The Cretan Bull is a short story by Agatha Christie which was first published in the U.S. in This Week in September 1939. In the U.K. it was first published in The Strand Magazine in April 1940. In 1947, the story was grouped with 11 others, a foreword was added, and the whole collection published as The Labours of Hercules.

The setting is on the eve of one of Poirot's many planned retirements. He wants his crowning achievement to be a series of 12 cases which he will specially selected to match those of the Twelve Labours of Heracles in Greek mythology. In the sequence of the labours pursued by Poirot, The Cretan is the seventh of twelve. It is preceded by The Stymphalean Birds and followed by The Horses of Diomedes.

Synopsis

A young woman asks Poirot to help when her fiance breaks off their engagement because he thinks he is going mad. She believes that he is entirely sane.

Plot summary

(may contain spoilers - click on expand to read)

Poirot is asked for assistance by a young lady, Diana Maberly. She was engaged to marry Hugh Chandler for over a year but he has broken it off as he thinks he is going mad. There is a history of insanity in the family, with his grandfather and a great aunt being afflicted, and his father, Admiral Chandler, has insisted his son leave the Navy before his condition gets worse but the reason was hidden under the pretext of having to manage the family country estate – a reason no one believed, including Colonel Frobisher, a family friend and Hugh's godfather. At Poirot's prompting, Diana admits that there have been some unusual occurrences on nearby farms with the throats of sheep cut and the like but insists it has nothing to do with the situation. The Admiral refuses to let a doctor see his son.

Poirot travels with Diana to the family seat of Lyde Manor where he meets the people involved. Hugh strikes Poirot as a fine young bull of a man. He learns further details of the history of insanity in the family from Colonel Frobisher, including Hugh's grandfather who was committed to an asylum. Poirot learns that Hugh's mother died when he was ten years old in a boating accident when she was out with the Admiral, and that she was once in love with Frobisher before he went off to India with the British Army. When he came home he learned she had married Admiral Chandler, however this incident did nothing to lessen the ties of friendship between the two men. Poirot forces Frobisher to tell him more details of the incident with the sheep and finds out that on the night concerned, the Admiral found his son in bed with blood on his clothes and blood in the washbasin but Hugh remembered nothing of what he had done. Poirot questions the Admiral who has aged immensely since these incidents started and who feels that breaking the engagement is best for everyone, remarking that there will be no more Chandlers at Lyde Manor after he and his son have died.

In questioning Hugh, Poirot hears of his dreams which always seem to include elements of hydrophobia. He also suffers from hallucinations and has one while speaking to Poirot of seeing a skeletal figure in the garden. Poirot however is convinced that Hugh is sane and begins his investigations, asking Diana to arrange for him to spend the night in the manor. He searches Hugh's room and also makes a trip to a local chemist, supposedly to pick up a toothbrush.

That night, Hugh somehow manages to get out of his locked room and is found outside Diana's room, a bloodied knife in his hands from having killed a cat. Hugh recovers consciousness and tells the others he intends to go out shooting rabbits. It is clear that his real intention is to commit suicide in the woods with a shotgun and therefore save himself and the others further pain. Poirot stops him and tells them all that Hugh is being set up to commit suicide. He is being poisoned with atropine sulphate, an alkaloid produces hallucinations, double vision, dryness of throat and difficulty in swallowing--all symptoms which Hugh had experienced. It is being given to Hugh as part of his shaving cream and thereby continually entering his system with each day's application. Poirot had taken a sample of the cream for testing and had confirmed it. As to who is responsible ... Poirot reveals that it in fact Admiral Chandler. He had been using eyedrops containing atropine sulphate. By going to several chemists, he had obtained a large quantity of eyedrops from which the alkaloid could be extracted. As for Chandler's motive, Poirot asserts that it is indeed the streak of madness in his family which surfaced when he realised that Hugh was not his own son but the son that his wife had with Frobisher. He had recognised a characteristic head movement Hugh had inherited from Frobisher and probably extracted the truth from his wife. He then planned the killing of his wife in the boating incident and then set about to drive Hugh to commit suicide. Poirot was led to this conclusion from the fact that Chandler had blocked Hugh from seeing a doctor who could have treated him.

The Admiral, "the last of the Chandlers", dismisses Poirot's deductions as "a lot of nonsense" but then takes a shotgun and tells the others that he is going rabbit shooting. He is last seen entering the woods with the gun, and a shot is heard.

Characters

  • Hercule Poirot
  • Diana Maberly
  • Hugh Chandler
  • Admiral Chandler
  • Mrs Chandler
  • Colonel Frobisher
  • Stephen Graham
  • Withers

Locations

  • Lyde Manor

Research notes

Film, TV, or theatrical versions

Agatha Christie's Poirot

A television film with David Suchet as Poirot was produced as episode 4 of Series 13 of the ITV series Agatha Christie's Poirot, first broadcast on 6 November 2013. The themes from several stories in the collection were woven loosely together for the plot of the film. None of the plot elements from The Cretan Bull were used.

Publication history

  • 1939 This Week, (New York), 24 September 1939 - (as "Midnight Madness")
  • 1940 The Strand Magazine, Issue 593 (London), May 1940 with illustrations by Ernest Ratcliff
  • 1947, The Labors of Hercules, Dodd Mead and Company (New York), 1947, Hardback, 265 pp
  • 1947, The Labours of Hercules, Collins Crime Club (London), September 1947, Hardback, 256 pp
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