I have put off reading much of Agatha Christie's work for far too long. Her 66 detective novels and 14 short story collections have become an itch that I must scratch. Last week I decided to go on a Christie kick in order to discern once and for all what I think of her as a writer, what her detective fiction contributed at the time, and which, if any, are her masterpieces. The Labours of Hercules is Christie in her prime. She was into her third decade as a published writer when she published The Labours of Hercules in 1947. Her success led to one of her two plays, The Mousetrap, opening in the theatre five years later. Her career is mirrored in that of her egg-headed, pompous detective Hercule Poirot, who says he will take on twelve final cases before supposedly retiring in The Labours.
The Labours are a feat of engineering. Christie designed the marathon short story collection so that Poirot's 'final twelve cases' would reflect the Greek mythical adventures of Hercules, they even share the same names. The effort is carried off with all the pluck and aplomb of a serial writer. She does for example demonstrate her intellectual prowess, sense of humour and wit in the first of the cases, when Poirot is involved in a discussion about his unique name, which is compared with that of Arthur Conan Doyle's fictional figure Sherlock Holmes.
Short story collections create technical difficulties not seen in the average Joe novel. When Guy Andrews wrote the screenplay for the 2014 ITV adaptation five of the stories were merged into one, based around the dreamy Swiss Alps setting of the fourth story, The Erymanthian Boar. And that's just it. The stories are a sprint, an unrewarding attempt to do too much, too quickly, too soon. There is none of the character development, intricate weave of red-herring trails, motives and timely clues. That's not to say the reader should be deterred. It's Christie having fun, experimenting. It stands to reason that if you are a Christie fan then it's still worth the effort. For me it just doesn't work in the same way as her epic novel plots, seen in the likes of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and And Then There Were None.