Tuesday, October 13, 2015

The Pyne-Poirot Nexus, Part 2: The Labours of Hercules (1947), by Agatha Christie, Part 1

More of a shocker sort of fellah
Hercules battles the Lernean Hydra
In Agatha Christie's The Labours of Hercules (1947), the Queen of Crime produced her single best conceit for one of her many mystery short story collections: Hercule Poirot, planning to retire, decides to go out with a flourish, by taking on and solving a dozen cases resembling the mythical labors of Hercules. Seeing how the author transforms these legendary acts of brawn into masterpieces of the deductive art by her diminutive detective is most enjoyable.

Labours was first published in 1947, yet eleven of the stories had originally appeared in the UK over 1939-1940 in the Strand Magazine.  The last tale, The Capture of Cerberus, was rejected by the the Strand, apparently because it too much dealt, unusually for Christie, with contemporary politics.  A new version of the story appeared in the book in 1947.

Although The Labours of Hercules stories include both Poirot's secretary Miss Lemon and Inspector Japp (and, one imagines, it would have been easy enough to incorporate Hastings into them), Poirot's Labors were never filmed in the 1990s for the David Suchet Poirot television series.  Instead, several of the Labors were incorporated into the penultimate television film in the series in 2013.  I will be writing about this film and the rest of the final season of Poirot next week, along with the second half-dozen Labors.

Along with the Poirot novel One, Two, Buckle My Shoe, which was published in November 1940, the Labors in which Japp features constitute his last appearances in the Poirot canon. Did the Labors conversely see Miss Lemon's debut appearances in the Poirot canon? As we know from my last Christie Tuesday Night Club post, Miss Lemon was working for Parker Pyne in the early 1930s.  I don't recall this most efficient of secretaries appearing in any of the Thirties Poirot novels.

Has Hercule Poirot found his match in a lap dog?
In the first labor Poirot battles the Nemean Lion.  In Christie's hands this fearsome beast of legend becomes, most amusingly, a pampered Pekingese.

Christie also introduces a good character, the much put-upon paid companion, Amy Carnaby, who appears in a later Labor. Does anyone else think Miss Carnaby owes a bit of a debt in her conception to Dorothy L. Sayers's Miss Climpson?  Both are delightful individuals.

There is a tiny nod to this tale, one of Christie's most engaging, in the film version of Labours.

The Lernean Hydra is less original but still quite enjoyable. The tale involves a situation I believe Christie had used before, about a doctor suspected of poisoning his wife so that he might marry his pretty female dispenser; but it's all very neatly carried out by the author.

The "monster" in this one is malicious village gossip--a hydra with many heads indeed! There's also yet another Christie house servant named Gladys. A promising subject for a future thesis: why did Christie so often name servant characters Gladys?

2001 HarperCollins paperback
edition--a striking design, I think!
In a wry tweaking of the original legend, which concerns Hercules being tasked with capturing a hind with golden horns and hoofs of bronze that is sacred to the goddess Diana, in The Acadian Deer Poirot encounters a "simple" young car mechanic, Ted Williamson, "one of the handsomest specimens of humanity he had ever seen...with the outward semblance of a Greek god."

Handsome young Ted ingenuously asks Poirot to find his lost love: a maid to a Russian dancer who was staying with her mistress at a local country house party but has since disappeared with no trace. Poirot resolves to bring Ted's dear, Nita, back to to the anguished mechanic, in a Labor involving a good deal of Continental travel on the sleuth's part. This story, really a romance tale with a twist, was one of the Labors used in the 2013 film version of the book.

The Erymanthian Boar also takes Poirot to the Continent, specifically to an off-season, snowbound hotel in Switzerland.  This is a darker story than the others in the collection, involving as it does a vicious French murderer and master crook known as Marrascaud. It appears that this monster is holed up with Poirot at the very same hotel, which can only be reached by a funicular railway.  After the funicular is disabled (naturally!) Poirot is isolated at the hotel for several days with the other guests. Which one of them is a bloodthirsty killer?  Not surprisingly, this exciting story became the main basis for the film version of the book.

the fateful funicular

Christie goes highly figurative in The Augean Stables.  In the original Labor, Hercules is tasked with cleaning out an ungodly amount of crap from King Augeas's stables of assorted animals.  In Poirot's Labor the Belgian sleuth must put a halt to crap spewed out by England's gutter press.  Good luck, Hercule!

Hercules shoots the bird
I think that Christie has a great insight here, namely that where the attention of the salacious public is concerned sex scandals tend to trump any other sort of business shenanigans, yet the notion seemingly advanced in the tale that one should cover up crooked financial dealings by retired, presumably conservative, politicians in the name of keeping a "radical" party out of power surely is an arguable one in my view!

This Labour was slightly worked into the film, at least in my reading.

The Stymphalean Birds once again takes Poirot to a hotel--in Christie's fabled Balkan country of Herzoslovakia, no less--where something most untoward is occurring. This is a neat little twist story, involving an earnest young British politician and two ladies in need, that also was employed pretty faithfully in the film. Interestingly, it bears a certain resemblance to a P. G. Wodehouse Jeeves and Wooster story.

Well, we've taken the mighty Hercule halfway through his Labors.  More to come next week!


  1. The Labors are some of my favorite Christie short stories. I particularly like "The Nemean Lion" and the thought that Poirot begins his labors with a little dog.

    1. Oh, yes, it's one of my favorite Christie short stories!

  2. Christie is often labelled "conservative". Her characters sometimes tell each other that it's all about money - that the Conservatives must stay in power or otherwise.... what? Deflation as in the Weimar Republic? Fortunately Money is in the safe hands of the mysterious Mr Robinson. But please note that her social values are a lot less conservative.

    1. At least on this matter Poirot drew the line at murder!

  3. Nice look at this lovely collection Curt - I think it doesn't get notice much, so I'm glad to read some detailed analysis. It is very varied, very clever, very good.

    1. Such a pleasing conception, carried out with much charm.

  4. I also love The Nemean Lion, as was obvious from my last week's posting. Miss Amy Carnaby is a wonderful character and it would have been nice to have her in some later stories (not just the one in this collection). Having now read the original Capture of Cerberus in John Curran's book I can understand why it was discarded. Absolutely preposterous and not precisely what people would have wanted to read in 1940. The substitute story is silly, of course, but not nearly so bad. And it does have Miss Lemon. Yay!

    1. I haven't actually read the original Cerberus, but would like to do so now. I like the version in the book, as I will explain fully next week.

      Yes, it would have been nice to have Amy Carnaby appear in the novels occasionally.

  5. As you commented over at my place, Curt, the paid companion is one of the most interesting characters in Christie. (I wish I had had the room to discuss them.) In fact, the spinster in Christie is a fascinating creature! Amy Carnaby is one of the best, and I'm sure you'll discuss her second story next week. This is the best Poirot collection by far, as it combines both his detective skills and his personal qualities and fancies. "Papa" Poirot is in evidence, as is Poirot the avenger for the common good. I also look forward to more of your insights on the film version. While I wish that Suchet had made twelve separate shorter films - a season devoted to this book - I thought it was an interesting take on the book as a whole. The last season of Poirot was certainly an odd one, and, aside from Curtain, it was perhaps the least faithful, of all the seasons, to the source books.

    1. Having reread the book and watched the film, I was much happier with the film than I expected to be. Given the darker tone of the series in its last decade it would have been hard now to adapt the stories exactly as they appear in the book. (They should have been filmed in the 1990s, along with the other Poirot stories, when the series was in its lighter period.) I'll talk about the film later, but I thought it dida good job with the stories it took on; and it had some interesting meditations on Poirot, which fit it in with the theme of the book.

      As you say, the collections is a triumph as well in its depiction of Poirot as a colorful character. An essential part of the Poirot canon.