THE BOOK Fontana 1969 pp256
The Labours of Hercules is a collection of twelve stories featuring Hercule Poirot, each of which echoes one of the twelve Labours of Hercules from Ancient Greek Mythology.
The Fontana cover was by Ian Robinson, who often stood in for Tom Adams in the 60s. Apart from the Ancient Greek warrior in the background, and I don’t think Hercules ever wore armour, it is not obvious which stories the cover represents. The PAN image is equally obscure, but beautiful in its own way, and it at least has the figure of the naked Hercules and the syringe (drugs feature in many of these stories).
Dedicated to Edmund Cork, whose labours on behalf of Hercule Poirot were ‘much appreciated’. He was Agatha Christie’s literary agent and arranged for the individual publication of most of these stories, in magazines such as The Strand, during the 1930s.
THE STORIES AND QUOTES
Poirot is inspired by a conversation about classical myths with his friend Dr Burton, Fellow of All Souls, to take a final series of cases before his retirement, based on one criterion: he would choose only cases that had a connection with the Labours of his namesake.
The Nemean Lion
Inspired by Miss Lemon, Poirot investigates the disappearance of Pekinese dogs in London. The principal protagonist is a dog with the heart of a lion; during his investigations Poirot encounters the organisational genius of Amy Carnaby. An excellent, gentle introduction to his Labours.
The Lernean Hydra
Dr Oldfield is the subject of rumours that he poisoned his wife. As soon as one rumour is quashed, another two spring in its place. An example of the eternal triangle that feels familiar from other short stories: man, difficult wife, plus third person who is not what they seem.
The Arcadian Deer
A garage mechanic asks Poirot to find a girl ‘with hair like wings of gold’. Another example in a swigatha of people impersonating their servants, but unusual in that the main protagonists are from what used to be called ‘rude stock’. Poirot, as ever, is class-less.
I am not sure, but I think Agatha Christie is being a bit saucy in this extract:
There was a knock at the door and the chambermaid appeared.
‘Please sir, the man from the garage is here and would like to see you.’
Hercule Poirot replied amiably: ‘Let him mount.’
The girl giggled and retired.
The Erymanthian Boar
Poirot is enlisted to help trap a beast of a man in a hideout in the Alps. Not great: the whole scenario and plot seem ludicrous.
The Augean Stables
The new British Prime Minister asks Poirot to clear up the mess left by his predecessor and father-in-law, a man revered during his lifetime but now revealed to be a dishonest rascal. Poirot achieves this through devious means, thereby keeping the ex-Prime Minister’s reputation intact: cover-ups a speciality (see also short stories such as The Theft of the Royal Ruby, The Submarine Plans etc).
Hercule Poirot rose.
‘Monsieur, my experience in the police force has not, perhaps, allowed me to think very highly of politicians. If John Hammett were in office – I would not lift a finger – no not a little finger…’
The Stymphalean Birds
Poirot intervenes when he sees a young man being preyed upon by a pair of bloodsuckers. The two most enjoyable characters never say a word. Set in Herzoslovakia1, the scam revolves to a degree around the supposed bribability of Balkan locals and the police. However, as Poirot later reveals:
‘The police of a country are not so easily bribed – certainly not when it is a question of murder! These women trade on the average Englishman’s ignorance …’
The Cretan Bull
Poirot is asked to help when a ‘magnificent specimen’ of a young man is suspected of behaving like a deranged maniac. An(other) example of Agatha Christie’s grasp of genetics supplying her with her twist. There is an enjoyable flow to the dialogue.
Diane Maberly: ‘Everyone is a little mad.’
‘It has been said so,’ said Poirot cautiously.
Diane: ‘It’s only when you begin to think you’re a poached egg or something that they have to shut you up.’
He quoted derisively: ‘”Canst thou minister to a mind disturbed?”‘
Hercule Poirot said dryly: ‘I am trying to.’
The Horses of Diomedes
A cocaine ring is preying on the smart set in London: vampires preying on flesh and blood. It has a decent twist, a typical Swigatha twist that relies on the reader’s innate prejudices to succeed.
The Girdle of Hippolyta
Poirot is hired to investigate the disappearance of a Rubens painting. Inspector Japp asks him to look into the case of a kidnapped schoolgirl while he is at it. Uses a similar plotline to The Kidnapped Prime Minister. Presumably set around 1936 (the time of the Jarrow March):
It was at the time when the unemployed were pursuing their tactics of lying down on street crossings and penetrating into the Ritz.
The Flock of Geryon
The head of a religious cult is preying on his flock. Miss Amy Carnaby, mastermind behind the Nemean Lion scam, agrees to help Poirot’s investigation by becoming one of the members of the cult. Agatha Christie’s knowledge of the effects of drugs is again put to good use. Miss Carnaby is an appealing character, one that this reader would have liked Agatha Christie to have explored more.
The Apples of the Hesperides
An American collector asks Poirot to track down a Cellini goblet, the poison chalice of the Borgias. His enquiries (via something of a leap of imagination) take him to the West Coast of Ireland. This is one of the best stories, and certainly the most moving, in the collection, even if it somewhat bizarrely manages to incorporate a horse-racing reporter named ‘Atlas’ coming to Hercules’ aid.
Emery Power said: ‘When I really want a thing, I am willing to pay for it, M. Poirot.’
Hercule Poirot said softly: ‘You have no doubt heard the Spanish proverb: “Take what you want – and pay for it, says God.”’ 2
There is an interesting, possibly double-edged ending in and Irish convent chapel:
‘He needs your prayers.’
‘Is he then an unhappy man?’
Poirot said: ‘So unhappy that he has forgotten what happiness means. So unhappy that he does not know he is unhappy.’
The nun said softly: ‘Ah, a rich man …’
Hercule Poirot is a rich man …
The Capture of Cerberus
Poirot is invited to the nightclub ‘Hell’, where he meets again with Countess Vera Rossakoff. Miss Lemon excels herself once more, and Japp chips in. It is clear that Agatha Christie enjoyed writing this:
We have all kinds here,’ said the Countess. ‘That is as it should be, is it not? The gates of Hell are open to all?’
‘Except, possibly, to the poor?’ Poirot suggested.
The Countess laughed. ‘Are we not told that it is difficult for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven? Naturally, then, he should have priority in Hell.’
SWIGATHA RATING 8/10
Some of these short stories are among the best Agatha Christie wrote, and the underlying idea is, once more, brilliant. It is not quite top-drawer for me, because, as is often the case with her shorter stories, I kept thinking I had come across some of the plot devices before.
WHERE IT LED
Miss Lemon and Japp had never appeared in the same story before (and never would again). The Capture of Cerberus was also the swansong of Countess Rossakoff.
ITV, having previously adapted individual Poirot short stories masterfully in 50-minute episodes for the early series of Poirot, decided to squeeze this set into one two-hour episode. They may have had to; maybe the cast had had enough and could not face another 12 episodes.
Even so, the result is a travesty of this collection: the ‘Labours’ are paintings, the ‘Erymanthian Boar’ Marrascaud turns out to be Countess Rossakoff’s daughter, and the film ends in farce, with everyone pulling guns on each other. David Suchet overdoes his Poirot-in-pain act but at least he seems to be taking it seriously, unlike the rest of the cast.
The two best stories in the collection do not even get a look in. I would love to see individual episodes of those stories (The Nemean Lion and The Apples of the Hesperides), maybe as animations.
1 Herzoslovakia was the country which had offered its throne to Anthony Cade and Virginia Revel in The Secret of Chimneys.
2 The readers certainly will have heard this old Spanish proverb, pronounced by Pilar Estravados in Hercule Poirot’s Christmas and Elsa Greer in Five Little Pigs.