So this is the final review, for now at any rate, in the Agatha Christie series. Or perhaps I’ll do Parker Pyne Investigates as well, just to round off Christie’s idiosyncratic detectives. Damn, that means I should do a Tommy and Tuppence review as well. Oh well, mo-reviews, mo-problems. Still, this book has to be reviewed. It’s totally brilliant and an absolute classic. I can’t recommend it enough. It must rank high in any collection of great short stories. Only the truly pedantic would have problems with her using a goblet made by Cellini for Alexander VI (a blatant historical error in the Apple of Hesperides labour) as detracting from the quality of the entertainment.
The Labours of Hercules, published in 1947, opens with a retired, somewhat lonely, and weary Hercule Poirot looking back over his life. He reflects, he ponders, and he wonders. He then has an illuminating conversation with his doctor, Ridgeway, who happens to be a student of the classics. Where did your name come from, he asks the great detective, and as Ridgeway quotes from the ancient texts, he realizes that perhaps the doctor has a point. Perhaps he did miss out on something. So he devours the classics, paying especial attention to those that involve his namesake, and he decides to emulate, as a modern day detective, the Labours of Hercules.
I won’t go into the details of the actual, classical labours here. I’m sure our readers are familiar with the cleansing of the Augean stables, the slaying of the Nemean Lion and the Lernaean Hydra, and the capture of Cerberus. Most of you probably even know about the Cretan Bull, or the mare of Diomedes, or the cattle of Geyron, or my personal favorite, the capture of the hind of Diana/Artemis. It’s a beautiful story, wonderfully told in Herodotus, especially the scene when Hercules begs Artemis/Diana, and her brother Apollo, for forgiveness for what he has to do and his promise…to return the deer. A hind is a female deer, by the way. But in case you aren’t then might shed a little light on the matter. I particularly recommend the latter link, and also, if you can get your hands on them, the original telling’s by Peisander and Apollodorus.
The book moves in the same chronological order as the actual labours, so it begins with the Nemean Lion, which in this telling, involves the kidnap and ransom of…a Pekingese dog. Yes, really. The play-out is quite a clever story, as it involves a fairly clever confidence scam. Next is the Hydra, which, as you might have guessed, is rumour. The more you try and quash it, the more it pops up. The hind is a rather fanciful tale of lovers reuniting after decades, but is in some ways the most moving. The story of the Erymanthian boar is perhaps the most thrilling story in the book, involving as it does thrilljinks at a mountain-top hotel in Switzerland, accessible only by a funicular. The Augean stables case happens almost by chance, a castaway phrase by the Home Secretary triggers a reaction in Poirot and leads to what is classical political spin-doctoring on the little detective’s part.
The Cretan Bull is a well connived family horror, while Diomedes and Geryon and Hesperides are perhaps the most contrived and hurried of the stories, almost as if it seemed that Christie was rushing through them with less cogitation, anxious to get to the end. But the end is truly brilliant. The Capture of Cerberus, the final story in the book, is a real, sublime, classic. It sees the return of a recurring character, the self-titled Countess Vera Rossakoff, Poirot’s great love. The story is set in a club the Countess owns called Hell, and the entrance to it is has stairs with lines that read “I meant well…”, “I can give it up any time I like”, “Wipe the slate clean and start afresh”,…the good intentions that pave the way to hell. As Poirot himself says, “C’est bien imagine, ca.” It also has a massive black hound, called Cerberus, naturally, who figures prominently, and slightly disturbingly, in the plot.
All in all, an absolute gem and one of Christie’s best, if not the best. Highly recommended as a great read and a very appreciable gift. But get more than one copy, you won’t want to part with your own.
From Bangalore but based primarily in New Delhi, India, Samir has variously been and continues to be a professional musician, a pub quiz host, a political campaign aide, and a student of the guitar, as well as history and international relations. He is currently Research Director for the Global Security Centre in India. He is also a freelance editor and research consultant, having worked for the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs, the Public Health Foundation of India, and a McKinsey-IBM KPO, as well as Random House and Oxford University Press. He can be contacted at email@example.com