It features Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, and gives an account of twelve cases with which he intends to close his career as a private detective. His regular sidekicks (his secretary, Miss Lemon, and valet, George/Georges) make cameo appearances, as does Chief Inspector Japp. Except for the last story and the foreword in the book version, all the others were first published in periodicals between 1939 and 1947.
Poirot is planning to retire and decides that for his swansong he will carefully choose twelve cases in order to conform to the mythological sequence of the Twelve Labours of Hercules. In some cases (such as The Nemean Lion) the connection is a highly tenuous one, while in others the choice of case is more or less forced upon Poirot by circumstances. The last story, The Capture of Cerberus, has events that correspond with the twelfth labour with almost self-satirical convenience.
This foreword only appeared in the book version. Hercule Poirot is enjoying a social visit by Dr Burton, a fellow of All Souls who recites sonorously some lines from Homer's Iliad (XXIII, 316 f) and turns the conversation round to the subject of Poirot's unusual Christian name and how some of the pagan names parents give to their children do not suit their recipients. Poirot claims ignorance of the legend of Hercules. The talk turns to Poirot's intention to retire after completing a few cases of interest and personal appeal and Burton laughingly refers to the twelve labours of Hercules. This comment gives Poirot pause for thought and after his visitor has gone, Poirot gets acquainted with the exploits of his legendary namesake, deciding his that his final cases will mimic Hercules' Twelve Labours.
Poirot investigates the theft of a Pekinese dog, "a veritable lion".
Poirot helps a country doctor distressed by rumours that he murdered his wife.
Poirot helps a garage mechanic find the girl of his love.
Poirot helps capture a dangerous criminal likened to a wild boar.
Poirot helps clean up a complex political scandal.
Poirot comes to the assistance of a young man who is being blackmailed.
Poirot helps a woman whose fiance has broken off their engagement because he thinks he is going mad.
Poirot helps to tame a "wild" girl who has been taking drugs.
a painting by Rubens depicting Heracles receiving the girdle of Hyppolita has been stolen. Naturally, Poirot takes up the case.
An old friend (or adversary) calls on Poirot because she is suspicious about a religious cult which calls itself "The Flock of the Shepherd".
Poirot accepts the challenge to recover a renaissance goblet which has designs of a tree with apples make of emeralds.
Literary significance and receptionEdit
No review of this book appeared in the Times Literary Supplement.
Maurice Richardson, in the 5 October 1947 issue of The Observer wrote briefly, "the Queen of Crime tries the difficult, unrewarding sprint form. The Labours of Hercules consists of twelve Poirot cases, neatly constructed but inevitably lacking the criss-cross of red-herring trails that make our arteries pulse over the full distance. But will Agatha Christie allow the little egg-headed egomaniac to carry out his frightful threat of retirement?"
An unnamed reviewer in the Toronto Daily Star of 6 December 1947 said, "Hercule Poirot...here emulates his Olympian namesake, Hercules ... As the old-timer tackled the 12 classical labors ... so Mrs. Christie turns her dapper sleuth loose on 12 modern counterparts in the detection-mystery line. A tricky task, neatly done."
Robert Barnard: "Probably the best single short-story collection, because more varied in its problems and lighter in its touch than usual. Lots of tricks from her novels, and other people's used very skilfully. But the mention of the goblet made by Cellini for Alexander VI (before the age of three?) is a good example of Christie slapdash, almost amounting to philistinism or contempt for her audience."
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 such as "The Arcadian Deer," "The Erymanthian Boar," "The Stymphalean Birds," and "The Capture of Cerberus" were loosely woven together as a single plot. The episode is notable for the reappearance of Countess Vera Rossakoff this time played by Orla Brady. Filming for this episode took place in April and May 2013 and was directed by Andy Wilson, who also directed Death on the Nile and Taken at the Flood for the series.
- 1947, Dodd Mead and Company (New York), 1947, Hardback, 265 pp
- 1947, Collins Crime Club (London), September 1947, Hardback, 256 pp
- 1951, Dell Books, Paperback, 255 pp
- 1953, Penguin Books, Paperback, (Penguin number 928), 254 pp
- 1961, Fontana Books (Imprint of HarperCollins), Paperback, 256 pp
- 1967, Greenway edition of collected works (William Collins), Hardcover, 319 pp
- 1967, Greenway edition of collected works (Dodd Mead), Hardcover, 319 pp
- 1978, Ulverscroft Large-print Edition, Hardcover, 467 pp; ISBN 0-7089-0119-0
First publication of storiesEdit
All of the stories except for The Capture of Cerberus were first published in the UK in The Strand Magazine with illustrations by Ernest Ratcliff as follows:
- The Nemean Lion: November 1939 - Issue 587
- The Lernaean Hydra: December 1939 - Issue 588
- The Arcadian Deer: January 1940 - Issue 589
- The Erymanthian Boar: February 1940 - Issue 590
- The Augean Stables: March 1940 - Issue 591
- The Stymphalean Birds: April 1940 - Issue 592
- The Cretan Bull: May 1940 - Issue 593
- The Horses of Diomedes: June 1940 - Issue 594
- The Girdle of Hyppolita: July 1940 - Issue 595
- The Flock of Geryon: August 1940 - Issue 596
- The Apples of the Hesperides: September 1940 - 597
The Capture of Cerberus was rejected by Strand Magazine and was not published as part of the series. A new story under the same title first appeared in the Collins first edition. The original story surfaced in 2009 in Agatha Christie's Secret Notebooks by John Curran. In the U.S. nine of the stories were first published in the weekly newspaper supplement This Week magazine in two series of four stories each plus one later publication as follows:
- The Lernaean Hydra: 3 September 1939 under the title Invisible Enemy
- The Girdle of Hyppolita: 10 September 1939 under the title The Disappearance of Winnie King
- The Stymphalean Birds: 17 September 1939 under the title The Vulture Women with an illustration by C.C. Beall
- The Cretan Bull: 24 September 1939 under the title Midnight Madness
- The Erymanthian Boar: 5 May 1940 under the title Murder Mountain
- The Apples of the Hesperides: 12 May 1940 under the title The Poison Cup
- The Arcadian Deer: 19 May 1940 under the title Vanishing Lady with an illustration by C.C. Beall
- The Flock of Geryon: 26 May 1940 under the title Weird Monster
- The Capture of Cerberus: 16 March 1947 under the title Meet Me in Hell
In addition, two other stories were first published in the US unillustrated in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine as follows:
- The Nemean Lion: September 1944 (Volume 5, Number 18) under the title The Case of the Kidnapped Pekinese
- The Horses of Diomedes: January 1945 (Volume 6, Number 20) under the title The Case of the Drug Peddler
- Dutch: De werken van Hercules (The Labours of Hercules)
- German: Die ersten Arbeiten des Herkules (The First Labours of Hercules) & Die letzten Arbeiten des Herkules (The Last Labours of Hercules)
Der Nemëische Löwe (The Nemean Lion)
Die Lernäische Schlange (The Lernaean Hydra)
Die Arkadische Hirschkuh (The Arcadian Doe)
Der Ermanthische Eber (The Erymanthian Boar)
Die Ställe des Augias (The Augean Stables)
Die Stymphaliden (The Stymphalides)
Der kretische Stier (The Cretan Bull)
Die Stuten des Diomedes (The Mares of Diomedes)
Der Gürtel der Hippolyta (The Girdle of Hyppolita)
Geryons Herde (Flock of Geryon)
Die Äpfel der Hesperiden (The Apples of Hesperides)
Die Gefangennahme des Zerberus (The Capture of Cerberus)
- Russian: Подвиги Геракла (Podvigi Gerakla, The Labours of Heracles)
Note: The German edition was divided into two volumes, hence the two titles