Yes, today is the first day of our wonderful week of reading books from the year 1947 – part of a series cleverly thought up by my co-host Simon at Stuck-in-a-Book. So far we’ve covered books from 1924 and 1938, and had some fabulous reading experiences. However, 1947 looks to be a vintage year for publishing, and I’m starting off the week in style! I’ve also put up a separate page for 1947 and if you read or review anything from that year do leave a comment and I’ll do my best to include everyone!
I was personally really pleased to find out that Agatha Christie’s “The Labours of Hercules” was one of the books published in 1947, as I have happy memories of reading it as a teenager, and I thought it was definitely due a revisit. By the time of its publication, Christie had been a household name for decades as was Poirot himself; and this collection of linked short stories is presented under the conceit that Poirot will take on 12 cases mirroring the historical Labours of Hercules before he finally retires. Of course, we know now that the determined detective would carry on solving crimes until his creator’s death in the 1970s, but at the time the thought of Poirot retiring must have shocked his readers as much as the death of Sherlock Holmes on the Reichenbach Falls did!
There is a foreword where Poirot dines with an academic friend and laments he never studied the classics. It is this friend, Dr. Burton, who mentions in passing the classic Labours and laughingly refers to Poirot’s inappropriate forename, thereby triggering the whole concept of the book. The stories that follow are a wonderfully varied bunch, tied loosely to each Labour, and even if you have no classical knowledge (and I don’t!) they’re absolutely brilliant and immensely enjoyable.
So for example, “The Nemean Lion” has Poirot looking into the kidnapping of Pekinese dogs, an apparently trivial crime that turns out to have hidden repercussions. “The Lernaean Hydra” deals with murder and poison pen letters (the latter one of Christie’s regular tropes) in a small village. “The Stymphalean Birds” has fraud and potential blackmail, and warns of the dangers to foolish Englishmen who travel abroad without knowing any other languages! “The Cretan Bull” features hereditary madness, and “The Capture of Cerberus” reunites Poirot with Countess Vera Rossakoff in a post-War London setting. The latter was always one of my favourites, with the opening scenes of Poirot being jostled in the London Tube and encountering the Countess on a huge escalator permanently stuck in my mind. These are just some of the highlights; really, each of the varied stories is a little gem and I don’t want to pick favourites! Inspector Japp and Poirot’s valet Georges make an appearance or two, as does Miss Lemon, who is always a joy!
And Poirot ranges far and wide whilst undertaking his Labours, travelling all over the world and meeting a variety of different people, all the while using his ingenious methods of discovering the truth and dispensing his own kind of justice (as we see in many of his stories). There is a surprising amount of drug-taking featured (cocaine and the like, not just poisons being used for murders) and Christie has a wonderfully no-nonsense approach to life. In fact, it’s a delight to rediscover how much she used sly humour to dig at the rich and silly. There isn’t a titled lady with a Pekinese who gets off lightly, nor a pompous lord or businessman having an affair with a secretary who isn’t deflated or warned off. Agatha Christie and Hercule Poirot are on the side of the governesses, companions and car mechanics, and it’s lovely. That’s not to say that the cases don’t deal with some richer people from the upper echelons – they do, which is proof that Christie can see good in all. Some of her descriptions are just priceless, like this one of a rather alarming country home:
Inside, it was what a house agent would have described as “fully furnished”. Cross-legged Buddhas leered down from convenient niches, brass Benares trays and tables encumbered the floor space. Processional elephants garnished the mantelpieces and more tortured brass work adorned the walls.
If I had to stand back and be truly honest, there *are* times when Christie rather stretches things to fit in with her concept; taking Poirot to the top of a Swiss mountain to deal with dangerous gangsters is perhaps – well, unexpected. But none of this detracts from reading Christie at the height of her powers, and the book is pure joy and entertainment. There are a couple of sly nods to Sherlock Holmes, as if to acknowledge the debt all Golden Age crime writers owed to Conan Doyle (particularly in a partnership structured like Poirot and Hastings), as well as mentions of Reggie Fortune and Sir Henry Merrivale, some of Poirot’s contemporaries.
So my first book for the 1947 Club has turned out to be a fabulous one and a real pleasure. I forget how much I love Christie when I leave a gap between books, but revisiting “The Labours of Hercules” has convinced me that when I have the time (retirement maybe!) I shall sit down and read the entirety of her output from start to finish in chronological order!