Agatha Christie wrote 38 books featuring her most famous detective, the funny little Belgian named Hercule Poirot. Most of them are full-length novels, but she also published several collections of short stories, and The Labors of Hercules is one of them. It revolves around a conceit: Hercule has determined to solve 12 final cases before retiring, each of them related in some way to one of the tasks accomplished by the ancient Greek hero Hercules.
(A brief look at the series listing at LibraryThing shows us that these were far from the last cases that Poirot would solve, but I don’t know if Dame Agatha intended to be done with her greatest creation at this point and was pressured to continue writing about him because of publisher pressure, or if it was a minor fib that made the construction of the collection work.)
I appreciated that Christie took care to make the connection to each of the 12 Labors within the individual stories — a huge help to a reader largely unfamiliar with Greek mythology. And while some of the connections are tenuous, I think they are all fairly played. One of the pleasant surprises for me was the whimsical tone with which many of the stories unfold. It’s not all dastardly villains and bloody murders. Ultimately, though, I find that I prefer Christie’s full-length mysteries; I don’t think the short format is well-suited to her usual twisty plotting. Indeed, the ultimate solution to each mystery here was easily detected, even by a reader who is terrible at figuring out whodunit.
The full lineup:
- The Nemean Lion — Poirot is called upon to solve a series of dognappings demanding ransom from wealthy women to return their beloved Pekingese unscathed.
- The Lernean Hydra — A doctor whose wife died a year ago is beset by village rumors that he poisoned her. He asks Poirot to clear his name once and for all.
- The Arcadian Deer — A young mechanic enlists Poirot’s help to find the beautiful young woman whom he fell in love with and who subsequently seems to have vanished off the face of the earth.
- The Erymanthian Boar — Poirot finds himself on the trail of a French murderer who is rumored to have holed up in a nearly inaccessible village in the Swiss Alps.
- The Augean Stables — The British Prime Minister needs Poirot to help him manage a tawdry blackmail scheme that threatens to topple his government.
- The Stymphalean Birds — A young undersecretary in the British government is on holiday in “Herzoslovakia” when he gets embroiled in an apparent domestic abuse and murder case.
- The Cretan Bull — A young woman beseeches Poirot to convince her erstwhile fiancé that he is not doomed to insanity by a genetic condition.
- The Horses of Diomedes — A young doctor of his acquaintance wants Poirot to help him save a young girl from scandal related to a party where alcohol and cocaine led to a combustible situation.
- The Girdle of Hyppolita — Poirot must recover an original Rubens painting, which was stolen in broad daylight from a London gallery.
- The Flock of Geryon — A woman wants Poirot’s help to uncover a dangerous cult that lures in wealthy women, who die of apparent natural causes after leaving everything to the cult leader in their wills.
- The Apples of the Hesperides — A goblet ostensibly used by Pope Alexander VI to poison his enemies has been stolen, and the American who bought it just before its disappearance wants Poirot to get it back.
- The Capture of Cerberus — Poirot has a chance encounter with an old acquaintance, Countess Vera Rossakoff, who is mixed up in a drug-smuggling scheme connected to London’s hottest new nightclub, Hell.