Last week, London’s Daily Mail printed a previously unpublished Hercule Poirot story by Agatha Christie from 1939, “The Capture of Cerberus.” The story hit the same day that Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds landed in theaters, a curious coincidence since both imagine the same ahistorical event: the assassination of Adolf Hitler. (A belated shout-out to Sarah Weinman’s Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind blog for tipping me off about this.)
In Christie’s story, Hitler is a war-mongering dictator named “August Hertzlein” and Poirot is approached by the father of a Nazi soldier who he believes has been falsely accused of killing the leader at “a monster meeting of the Brothers of Youth.” Unlike the celebratory fantasy of Hitler’s assassination in Tarantino’s Basterds, Christie has a far darker read on the same imagined occurrence: “With dismay, the peace lovers realised that Hertzlein’s death had accomplished nothing. Rather, it had hastened the evil day.” Moreover, as A.N. Wilson notes in his introduction to the story, “Christie expresses the naive hope that Hitler could have been converted to Christianity and begun preaching love and peace.” It’s no wonder that the Strand magazine rejected Christie’s story when it was submitted in 1939 as one piece of her “Labours of Hercules” series featuring the Belgian detective Poirot. (Christie later used the title “The Capture of Cerberus” for a completely different short story in 1947.)
This is one two unpublished Poirot stories discovered by writer John Curran in 70 some blue-lined notebooks that Christie left behind after her death in 1976. (HarperCollins is publishing Curran’s Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks next month.) Almost as fascinating as the new story is A.N. Wilson’s thoughtful introduction in the Daily Mail, defending Dame Agatha against “literary snobs.” It’s fun to imagine a conversation between Christie and Tarantino. Both are popular entertainers who disdain the highbrow. Both are keen students of narrative structure – though Tarantino usually finds a way to subvert it. But I suspect that only Christie ever chloroformed (lightly) a hedgehog that got trapped in a tennis net in order to set it free.