The Labours of Hercules: Classical Criminals

‘What I understand you to mean is, that in physical appearance I do not resemble a Hercules?’

Dr Burton’s eyes swept over Hercule Poirot, over his small neat person attired in striped trousers, correct black jacket and natty bow tie, swept up from his patent leather shoes to his egg-shaped head and the immense moustache that adorned his upper lip.

‘Frankly, Poirot,’ said Dr Burton, ‘you don’t! I gather,’ he added, ‘that you’ve never had much time to study the Classics?’

‘That is so.’

‘Pity. Pity. You’ve missed a lot. Everyone should be made to study the Classics if I had my way.’

Poirot shrugged his shoulders.

Eh bien, I have got on very well without them.’

‘Got on! Got on! It’s not a question of getting on. That’s the wrong view altogether. The Classics aren’t a ladder leading to quick success like a modern correspondence course! It’s not a man’s working hours that are important—it’s his leisure hours. That’s the mistake we all make. Take yourself now, you’re getting on, you’ll be wanting to get out of things, to take things easy—what are you going to do with your leisure hours?’

Poirot was ready with his reply.

‘I am going to attend—seriously—to the cultivation of vegetable marrows.’

…But seriously, Poirot, what a hobby! Compare that to’—his voice sank to an appreciative purr—’an easy chair in front of a wood fire in a long, low room lined with books—must be a long room—not a square one. Books all round one. A glass of port—and a book open in your hand. Time rolls back as you read:’ he quoted sonorously:

‘”Μὴτ ὃ αὐτε xυβερνὴτης ἐνὶ οὶνοπι πόντῳ
νῆα θοὴν ιθύνει ἐρεχθομένην ὰνέμοισι

He translated:

‘”By skill again, the pilot on the wine-dark sea straightens
The swift ship buffered by the winds.”

Of course you can never get the spirit of the original.’

For the moment, in his enthusiasm, he had forgotten Poirot. And Poirot, watching him, felt suddenly a doubt—an uncomfortable twinge. Was there, here, something that he had missed? Some richness of the spirit? Sadness crept over him. Yes, he should have become acquainted with the Classics … long ago … Now, alas, it was too late …

Hercule Poirot was plunged head first into a bewildering sea of classical lore with particular reference to ‘Hercules, a celebrated hero who, after death, was ranked among the gods, and received divine honours.’

So far, so good—but thereafter it was far from plain sailing. For two hours Poirot read diligently, making notes, frowning, consulting his slips of paper and his other books of reference. Finally he sank back in his chair and shook his head. His mood of the previous evening was dispelled. What people!

Take this Hercules—this hero! Hero, indeed! What was he but a large muscular creature of low intelligence and criminal tendencies! Poirot was reminded of one Adolfe Durand, a butcher, who had been tried at Lyon in 1895—a creature of oxlike strength who had killed several children. The defense had been epilepsy—from which he undoubtedly suffered—though whether grand mal or petit mal had been an argument of several days’ discussion. This ancient Hercules probably suffered from grand mal. No, Poirot shook his head, if that was the Greeks’ idea of a hero, then measured by modern standards it certainly would not do. The whole classical pattern shocked him. These gods and goddesses—they seemed to have as many different aliases as a modern criminal. Indeed they seemed to be definitely criminal types. Drinking, debauchery, incest, rape, loot, homicide and chicanery—enough to keep a juge d’Instruction constantly busy. No decent family life. No order, no method. Even in their crimes no order or method!

‘Hercules, indeed!’ said Hercule Poirot, rising to his feet, disillusioned.

He looked round him with approval. A square room, with good square modern furniture—even a piece of good modern sculpture representing one cube place on another cube and above it a geometrical arrangement of copper wire. And in the midst of this shining and orderly room, himself. He looked at himself in the glass. Here, then, was a modern Hercules—very distinct from that unpleasant sketch of a naked figure with bulging muscles, brandishing a club. Instead, a small compact figure attired in correct urban wear with a moustache—such a moustache as Hercules never dreamed of cultivating—a moustache magnificent yet sophisticated.

Yet there was between this Hercule Poirot and the Hercules of Classical lore one point of resemblance. Both of them, undoubtedly, had been instrumental in ridding the world of certain pests … Each of them could be described as a benefactor of the Society he lived in …

—Agatha Christie, The Labours of Hercules

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