The Labours of Hercules is a collection of 12 short stories featuring Hercule Poirot, first published in 1947. Poirot is thinking of retiring, but before he does he wants to solve 12 more cases and not just any cases. These have to correspond to the Twelve Labours of Hercules, specially selected problems that personally appeal to him.
Most of the stories are quite easy to work out, but that doesn’t detract from the pleasure of reading them. And so that he can complete his twelve cases, Poirot does some uncharacteristic travelling around the world – he can’t rely solely on his ‘little grey cells.’
The labours of Hercules were set for the classical Greek hero by King Eurystheus of Tiryns as a penance. On completing them he was rewarded with immortality. On the face of it, Poirot and Hercules are vastly different, both in character and appearance and after immersing himself in classical lore, Poirot decides he is definitely superior, as he looks at himself in the mirror he thinks:
Here, then, was a modern Hercules – very distinct from that unpleasant sketch of a naked figure with bulging muscles, brandishing a club. Instead a small compact figure attired in correct urban wear with a moustache – such a moustache as Hercules never dreamed of cultivating – a moustache magnificent yet sophisticated.
Yet there was between this Hercule Poirot and the Hercules of Classical lore one point of resemblance. Both of them, undoubtedly, had been instrumental in ridding the world of certain pests … Each of them could be described as a benefactor to the Society he lived in … (page 14)
- The first case is my favourite of the twelve. It corresponds to killing the Nemean lion a frightful beast. It’s a mystery concerning the kidnapping of a Pekinese dog. At first Poirot is reluctant to take on the case, disapproving of such dogs – ‘bulging-eyed, overpampered pets of a rich woman.’ But there is one small detail that is unusual and he is curious. And as one of the characters tells him. ‘according to the legend, Pekinese were lions once. And they still have the hearts of lions.’
- The Lernean Hydra was a monstrous snake with many heads. In the second case Poirot’s modern equivalent is malicious gossip, spreading rumours of murder, which he ‘kills’ by discovering who the real culprit was.
- The Arcadian Deer – Poirot helps a young mechanic, who is ‘a simple young man with the outward appearance of a Greek god’ reminding him of a ‘shepherd in Arcady’ to find a beautiful young woman who has disappeared – the Arcadian deer.
- Poirot’s equivalent of the fourth labour of Hercules in the Erymanthian Boar is to capture a violent murderer. Set high in the Swiss Alps, Poirot is in great danger as he contends with an infamous gang leader and in doing so he is uncharacteristically physically active!
- In the Augean Stables Poirot gets involved in politics, averting a scandal using a force of nature, as Hercules used a torrential river to cleanse the stables belonging to King Augeas. Poirot’s equivalent is a sex scandal to divert attention from political chicanery.
- The Stymphalean Birds – man-eating birds. In this case Poirot is in Herzoslovakia where Harold Waring is having a restful holiday when he meets a delightful English couple – an elderly woman and her pretty daughter. Also staying at the hotel are two other women – who are not English and who seem to him to be ‘birds of ill omen’. Harold soon finds himself a victim and it is up to Poirot to chase away the ‘birds’ from their hiding place.
- The Cretan Bull – in the legend Hercules captures the bull, which was possibly the father of the Minotaur. Diana Maberley appeals to Poirot for help after her fiancÃ© breaks off their engagement as he fears he is going mad. The connection with the legendary story is very slight.
- The Horses of Diomedes – the eighth labour of Hercules was to capture the wild horses that were fed on human flesh. Poirot’s equivalent are human beasts who supply drugs – ‘the person who deliberately profits from the degradation and misery of other people is a vampire preying on flesh and blood.’
- The Girdle of Hyppolita was captured by Hercules after he had defeated the Amazons and either killed their Queen or had captured one of her generals. Poirot’s ‘Girdle’ is a Rubens masterpiece, stolen in broad daylight. Initially it doesn’t interest him very much, but it brought the case of the Missing Schoolgirl to his attention – and that interested him much more. She had apparently disappeared off a train, leaving a pair of shoes on the railway track.
- The Flock of Geryon – in the legend Hercules kills the monster, Geryon, to gain control of the flock. Poirot, of course, doesn’t kill anyone. He meets Miss Carnaby (who is also in the first story, the Nemean Lion) who tells him how worried she is about her friend who she believes is being victimised by Dr Andersen, the leader of a religious sect, The Flock of the Shepherd.
- The Apples of the Hesperides. There are several versions of this. The apples grew on a tree guarded by a dragon – Hercules either killed the dragon, or sent Atlas for the apples, in the meanwhile holding up the world on his own shoulders. Poirot’s apples are emeralds on a tree around which a dragon is coiled, on a missing Italian renaissance goblet. It seems that Poirot may have to go on a world tour to retrieve the goblet – to investigate locations in five different parts of the globe.
- The Capture of Cerberus – a three-headed dog guarding the gates of Hades, or Hell. In Poirot’s final case Hell is a nightclub run by the Countess Vera Rossakoff, an old friend of Poirot’s. This nightclub is guarded by the ‘largest and ugliest and blackest dog’ Poirot has ever seen. Entrance to the club is only after throwing a ‘sop’ to Cerberus from a basket of dog biscuits. The police believe it’s the headquarters of a drug racket involving the fencing of stolen jewellery. Poirot can’t believe that Vera, for whom he has a soft spot, can be involved. I liked the ending of this story when Miss Lemon queries a bill for roses sent to the Countess. He responds:
‘There are moments,’ he said, ‘when one does not economise.’
Humming a little tune, he went out of the door. His step was light, almost sprightly. Miss Lemon stared after him. Her filing system was forgotten. All her feminine instincts were aroused.
‘Good gracious,’ she murmured. ‘I wonder … Really – at his age! … Surely not…’
I enjoyed this book both for the linking of Poirot’s cases with the Labours of Hercules and for the personal snippets of information about Poirot, scattered throughout the text.