Tuesday, 1 March 2016

The Labours of Hercules



This is my contribution to the Past Offences 1947 challenge – Agatha Christie's Labours of Hercules.

I love this book, especially narrated by Hugh Fraser. No knowledge of Greek mythology needed – it’s all explained. Poirot is wondering what to do with his life when a Professorial friend puts him on the track of the Labours of Hercules.

In the first story, he meets not a Nemean Lion but a lion-dog – a Pekinese. He is contacted by a rich man who claims his wife’s peke has been kidnapped for ransom. A lost dog! Just the kind of case he loathes. But in the process of solving the mystery he meets an interesting and clever villain who turns up later in the series, and also spots the seeds of another, more serious crime.

The Lernean Hydra is not a literal many-headed monster but gossip, which is destroying the reputation of a doctor in a small village.

The Arcadian Deer is a romantic story: a young garage mechanic wants to find a lady’s maid he met once when fixing the radio in a millionaire’s mansion. She seems to have deliberately vanished.

The Erymanthian Boar is an unusual story: Poirot and other guests at a Swiss hotel are isolated in snowy mountains when the funicular railway breaks down. Nobody is what they seem – which of the holiday makers is the gangster Poirot is hunting?

The Augean Stables are represented by the sleazy side of British politics. Poirot turns scandal against itself to save a politician’s reputation.

In The Stymphalean Birds a young politician is staying at a country hotel in the Balkans. Among the guests are two strange, haunting, birdlike Polish ladies who dress all in black. He falls in with an Englishwoman and her pretty, vulnerable daughter who is taking a holiday from her abusive, alcoholic husband. The husband turns up, things turn violent, and it looks like Our Hero will be blackmailed for the rest of his life by the sinister Polish ladies who have seen and heard too much. Fortunately Poirot is staying at the same hotel...

The Cretan Bull features a feisty heroine engaged to a toff who unfortunately seems to have inherited the family lunacy along with the great house and estates. (People who don’t read Christie imagine all her stories are set among such folk.)

The Horses of Diomedes involves some hard-partying Londoners. A doctor friend of Poirot’s is worried about four young girls, sisters, who are going to the bad in a drug-taking set – particularly the youngest, Sheila. Poirot goes to see the girls’ father, who seems like the perfect type of the retired Anglo-Indian colonel. A little too perfect, perhaps?

A party of schoolgirls is travelling by train to a finishing school in France. En route one of them disappears, and so does a famous picture by Rubens: The Girdle of Hippolyta. Winnie’s shoes and hat are found by the railway line, and she turns up, dazed, in Amiens, remembering nothing of what has happened. Poirot visits headmistress Miss Pope to see if she can tell him anything. He finds something in her study that puts him on the track, but has to flee from some Amazons.

In The Flock of Geryon we move up a gear. One of the characters from the first story, the quiet Miss Carnaby, comes to Poirot with a problem. A friend of hers, Mrs Clegg, a rich widow, is living at the headquarters of a dubious-sounding sect in Devon. The leader is handsome and charismatic, and Mrs Clegg has changed her will, leaving all her money to him and his movement. The story sounds familiar to Miss Carnaby: she has heard of three well-off women who have joined the sect, and then died within the year. Poirot asks if she will infiltrate the organisation, and she does so. Its beliefs and rituals are absurd: mixing metaphors about sheep and harvests. But the drugs that are administered have a strange effect on the mind... With her usual humour, Christie shows us what she thinks of gurus who invent religions and prey on the credulous and lonely.

The Apples of Hesperides takes Poirot to Ireland in search of a stolen chalice. He’s helped to recover it by a character called “Atlas”, a newspaper racing tipster he meets in a pub.

The Capture of Cerberus starts with a bang: Poirot is suffering the infernal London underground, wishing young women didn’t have a craze for knitting on public transport (ouch!). As he ascends to the surface on the up escalator he is greeted by someone most definitely on the trip down – his old friend the jewel thief “Countess” Vera Rossakoff. Her hair is dyed, her makeup careless, her figure not what it was, and her charm undiminished. “Where can I find you?” he shouts. “In Hell!” she calls back and is swept away by the rush-hour crowd. “If someone asked you to meet them in Hell,” Poirot asks his secretary Miss Lemon, “What would you do?” “I’d ring up and book a table,” answers Miss L. “Hell” is the latest fashionable nightclub – of course. Poirot visits, entering by a staircase painted with “I can give it up any time I like” or “I meant well” on every tread. The descent leads him past a fearsome black dog in a niche, and into a room painted with scenes of classical debauchery. There is his old friend the Countess, and her son (now about 25) and his rather unlikely fiancee, a social anthropologist who wears a tweed suit and horn-rimmed glasses. She loves dancing with the crooks who frequent the venue – she gets them to tell her all about their unhappy childhoods. Poirot spots an undercover policeman, and later learns that the club is the centre of a drug operation. Is the Countess involved?

How many of the stories did Tom Adams fit into his cover?

More Christie here.

2 comments:

  1. I really like this book too, the theme really works and makes it memorable and enjoyable and varied.

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  2. What makes it particularly 1947, though? The Countess's fading beauty, perhaps, and the fact that crusty Anglo-Indian colonels are a thing of the past?

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