Follow TV Tropes


Literature / The Labours of Hercules

Go To

The Labours of Hercules is a 1947 short story collection by Agatha Christie, comprising twelve stories which had been published in periodicals.

Hercule Poirot, near retirement, is visited by a Dr. Burton, and their meandering conversation touches on Hercule's unusual name. It inspires him to look into Classical Mythology, only to leave him appalled by the discovery that, by his standards, his namesake is nothing more than a brutish criminal. Still, he finds resemblance in the twelve labours, where Hercules was instrumental to overcoming each threat to society. Thus, he resolves to become the "modern Hercules", taking on twelve more cases before retiring:

  • "The Nemean Lion": A Pekingese dog belonging to the wife of a wealthy businessman was kidnapped and held for ransom. While initially reluctant to take on such a case, Poirot's interest is piqued by the fact that the businessman wrote to him, rather than his wife.
  • Advertisement:
  • "The Lernaean Hydra": Dr. Oldfield's wife died a year ago, but local gossip holds that poison, rather than her illness, killed her. The physician wants Poirot to find the source of these rumors and bring them to an end.
  • "The Arcadian Deer": Waylaid in a small village, Poirot takes the case of a handsome young mechanic, who hopes to find a young servant girl named Nita who vanished without a trace.
  • "The Erymanthian Boar": Poirot's help is requested in identifying and capturing Marrascaud, a violent Parisian gangster, who's supposed to have a rendezvous at an isolated hotel.
  • "The Augean Stables": A tabloid paper threatens to tarnish the legacy of John Hammett, former prime minister, who remains a symbol of the country's honor. His successor Edward Herriot believes that only Poirot can prevent these allegations from seeing the light of day.
  • Advertisement:
  • "The Stymphalean Birds": Harold Waring, one of the few English guests at a Herzoslovakian hotel, finds himself embroiled in the woes of Elsie Clayton: not only is her abusive husband in pursuit, but a pair of vulturous women want to take advantage of that. All seems lost, until Poirot makes his entrance.
  • "The Cretan Bull": Diana Maberly wants Poirot to look into recent events concerning her ex-fiancé, Hugh Chandler. His family has a history of insanity, and it seems to be surfacing in the young man.
  • "The Horses of Diomedes": Dr. Michael Stoddart enlists the help of Poirot after a friend, Sheila Grant, enters the world of cocaine. She's one of the four daughters of a retired general, and it seems as though someone's been inducing the girls to use the drug at parties. The doctor hopes that Poirot can take down the ring and its supplier.
  • "The Girdle of Hippolyta": Alexander Simpson wants Poirot to investigate the theft of a painting by Peter Paul Rubens, but his interest lies in the case of Winnie King, a young girl who vanished off a train only to reappear elsewhere.
  • "The Flock of Geryon": Miss Carnaby brings a case to Poirot, desperate to use her own talents to help him investigate. A widowed friend has joined the "Flock of the Shepherd", and made out a will leaving everything to the sect. Over the past year, several women have suddenly passed away after doing the same, and Miss Carnaby fears that her friend might be next.
  • "The Apples of Hesperides": A valuable artifact was stolen after Emery Power purchased it, and he blamed a rival bidder. Now convinced of the rival's innocence, however, he wants Poirot to find out what happened to it.
  • "The Capture of Cerberus": The Countess Vera Rossakoff invites Poirot to "Hell", her new nightclub. When he recognizes one of the patrons as an inspector, he discovers that the police suspect that Hell is the core of a dope ring.

The stories include examples of the following tropes:

  • Animal Motifs: Most of the creatures that Hercules faced have modern incarnations as humans, but the most direct comparisons are the Polish sisters; with their flapping cloaks, hooked noses, and long fingernails, Harold immediately compares them to birds of prey. They are not the vulturous "Stymphalean Birds", however; those turn out to be Mrs. Rice and Elsie.
  • Bad to the Last Drop: In "The Arcadian Deer" Poirot is stranded at a shabby inn, where he eats a poorly-made dinner finished off by "a cup of liquid mud euphemistically called coffee."
  • Batman Gambit: How Poirot destroys tabloid newspaper the X-Ray News in "The Augean Stables". He lures them into publishing stories about how the prime minister's wife is a libertine who's been drinking and partying her way around Europe with a Handsome Lech. When it comes time for the libel trial the story is decisively disproved and the newspaper is ruined; Poirot hired a lookalike for the PM's wife and brought the story to the paper just so they'd run it and get destroyed in court.
  • Big Beautiful Woman: Countess Vera Rossakoff is described as a "large, flamboyant woman" and "a ruin, but a wonderful ruin." Poirot finds himself hopelessly enamored of her.
  • Blackmail: The titular Stymphalean Birds are aware of what happened in Elsie's hotel room, and expect to be paid off for their silence.
  • Broken Pedestal: What new Prime Minister Edward Herriot fears in "The Augean Stables". It turns out the old PM, John Hammett, a highly respected statesman, was actually a crook. Herriot is desperate to stop this from coming out.
  • The Bus Came Back: Amy Carnaby, a key character in opening story "The Nemean Lion", pops back up in the tenth story, "The Flock of Geyron". She's worried about her friend, who has joined a suspicious cult.
    • The final story has Countess Vera Rossakoff, who first appeared in "The Double Clue" (an unrelated short story), come back into Poirot's life.
  • Busman's Holiday: After Poirot's hunt for Nita leads him to Switzerland, he decides to do a little sightseeing. Not only does he get roped into the hunt for an infamous criminal, but the description of Marrascaud as a "wild boar" makes it a perfect match for his next labour.
  • Chubby Chaser: It turns out Poirot has a weakness for bigger ladies, as the Countess Rossakoff proves. It's also a case of Opposites Attract, as the narration remarks that "it is the misfortune of small, precise men to hanker after large, flamboyant women."
  • Closed Circle: The funicular leading to Rochers Neiges is damaged the night after Poirot arrives, trapping him up there along with Marrascaud.
  • The Con: In "The Stymphalean Birds" Mrs. Rice and her daughter Elsie cook up a complicated blackmail scheme in which they fake a murder, then tell Harold that they need his money to bribe the police to keep it quiet.
  • Contrived Coincidence: Poirot may be deliberately taking cases that can be linked to the labours, but some of those links turn out to be remarkably convenient.
    • Marrascaud is described as a "wild boar", which Poirot sees as a chance to capture the Erymanthian Boar.
    • Poirot has no interest in getting involved with political scandal, but he takes the case after the task is compared to cleaning the Augean Stables.
    • The stolen Rubens painting just so happens to depict the Girdle of Hippolyta.
  • Continuity Nod:
    • Dr. Burton mentions that Poirot has a brother, Achille. Then "Poirot's mind raced back over the details of Achille Poirot's career." That's a reference to The Big Four, where Poirot invents a fictional twin brother as part of a ruse.
    • Some twenty years after The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Poirot is still talking about retiring to grow vegetable marrows.
  • Cult: In "The Flock of Geryon" Amy Carnaby approaches Poirot and asks him to investigate a weird cult that her friend has gotten sucked into. It's a Scam Religion.
  • Deceased Fall-Guy Gambit: Inspector Drouet, disguised as "Robert", is killed and set up to seem like Marrascaud.
  • Disguised in Drag: In "The Stymphalean Birds", Mrs. Rice disguises herself as her daughter Elsie's fake "husband" as part of the blackmail plot.
  • Domestic Abuse: Elsie Clayton is fleeing an abusive and jealous husband. As it turns out, he doesn't exist.
  • Driven to Suicide: "The Cretan Bull" ends with Admiral Chandler, after he's exposed as a murderer, walking off and shooting himself. Remarkably, Poirot lets it happen.
  • Eagleland: Mr. Schwartz, an American tourist, is very out of place in Switzerland. Bringing a gun turns out to save Poirot from Marrascaud's goons.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: Rossakoff may be a conwoman and thief, but she's horrified by the suggestion that she might be involved in the drug trade.
  • Fictional Political Party: The late John Hammett and his successor Edward Herriot belong to the "People's Party". What's weird about this is that in the last story, "The Capture of Cerberus", a character mentions both Labor and the Tories by name.
  • Fingertip Drug Analysis: Sgt. Grey of the police does this in a suspected case of poisoning! And it was pointless, as Poirot explains that "White arsenic does not taste."
  • Frameup: After it's determined that Mrs. Oldfield was poisoned with arsenic, Nurse Harrison plants a compact full of the powder in Jean's bedroom.
  • Gaslighting: In "The Cretan Bull," Hugh Chandler thinks he is gradually going mad, as he suffers from hallucinations, hydrophobia, and keeps waking up with a bloody razor next to him after various animals are found dead. It turns out the real culprit is Admiral Chandler, his "father" (Hugh is actually Colonel Frobisher's child), who realized the truth and decided to poison Hugh with datura mixed into his shaving cream, which causes all of the above symptoms. Chandler also killed the animals himself and planted the bloody weapon on Hugh.
  • Gossipy Hens: A big problem for Dr. Oldfield, as the town gossips spread rumors that maybe Oldfield killed his wife.
    • This is a running theme in "The Augean Stables"—as news of Dagmar Herriot's exploits spread across London, more and more citizens become convinced she's a drunk and sex maniac. Each new section of the story begins with "People were talking."
  • Hiding Behind the Language Barrier: Mrs. Rice exploits Harold's inability to speak Polish; she passes off what was actually an innocuous conversation with the two Polish ladies as a blackmail demand.
  • Hypocrite:
    "Men," said Mrs. Samuelson, rearranging her handsome diamond bracelet and turning her rings on her fingers, "think of nothing but money."
  • Invented Individual: It turns out that Philip Clayton does not exist, and is only used as part of a scam.
  • It Runs in the Family: Hugh Chandler's grandfather went mad, and it seems to have skipped a generation, with Hugh killing sheep in the night. It turns out that he isn't the biological son of Admiral Chandler, but Admiral Chandler certainly is mad.
  • Kill and Replace: Marrascaud kills Inspector Drouet and impersonates him while Poirot is investigating.
  • Kitschy-Themed Restaurant: Countess Rossakoff's nightclub, "Hell," is jam-packed with Underworld imagery from various cultures: the stairs leading to it are written with well-meaning phrases as "the good intentions that pave the road to Hell"; customers must cross a small pond guarded by a ferocious black dog named Cerberus; the waitstaff wear red tuxedos, tails, and horns; and the walls are painted with elaborate frescoes representing various gods and myths of underworlds across the world. Unlike most examples of this trope, though, it's not kitschy—Madame Rossakoff spent a fortune decorating the place and consulted with various experts to ensure that it was accurate and fun. It also helps that, at the time, such an elaborately-themed club would have been groundbreaking.
  • Leaning on the Fourth Wall: When Harold Waring starts speculating feverishly about hiding the dead man's body, Mrs. Rice says "This isn't a detective story!". (It is.)
  • Malicious Slander: Doctor Oldfield's practice is suffering thanks to the rumours that he poisoned his wife.
  • Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: Hugh Chandler turns out to not actually be Admiral Chandler's son, but the son of Col. Frobisher, the man his mother really loved. This is part of what drives Admiral Chandler mad and leads him to try and destroy Hugh.
  • Mister Muffykins: "The Nemean Lion" is about a kidnapping ring that specializes in snatching yappy little Pekingese dogs. Sir Joseph complains that his wife's dog is "a damned yapping little brute that’s always getting under your feet anyway!".
  • Murder the Hypotenuse: Doctor Oldfield's marriage is loveless, and his attraction to Jean Moncrieffe, his dispenser, is obvious. According to rumour, Mrs. Oldfield was poisoned by one of them to make him available for marriage. The motive's right, but Nurse Harrison was the killer, as she believed Oldfield would marry her.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: Amy Carnaby, whom Poirot considers quite brilliant.
  • Old Maid: Amy Carnaby, who says that "old maids" like her are known to be sentimental about babies, which is part of Amy's scheme.
  • OOC Is Serious Business: At the very end of the collection, Poirot's secretary Miss Lemon notices that he's ordered a dozen expensive red roses to be shipped to Countess Rossakof to celebrate her son's new engagement. When Miss Lemon asks about this, Poirot—who normally hates spending money and is The Stoic—remarks that there are occasions where exceptions are made, then exits the office whistling as he goes to see the Countess. Miss Lemon immediately gets in on the trope (which is lampshaded by the narration) by losing all thoughts of work and instead giving mind to romantic fancy.
  • Out of Focus: Much of "The Stymphalean Birds" centers on a young Englishman named Harold and his exploits at a resort in Herzoslovakia. Poirot only shows up in the last two pages of the story to solve the crime. Justified in that he deduces the criminals' blackmail scheme from a single conversation with Harold—if he'd been there all along, the story would have been over in five paragraphs.
  • Police Are Useless: Exploited by Mrs. Rice in "The Stymphalean Birds"—she tells Harold that she can easily bribe the cops to cover up her son-in-law's murder if he provides the cash; since they're in a foreign country, the police are inherently corrupt. Poirot scolds Harold for falling for the trick, remarking that no cop is that bad.
  • Racial Face Blindness: A pretty racist comment in "The Nemean Lion", where Amy Carnaby says that most people think one Pekingese is very much like another, "just as we think the Chinese are."
  • Rule of Symbolism: Poirot invokes this trope In-Universe in searching for his "twelve labours"—he realizes that the odds of the London Zoo having a problem with the lion or an actual stable needing to be flooded are extremely low, and so decides to seek for metaphorical connections to the cases: for instance, the Nemean Lion is a Pekingese dog (said to be descended from lions in a Chinese myth) and the "river" used to flood the Augean Stables is the idea of sex, which Poirot describes as an equally-powerful "natural force."
  • Ruritania: Herzoslovakia, where Mrs. Rice can easily arrange for her son-in-law's death to be reported as natural. The trope is exploited; as Poirot points out, Harold is greatly overestimating how easy it is to bribe foreign police.
  • Scam Religion: The cult that Poirot investigates in "The Flock of Geryon" turns out to be a scam in which the cult leader murders gullible old ladies after they join and deed their property to the cult.
  • Self-Imposed Challenge: In-Universe, Poirot resolves to take on twelve cases, each of which he considers a modern representation of Hercules' labours.
  • Spanner in the Works: In "The Girdle of Hippolyta," the art thieves who steal a priceless Rubens concoct an elaborate scheme to ship it across the Channel in a schoolgirl's trunk, figuring that customs won't both to look for it there. The plan almost works—except Miss Pope, the headmistress of the school they chose as a cover, always does a thorough inspection of every girl's luggage upon its arrival. She thus finds the painting (crudely covered with other watercolors) and hangs it in her office before the crooks can recover the goods.
  • Teen Idol: Poirot himself, believe it or not, gets this treatment at the end of "The Girdle of Hippolyta." The case takes him to a girls' finishing school in England, and after he solves it, he starts to leave—only to be mobbed by dozens of teen girls all begging for his autograph. Poirot jokingly declares their treatment "the attack of the Amazons."
  • Title Drop: Dr. Burton says "Yours aren't the labors of Hercules, yours are labors of love." He is skeptical that Poirot can ever retire.
  • Unusually Uninteresting Sight: In "The Capture of Cerberus," Countess Vera Rossakoff tells Poirot to meet her "in Hell," then vanishes into the crowd. Poirot is baffled by what her message means and, after racking his brains, finally asks Miss Lemon about it. She replies that he should "ring up for a table" without a moment's hesitation—it turns out "Hell" is the name of Rossakoff's new nightclub.
  • Villain Ball: In "The Stymphalean Birds," Mrs. Rice and her daughter Elsie are able to bilk Harold out of lot of money, and would have succeeded had they settled for that much. But they noticed his fear of the mysterious Polish women at their resort and get greedy, deciding to pretend that they need even more cash to avoid blackmail. Their avarice ends up getting them arrested, as Poirot has a chance meeting with Harold and easily figures out the scheme.
  • Whole Plot Reference: Naturally, but several of Hercule's labours align very closely with those of Hercules', even if they started out with tenuous connections.
    • Hercules' pursuit of the Arcadian Deer takes him over great distances. The golden-haired Nita proves to be very elusive, and tracking her down leads Poirot to Italy, and finally, Switzerland.
    • The Erymanthian Boar must be captured alive, which Hercules achieves by driving the boar into thick snow. Marrascaud is cornered at a hotel on a remote, snowy mountain, and Poirot is asked to capture him alive.
    • Hercules tames the Mares of Diomedes, driven mad by their diet of human flesh, by feeding their master to them. General Grant is supplying the cocaine to his "daughters", who are in fact his pushers, and his ring is brought down when Poirot convinces Sheila to give evidence against them.

How well does it match the trope?

Example of:


Media sources: