labor consisted of.

1. The Nemean Lion.

The “lion” in this story is actually a Pekingese dog, or more accurately, several Pekingese dogs.  Someone is kidnapping the little darlings and holding them for ransom. It’s a clever scheme, and it takes a sleuth with Poirot’s resourcefulness to work out how it is being pulled off – and who is behind it. A cast of spoiled and doting upper class ladies and their hapless “companions,” enlivens the scenario:

Lady Hoggin was a stout, petulant-looking woman with dyed henna red hair. Her companion, the fluttering Miss Carnaby, was a plump, amiable-looking creature between forty and fifty. She treated Lady Hoggin with great deference and was clearly frightened to death of her.

This one of my favorite tales in the collection.

(“Lady’s companion” –  an odd designation, isn’t it? It invariably puts me in mind of a far darker scenario limned in such compelling fashion in the Daphne DuMaurier classic, Rebecca.)

2. The Lernean Hydra.

Dr. Charles Oldfield lives and practices his profession in the small village of Market Loughborough. His wife has recently passed away, having been an invalid for some years prior. Unfortunately, rumors are running rampant in the village as to the cause of her death. It is being whispered that she was poisoned – by none other than her husband, with the possible collusion of his lover. Poirot observes: “Rumor is indeed the nine-headed Hydra of Lernea which cannot be exterminated because as  fast as one head is cropped off two grow in its place.”

The desperate doctor could not agree more. He swears he is innocent and begs Poirot to help him prove it before his livelihood and life are destroyed. As it happens, there are several suspects to hand. Poirot pronounces himself game:

“I have no doubt that the nurse companion talked, that the servants talked, that everyone talked! You have all the materials there for the starting of a very enjoyable village scandal.”

He naturally goes on to save the day – not to mention Dr. Oldfield’s reputation.

3. The Arcadian Deer.

It is winter. Poirot’s  car having broken down on a journey to the countryside, the Belgian detective is obliged to spend the night at an inn while repairs are being effected. Ted Williamson, the garage mechanic, comes to see him with good news about his vehicle. But there’s more. Young Williamson has a request for Poirot.

It seems that in the Spring of that year, he had had occasion to render a service at a nearby country estate called Grasslawn. A famous Russian ballerina, Katrina Samoushenka, was visiting there at the time; she had with her a lady’s maid, a young girl named Nita. When Ted arrived at the estate, Nita was the only person there, all the guests and their host being out for an excursion on the river. Ted and Nita connected. They went for a walk. When they returned to the house, Nita told Ted that her mistress would be returning in two weeks, and she with her. Katrina Samoushenka did indeed  return, but Nita was not with her. Ted has since been unable to learn anything concerning her whereabouts. He wants Poirot to find her for him.

Talk about a needle in a haystack! This will involve traveling to the continent, for Nita is French – or is she Italian? And all this for a young man of exceedingly modest means. But Poirot loves nothing more than a challenge of this nature. And he is touched by Ted’s simple and sincere ardor. He decides to take the case.

Late into this endeavor, Poirot suddenly recalls having once seen Samouchenka perform. The ballet told the story of a Hunter, danced by Michael Novgin, pursuing a Deer. This was Samouchenka:

…he remembered the lovely flying Hind, eternally pursued, eternally desirable – a golden beautiful creature with horns on her head and twinkling bronze feet. He remembered her final collapse, shot and wounded, and Michael Novgin standing bewildered, with the body of the slain Deer in his arms.

“The Arcadian Deer” is an amazing story, with more momentous  events and plot twists crowded into it than some novels I’ve read. It tugs deeply at the heartstrings and is almost unbearably poignant. A masterpiece in miniature.

4. The Erymanthian Boar.

Poirot is supposedly vacationing in Switzerland but finds himself enlisted by the local police in their effort to capture a notorious criminal. Poirot’s former colleague Lementeuil warns him: “It is important, my friend, tht Marrascaud should be taken – and taken alive. He is not a man – he is a wild boar – one of the most dangerous killers alive today.”

Before long, Poirot finds himself marooned at a ski resort high up in the mountains with a curious  cast of characters, one of whom is Schwartz, an overly friendly American. It is the off  season. The funicular, the only means of reaching the resort, has been disabled. And somewhere, possibly hiding in plain sight, is Maarascaud.

5. The Augean Stables.

Of all the labors of Hercules, this is probably the best known. It has given rise to the expression “cleaning the Augean stables,” meaning the cleaning up of a mess of historic proportions (your teenager’s bedroom, for instance).

(In Donna Leon’s latest Guido Brunetti novel, A Question of Belief, Toni Brusca, a friend of Brunetti’s who works for the municipal government, hands him some potentially troubling court documents. When Brunetti asks his friend to what purpose he’s being shown the papers, Brusca replies that he hopes Brunetti will be outraged enough to take some kind of action: “Perhaps that’s what I admire in you, that you can  still hope that things can turn right and Augean Stables will be cleansed.”)

In the highest echelons of government, there is extreme anxiety. The office of the Prime Minister is about to be engulfed in scandal. A scurrilous  rag called the X-Ray News is about to print a damning story about the former Prime Minister, John Hammett. How to counter the outrageous charges – especially when they are, in the main, based on fact? What makes this turn-up especially awkward is the fact  that the current Prime Minister, Edward Ferrier, is John Hammett’s son-in-law.

To the British, John Hammett is a veritable icon:

He represented every quality which was dear to Englishmen….Anecdotes were told of his simple home life, of his fondness for gardening. Corresponding to Baldwin’s pipe and Chamberlain’s umbrella, there was John Hammett’s raincoat. He always carried it – a weather-worn garment. It stood as a symbol – of the English climate, of the prudent forethought of the English race, of their attachment to old possessions.

So the question is: can Poirot possibly do anything to avert this looming disaster? Can he, in other words, cleanse the Augean Stables of this messy confluence of personal malfeasance and journalistic rapacity? Can he save John Hammett’s reputation?

No sooner has Poirot agreed to this undertaking than yet another scandal threatens to blacken the name of an even more unlikely target: John Hammett’s daughter – and Edward Ferrier’s wife – the heretofore immaculate Dagmar Ferrier.

What is going on? Poirot is more determined than ever to serve his adopted country by rendering aid to the besieged. He resorts to a  daring act of subterfuge. Can it possibly succeed? Stay tuned…

6. The Stymphalean Birds.

Harold Waring is in a good place, both physically and metaphorically. His political career is in the ascendant. He is treating himself to a vacation at Lake Stempka, in scenic Herzoslovakia (what a delightful coinage!). And he might be falling in love.

The object of his growing affections is Elsie Clayton. Elsie, who’s  traveling with her congenial mother, is desperate to escape the clutches of an abusive husband. Delicate and vulnerable, Elsie commends herself to Harold’s protective instincts.

Understandably, Harold has taken little notice of the hotel’s other guests. That is until he beholds these two, approaching toward him:

Surely there was something odd about these two women? They had long curved noses, like birds, and their faces, which were curiously alike, were quite immobile. Over their shoulders, they wore loose cloaks that flapped in the wind like the wings of two big birds.
Harold thought to himself:
“They are like birds -” He added, almost without volition, “birds of ill omen.”

But what, if anything, are they harbingers of? That question would seem to have been answered by the unwelcome arrival of Elsie’s estranged – and enraged – husband.

Luckily for Harold Waring, Poirot appears on the scene – late, but still in time to set things aright.

This probably my favorite story in this collection. It is a masterpiece of misdirection, an exceptionally cunning construction even from the Master Plotter herself. “The Stymphalean Birds” is atmospheric and extremely suspenseful; its clever use of doubling and mistaken identity brought to mind one of the most genuinely frightening tales I have ever read: “Don’t Look Now,” by Daphne Du Maurier.

7. The Cretan Bull.

Diana Maberly and Hugh Chandler are deeply in love and planning to be married. But Hugh suddenly breaks off their engagement. The reason? He believes he is going mad.

It seems there’s a hereditary “taint” on Hugh’s father’s side of the family. Some ominous, disturbing acts have lately been committed on or near Lyde Manor, the family estate. Evidence points to Hugh having done these things, either while sleepwalking or in some kind of fugue state. Either way – he certainly cannot marry, and more certainly, cannot father children who could very well inherit this propensity. Hugh’s father, Admiral Chandler, intends to keep his son at the family estate, under lock and key. If the authorities get wind of Hugh’s possibly violent tendencies, they might insist that he be institutionalized.

This state of affairs is devastating not only to Diana but to the Admiral. Hugh is the last of the Chandler line. He had been hoping for grandchildren to carry on the family name and estate, but that can never happen now.

Thing is, though, Diana is a fighter. She’s not accepting this fatalistic conclusion or her broken engagement lying down. She entreats Hercule Poirot to look into the situation. When Poirot arrives at Lyde Manor, he is at once impressed with the fine physique and the virile good looks of Hugh Chandler: “He is the young Bull – yes, one might say the Bull dedicated to Poseidon…A perfect specimen of healthy manhood.” Can this be the same person who is about to descend into the pit of insanity?

It was interesting to encounter, in this story, the peculiar horror of hereditary mental illness that seemed to haunt people of Agatha Christie’s generation. Ngaio Marsh, another Golden Age mystery writer, makes very effective use of this aversion in an early novel called The Nursing Home Murder.

8. The Horses of Diomedes.

In this story, these wild and ungovernable animals are personified by the wild, ungovernable daughters of General Grant of Ashley Lodge in Mertonshire. At the urging of Dr. Stoddart, a young physician friend, Poirot goes to Mertonshire to investigate matters. The girls have gotten involved with drugs and drug dealers, and both Stoddart and Poirot want to put a stop to this dangerous, not to mention illegal, activity.

Before presenting himself at Ashley Lodge, Poirot decides to see what kind of intelligence concerning the Grant family he can obtain from one Lady Carmichael, a friend who lives nearby. He tells her the following: “I emulate my great predecessor Hercules. One of the Labors of Hercules was the taming of the wild horses of Diomedes.”

Now Lady Carmichael is a rather literal soul; at first, she takes it into her head  that Poirot has come into the country in order to train horses! Once reassured that this is not the nature of his errand, she launches into a rant on the subject of classical literature, especially as it is made use by the local clergy:

“I always do think these ancient Greeks and Romans are very unpleasant. I can’t think why clergymen are so fond of quoting the classics – for one thing one never understands what they mean and it always seems to be that the whole subject matter of the classics is very unsuitable  for clergymen. So much incest, and all those statues with nothing on – not that I mind that myself, but you know what clergymen are – quite upset if girls come to church with no stockings on….”

This is Dame Agatha at her most delightful, employing the sly wit that enlivens so much of her work.

“The Horses of Diomedes” has a particular cunning twist at the end – the kind of thing that makes you exclaim, “What? WHAT??”

9. The Girdle of Hyppolita.

This time it’s a case of a purloined painting. Rubens is by no means a favorite artist of Poirot’s; nonetheless, it is a highly esteemed and very valuable work of art, stolen in broad daylight  by means of an audacious ruse. Poirot is about to begin his investigation into the  crime when he is deflected from this course by a more  urgent dilemma: the need to locate a missing schoolgirl. Like the painting, Winnie King had disappeared in broad daylight – and from a train carriage locked at both ends! Here is a classic locked room mystery, given a new twist by the endlessly inventive Dame Agatha.

But what of the painting? Has Poirot forgotten about it, in the rush of activity connected with the search for Winnie King? By no means…

Hyppolita’s hand was on her girdle – she was wearing nothing else…Hercules had a lion skin thrown lightly over one shoulder. The flesh of Rubens is rich voluptuous flesh…

10. The Flock of Geryon.

Miss Carnaby of “The Nemean Lion” makes a return appearance, as does her Pekingese dog, Augustus. Before divulging the essence of her problem to her old friend, Miss Carnaby cannot resist offering this anecdote illustrative of the sheer brilliance of little Augustus:

“We say ‘Die for Sherlock Holmes, die  for Mr. Fortune, die  for Sir Henry Merrivale, and then die for M. Hercule Poirot’ and he goes down and lies like a log – lies absolutely still without moving until we say the word!”

But on to more serious matters…

It seems that her friend, a widow by the name of Emmeline Clegg, has become involved with a fringe religious sect. On the surface, it all seems quite  correct, if a bit eccentric. But the sharp-eyed Miss Carnaby is not fooled. She is determined to rescue Miss Clegg from the clutches of The Flock of the Shepherd and their leader, a Dr. Andersen who styles himself the Great Shepherd.

Poirot devises a plan whereby Miss Carnaby penetrates the Flock by going undercover. Ostensibly, she has come around to her friend’s point of view and is now a committed follower. As such, she takes part in a ritual called the Festival of the Full Pasture. The faithful gather in a group. They wear blindfolds. They extend their arms. Miss Carnaby feels a prick “…a sharp stinging pain like the prick of a needle…”

And then:

She felt suddenly uplifted, happy. She sank down on a soft grassy bank. Why had she ever thought she was a lonely, unwanted middle-aged woman? Life was wonderful – she herself was wonderful! She had the power of thought – of dreaming. There was nothing she could not accomplish!

Just what is going on here? Poirot is pretty sure he knows just what this self-styled “Great Shepherd” is up to. But the proof? Ah, that is another matter…

11. The Apples of the Hesperides.

Poirot’s services are engaged by one Emery Power, a wealthy art collector. Power had paid handsomely for a finely wrought goblet dating from the Renaissance. But before he could take possession of this priceless objet d’art, it was stolen from its owner, the Marchese di San Veretrino. That gentleman had immediately offered Power his money back, but Power does not want the money: he wants the goblet. Why?

“The workmanship is exquisite (it is said to have been made by Benvenuto Cellini). The design represents a tree round which a jewelled serpent is coiled and the apples on the tree are formed of very beautiful emeralds.”

Well heck – I want it too! And to add to its intrinsic beauty: “It is said to be the goblet used by Pope Alexander VI – Roderigo Borgia.” Borgia was apparently in the habit of offering drink to certain of his guests in this lovely vessel. It was often, alas, the last liquid quaffed by said guest in this life.

At its conclusion, “The Apples of the Hesperides” veers off in a direction that for this reader was totally unexpected, more than a bit ironic, and at the same time strangely uplifting.

12. The Capture of Cerberus.

After an absence of some twenty years, the  inimitable Countess Vera Rossakoff reenters Poirot’s life. The Countess made her first appearance in the story “The Double Clue.” (This story first came out in the U.S. in Blue Book Magazine in 1925; it was later anthologized in the collection Double Sin.)

In the story “A Scandal in Bohemia,” Watson has this to say of Irene Adler: “To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman.” One could say the same of Poirot’s feelings for Countess Vera Rossakoff – though in the case of Poirot, those feelings are more overtly tender, if not downright amorous. In “The Double Clue,” the Countess, a member of the dispossessed Russian nobility, is found to be a jewel thief. This discovery is made by none other than Poirot himself. Instead of informing the authorities, however, he facilitates her egress from the country. (The film version features a poignant final scene in which Poirot waves farewell to the Countess’s departing train.)

Eh, bien! To return to the present: just what is the canny and charming Countess up to now? Initially, it’s a hard question to answer. Her surprise meeting with Poirot takes place on opposing escalators: he is heading up; she is heading down. When he calls after her, begging to know where she can be found, her response is beyond enigmatic: “In Hell…”

“Hell” turns out to be a night club currently being run by none other than the Countess herself. But who is financing this audacious high end venture? This and other questions present themselves to Poirot’s ever restless mind. And so he takes himself off to Hell itself, where he finds a veritable constellation of fascinating characters, from the innocently carefree to the distinctly suspect. Among the club’s more distinctive features is the “ruddy great dog” that guards the premises. His name is – what else? – Cerberus.

On the surface, all seems festive and carefree. But Poirot detect sinister undercurrents. He fears that the club and the Countess along with it are being used as a front for a  criminal enterprise. His old friend Inspector Japp validates his suspicions.

Poirot’s task his clear: he must expose the evildoers as quickly as possible. The Countess – the dear Countess! – may herself be in mortal danger.

***********************

These stories work beautifully as cunning little puzzles and masterpieces of misdirection, but in a larger sense, they recreate an entire world. We are back in the early years of the twentieth century. England retains a certain smugness regarding its perceived superior status in the world. The aristocracy still holds sway, but the nouveau riche are fast encroaching on their territory. The revolution in psychiatry and the introduction of psychoanalysis, so revolutionary at the beginning of the century,  still have considerable influence on the way human nature is perceived.

Certain minority groups can be denigrated with impunity. (This criticism is often leveled at the Golden Age writers. It is a whole other subject and is, I believe, reflective of society as a whole in that particular era, not just in Britain but in America as well. Fortunately very little of this offhand verbal cruelty appears in these tales.) Drugs and excessive alcohol consumption were a blight on the landscape, as  they still are.

The stories in The Labors of Hercules are like twelve tiny novels. They are richer in content and character creation than many a full length novel I’ve read, particularly contemporary ones. Each time, the reader is drawn in and riveted – at least, this reader was, even on the second reading.

Michael E. Grost, whose Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection has long been my go-to site for information and astute commentary, calls this collection “one of Christie’s most delightful books.” I agree.

**************************

Bonus Features

Readers looking for more information about Agatha Christie’s short stories have a fine new resource to turn to:

—————

If you’re a long time viewer of the Poirot films starring David Suchet, you may be familiar with a country house that appears repeatedly in the series. The house, called High & Over, is in Amersham, Buckinghamshire. It was built in 1929 by the architect Amyas Connell for his friend Bernard Ashmole. According to the August 4 edition of Country Life Magazine, it is for sale!

—————

I enjoyed The Tuesday Club Murders, also known as The Thirteen Problems, as much as I did The Labors of Hercules. These stories feature Miss Marple and a circle of her friends, including  her ever solicitous nephew the writer Raymond West, and the retired head of Scotland Yard, Sir Henry Clithering.

If you’ve never seen the film clip in which David Suchet as Poirot and Joan Hickson as Miss Marple meet for the first time in Torquay, Agatha Christie’s birthplace – it appears on this video, about eighteen minutes in:

3 Comments

  1. Yvette said,

    I am a BIG Agatha Christie fan. Love all the hoopla about the 120 Anniversary.
    Because of your wonderful review, I’ve reserved The Labours of Hercules at the library. Though I know I read it and all the short stories years ago, I rermember nothing much about them, so it will be like reading them for the first time. LOVE the clip of the late Joan Hickson discussing Miss Marple and Poirot. LOVE the meeting on the boardwalk between Miss Hickson and David Suchet – what an event! Thanks for including the clip. You have a wonderful blog.

    • Roberta Rood said,

      Yvette,

      Thank you so much for your gracious comment. I am delighted that you enjoyed the post. I wass a great deal of work – The Labors of Hercules was a labor of love! – but worth it, I think.

      Roberta

  2. The Agatha Christie Reading Challenge Carnival (and other Agatha-related items) « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] my post on The Labors of Hercules for the film clip in which these two venerable performers meet for the first time in Torquay, […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: