The Stymphalean Birds 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 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 Stymphalean Birds is the sixth of twelve. It is preceded by The Augean Stables and followed by The Cretan Bull.
A young politician finds himself blackmailed by two women at a lakeside resort in Herzoslovakia. Fortunately for him, Poirot sees this as an analogy to the Stymphalean Birds of Greek mythology and steps in to help.
(may contain spoilers - click on expand to read)
Harold Waring, an under-secretary of state at the age of only thirty, is enjoying a holiday in the country of Herzoslovakia at a hotel by the side of Lake Stempka. The only other English people there are an elderly woman, Mrs Rice, and her married daughter, Mrs Elsie Clayton. Two other women cause Harold a moment of disquiet. He first sees them as they come up a path from the lake to the hotel. They are dressed in black-flapping cloaks, have hooked noses and bring to Harold's mind an image of evil birds of prey.
Chatting to Mrs Rice, Harold finds out that her daughter is not widowed, as he supposed, but is in an abusive marriage. Her husband, Philip, drinks, is insanely jealous and has a vicious temper. Her daughter's character is slowly being destroyed by this relationship. Mrs Rice has also found out from the hotel concierge that the two evil looking women are Polish sisters.
One morning, Harold finds Elsie sat on a log in the woods, crying about the state of her life. He comforts her and, as he escorts her back to the hotel, they come across one of the Polish women. He wonders how much she saw. That evening, Elsie bursts into Harold's room. Her husband has arrived at the hotel unexpectedly and is in a terrible rage. At that moment, Philip Clayton runs in. He is carrying a spanner and screams at Elsie, accusing her of having an affair just as one of the Polish women had told him. He chases Elsie out of Harold's room and back to her own. Harold runs after him and is in time to see Elsie throw a paperweight at her husband in self-defence. He falls to the ground and Elsie begs Harold to leave them before he gets himself into trouble. Half an hour later, Mrs Rice joins Harold and tells him that Philip is dead, killed by the blow.
Harold is aghast, worried if the foreign police will believe the story both he and Elsie have to tell and that their 'relationship' is innocent. The evidence points to manslaughter at best and murder at worst. Mrs Rice suddenly has an idea and wonders if the hotel management and foreign police are open to bribery. Harold agrees to give it a try and wires for money but aside from that, and unable to speak the local language, leaves Mrs Rice to carry out the negotiations. All seems to go well and the next day Harold sees Mrs Rice speaking with a police officer and she tells him that the death has been declared as being from natural causes and that they are all in the clear. That is until the two Polish women approach Mrs Rice and speak to her. She translates for Harold and tells him that they know what really happened (their room being next to Elsie's) and that they are blackmailing the English people.
Harold is walking by the lake when he encounters Poirot. Desperate, he confesses what has happened. Poirot sees an immediate link between the two Polish women and the Stymphalean Birds. Poirot promises to help and the next day he tells Harold that he has been successful and that the blackmailers have been dealt with. He found out by telegram that they were wanted by the police and that they have been arrested. Harold is relieved but suddenly spots the two Polish women and wonders what is going on. Poirot tells him that, although not particularly attractive, they are of good family and background. The true culprits are Mrs Rice and her daughter. 'Philip Clayton' has never existed and the man Harold saw 'killed' was Mrs Rice in disguise. No foreign police are open to bribery in the way that Harold was told. He provided all the money and was innocent of what Mrs Rice 'negotiated' as he didn't speak the language. Harold resolves to learn every European language from now onwards.
- Lake Stempka
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 and one of the key strands used came from the main premise of The Stymphalean Birds.
- 1939 This Week, (New York), 17 september 1939 - (as "The Vulture Women") with an illustration by C.C. Beall
- 1940 The Strand Magazine, Issue 592 (London), April 1940 (as "Birds of Ill Omen") 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