Poirot (Classic): S13E04 “The Labours of Hercules”

A strange case of a stew with perhaps one too many flavors this week, ma foi! Our Belgian removes himself to a Swiss chalet for a little R n’ R, only to find that trouble follows him even to remote mountaintops in the Alps (along with seemingly every seedy criminal this side of the Seine).

The Setup:

Criminy, we’ll be here all day if I run through the whole setup. In broad strokes, two things happen at the beginning of the episode: first, Poirot sort of beefs it when a trap set by him at a posh reception to capture the thief-slash-psychotic-killer known only as Marrascaud ends in the death of the young woman set as bait.

Bummed out by this, Poirot takes a drive and his chauffeur tells him about the ballerina’s handmaid he fell in love with that ended when the ballerina left for the Hotel Olympos (the aforementioned Swiss chalet/health spa). Touched by the young man’s grief, Poirot sets himself a task – a labour, if you will – to go and find what has become of the handmaid, and reunite the lovers.

The Crime:

Oh, pick one. There’s the serial theft by Marrascaud of the 12 “Labours of Hercules” paintings, which the Swiss police inform Poirot are going to be fenced at the hotel soon. There’s an insurance fraud to be uncovered. There’s at least two more murders, some spousal abuse, a bribe or three, false identities, and more thievery. It’s a buyer’s market for crimes, is what I’m saying.

The Suspects:

Poirot’s old flame Countess Rossakov shows up with her daughter Alice in tow, and Alice has a not-creepy-in-the-least fascination with crime and detecting. The target of Poirot’s search, famed ballerina Katrina is also here, receiving some questionable supervision (and chemicals) from Dr. Lutz. Throw in the stern Scottish Mrs. Rice, her daughter Elsie and her apparent thug of a husband Robert, too. While we’re here let’s note shady hotel proprietor Francesco and curiously nasal waiter Gustave, too.

Need more? OK, how about broody Harry Waring and suspiciously heel-clicking German something or other Schwarz? I can go on if you’d like (I will not go on).

Wot I Liked:

As always, the central premise of “bundle a bunch of shady folks in a remote location and have them do crimes” is irresistible, and the fact that the remote location in question here is a stormy, snowbound hotel high in the Alps does a lot to get me on side. There’s a definite atmosphere of decay and foreboding present, as the hotel in its off season is sparse and dark, with cheap decor, fumbling staff and seemingly little to recommend it save a majestic balcony view and a presumably heated pool.

And of course, with all these weirdos skulking about there’s a heaping helping of arched eyebrows, furtive glances, stern glares, portentous dialogue and loaded silences to be had, which is just the way Your Faithful Reviewer likes ’em. A melancholic score that plinks ominously helps heighten the overall tension and air of claustrophobia as well – top marks for atmosphere here.

The central mystery of Marrascaud’s identity and the location of the stolen paintings hangs over everything, with the other individual guest-related mysteries serving to fill time until The Denouement. These are… well, I’m gonna be honest, these are just OK, and not all that engaging as presented here (a pacing problem mentioned further down below). But they’re fine, I guess. It’s the usual shell game of “who is really who and why”, although here it’s carried off somewhat less artfully than in prior episodes.

That said, this is another instance of taking the source material and molding it into something adjacent to it rather than a straight up retelling. The original Labours of Hercules was a series of 12 (pretty good!) short stories lightly interconnected, and about half of those have plots or elements lifted for this episode. To be fair, this is a much better done “re-imagining” than “The Big Four”, but like that episode it relies on wayyyyyyyyyyyyy too many coincidences to be believable (though it gives it the ol’ college try in tying damn near everyone here to L’affaire D’ Marrascaud).

There’s a really good bit at the end as well where


Rossakov pleads with Poirot to let her daughter Alice (since unmasked as Marrascaud) go as he once let her go,

and Suchet’s face suddenly wears the weight of the last 68 episodes on his face.

Wot I Not Liked:

Unfortunately, the attempt to jam in disparate elements from different stories works against the overall story, both from a pacing and a narrative point of view. We switch quickly – sometimes too quickly – from one plot thread to another, then to another, and oh yes we haven’t checked in on this plot in awhile, so let’s have a scene here – it’s disorienting and throws the rhythm of the episode way, way off. It feels alternately glacial and rushed, never quite sure of the story it wants us to care about.

And unfortunately, the episode – a Frankenstein’s Monster cobbled from the source material – tries to serve too many masters, when it feels like it probably should have either just cut about half the script or spent another hour letting each thread play out more gracefully than they do here. (Or even better, adapted each of the 12 original shorts into their own hourlong eps and called it a season.)

What I really wanted was more electric scenes like Poirot and Rossakov’s bridge(?) game (and more Rossakov, period), or the scene between Poirot and Katrina in her room. These are some of the lengthier pieces of the puzzle, and some of the only times we get a sense of anyone as a character rather than a plot device.

I’d still put this episode in the “good” column, all things told. I quite liked much of Suchet’s work here, even if his redemption arc gets a bit lost in the proceedings. There’s a priceless line of dialogue when Dr. Lutz tells Poirot how irritating it his that he refers to himself in the third person (Poirot’s response: “It helps Poirot achieve a healthy distance from his genius.”). There’s a neat bit of Poirot theatricality and trickery to The Denouement. And the atmosphere alone carries water for pretty much everything else, with a sweet ending that manages to be touching instead of schmaltzy.

In Two Weeks, on Poirot: We reach the end of our journey, mes amis, for it is time to complete the series with the final episode, and one last mystery for Poirot and Hastings (and a much better return for Hugh Fraser than wasting him in “The Big Four”). Nearly two years since starting this little series of articles, on December 17th it will be time to draw the… “Curtain”!