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The Labours of Hercules - Agatha Christie

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Author: Agatha Christie / Genre: Crime / Thriller

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      12.05.2009 01:18
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      Ok, but not one of Christie's better pieces.

      Determined, once more, to retire to grow vegetable marrows, Hercule Poirot saw no reason to believe that he should re-consider. After all, he told himself, he was at the very pinnacle of his career and, therefore, what better time to retire than then? Yet a chance remark by an acquitance of his, one Dr Burton, relating to Poirot's first name, set that detective wondering. Stating first of all the absurdities of Poirot being named after the classical Greek figure of the same name, Burton went on to declare "yours are not the labours of Hercules", a reference to the twelve tasks which the ancient demi - god was assigned. His interest awakened, Poirot made the decision that there would be twelve final cases for him to complete. Each one selected by the detective purely as a matter of interest and each one chosen because of its proximity with the classical labours of Heracles. From the Nemean Lion through to Cerberus, Poirot would devote his time to investigations which bore a close metaphorical interpretation to their ancient counterparts.

      "The Labours of Hercules" is, as might be expected, divided into a foreword - which sets the scene - and twelve chapters, each one concerned with the task at hand. Christie, has, for obvious reasons, employed a significant amount of rather loose interpretations when writing the parallels. There can not be, for example, an actual serpentine Hydra for Poirot to battle with, nor can he literally slay a lion (since that would be entirely out of character for him). Consequently, each story is merely to be taken as a representation of the labours, their similarities sometimes only apparent when clearly pointed out. The Augean Stables, for example, is not depicted in its literal sense, but in the means of portraying the tide of rumour and gossip. In a similar way, the Hydra of Lerna is taken to be the investigation against a seemingly relentless growth of rumours and speculation. At other times the link, though still tenuous is strengthened by a coincidental reference, the description of a criminal as a "monster boar", for example, sets the scene for "The Erymanthian Boar" and the inclusion of several Pekinese dogs (believed in at least one Chinese legend to be the offspring of a dog and a lion) in the story ensures its validation as "The Nemean Lion". Perhaps realising that too many slight links would not be sufficient, Christie has also, in a few of the narratives, almost gone with the literal re-workings. "The Apples of the Hesperides", "The Girdle of Hyppolita" and "The Capture of Cerberus" unite the classic myths with the modern stories more strongly than the majority of the others. In all the narratives, however, Christie ensures that the reader is able to draw some comparisons with the older tasks, though she is sensible enough not to try and assign the role of mighty adventurer and warrior to Poirot in anything other than a purely symbolic sense. Moreover, whilst a basic awareness of who Hercules was and what his labours were does help with the understanding of the relevance of each story, it is not essential to know them. Christie incorporates a brief explanation of each task into the chapters, thus allowing even the most unaware of readers to acquaint themselves with the stories.

      Throughout the narratives Poirot's investigations lead him from the relatively trivial through to the more serious, examining cases of deception, missing persons, robbery and murder amongst them. On at least one occasion - "The Augean Stables" - his task is actually unconnected with an investigation at all, though possibly we are meant to consider it an investigation into preventing something. At any rate it is to be wondered quite why Poirot should have been considered for the request, since it falls so far from his usual remit. In further narratives, such as "The Cretan Bull" and "The Flock of Geryon", the detectives's position within the situations is more apparent.

      As with her other collection of short stories, such as "The Listerdale Mystery" and "The Hound of Death", Christie achieves the balance between the light hearted cases of "The Arcadian Deer" and "The Augean Stables", through to the more chilling accounts depicted in "The Cretan Bull" and "The Erymanthian Boar". The reader is thus subjected to a range of emotions when reading the chapters, ranging from humour through to near revulsion and dread. At times Christie seems to almost draw too far back from relating anything too distasteful, even - ironically - when she has not shunned such a task in the same story. The ending of the Cretan Bull, for example, is almost clinical and the results of "The Horses of Diomedes" results in a rather too tidy finale for the metaphorical Thracian Mares. Nevertheless this does not detract from the mostly interesting plots placed before us. If one story is to be criticised, it must be "The Arcadian Deer", which unfortunately is rather too bland to be anything other than weak and, when reading it, the impression is given that Christie may not have been fully interested in the story. It is perhaps to be viewed not as a criminal case, but as a rather weak romance. Set against it, however, we have "The Cretan Bull", a fascinating account in which perceptions of reality and delusion play a significant role and the detectives's labour is a matter of extreme urgency. The majority of the other narratives are fairly average, neither appalling, nor to be considered classics of that detective's tales. In a couple of them "The Nemean Lion" and "The Girdle of Hyppolita", the solution seems almost too evident, though in the case of "The Nemean Lion" it does pave the way for the reintroduction of one of the characters later on in "The Flock of Geryon".

      It is evident, when reading "The Labours of Hercules", that several strong comparisons can be made between some of the stories and characters at least and Christie's earlier works. "The Lernean Hydra" and "The Cretan Bull" both bear a remarkable similarity with two stories in "The Thirteen Problems" (which ones shall be left unsaid as it might spoil the cases) and "The Stymphalean Birds" can be reasonably well connected with a Parker Pyne story. Indeed, such are the similarities that we must wonder whether Christie fully intended to re-work the earlier pieces. Moreover, the description of the Prime Minister in "The Augean Stables" is strongly affiliated with the man of the same position in "The Kidnapped Prime Minister", namely David MacAdam, himself a very thinly veiled reference to David Lloyd - George. Miss Carnaby in "The Nemean Lion" can also be compared, in some ways at least, to other companions such as Miss Gilchrist in "After the Funeral", Wilhemina Lawson in "Dumb Witness" and Dora Bunner in "A Murder is Announced".

      Poirot employs his usual methods of order and deduction with the expected precision throughout the narratives, though his appearance within each one varies. In most of them he is present from the start, his role influencing and directing many of the proceedings. In "The Stymphalean Birds", on the other hand, his inclusion within the narrative only happens towards the end and is therefore very brief. In all of the chapters, though, his usual characteristics of egotism, dedication and genuine concern towards many of the other people within the stories are readily apparent. Christie has also ensured that a couple of personalities from other works make a re-appearance as well. The stolid Chief Inspector Japp works alongside Poirot in several of the plots and "The Capture of Cerberus" sees the return of the flamboyant Countess Vera Rossakoff, last seen in "The Big Four" twenty years earlier. Both of these recurring personalities have retained their familiar natures, indeed their appearances could easily be placed within one of the former narratives. By linking together the past and the present in this way Christie reminds us of the extensive chronology of the Belgian detective's investigations. It may be, then, that by doing so she is reminding the reader of the wide number of cases which Poirot has examined and is hinting that, if some of his supposed final cases are trivial, surely this does not matter in the light of the majority of his other investigations.

      The bulk of the other characters within "The Labours of Hercules" are fairly average, useful more as a means of necessity in terms of other characters besides Poirot being essential, yet lacking much depth themselves. Since none of the stories are very long, some allowance must be given for the difficulties this must have presented in creating any strong or memorable personalities. However, it is best to read the cases mainly to observe how they fit into their classic counterparts and to witness how Poirot solves them. The brevity of the chapters means it is difficult to note any strong themes inherent within them, there are the concepts of endeavours against the seemingly impossible tasks, of course, but other parallels are not as easy to spot.

      In conclusion, "The Labours of Hercules" is a reasonably enjoyable collection of stories and one which continues our awareness of Poirot's abilities. Yet it fails to meet the higher standards of many of her other works and must be described as average at best. Its ease of reading perhaps stands in its favour, resulting in some narratives which may be digested with ease. Regardless of the reasons, it is, for most of the stories, rather too mediocre to be strongly recommended.

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    • Product Details

      The new-look series of Hercule Poirot books for the 21st century. In appearance Hercule Poirot hardly resembled an ancient Greek hero. Yet -- reasoned the detective -- like Hercules he had been responsible for ridding society of some of its most unpleasant monsters. So, in the period leading up to his retirement, Poirot made up his mind to accept just twelve more cases: his self-imposed 'Labours'. Each would go down in the annals of crime as a heroic feat of deduction.