Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Labors of Hercules

When I started reading mysteries long ago as a teenager, I went straight for Sherlock Holmes. I still like those stories. But on vacation one year, visiting my grandparents, I was up late and had finished the last of the books I'd brought. Fortunately my grandmother has a good collection of books, including some nicely bound volumes of Agatha Christie -- the one that grabbed my eye was entitled, "The Labors of Hercules". I don't remember what I thought it would be when I picked it up, but I enjoyed it thoroughly... and then picked up another Poirot book, then another. Fast forward to now where I've got a notebook full of partial mysteries of my own devising, one of them completed and just finished with a round of workshopping.

I've been thinking a lot lately about effective short mysteries -- how do you tell a compelling mystery story in so few words? I decided to go back to the Labors, reread them and take notes this time: what works, and what doesn't? And while I'm at it, why not do the classic blog move of posting my thoughts on each one? That never gets old!


So, I'll probably be posting spoilers for the stories in this book over the coming days as I go through each one. [1] I'll try not to gratuitously spoil them, of course, but now would be a great chance to pick up a copy from your local library :)

Anyway, the basic conceit is pretty simple. Hercule Poirot, nearing retirement, has become wealthy and famous and wants to pick his last cases with care. Having a glass of wine with a friend, the subject comes up of his unusual first name. What a difference between this dandified little gentleman relaxing in his modern sitting room, compared to his namesake! Poirot would never retire and breed squash (ugh, what a thought) because his were labors of love, not the punishments of Hercules. Poirot rejects the thought: is he not a modern version of that ancient hero, roving the countryside righting wrongs? He'll pick his remaining cases, then, to correspond to the Labors of Hercules. Ta-da.

Christie then has Poirot take on each Labor in turn -- with, of course, a modern twist and a healthy dose of humor. Some of them are a stretch, most are at best tangentially related to the original story. But they're all entertaining, and as I recall, they're all good short mysteries.

Coming up next: my thoughts on The Nemean Lion.

[1] OK, OK. I realize that there is something of a time limit on spoilers. Hamlet's dad was murdered. Odysseus gets home. But mysteries have a longer time limit, it seems to me, and there's just no sense in spoiling a good one, I don't care how old it is.

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