Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Labors of Hercules: The Stymphalean Birds

It's been a while since I posted the last one of these, but they haven't been far from my mind. These are the stories, after all, that I remember so fondly after all these years, and from which I have a lot to learn! Spoilers follow.

The Stymphalian Birds (Christie uses an alternate spelling, which appears to be deprecated) were a flock of nasties, possibly among the first cyborgs in fiction: man-eating birds with bronze beaks and claws, and metallic feathers that (in some versions) could be shot as weapons. (They appear in other tales as well, as described here) They nested in a backwater swamp, terrorizing a nearby village. Worse, they were pets of the god Ares. Hercules, charged for this labor to drive them away, enlisted the help of the goddess Athena, who provided him with a set of castanets. He used those to startle the birds into flight, whereupon he shot as many as he could in the confusion.

The Poirot version takes place off in an Eastern European backwater (the fictitious "Herzoslovakia" on the shores of Lake Stempka), a small hotel in a small village where well-off English people go for a vacation away from it all. Poirot himself does not appear until nearly the end of the story, the narrative instead focuses on the experience of Under-Secretary Harold Waring, vacationing "away from it all". His mind fixates upon a pair of elderly spinsters, with long thin noses and loose shawls, who reminded him of a pair of sinister birds -- harpies. (Ah hah! Midway through this series we know that these are the people to watch!) Staying at the hotel also are two English ladies, a younger woman (Mrs. Clayton) and her mother (Mrs. Rice), who Waring naturally gets to know as the only other English speakers. Better yet, they speak some German and French, and so he (who speaks nothing but English) finds them to be most useful companions, as well as pleasant.

The two ladies are very friendly, but somewhat nervous. Mrs. Clayton has married unwisely, and her husband Philip is insanely jealous -- not to mention violent. Waring sympathizes, such a pretty lady ought not be tied to such a brute! And he shares with them his unease with those two harpies (Polish ladies from good families says the concierge). Some time later, he receives a frantic visit: Philip Clayton has returned, and in a fight with his wife, he has been killed! It is a plain case of self-defense, that is plain to the chivalric Mr. Waring, but oh, the backwards Herzoslovakians will not understand that. They must be bribed, indeed, many of them must be bribed. Mr. Waring, gentleman that he is, graciously offers to pay.

The affair, it is settled... but wait, remember those old birds? They speak to Mrs. Rice, who comes back horrified -- they know all about the death, she says, and are blackmailing them!

Waring is outraged, and afraid. He goes for a walk, cursing out loud, and why not? Nobody here speaks English... except for that foreign gentleman he stumbles upon by the name of Hercule Poirot. Poirot listens carefully and agrees that the blackmailers must not be given into. He rings his modern castanets (the telegraph wires) and has the guilty parties arrested: [SPOILER] Mrs. Rice and Mrs. Clayton, who have preyed upon Mr. Waring (alone and gullible in a foreign land) and induced him to not only hand over sums of money but to do so with intent to bribe the police!

This one plays on blind spots more than anything else. The point of view character has some serious ones: he's utterly reliant on two people he'd never met before, by virtue of the language barrier. And, as Poirot points out, he has some rather nasty assumptions: that foreigners are suspicious, that foreign police are corrupt, and that English ladies are harmless flower-like creatures who ought to be protected from brutes both foreign and domestic. To a certain extent, the story turns on the reader either sharing or at least being sympathetic to those assumptions -- if the reader does not share the assumption that foreign policemen may be open to bribery, then the reader at least should be willing to believe that Agatha Christie herself believes it. On top of that, one of the blinds used took advantage of the reader's expectation that the Stymphalian Birds would come into play, and the identification of the two Polish ladies as bird-like. There was quite a lot of manipulation in this little story, wasn't there?

The structure of this story as well is interesting to me in two ways. First, the detective doesn't even appear until the last couple pages of the story. He is appealed to almost by accident, and immediately understands what has happened. Christie has had several stories and novels with this structure, usually relying upon a smart protagonist who ultimately comes up short and needs a little extra push. (I seem to recall that Cat Among the Pigeons followed this formula, though not to this extreme, and many of the Miss Marple mysteries follow this pattern)

Using a different viewpoint character gives a number of freedoms, not least among them the freedom to have the protagonist take a stupid but necessary step: in this case, Waring paying the bribe. If your detective is supposed to be intelligent, after all, it would not do to be taken in too easily. In this, the story mirrors the structure favored by Isaac Asimov in his Black Widowers stories, where a story is told recounting events that have already happened and the "detectives" (the Black Widowers, in theory, but in practice always their waiter, Henry) unravel it and demonstrate the solution.

The second way in which the story structure is interesting to me is that until after Poirot first appeared, it was not even obvious that there was a mystery to solve: everything was perfectly straight-forward. A tale of woe, perhaps, with ominous figures, but few hints that anything was not what it appeared to be.

I've seen a number of stories of the first type (detective brought in at the end) but I cannot off the top of my head name another where it is not obvious until the detective arrives that things are not as they seem. (Well, maybe those old Scooby Doo TV shows, but in most of those there was not only the inevitable illusion of supernaturality, but periodic protests that it couldn't be real (could it?)) It works so well here because the viewpoint character, Waring, is so entirely at the mercy of the ladies that he (and we) accept everything presented as much as fact as the translation of the dinner menu. Come to think of it, wasn't that the idea behind Monty Python's Hungarian Phrasebook sketch?

Next up, when I get the time: The Cretan Bull.

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