Poirot toils to solve the 12 ‘Labors of Hercules’

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:

  1. The Nemean Lion — Poirot is called upon to solve a series of dognappings demanding ransom from wealthy women to return their beloved Pekingese unscathed.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. The Augean Stables — The British Prime Minister needs Poirot to help him manage a tawdry blackmail scheme that threatens to topple his government.
  6. 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.
  7. The Cretan Bull — A young woman beseeches Poirot to convince her erstwhile fiancé that he is not doomed to insanity by a genetic condition.
  8. 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.
  9. The Girdle of Hyppolita — Poirot must recover an original Rubens painting, which was stolen in broad daylight from a London gallery.
  10. 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.
  11. 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.
  12. 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.

Library lovers will revel in the historical fiction of ‘The Lions of Fifth Avenue’

I could write a whole blog post about how much I love libraries, and all the ways libraries have been great friends all my life. But this is a book review, so I’ll just say that library love was the main reason I picked up The Lions of Fifth Avenue (2020) by Fiona Davis. And just like the actual libraries, this book did not disappoint me.

The first magical thing to know is that part of the premise is absolutely true: From 1910 to 1940, the superintendent of the New York Public Library’s newly built Fifth Avenue main building lived with his family inside the library in a seven-room apartment. Can you imagine?! Of course, his job to keep the library’s technical systems and physical plant running was a 24/7 job, so I’m sure it was not nearly as glamorous as it seems from this distance. On the other hand, what fun for his children, one of whom went on to be the library’s chief engineer, though he did not live inside the library as an adult.

But now I’ve gotten totally off track, which is just what happens when a book captures your imagination so thoroughly. The family in Davis’ book, Jack and Laura Lyons and their children, Harry and Pearl, bear little or no resemblance to the true story that inspired the novel. Our story opens in 1913, shortly after Jack and his family move into the brand-new library. While Jack is handy with tools and knows a lot about keeping the library running, his not-so-secret ambition is to be a writer and have his own books catalogued and shelved inside his new home. Laura wants to do whatever she can to help him realize his dreams. She presses Jack to let her attend Columbia University to earn a journalism degree that can help her get a job so Jack can write full-time. Gender attitudes being what they were at the time, Jack is dubious about this plan but gives his tentative approval. Laura hadn’t counted on all the new people and experiences to which she would be exposed at university, and she finds herself changing in profound ways that affect her family.

That storyline alone would have been enough to keep me interested, but Davis also works in a contemporary timeline, featuring Jack and Laura’s granddaughter Sadie. Sadie never met her grandparents and her mother refused to talk about growing up in the library, but Sadie has nevertheless found her own employment at the NYPL, as the curator of a special collection. As she helps to plan a fundraising gala to spotlight the collection, a series of events bears an uncanny resemblance to things that happened while her grandparents lived in the library. But can she figure out the connections in time to save the reputation of her family — and herself?

The dual timelines aren’t hard to keep straight, and I found myself almost equally interested in both (with a slight preference for Jack and Laura in the 1910s). But they come together in a satisfying ending that neatly wraps up pretty much every dangling storyline. I think lovers of libraries and historical fiction will find a lot to like here.

A deaf woman lip-reads her way into danger in ‘The Listening Eye’

The landlady of a London boarding house finds herself reluctantly visiting an art exhibition at the urging of a young relation (whose very modern art is incomprehensible to her) and one of her boarders (whose portrait of her is part of the show). Apart from having to think up something nice to say about her nephew’s work, the evening is pretty uneventful until Paulina happens to eavesdrop on a conversation between two men who are apparently planning a crime. At first, the men aren’t aware that Paulina knows what they were talking about because she’s clear across the gallery. But when the manager lets slip to one of the men that she’s deaf and a remarkably proficient lipreader, Paulina fears she may be in danger. Who better to consult than Miss Silver?

That’s the setup for The Listening Eye (1955), the 28th entry in Patricia Wentworth’s series about governess-turned-private-eye Maud Silver. In the course of her investigation, Miss Silver winds up undercover as a social secretary to Lucas Bellingdon, a wealthy businessman who was one of the victims of the original crime that Paulina heard being planned. In fact, everyone living or visiting the Bellingdon country home for a long weekend seems to have a motive for being involved. As always, there are only two questions that need to be answered in a Miss Silver novel: Who done it, and which young couple will end up in the happily-ever-after romantic spotlight?

I was intrigued at first that Maudie was going undercover in a working role rather than being a visiting friend of the family or some other transparent dodge. But given that she does absolutely no work while she’s there, all the while busily interrogating everyone in the house, it’s hard to see how her cover doesn’t get blown sooner than it does. Nonetheless, Wentworth put together a fine cast of characters, including some really nasty pieces of work and some humorously inept figures to provide some levity. This wasn’t my favorite of the Miss Silver series, but it’s still perfectly fine. I’m already looking forward to the next.

Bosch is back to solve a pair of cold cases in ‘The Wrong Side of Goodbye’

How do you find someone who might not exist? That’s the task set before cop-turned-private-detective Harry Bosch by a dying billionaire businessman in The Wrong Side of Goodbye (2016). Whitney Vance has been haunted his whole life by the Mexican girl whom he got pregnant as a teenager, only to have his father send her away. All these decades later, Vance wants Harry to find the woman if he can, and especially the child (and heir) she may have borne him.

Other people in Vance’s life would prefer that not to happen, since as things stand all those lovely billions of dollars will go to them if no heir is found. That leads to some menacing action as Vance’s associates try to find out what Harry knows and stop him from revealing all and eliminating their financial windfall.

That would seem to be enough to be going on with, but Harry is simultaneously working pro bono for the San Fernando Police Department to solve their coldest cases, including a particularly grim serial rapist. There’s nothing wrong with the plotting of this secondary case, but it feels like it’s only there to facilitate Harry’s continued access to police resources (which is, of course, against those pesky rules that Harry never follows if he doesn’t feel like it). Real-life events over the past year or so have altered my attitude toward rule-breaking cops. As much as I’ve always enjoyed Harry as a character, it didn’t feel good this time around to be rooting for someone whose personal motto seems to be “The end always justifies the means.”

Connelly excels at detailing the sometimes-plodding work that is necessary to solve criminal cases, and I’m a total nerd for that kind of logistical stuff. It was also nice to read a mystery where technology or science doesn’t swoop in to save the day. After 19 books in this series, I’m impressed with Connelly’s ability to keep coming up with clever and intricate plot lines. It’s a minor pity that his writing has never risen above the somewhat plodding prose of a newspaper police beat reporter (which I believe he used to be many years ago). I’m by no means ready to throw in the towel on this series, however, even though it’s not one I’m likely to binge-read. Spacing them out is the best approach, at least for me.

Archaeology and murder mix again in Griffiths’ ‘The Night Hawks’

The Night Hawks (2021) is the latest entry in Elly Griffiths’ series about forensic archaeologist Ruth Galloway. (If you’re new to the series, there’s no better place to start than at the beginning, with The Crossing Places.) It’s the 13th outing for Ruth & Company, and one of my favorites for the deft combination of interesting plotting and appealing, believable characters. Griffiths deserves praise for maintaining a generally high quality through the series, continuing to advance her characters’ lives without resorting to cliché or outlandishness.

As the Night Hawks opens, Ruth has returned to Norfolk from a stint at Cambridge. Her return isn’t entirely like putting on a comfortable old pair of shoes: she has a new job with a new colleague and is still working through the personal decisions she made at the end of The Lantern Men (2020). But when some amateur archaeologists using metal detectors (or treasure hunters as I would call them here in the U.S.) unearth some Bronze Age artifacts, they also find a decidedly non-Bronze Age body. This brings Ruth back into the orbit of DCI Harry Nelson, her frequent colleague through the series and, incidentally, the father of her daughter, Katie. But after all that’s happened between them, personally and professionally, can they really fall back into old habits so easily?

I always enjoy the archaeology scenes, and this time there’s a spooky subplot involving a Norfolk legend about the ghostly Black Shuck, a giant dog whose appearance spells doom for anyone who sees him. This time around, he’s seen in and around the location of an apparent murder-suicide. Nelson is suspicious that some of the same amateur metal detectorists who found the body at the Bronze Age site were also witnesses of a sort to these deaths as well. Of course, his police colleague Judy and her husband, the druid Cathbad, once again their individual expertise to the situation.

I like the way Griffiths handles the complex personal relationships that result from Ruth and Harry’s entanglement, which encompasses not only Katie but Harry’s wife and two grown daughters and baby son. I know some readers get impatient with the incremental progress in this plot line from book to book, but for me, it seems appropriate given that such situations are seldom tidily resolved in real life. Still, by the end of The Night Hawks, we get hints of more monumental changes on the horizon.

But that will be for next year’s Book 14 to reveal. Until then, we can only speculate about where everyone will end up when the merry-go-round takes its final turn.

There’s no room for romance in ‘The Bookish Life of Nina Hill’

Nina Hill loves her life. She loves her studio apartment in a quiet neighborhood of Los Angeles, and she loves her cat, Phil, who shares it with her. She loves making lists and planning her days down to the hour. She loves her job at a nearby independent bookstore, and she loves the book clubs she leads at the bookstore, especially the one for kids. When she isn’t leading a book club in the evening, she loves spending time with friends at weekly movie nights and pub trivia games. She doesn’t have a boyfriend, but frankly, she doesn’t have time for one, anyway.

At least, that’s what she thinks at the start of The Bookish Life of Nina Hill (2019) by Abbi Waxman. There is that cute guy on the trivia team that is the fiercest rival for Nina and her friends, but c’mon. He mostly answers the science questions and never the literature questions, so clearly they have nothing in common — no matter what her friends and his friends think. Or do they? She also doesn’t have time for the extended family she suddenly discovers she has, when the father she never knew dies and names her in his will. Trying to incorporate complicated family relationships into a life that is already planned down to the hour was very much not in her plans.

I enjoyed this novel for what it is, a light-hearted romance with appealing characters and just enough conflict to keep it from being boring. Nina is described early on as someone who was diagnosed with ADD as a child, and the only person who could calm her down was the school librarian, who “simply clicked her tongue and told her she was imaginative and creative and couldn’t be expected to wait for everyone else to catch up.” The librarian let Nina check out extra books above her grade level, instilling a love of reading and the belief that books are “medication and sanctuary and the source of all good things. Nothing had yet proven her wrong.”

The only fault to pick with the book is the way the narrative too often veers off into long digressive mental soliloquies or dialogues that do little to advance the story or provide further insight into Nina’s character. On the other hand, the inventive team names for the various pub quiz contestants were a delight, from Menace to Sobriety to You’re a Quizzard, Harry to Olivia Neutron Bomb and Spanish In-quiz-ition. Any veteran of pub quiz nights knows having the right name is the key to having a winning team.

Thanks to my friend Katie for putting this one on my radar. I’m encouraged to seek out other books by Waxman.

A fictional pandemic even more horrifying than the real one? Yikes!

I can’t say I necessarily had any reservations about reading Chuck Wendig’s Wanderers (2019) right now, as our current global pandemic is ramping itself back up into nightmare territory. I figured the story of a group of people who out of nowhere turn into unresponsive sleepwalkers who leave their homes and form an ever-increasing block on the road to … somewhere … wouldn’t ring many bells with the reality of Covid-19 and its maddening variants.

And that was mostly true, although there are enough similarities to be disturbing. On the other hand, disturbing readers is kind of what the horror genre is all about, so caveat lector and all that. And putting aside whether it’s a little too on the nose right now, I found Wanderers to be a compelling read.

The parade of sleepwalkers begins with a single teenager, who is unresponsive to attempts to talk or interact with her, relentlessly putting one foot in front of the other and refusing to deviate from her route. When her sister tries to intervene and stop her march, the wanderer undergoes alarming physical changes that quickly discourage any further attempts to divert her. People come out of their houses as she passes by, in the same catatonic state, and join her. No one knows why it’s happening, how people are “infected” by the sleepwalking illness (if that’s what it is) or how to stop it. As the walkers continue on their way, some of their loved ones form a support group that travels with them to make sure they are safe. Other people, without any family or friends among the afflicted, become hostile to something they don’t understand. Conspiracy theories abound as to the cause and the ultimate outcome, none of which have any effect on the wanderers themselves, who seem to have a definite destination in mind but are unable to communicate in any way with the unafflicted.

It took a while for the narrative to reach its full velocity, but it does get there eventually and once it does, I was helpless to stop reading. There may have been a few too many subplots, which led to spending more time with secondary characters than I would have liked, but that’s a minor quibble. I wasn’t surprised to find that the parts of this science fiction novel I enjoyed the least were the parts that hit a little too close to current events — the demagogue presidential candidate, the white supremacist militias, and so on. I prefer my horror to be a little less grounded in reality, thanks.

Nevertheless, I appreciated the plot twists that I at least did not see coming. I was less appreciative when the story ended on a semi-cliffhanger that made it clear there will be another book to truly finish off the plot. Having said that, I’m pretty sure when the next installment is published, I’ll be ready to revisit the Wanderers universe once again.

Homage or sendup? ‘The Eighth Detective’ is above all a puzzle

Reading The Eighth Detective (2020) by Alex Pavesi was a bit of a rollercoaster ride. It started promisingly, then got to the point where I thought I hated it, then became intriguing again, and ended with me contemplating re-reading the whole thing in light of knowing the ending. I didn’t do that, but I’m left feeling unsure how to characterize it.

The book is structured as a series of short mystery stories, purportedly written many years ago by a mathematician to prove his thesis that mysteries have a finite structure and can be reduced to just seven variations. Each of the seven stories in the collection are meant to illustrate one of the ways that the essential character types — victim(s), suspects, detective(s), and murderer(s) — can be mixed and matched. As the mathematician explains to Julia, the publisher who wants to sell a new edition of the stories:

”We mustn’t forget that the central purpose of a murder mystery is to give its readers a handful of suspects and the promise that in about a hundred pages one or more of them will be revealed as the murderers. That’s the beauty of the genre.”

Pavesi intersperses the seven short mysteries with chapters that recount conversations between Grant and Julia. She reads each story aloud to Grant and then they discuss it, with Julia pressing for explanations of inconsistencies she has noticed, and Grant playing coy about whether they are mistakes or deliberate. Those chapters also serve up another mystery: Why did this successful mathematician retreat to a Mediterranean island and become a virtual hermit? Why doesn’t he want to talk about his previous life?

I found the individual mysteries themselves mediocre at best, and for all I know that’s intentional on Pavesi’s part. After all, they are meant to have been written by a mathematician, not an experienced author. The more interesting bits are the dialogues between Grant and Julia as they discuss the previous story within the framework of the seven possible permutations Grant originally devised. The mystery of Grant’s origins is probably what kept me reading to the end, just to find out why he was being so secretive. And the surprise twist-within-a-twist ending was clever, but I finished the book feeling a bit unfulfilled, like eating a rice cake when what you really want is a big bowl of ice cream.

But I know a fair number of people who enjoy thinking about how mystery writers structure their stories, and would be intrigued by the idea that all mysteries can be reduced to a finite set of variations. Those folks might want to read samples of each supposed type along with an overarching mystery that promises a surprise. If that’s you, The Eighth Detective may be just what you were looking for.

Literary Links: July 30, 2021

photograph of stylized metal chain links, with text "Literary Links" superimposed on top.
Bronze Link” by Michael Coghlan is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

I read a lot every week, and it’s not all in books! Here’s a roundup of some of the best articles I read this week about books, reading, and words.

Top Writers Choose Their Perfect Crime

Sorry in advance for adding to your TBR list! Some of the recommended books here I’ve read and enjoyed (Rebecca and Mystic River in particular were standouts for me) and lots more to look for next time I’m at the library. (via The Guardian)

The Soft Radicalism of Erotic Fiction

I last read a Jackie Collins novel back in junior high, when it seemed a daringly transgressive act. I think her work is generally perceived to be trashy (hence the transgression) but I like this re-evaluation of her work as a feminist icon. And when you really think about it, why does Philip Roth get to be considered a serious author for writing about his own penis but a woman who writes unabashedly sex-driven characters is trash? Hmph, I say. (via The Atlantic)

‘You Don’t Have to Be Disabled to Write About Disability, But You’d Better Get It Right’

’m not familiar with the work of Jarred McGinnis, but he has some really thoughtful things to say from the perspective of an author with disabilities about books that he believes handle portrayals of characters with disabilities well. (via The Guardian)

A Brief History of the Word ‘Fuck’ in The New York Times

You might be surprised how often the NYT (a newspaper with such a reputation for prim stuffiness that its nickname is The Gray Lady) actually prints the sweatiest of swear words, most recently in this week’s reporting on the Congressional subcommittee investigation into the Jan. 6 insurrection. (via Gen)

Don’t let the sun go down on you in small-town Maine

I’m a fan of Stephen King, both his flat-out horror (IT and The Shining come to mind) and his “the real world is scary enough” sort of books (Misery and The Stand). It’s hard for me to think of many other writers who have such a conversational style that draws me immediately into the narrative, as if we were sitting around a campfire together.

Before drifting away entirely, he found himself reflecting—not for the first time—on the peculiarity of adults. They took laxatives, liquor, or sleeping pills to drive away their terrors so that sleep would come, and their terrors were so tame and domestic: the job, the money, what the teacher will think if I can get Jennie nicer clothes, does my wife still love me, who are my friends. They were pallid compared to the fears every child lies cheek and jowl with in his dark bed, with no one to confess to in hope of perfect understanding but another child. … The same lonely battle must be fought night after night and the only cure is the eventual ossification of the imaginary faculties, and this is called adulthood.

I read ’Salem’s Lot (1975) many years ago and remembered being thoroughly creeped out. So when I came across it as I was rearranging my bookshelves, I decided to take it for another spin and see if my reaction has changed over the decades.

Um, no. Still thoroughly creeped out, still pleasurably horrified by this tale of a small Maine town colonized by a vampire. This was only King’s second published novel, but many of the touches that would later become hallmarks of his work were present: Ordinary people behaving in extraordinary ways, the reader having just enough of an edge to get scared before the people in the book do, and of course, the heroics of a child. It seems clear that King sees children as the real heroes in this world, as in this passage.

If reading about vampires and the terrible things people do under pressure isn’t your bag, that’s totally understandable, and you should give this one a pass. But if you’re nostalgic for some good old-fashioned horror, you could do much worse than make a visit to ‘Salem’s Lot, Maine. Just make sure you leave before the sun goes down.