Well, hellooooo, Agatha!
How are you, Mrs. Christie? I haven’t
seen you in my dreams written about you in the longest time – since December 13th actually, when I offered up Twelve Christies for Christmas. Keeping the “dozens” theme in mind, I would like to offer up twelve cases that Christie wrote and then gathered together in what some would consider her best collection of short stories: The Labors of Hercules. I myself do not quite share that opinion, having always held The Thirteen Problems in the highest regard, both for its introduction of that non-paralleled spinster sleuth, Miss Jane Marple, and for the variety and interest of its cases, a number of which would inspire future novels in the canon.
But Labors is really so different. It is certainly Christie’s most audacious collection, rivaling the audacity of her Belgian detective who, in the prologue, is contemplating retirement (at the time of publication, by conservative estimates, he would be eighty-seven years old) and takes it upon himself to find twelve final cases to match the grandiose nature of his Greek namesake. Right from the start, Christie displays a sparkling sense of humor, as when Poirot has his first taste of the dieties of mythology:
“These gods and goddesses . . . they seemed to be definitely criminal types. Drink, debauchery, incest, rape, loot, homicide and chicanery – enough to keep a juge d’Instruction constantly busy. No decent family life. No order, no method. Even in their crimes, no order or method!”
He thinks even less of the great Hercules: “Hero, indeed! What was he but a large muscular creature of low intelligence and criminal tendencies!” Thus, Poirot approaches his task with that adorably smug vanity we all love. He vows, like his predecessor, to “rid the world of certain pests” – only Poirot will use his little grey cells, man’s most vital muscle.
One of the joys of Labors is Christie’s clever hewing to the original myths, creating a series of modern monsters, both real and metaphorical, to match the beasts that Hercules slew. This results in a series of stories where the cases are, for the most part, quite varied; more than that, the collection gives us a sample of the Many Moods of Agatha Christie, combining the whole range of literary stylings that have defined her career.
She begins with a light touch, as Poirot’s First Labor, “The Nemean Lion,” seems an inauspicious start to his Herculean plan. A businessman wants to hire him to find out who kidnapped his wife’s Pekinese dog. At first, Poirot is outraged that he would be consulted on such a petty matter. But upon meeting Joseph Hoggin, he changes his mind. He explains his decision to take the case thusly:
“I am, I may say so without undue modesty, at the apex of my career. Very shortly I intend to retire – to live in the country, to travel occasionally to see the world – also, it may be, to cultivate my garden with particular attention to improving the strain of vegetable narrows. Magnificent vegetables – but they lack flavor. That, however, is not the point. I wished merely to explain that before retiring I had imposed upon myself a certain task. I have decided to accept twelve cases – no more, no less. A self-imposed ‘labors of Hercules’ if I may so describe it. Your case, Sir Joseph, is the first of the twelve. I was attracted to it by its striking unimportance.”
The acknowledged metaphor here is the dog: with their furry manes and ferocious natures, Pekinese dogs resemble a small lion. But in another way, the dog is beside the point. Oh, Poirot solves the case, bringing down one of the most charming rackets in GAD history. But he is after a bigger monster here. Hoggin stirs up something, a bad memory from his days in the Belgian police force. When Poirot goes to his client to collect his fee, he shares this memory:
“Curiously enough, you recall to me one of my earlier cases in Belgium, many years ago – the chief protagonist was very like you in appearance. He was a wealthy soap manufacturer. He poisoned his wife in order to be free to marry his secretary . . . Yes – the resemblance is very remarkable . . .”
This is one of the best cases in the collection, as much for what it accomplishes in the crevices as for the charming nature of the main plot. Poirot improves the lot of a lonely middle-aged woman and prevents a murder, showing us that not all cases should be judged on the surface.
With the second labor, “The Lernean Hydra,” Christie gives us a tale of village murder that would have fit beautifully in The Thirteen Problems. In fact, it shares a few key elements with “The Blue Geranium” from that collection. A kindly doctor is saddled with a shrewish invalid wife who dies suddenly of a gastric ulcer . . . or was she poisoned? The village wags are feeding off of the morbid theory that Dr. Oldfield murdered his wife in order to marry his comely dispenser, Jeanne Moncrieff.
Once again, the case itself is only a starting point, and while Poirot will go on to find out who killed Mrs. Oldfield (in a solution that also comes straight out of that early Miss Marple story), his self-appointed task is far more, ahem, Herculean: he will tackle the amorphous plague of gossip itself. He does this by applying his keen understanding of group psychology and by ingeniously outwitting the intentions of the true killer.
It starts to become apparent that this collection of stories is not your Poirot Investigates sort of affair. Written and published, with one exception, in The Strand Magazine between 1939 and 1940, these stories come from a period when Christie was not just at the height of her powers but was shifting in a different direction, sloughing off the puzzle-centered, Holmesian tales of her youth to embrace character and theme above clueing and fair play. She did not abandon her love of intricate mysteries in her novels, but she had always enjoyed writing short fiction that ventured beyond her established genre, The Labors – fun mysteries all – often call to mind her other literary interests.
This is made abundantly clear in the third labor, “The Arcadian Deer,” a case of “Poirot meets Mr. Harley Quin meets Mary Westmacott.” It is a missing persons case that becomes a ghost story, a romantic tragedy with the most prosaic of beginnings: Poirot’s car breaks down in an English village, and the young mechanic, “a simple young man with the outward semblance of a Greek god,” asks Poirot if, while he’s waiting, he might investigate the disappearance of a woman. She was a servant who had come down with her mistress, a famous Russian dancer, to stay at the local squire’s manor. In the mechanic’s mind, he and the girl had fallen in love, and her sudden disappearance without a word troubles him. It’s a wisp of a case, but “Papa” Poirot takes it on for a wisp of a fee and manages to bring a ghost back to life and restore true love.
Even so delicate a problem requires labor, including a trip to Switzerland to track down this Arcadian deer. Once it is resolved, Poirot remains to do some sightseeing – and to tackle his fourth labor, “The Erymanthian Boar.” When he feels oppressed by a village nestled under the Alps, he mounts a funicular and ascends to the luxurious mountain-top resort of Rochers Nieges – and right into the middle of a sort of sequel to The Big Four, with all the thrillerish aspects and preposterous twists of that early novel. We’re also back to the era of Poirot in Foreign Climes: he traveled the world in five novels of the 1930’s; in the 40’s he has remained snugly in England until now. (You could argue that he was prevented from foreign travel by the war, but first you would have to show me evidence in this book of a war!)
Of course, this quickly becomes a busman’s holiday! How odd that Poirot should be handed a message in the funicular from his old friend, the Swiss Commissionaire of Police. How coincidental that the alpine hotel where Poirot vacations should be the rendezvous spot between members of a racecourse gang and their leader, the murderer Marrascaud! How Number Four-ish of Marrascaud to travel in disguise! And yet, how lucky for the theme of this collection that so brutal a criminal has been dubbed a wild boar.
If you ever saw the adaptation of this collection on Poirot, you will know that the screenwriter Guy Andrews gave up on covering every story in the collection and picked only five of the tales to mash-up into a semi-coherent storyline, with “Boar” providing the main framework for the plot. This is ironic, as the very series was pitched to begin with a season devoted to dramatizing the whole collection. I do understand why Andrews chose this particular story to provide the main gist of his plot: it’s action-packed and one of the most traditionally Christie-like mysteries in the collection, plus it contains an exotic setting, a group of diverse characters, and a cleverly hidden killer.
The only challenge to an adaptor is that it is most definitely a short story, and so Andrews began packing in parts of several stories to pad things out – and then came up with a solution that diverged completely from the original. I leave it to each of you to decide whether or not the Poirot episodes stands on its own as a mystery. All I will say is that, in my eyes, the book that Agatha Christie wrote is still awaiting an adaptation.
It feels like the less Christie allows herself to be bogged down here in the machinations of puzzle plotting or in recalling old tropes and tricks from earlier novels, the more successfully these stories stand on their own as something original. “The Augean Stables” makes for an intriguing fifth labor, even if in its structure it strongly resembles “The Lernean Hydra.” Its setting is the world of politics, but the author doesn’t get bogged down in politics. Her strength is people, and here she shows how well she understands them.
Instead of the loose-lip gossiping of the earlier tale, here Poirot tackles the big-business of gossip magazines and muckraking publications. He has been tasked with the enormous responsibility of preventing a huge scandal from rocking the political world and allowing the opposition – NOT the “good” party – to assume control. Unfortunately, the scandal here is true: the Prime Minister informs Poirot that his predecessor, who also happens to be his father-in-law, was a crook. Even worse, a scandal sheet called the X-Ray News has gotten hold of proof of this allegation and is threatening to print.
Poirot’s solution to this problem is similar in style to “Hydra” but is delivered on an epic scale befitting a national emergency. Personally, I think it would have made a thrilling episode of Poirot, but even I will admit there is nary a mystery in sight. No, this is a morality tale, plain and simple, to wit: if your version of morality displeases Poirot, you had better watch out! I also got a kick of how Christie, via her detective hero, lays out the metaphor between this case and the Fifth Labor to his client:
“We must go back to an older story . . . to the cleansing of the Augean stables. What Hercules used was a river – that is to say one of the great forces of Nature. Modernize that! What is a great force of Nature? Sex, is it not? It is the sex angle that sells stories, that makes news. Give people scandal allied to sex and it appeals far more than any mere political chicanery or fraud.”
This psychology holds true today, don’t you think?
We move from the grandeur of national politics to the romantic woes of the Sixth Labor, one of my very favorites in the collection, perhaps because it feels so very Christie-an (Christie-ish??) In “The Stymphalean Birds,” Poirot takes on yet another politician as a client, a rising star named Harold Waring – although he might as well be called Arthur Hastings for all the similarities between them. Harold is good-looking, fiercely nationalistic, and a terrible judge of people. Knowing no languages, he decides to take a vacation in Herzoslovakia where few people speak English. With a roomful of undersecretaries like Waring, surely one must despair for the future of the British Empire.
The birds of the title are a pair of Polish ladies (or are they?!?!?) who have the gall to speak no English and be unattractive. They also seem to be menacing a perfectly charming English lass named Elsie, who is “pretty in a rather old-fashioned style,” and who has captured the eye of young bachelor Waring. What Harold gets into while defending the honor of the fair Elsie and her poor mother reminds me of those early stories featuring Mr. Parker Pyne, and like so many of that good fellow’s clients, Harold Waring will emerge from this case a sadder but wiser man – and, hopefully, a much more effective representative of the British government.
In the Seventh Labor, “The Cretan Bull,” we return to more traditional genre territory with a spiffing mystery that begins with yet another romantic travail. As Diana Maberly tells Poirot, “Hugh broke off our engagement because he thinks he is going mad. He thinks people who are mad should not marry.” When Poirot asks her if she agrees with that sentiment, Diana’s response must endear her to us all:
“I don’t know . . . What is being mad, after all? Everyone is a little mad. It’s only when you begin thinking you’re a poached egg or something that they have to shut you up.”
Unfortunately, Hugh Chandler’s family does indeed have a strain of madness running through it (I’ve always wondered if that’s really a thing outside of fiction). There’s the fact that Hugh’s father, a celebrated admiral, has without reason gently pushed his son out of the Navy and arranged for him to stay close to home and manage the estate. Oh, and that business of the sheep on said estate being torn limb from limb in the dead of night might give one pause. Could the delectable Hugh, “tall, magnificently proportioned, with a terrific chest and shoulders, and a tawny head of hair,” go a little nuts during the full moon? Given the “tremendous air of strength and virility about him,” which – ta da! – likens him to the Cretan Bull, is it any wonder that Diana has her doubts about giving up on this potential psychopath? This is a marvelous story, with a rich plot, strong characterization and some actual clueing. Yes, Christie employs, not for the only time, the same trick to explain away the madness, but it is utilized in a very satisfying manner here.
The next tale may be named for the Eighth Labor, “The Horses of Diomedes,” but it more reminds one of a classic fairy tale, “The Twelve Dancing Princesses.” It’s an entertaining enough story, but it does have a lot of similarities to “The Stymphalean Birds,” with its lovestruck client who must be taught by Poirot to look at things the correct way. Those who have accused Christie of writing in stereotypes have, as usual, missed the point. Christie never relied on stereotypes, she controlled them. Surely we have met many old military bores in her work before; here, one might suggest to the villain that he should have read up on his Christie before taking on Poirot:
“The Buddhas, the Benares brass, the Indian servant! And the gout, too! It is out of date, the gout. It is old, old gentleman who had the gout – not the fathers of young ladies of nineteen.”
I would have loved to be sitting next to Christie in her garden as she doodled in her notebook and tried to figure out the most appropriate way to tackle Hercules’ Ninth Labor, “The Girdle of Hippolyta.” (In my vision, Agatha turns to me and says, “Oh, Bradley, I’m hopelessly stuck! What say you, dear friend?”) I urge you to pull your copy of John Curran’s Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks down from your shelf and look up this tale; you will enjoy the various permutations of plot Christie considered before alighting on the idea of a stolen Rubens painting. I looked for such a painting on Google, and while the artist was certainly inspired by mythology, I could not find a specific work featuring Hippolyta.
The real charm here lies in the juxtaposition of two cases, with Poirot’s desire to ignore the bigger case of a stolen master in order to focus on the bizarre disappearance on a train of a young schoolgirl. As Curran points out, many elements in this story will find their way into an equally charming novel about schoolgirls, 1959’s Cat Among the Pigeons. I also feel traces here of Ethel Lina White’s The Wheel Spins (1936) which, in turn, became the Hitchcock classic, The Lady Vanishes. The story ably merges the domestic with the epic and contains perhaps the finest ending in the collection: the vision of Poirot being mobbed by two dozen autograph-hungry schoolgirls, an event he likens to “the attack by the Amazons.”
It is extremely rare that a criminal from one case returns to a new Christie story. I can only think of the Countess Vera Russakoff, whom we will revisit shortly – and Amy Carnaby, that amiable con artist from the first tale, who returns in the Tenth Labor, “The Flock of Geryon,” to present Hercule Poirot with a case of her own: a friend of hers named Emmeline Clegg, newly widowed, wealthy and lonely, has fallen in with a religious cult. Amy wants Poirot to help her friend, but more than that, she hopes the detective will give Amy herself – still bored – something to do. The case puts Miss Carnaby in great danger, but she proves her mettle – and, after all, was there anyone who could bring a spinster lady to life quite like Agatha Christie?
The story is perfectly fine, but what really charms us here is the friendship between the sleuth and his new, temporary assistant. Poirot calls Miss Carnaby “one of the most successful criminals I have ever encountered,” while Amy, who owns her own “Nemean Lion,” has taught him a trick:
“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!”
As a mystery, the Eleventh Labor, “The Apples of the Hesperides,” is . . . okay, revisiting the idea of a stolen art object to help Christie connect to her theme. Poirot tracks the item down and returns it to its owner, whereupon the true nature of this tale asserts itself. We’re back in Harley Quin territory, where the true problem lies in the nature of the client’s soul, as shown in the final exchange between Poirot and a nun:
“’Tell him we thank him and we will pray for him.’
“Hercule Poirot said gently: ‘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 . . . ‘”
One is reminded that Christie wrote primarily about the middle class; most of her wealthy characters had earned their money. The author herself was plagued by money matters her whole life, whether she was a child of paupers or a world-famous author being plagued by taxes on two continents. Yes, it bought her those beloved homes and set her children up for life, but in one short exchange she reminds us all of the burden of wealth.
I refer you once more to John Curran’s Notebooks, where he unfolds the fascinating history behind the final Twelfth Labor, “The Capture of Cerberus.” You will also have the opportunity to read the original story that was submitted to, and then rejected by, The Strand as being too political and not the “escapist reading” they had hoped to provide to their readers. I will say this: the original story packs a terrific punch, but I can understand how anyone looking toward the eventual gathering together of the labors into one complete book might have thought it a harsh sort of ending for such a collection.
The one thing the original has in common with the story that replaced it (which Curran figures Christie wrote in 1947 precisely for the collection) is the presence of Poirot’s (sort of) Irene Adler, the Countess Vera Rossakoff. I think she is better handled in the first version, as is the use of the image of Cerberus himself. What we end up with instead is a standard mystery set in a night club that shares many elements with Christie’s first published short story, “The Affair at the Victory Ball” (1923). One gets the sense that, feeling miffed at the rejection of that rarity for Christie, a commentary on the current political situation in Europe, she resorted to a standard rehash of old ideas – one that was eagerly accepted to close the collection.
Ohhhh, Agatha, I feel you there. On the rare occasions where I have inserted a political opinion into my blog, I have been quashed by those who want to stay comfortably put in the illusory realm of classic detective fiction. I really wish you and I could meet together at The Willow Tree over a plate of fresh-baked scones and drop cakes and a nice, strong pot of Lapsang Souchong and commiserate over the public’s utter lack of understanding regarding our beliefs and intentions. It would’ve been . . . so nice.
Meanwhile, I figure most of you who have gotten this far managed to read The Labors of Hercules long ago and, perhaps, like me, many times over. I’d love to hear what you think about the collection and which, if any, are your favorite stories.