A Russian femme fatale, a crazed tyrant and an assassination that shakes the world…
This is no less than a literary jewel and one that, until now, was hidden from the world in the handwritten jottings of Dame Agatha’s blue-lined notebooks.
Only because a Christie enthusiast and author named John Curran chanced upon it as he was going through her notes and scribblings has it come to light at all.
Lost and found: After 60 years, Agatha Christie’s masterpiece, The Capture of Cerberus, is published and serialised in the Mail
Why is this such a genuinely exciting find? Partly because the story is so unusual for her. It is one of her rare excursions into making direct political comment, which is why it was never published.
The Capture Of Cerberus (she wrote a completely different short story with the same title in 1947) revolves around a dictator called August Hertzlein, who is clearly Adolf Hitler.
n the course of the plot, Christie expresses the naive hope that Hitler could have been converted to Christianity and begun preaching love and peace.
There really were people in the Thirties who believed this. One of them was Frank Buchman, founder of the Oxford Group, a hugely influential movement which has gone under various titles, including Moral Rearmament and Festival Of Light.
But no publisher was going to touch such an inflammatory plot in 1939, which was when Christie submitted Cerberus to Strand magazine as one of the short stories in her series The Labours Of Hercules.
There is another feature of the story which is unusual: Hercule Poirot is stirred into excitement by feminine beauty.
At the beginning of the story, he thinks ‘there is one thing needed to complete the harmony of the passing moment. A woman. Une femme du monde, well dressed, sympathetic, spirituelle. . .’
And Christie adds: ‘It is the misfortune of small precise men to hanker after larger and flamboyant women.’ This is a little joke about her second husband, archaeologist Sir Max Mallowan, who was a small man and who remained highly sexed into old age.
Once when Agatha and Max were out for the evening, a friend of theirs started speaking of Shakespeare’s sonnets and their frank discussion of sex.
‘Oh don’t!’ said the 70-year-old Agatha – ‘once you talk about sex, Max gets over-excited and…’ Her voice trailed away, but the thoughts which had arisen clearly both amused and delighted her.
So we have two very unusual features in this Christie discovery – contemporary politics and a hint of sex – both reasons enough to rejoice in its publication.
Original: Albert Finney plays the famous detective with an all-star cast in film Murder on the Orient Express
But the real cause for celebration is Christie herself. She is an English gem who provides escapist literature of a very special kind.
Literary snobs like to denigrate Christie. They say the stories are wooden. What they mean by this is that they have a firm structure. They actually conform to the great classical literature of the past.
In the collection of stories she gathered together for The Labours Of Hercules, Christie closely followed the original Greek myths.
Not only did she name her little Belgian detective Hercule, but she saw a direct connection between him and Hercules, the demigod who occupied a role a bit like that of Christ in Greek mythology.
Hercules was not just a he-man, he was a problem-solver just like Poirot and Miss Marple. It’s almost as if they are angels from another planet who come and resolve moral problems and criminal puzzles for us.
We come to Agatha Christie’s stories from lives which are muddled and messy, and from a world in which real murders are horrifying and bloody.
By the end, order has been restored to the universe, and to our hearts. She is the most consoling of all English writers, and although there have been many marvellous authors in the sphere of crime fiction, she is rightly considered the Queen.
Hercule Poirot sipped his apéritif and looked out across the Lake of Geneva. He sighed. He had spent his morning talking to certain diplomatic personages, all in a state of high agitation, and he was tired. For he had been unable to offer them any comfort in their difficulties.
The world was in a very disturbed state – every nation alert and tense. At any minute the blow might fall – and Europe once more be plunged into war.
Hercule Poirot sighed. He remembered 1914 only too well. He had no illusions about war. It settled nothing. The peace it brought in its wake was usually only the peace of exhaustion – not a constructive peace.
He thought sadly to himself: ‘If only a man could arise who would set enthusiasm for peace flaming through the world – as men have aroused enthusiasm for victory and conquest by force.’
Then he reflected, with Latin commonsense, that these ideas of his were unprofitable. They accomplished nothing. To arouse enthusiasm was not his gift and never had been. Brains, he thought with his usual lack of modesty, were his speciality. And men with great brains were seldom great leaders or great orators. Possibly because they were too astute to be taken in by themselves.
‘Ah well, one must be a philosopher,’ said Hercule Poirot to himself. ‘The deluge, it has not yet arrived. In the meantime this apéritif is good, the sun shines, the Lake is blue, and the orchestra plays not badly. Is that not enough?’
Adaptation: Hercule Poirot played by David Suchet in the ITV television series
But he felt that it was not. He thought with a sudden smile: ‘There is one little thing needed to complete the harmony of the passing moment. A woman. Une femme du monde – chic, well-dressed, sympathetic, spirituelle!’
There were many beautiful and well-dressed women round him, but to Hercule Poirot they were subtly unsatisfactory. He demanded more ample curves, a richer and more flamboyant appeal.
And even as his eyes roamed in dissatisfaction round the terrace, he saw what he had been hoping to see. A woman at a table nearby, a woman so full of flamboyant form, her luxuriant henna-red hair crowned by a small round of black to which was attached a positive platoon of brilliantly feathered little birds.
The woman turned her head, her eyes rested casually on Poirot, then opened – her vivid scarlet mouth opened too. She rose to her feet, ignoring her companion at the table, and with all the impulsiveness of her Russian nature, she surged towards Hercule Poirot – a galleon in full sail. Her hands were outstretched, her rich voice boomed out.
‘Ah, but it is! It is! Mon cher Hercule Poirot! After how many years – how many years – we will not say how many! It is unlucky.’
Poirot rose to his feet, he bent his head gallantly over the Countess Vera Rossakoff’s hand. It is the misfortune of small precise men to hanker after large and flamboyant women.
Poirot had never been able to rid himself of the fatal fascination the Countess had for him. Now, it was true, the Countess was far from young. Her make-up resembled a sunset, her eyelashes dripped with mascara. The original woman underneath the make-up had long been hidden from sight.
Nevertheless, to Hercule Poirot, she still represented the sumptuous, the alluring. The bourgeois in him was thrilled by the aristocrat. The old fascination stole over him. He remembered the adroit way in which she had stolen jewellery on the occasion of their first meeting, and the magnificent aplomb with which she had admitted the fact when taxed with it.
He said: ‘Madame, enchante – ‘ and sounded as though the phrase were more than a commonplace politeness.
The Countess sat down at his table. She cried: ‘You are here in Geneva? Why? To hunt down some wretched criminal? Ah! If so, he has no chance against you – none at all. You are the man who always wins! There is no one like you – no one in the world!’
If Hercule Poirot had been a cat he would have purred. As it was he twirled his moustaches.
‘And you, Madame? What is it that you do here?’
She laughed. She said: ‘I am not afraid of you. For once I am on the side of the angels! I lead here the most virtuous of existences. I endeavour to amuse myself, but everyone is very dull. Nichevo?’
The man who had been sitting with the Countess at her table had come over and stood hesitating beside them. The countess looked up.
‘Bon Dieu!’ she exclaimed. ‘I forgot you. Let me present you. Herr Doktor Keiserbach – and this – this is the most marvellous man in the world – M. Hercule Poirot.’
The tall man with the brown beard and the keen blue eyes clicked his heels and bowed. He said: ‘I have heard of you, M. Poirot.’
Countess Vera overbore Poirot’s polite rejoinder. She cried: ‘But you cannot possibly know how wonderful he is! He knows everything! He can do anything! Murderers hang themselves to save time when they know he is on their track. He is a genius, I tell you. He never fails.’
‘No, no, Madame, do not say that.’
‘But it is true! Do not be modest. It is stupid to be modest.’
She turned to the other man. ‘I tell you, he can do miracles. He can even bring the dead back to life.’
Something leaped – a startled flash – into the blue eyes behind the glasses. Herr Keiserbach said: ‘So?’
Mystery: A Russian femme fatale, a crazed tyrant and an assassination that shakes the world, The Capture of Cerberus has it all
Hercule Poirot said: ‘Ah, by the way, Madame, how is your son?’
‘The beloved angel! So big now – such shoulders – so handsome! He is in America. He builds there – bridges, banks, hotels, department stores, railways – anything the Americans want.’
Poirot looked slightly puzzled. He murmured: ‘He is then an engineer, or an architect?’
‘What does it matter?’ demanded the Countess Rossakoff. ‘He is adorable. He is wrapped up in iron girders and things called stresses. The kind of things I have never understood nor cared about. But we adore each other.’
Herr Keiserbach took his leave. He asked of Poirot: ‘You are staying here, M. Poirot? Good. Then we may meet again.’
Poirot asked the lady: ‘You will have an apéritif with me?’
‘Yes, yes. We will drink vodka together and be very gay.’
The idea seemed to Hercule Poirot a good one.
It was on the following evening that Dr Keiserbach invited Hercule Poirot to his rooms. They sipped a fine brandy together and indulged in a little desultory conversation together.
Then Keiserbach said: ‘I was interested, M. Poirot, by something that our charming friend said about you yesterday.’
‘She used these words. He can even bring the dead back to life.’
Hercule Poirot sat up a little in his chair. His eyebrows rose. He said: ‘That interests you?’
‘Very much.’ ‘Why?’ ‘Because I feel those words may have been an omen.’
Hercule Poirot said sharply: ‘Are you asking me to bring the dead to life?’
‘Perhaps. What would you say if I did?’ Hercule Poirot shrugged his shoulders. He said: ‘After all, death is death, Monsieur.’
Hercule Poirot’s eyes grew sharp and green. He said: ‘You want me to bring a person who is dead to life again. A man or a woman?’
‘Who is it?’
‘You do not appear appalled by the task?’
Poirot smiled faintly. He said: ‘You are not mad. You are a sane and reasonable individual. Bringing the dead to life is a phrase susceptible of many meanings. It may be treated figuratively or symbolically.’
The other said: ‘In a minute you will understand. To begin with, my name is not Keiserbach. I adopted that name so that I should pass unnoticed. My own name is too well-known. That is, it has been too well-known for the last month.’
‘Lutzmann.’ He spoke it significantly. His eyes searched Poirot closely.
Poirot said sharply: ‘Lutzmann?’
He paused and then said in a different tone. ‘Hans Lutzmann?’
The other man said in a hard dry voice: ‘Hans Lutzmann was my son …’
If, A month previously, you had asked any Englishman who was responsible for the general condition of European unrest, the reply would almost inevitably have been ‘Hertzlein’.
There was, it was true, also Bondolini, but it was upon August Hertzlein that popular imagination fastened. He was the dictator of dictators. His warlike utterances had rallied the youth of his own country and of allied countries. It was he who had set central Europe ablaze and kept it ablaze.
On the occasion of his public speeches he was able to set huge crowds rocking with frenzied enthusiasm. His high, strangely tuned voice had a power all its own.
Great Dame: Author Agatha Christie in 1971 penned more than 70 detective novels about the Belgian detective
People in the know explained learnedly how Hertzlein was not really the supreme power in the Central Empires. They mentioned other names – Golstamm, Von Emmen.
These, they said, were the executive brains. Hertzlein was only the figurehead. Nevertheless it continued to be Hertzlein who loomed in the public eye.
Hopeful rumours went about. Hertzlein had an incurable cancer. He could not live longer than six months. Hertzlein had valvular disease of the heart. He might drop down dead any day. Hertzlein had had one stroke already and might have another any moment.
Hertzlein after violently persecuting the Catholic Church had been converted by the famous Bavarian monk, Father Ludwig. He would shortly enter a monastery. Hertzlein had fallen in love with a Russian Jewess, the wife of a doctor. He was going to leave the Central Empires and settle down with her in Sweden.
And in spite of all the rumours, Hertzlein neither had a stroke, nor died of cancer, nor went into a monastery, nor eloped with a Russian Jewess. He continued to make rousing speeches amid scenes of the greatest enthusiasm and at judicious intervals he added various territories to the Central Empires.
And daily the shadow of war grew darker over Europe. Desperately, people repeated all the hopeful rumours even more hopefully. Or demanded fiercely: ‘Why doesn’t someone assassinate him? If only he were out of the way…’
There came a peaceful week when Hertzlein made no public utterances and when hopes of each of the separate rumours increased tenfold.
And then, on a fateful Thursday, Herr Hertzlein addressed a monster meeting of the Brothers of Youth. People said afterwards that his face was drawn and strained, that even his voice held a different note, that there was about him a prescience of what was to come – but there are always people who say such things afterwards.
The speech began much as usual. Salvation would come through sacrifice and through the force of arms. Men must die for their country – if not they were unworthy to live for it. The democratic nations were afraid of war – cowardly – unworthy to survive. Let them go – be swept away – by the glorious force of the Young. Fight – fight and again fight – for Victory, and to inherit the earth.
Hertzlein, in his enthusiasm, stepped out from behind his bulletproof shelter. Immediately a shot rang out – and the great dictator fell, a bullet through his head.
In the third rank of the listening people, a young man was literally torn to pieces by the mob, the smoking pistol still grasped in his hand. That young man was a student named Hans Lutzmann.
For a few days the hopes of the democratic world rose high. The Dictator was dead. Now perhaps, the reign of peace would come.
That hope died almost immediately. For the dead man became a symbol, a martyr, a saint. Those moderates whom he had failed to sway living, he swayed dead. A great wave of warlike enthusiasm swept over the Central Empires. Their Leader had been killed – but his dead spirit should lead them on. The Central Empires should dominate the world – and sweep away democracy.
With dismay, the peace lovers realised that Hertzlein’s death had accomplished nothing. Rather, it had hastened the evil day. Lutzmann’s act had accomplished less than nothing.
The dry, middle-aged voice said: ‘Hans Lutzmann was my son.’
Poirot said: ‘I do not yet understand you. Your son killed Hertzlein – ‘
He stopped. The other was slowly shaking his head. He said: ‘My son did not kill Hertzlein. He and I did not think alike. I tell you he loved that man. He worshipped him. He believed in him. He would never have drawn a pistol against him. He was a Nazi through and through – in all his young enthusiasm.’
‘Then if not – who did?’
The elder Lutzmann said: ‘That is what I want you to find out.’
Hercule Poirot said: ‘You have an idea…’
Lutzmann said hoarsely: ‘I may be wrong.’
Hercule Poirot said steadily: ‘Tell me what you think.’
Keiserbach leaned forward.
Pushing up the roses: Belgian detective Poirot, famed for his handlebar moustache, gets on the case in the television series
Dr Otto Schultz readjusted his tortoiseshell rimmed glasses. His thin face beamed with scientific enthusiasm. He said in pleasant nasal accents: ‘I guess, Mr Poirot, that with what you’ve told me I’ll be able to go right ahead.’
‘You have the schedule?’
‘Why, certainly, I shall work to it very carefully. As I see it, perfect timing is essential to the success of your plan.’
Hercule Poirot bestowed a glance of approval. He said: ‘Order and method. That is the pleasure of dealing with a scientific mind.’
Dr Schultz said: ‘You can count on me,’ and wringing him warmly by the hand he went out.
George, Poirot’s invaluable manservant, came softly in. He inquired in a low deferential voice: ‘Will there be any more gentlemen coming, sir?’
‘No, Georges, that was the last of them.’
Hercule Poirot looked tired. He had been very busy since he had returned from Bavaria the week before. He leaned back in his chair and shaded his eyes with his hand. He said: ‘When all this is over, I shall go for a long rest.’
‘Yes, sir. I think it would be advisable, sir.’
Poirot murmured: ‘The Last Labour of Hercules. Do you know, Georges, what that was?’
‘I couldn’t say, I’m sure, sir. I don’t vote Labour myself.’
Poirot said: ‘Those young men that you have seen here today – I have sent them on a special mission – they have gone to the place of departed spirits. In this Labour there can be no force employed. All must be done by guile.’
‘They seemed very competent looking gentlemen, if I may say so, sir.’
Hercule Poirot said: ‘I chose them very carefully.’
He sighed and shook his head. He said: ‘The world is very sick.’
George said: ‘It looks like war whichever way you turn. Everybody’s very depressed, sir. And as for trade, it’s just awful. We can’t go on like this.’ Hercule Poirot murmured: ‘We sit in the Twilight of the Gods.’
Dr Schultz paused before a property surrounded by a high wall. It was situated about eight miles from Strasbourg. He rang the gate bell. In the distance he heard the deep baying of a dog and the rattle of a chain.
The gate-keeper appeared and Dr Otto Schultz presented his card. ‘I wish to see the Herr Doktor Weingartner.’
‘Alas, Monsieur, the doctor has been called away only an hour ago by telegram.’
Schultz frowned. ‘Can I then see his second in command?’
‘Dr Neumann? But certainly.’
Dr Neumann was a pleasant-faced young man, with an ingenuous open countenance. Dr Schultz produced his credentials – a letter of introduction from one of the leading psychiatrists in Berlin. He himself, he explained, was the author of a publication dealing with certain aspects of lunacy and mental degeneracy.
The other’s face lighted up and he replied that he knew Dr Schultz’s publications and was very much interested in his theories. What a regrettable thing that Dr Weingartner should be absent!
The two men began to talk shop, comparing conditions in America and Europe and finally becoming technical. They discussed individual patients. Schultz recounted some recent results of a new treatment for paranoia.
He said with a laugh: ‘By that means we have cured three Hertzleins, four Bondolinis, five President Roosevelts and seven Supreme Deities.’
Presently, the two men went upstairs and visited the wards. It was a small mental home for private patients. There were only about twelve occupants.
Schultz said: ‘You understand, I’m principally interested in your paranoiac cases. I believe you have a case admitted quite recently which has some peculiarly interesting features.’
Poirot looked from the telegram lying on his desk to the face of his visitor.
The telegram consisted simply of an address. Villa Eugenie Strasbourg. It was followed by the words ‘Beware of the Dog’.
The visitor was an odoriferous gentleman of middle-age with a red and swollen nose, an unshaven chin and a deep husky voice which seemed to rise from his unprepossessing looking boots.
He said hoarsely: ‘You can trust me, guv’nor. Do anything with dogs, I can.’
‘So I have been told. It will be necessary for you to travel to France – to Alsace.’
Mr Higgs looked interested. ‘That where them Alsatian dogs come from? Never been out of England I ‘aven’t. England’s good enough for me, that’s what I say.’
Poirot said: ‘You will need a passport.’ He produced a form. ‘Now fill this up. I will assist you.’
They went laboriously through it. Mr Higgs said: ‘I had my photo took, as you said. Not that I liked the idea of that much – might be dangerous in my profession.’
Mr Higgs’ profession was that of a dog stealer, but that fact was glossed over in the conversation.
‘Your photograph,’ said Poirot, ‘will be signed on the back by a magistrate, a clergyman, or a public official who will vouch for you as being a proper person to have a passport.’
A grin overspread Mr Higgs’ face. ‘That’s rare, that is,’ he said. ‘That’s rare. A beak saying as I’m a fit and proper person to have a passport.’
Hercule Poirot said: ‘In desperate times, one must use desperate means!’
‘Meaning me?’ said Mr Higgs.
‘You and your colleague.’
They started for France two days later. Poirot, Mr Higgs, and a slim young man in a checked suit and a bright pink shirt, who was a highly successful cat burglar.
• Reproduced from AGATHA CHRISTIE’S SECRET NOTEBOOKS by John Curran, published by HarperCollins on September 3 at £20. ° The Estate of Agatha Christie 2009. To order a copy at £18 (p&p free), call 0845 155 0720.