At the end of one story in this collection, “The Girdle of Hyppolita,” Hercule Poirot is thrust into a scrum of schoolgirls, all of them beseeching the world-famous detective to sign their autograph books. “Here, indeed, is the attack by the Amazons,” he says under his breath. Poirot lives in the 20th century and does his work amid the streamlined wonders of a technology-driven age, and yet for him the age of legendary heroes who traffic in wonders of a different kind has not passed. In each of the 12 tales gathered here, those two realms exist coterminously, rather as they do in the Dublin of Ulysses. Christie was no James Joyce, but she too had the wit and imagination to render modern bourgeois life under the aspect of eternal myth. She extends that conceit mainly in the spirit of wry amusement (“He disappeared in a wave of young, vigorous femininity,” she writes of Poirot’s encounter with those Amazonian teenagers), and not in order to achieve depths of literary profundity. Still, by deftly adding a layer of classical reference to a series of otherwise routine detective shorts, Christie again undermines the notion that she was a one-dimensional hack, lacking in all but the most basic writerly virtues.
Poirot inaugurates this sequence of adventures by resolving to seek out and then solve cases that echo the Labors of Hercules—the dozen arduous feats accomplished by his ancient Greek namesake. Sometimes the mythic echoes are dim or distorted, but in every case the allusion is puckishly conceived and gamely executed. In “Girdle,” Poirot recovers not the eponymous garment of Queen Hippolyta, but a stolen Rubens painting with a particular connection to the original Herculean labor, and along the way he tangles with an Amazon queen who appears in the guise of a school headmistress. In “The Lernean Hydra,” he defeats the many-headed monster known as village gossip; as Hercules does with his Hydra, Poirot masters the task in question by lancing each “head” at its source. In “The Horses of Diomedes,” he confronts the “man-eating” force of drug addiction, and triumphs over a latter-day Diomedes by turning that man’s “horses” against their villainous owner.
The pretext for this campaign to emulate the Hercules of old, Poirot explains, is his pending retirement. Given that he would continue his sleuthing labors for another three decades, that explanation comes across as faintly ridiculous. But, then, Poirot is nothing if not a ridiculous figure, with his spats and his waxed mustaches and his perfectly egg-shaped head. His absurdity is essential to his charm—and to his ability to carry readers along for any contrived expedition on which Christie wants to take them. So if Poirot says that he plans to give his “little gray cells” a rest, but only after reckoning with the modern equivalents of the Nemean Lion (which he will find in the form of a Pekingese dog), the Arcadian Deer (which will manifest itself as fetching but elusive lady’s maid), and so forth, who will bother to argue with him? None of the dozen puzzles that Poirot undertakes on his supposed valedictory tour are truly Herculean in difficulty, and a couple of them are duds. Even so, several of these episodes pack real punch, and, while even the best of them are mere trifles, the effort overall is far from trifling.