10 October 2010

REVIEW: THE LABOURS OF HERCULES, Agatha Christie

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 419 KB
  • Print Length: 412 pages
  • Publisher: HarperCollinsUK; Masterpiece ed edition (January 16, 2010)
This collection of 12 short stories was published in 1947. It features Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, and gives an account of twelve cases with which he intends to close his career as a private detective. His regular sidekicks (his secretary, Miss Lemon, and valet, Georges) make cameo appearances, as does Chief Inspector Japp. The stories were all first published in periodicals between 1939 and 1947.

My interest in reading them was sparked recently by an excellent review by Books to the Ceiling

Hercule Poirot realises that he is coming to the end of his "active career" and he decides:
In the period before his final retirement he would accept twelve cases, no more, no less. And those twelve cases should be selected with special reference to the twelve labours of ancient Hercules. Yes, that would not only be amusing, it would be artistic, it would be spiritual. 
He feels a link to ancient Hercules:
Yet there was between this Hercule Poirot and the Hercules of Classical lore one point of resemblance. Both of them, undoubtedly, had been instrumental in ridding the world of certain pests…Each of them could be described as a benefactor to the Society he lived in…

I enjoyed most of the stories, learnt some interesting personal details about Hercule Poirot.
I was struck by some common elements too - how much travelling Hercule Poirot was doing, and his concern (the author's?) concern over the apparent growth of hard drug taking.
The 12 story format made it quite a long book.
As always with a collection of short stories, some are better than others. I think the ones I liked best were Case 1: The Nemean Lion, Case 2: The Lernean Hydra and Case 5: The Augean Stables.

My rating 4.3

Case 1: The Nemean Lion
On the surface of it, this is a case too trivial for Hercule Poirot, but his curiosity is peaked by the fact that it is the husband who wants to see him, not the wife, in the case of a dog-napped Pekinese.
Hercule Poirot of course solves the case easily, but the story also shows the longevity of his memory as well as his empathy with the "lower" classes. At the end we feel that justice has been done, and a more serious crime has been averted.
Interesting too - in THE ABC MURDERS, HP is distressed when he thinks he is becoming involved in a serial case. He makes the point thta his cases are usually "one-ofs". But The Nemean Lion is a serial case, of a kind...

Case 2: The Lernean Hydra
Dr. Charles Oldfield's wife has died at a relatively young age and the rumour mill has begun. No sooner is one rumour dealt with, than two more spring up in its place. The general gist is that Dr. Oldfield has murdered his wife, probably by poison, in order to marry his pretty young dispenser. HP is struck by the similarity of the rumour mill to the Lernean Hydra where when one head was struck off, two replaced it.
So I was to begin with. It is like in the old legend of the Lernean Hydra. Every time a head was cut off, two heads grew in its place. So, to begin with, the rumours grew and multiplied. But you see my task, like that of my namesake Hercules, was to reach the first–the original head. Who had started this rumour?

There is nothing for it but to disinter the body and test the rumours.

Case 3: The Arcadian Deer
This story shows Hercule Poirot the matchmaker. Sure, there is a mystery to be solved, that of a missing lady's maid, and it proves to be one of the longest and most difficult problems he had ever tackled, one that prompts a lot of travel, but it is his enabling of the love story that you will remember.

Case 4: The Erymanthian Boar
Hercule Poirot is travelling yet agaion, this time on a train in the Alps when he is handed, by the train conductor, as note from the Swiss Commissioner of Police asking him to continue his journey to the ski resort at the end of the line. A known murderer is planning a rendezvous there, probably with his gang. But a policeman has been planted at the resort and will make himself known to Poirot. HP is worried by the location of the rendezvous: it is such a rat-trap. Shortly after Poirot gets to the resort the funicular that he travelled by is wrecked and so it becomes a nice little "closed-location" mystery.

There's a nice little twist in the tail too.

Case 5: The Augean Stables
Hercule Poirot is summoned to meet with the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister. Edward Ferrier is new to the post of PM, having taken over from his father in law, John Hammett. John Hammett represented every quality which was dear to Englishmen, but now it seems, it was all a facade, he was as corrupt as they come. Hercule Poirot has been called in to see what he can suggest in the nature of damage control.
It was not an edifying story. Accusations of shameless chicanery, of share juggling, of a gross misuse of Party Funds. The charges were levelled against the late Prime Minister, John Hammett. They showed him to be a dishonest rascal, a gigantic confidence trickster, who had used his position to amass for himself a vast private fortune.
More than once the Herculean task of cleansing the Augean stables is referred to by the characters. An impossible task, but this modern day Hercules finds a way.

Case 6: The Stymphalean Birds
UnderSecretary Harold Waring is taking a holiday in Herzoslovakia to get right off the beaten track and have a real rest from everyone and everything. He has met at his hotel two delightful women: the elderly Mrs Rice, and her married daughter, Mrs Clayton. He has noticed two other women, sisters, who make him feel very uncomfortable. They are not English and seem to exude evil.
Mrs Clayton's insanely jealous husband turns up at the hotel, and there is a fight in which he is killed. Harold Waring can't afford to have his presence at the fight advertised but what can he do? Hercule Poirot to the rescue!

Case 7: The Cretan Bull
Another appeal to Hecule Poirot's affinity for helping a damsel in distress. Diana Maberly consults him when the young man she has been engaged to for over a year breaks off their engagement. Hugh Chandler thinks he is going mad and therefore should not marry. Nasty incidents have occuured, animals have been slain, throats cut, and Hugh has woken up covered in blood. Madness has occurred before in his family.
It takes Hercule Poirot, a stranger to the family, to notice something that will eventually be the explanation for what is going on.

Case 8: The Horses of Diomedes
Young Dr. Stoddart contacts Hercule Poirot when he becomes concerned about a patient, a 19 year old woman whom he is convinced is in danger of becoming a cocaine addict. Hercule Poirot believes the case should be reported to the police but Stoddart is concerned that that would not be the right thing to do.
The girl's father is a retired General, with 4 daughters, all a "bit wild", and fallen in with the wrong set.
Hercule Poirot is concerned to uncover the drug ring that is supplying Sheila Grant and other young people with hard drugs like cocaine. The truth is surprising.

Case 9: The Girdle of  Hyppolita
The case of a stolen Rubens, stolen in broad daylight from a display at Simpson's Galleries, has triggered a delicate situation. The owner, Alexander Simpson, believes he knows who has stolen the small painting, and where it will end up. Although Hercule Poirot relucantly agrees to take on the investigation, he is not much interested in it. He is much more interested in the case of a missing schoolgirl. When Inspector Japp hears Poirot is going to France on the Rubens case, he suggests Poirot might investigate the missing schoolgirl case too. Winnie King actually turns up, sitting by the railway track just out of Amiens, dazed, with no memory of the previous 24 hours. So all seems well there. But Hercule Poirot is puzzled by how Winnie got of the train she was supposedly on.

Case 10: The Flock of Geryon
A character from The Nemean Lion case reappears, this time to offer her services to Hercule Poirot as a fellow investigator. She actually suggests the case she might be involved in herself: a friend has become involved in a religious sect and appears to be in danger of being coerced to leave them her money. Hercule Poirot suggests Miss Carnaby go undercover and join the sect herself. It will be a situation fraught with danger.

Case 11: The Apples of the Hesperides
Emery Power is a great financial force, and wants Hercule Poirot to investigate a case where the trail may well be cold. A gold chased goblet, dating from the Reniassance, reputedly one used by Roderigo Borgia, Pope Alexander VI, to poison favoured guests, disappeared after an auction 10 years before. The design on the goblet represents a tree round which a jewelled serpent is coiled and the apples on the tree are formed of very beautiful emeralds.
Hercule Poirot can see the eventuality  of extensive travel to track the goblet down.
America, Australia, Italy, France, Turkey… He murmured: ‘I’ll put a girdle round the earth–’ ‘Pardon?’ said Inspector Wagstaffe. ‘I was observing,’ said Hercule Poirot, ‘that a world tour seems indicated.’
In the long run the solution was much simpler.


Case 12: The Capture of Cerberus
Hercule Poirot is travelling by London Underground, travelling on an escalator heading to street level, when he sees on the down escalator the exotic Countess Vera Rossakoff. He has not seen the Countess for 20 years. Through Miss Lemon's extensive knowledge, HP eventually tracks her down to a nightclub called Hell, guarded by a great dog called Cerberus. The nightclub is suspected of a facade for the distribution of drugs, and the fencing of stolen goods. Does the Countess know what is happening under he very nose? Hercule Poirot does not think so.

All of the stories except for The Capture of Cerberus were first published in the UK in the Strand Magazine with illustrations by Ernest Ratcliff as follows:
  • The Nemean Lion: November 1939 - Issue 587
  • The Lernaean Hydra: December 1939 - Issue 588
  • The Arcadian Deer: January 1940 - Issue 589
  • The Erymanthian Boar: February 1940 - Issue 590
  • The Augean Stables: March 1940 - Issue 591
  • The Stymphalean Birds: April 1940 - Issue 592
  • The Cretan Bull: May 1940 - Issue 593
  • The Horses of Diomedes: June 1940 - Issue 594
  • The Girdle of Hyppolita: July 1940 - Issue 595
  • The Flock of Geryon: August 1940 - Issue 596
  • The Apples of the Hesperides: September 1940 - 597
The Capture of Cerberus received its first UK publication in the Collins first edition.

More details in Wikipedia.

As an Addenda the Kindle edition had this handy list of the Hercule Poirot titles. As you can see THE LABOURS OF HERCULES did not end up being the last to be heard of Hercule Poirot.
  1. The Mysterious Affair at Styles; 
  2. The Murder on the Links; 
  3. Poirot Investigates; 
  4. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd; 
  5. The Big Four; 
  6. The Mystery of the Blue Train; 
  7. Black Coffee; 
  8. Peril at End House; 
  9. Lord Edgware Dies; 
  10. Murder on the Orient Express; 
  11. Three-Act Tragedy; 
  12. Death in the Clouds; 
  13. The ABC Murders; 
  14. Murder in Mesopotamia;
  15. Cards on the Table; 
  16. Murder in the Mews; 
  17. Dumb Witness; 
  18. Death on the Nile; 
  19. Appointment with Death; 
  20. Hercule Poirot’s Christmas; 
  21. Sad Cypress; 
  22. One, Two, Buckle My Shoe; 
  23. Evil Under the Sun;
  24. Five Little Pigs; 
  25. The Hollow; 
  26. The Labours of Hercules; 
  27. Taken at the Flood; 
  28. Mrs McGinty’s Dead; 
  29. After the Funeral; 
  30. Hickory Dickory Dock; 
  31. Dead Man’s Folly; 
  32. Cat Among the Pigeons; 
  33. The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding; 
  34. The Clocks; 
  35. Third Girl; 
  36. Hallowe’en Party; 
  37. Elephants Can Remember; 
  38. Poirot’s Early Cases; 
  39. Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case

2 comments:

Margot Kinberg said...

Kerrie - Thanks, as always, for this review :-). I hadn't thought about the drug-taking concern, but you've got quite a well-taken point there. I need to read this book again, actually; it's been a while. As I recall, though, I liked The Augean stables very much, too...

ps My word verification is hounded. Hmmmm

Bernadette in Australia said...

I'm actually not a big fan of short stories but am finding I quite like having some on my eReader - for those times when I'm in between books or otherwise not feeling like a 'proper' book - so I shall investigate to see if this one is available for my device

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