Elephants Can Remember (Agatha Christie)

  • First published: UK: Collins, November 1972; US: Dodd Mead, 1972

Christie’s penultimate novel is a very vague affair. The telling consists of paragraphs lasting 1 ½ pages, riddled with inconsistencies, which are unwanted and dangerous in an investigation into the past, especially when no one is quite sure whether the fall of the psychotic twin sister over a cliff and the ensuing suicide pact took place ten, twelve, fourteen, fifteen or even twenty years ago. For this reason, neither author nor reader have any idea of how old the characters (all of whom are very flat) actually are. The detection consists of serial interviewing of tenuously linked witnesses (the “elephants”) by Mrs. Oliver, who is as forgetful as the elephants are not. Poirot plays the armchair oracle rôle of Dr. Priestley, whom, speaking pedantic but natural English and shorn of both foreign phrases and character traits, he resembles. These obscure the plot, which, as always with Christie, is interesting, if imperfectly realised. Had she fleshed out the characters, rather than leaving them as skeletons in the closet, and if more work had been put into it, it could have been one of the most interesting late Christies, with a genuine sense of tragedy about the book. As it is, let the book limp its way to the elephants’ graveyard.

Query: have women worn wigs for fashionable reasons since the 18th century?

Inspired by shooting of Sir William and Lady Reid (c.f. Manchester Guardian, 24th November 1939)?

Blurb (UK)

Hercule Poirot was expecting a visit from his friend Mrs. Ariadne Oliver, the novelist.  There was something, it seemed, that she wanted to ask him.  He wondered why she sounded so doubtful about what she was doing.  Was she bringing him some difficult problem?  Or was she acquainting him with a crime?  As Poirot knew well, it could be anything with Mrs. Oliver!  The most commonplace things or the most extraordinary things were all alike to her.

His mind ran back over the years—the various happenings in which she had embroiled him.  A murder hunt for a Charity which had unexpectedly included a real murder.  A girl who had once interrupted his breakfast to tell him that she thought she had committed a murder but wasn’t quite sure about it.  Mrs. Oliver had identified the girl, but had then managed to get herself knocked on the head with a near escape from getting herself killed.

Would this visit entail danger—or merely a dilemma?  He had no idea that what was going to be laid before him would be a double suicide that had taken place twelve years ago and been satisfactorily dealt with by the Police Force of Great Britain.

He did not foresee that, at first unwillingly, he would become enmeshed—not in crime as crime—but because of two young people who loved each other and wanted to marry.  He was not to suspect that this girl and boy would matter to him.  The places he would go, the questions he would ask, the activities in which he would engage, the pity he would feel, the depths of tragedy he would plumb…

None of these things did he foresee as he replaced the receiver on the telephone.  All that was in his mind was that Mrs. Oliver was coming to see him after dinner and that she had a problem of some kind—about which she wanted his advice.  Oh well, he didn’t expect there would be any difficulty about that.

So little do the most intelligent of human beings foresee what is coming towards them in the immediate future.

Blurb (US)

Agatha Christie is at her superb best in this story of a cause célèbre, a strange crime of the past that casts a shadow on another generation.

At the time, the double suicide of General and Lady Ravenscroft had caused a flurry of headlines, but the case had been satisfactorily dealt with by the police and forgotten by the public.  Fifteen years later, to her complete surprise, Mrs. Ariadne Oliver, the novelist, was asked to answer a startling question: had the husband killed the wife or the wife killed the husband?  Because the answer concerned her goddaughter Celia Ravenscroft, Mrs. Oliver brought her problem to Hercule Poirot.  What should she do?

Against his better judgement, the astute little Belgian detective agreed to find the facts of the case.  He did not suspect that he himself would become involved in the crime because of his interest in two young people who loved each other and wanted to marry.  He did not foresee the places he would go, the questions he would ask, the activities in which he would engage, or the depths of tragedy he would plumb…

And the Ravenscroft affair would take Mrs. Oliver on a quest of her own.  Hers would be for “elephants,” or rather for those remarkable people who, like elephants, could remember things that had happened long ago.  The memories she was to collect – the bizarre, the sad, the wryly humorous – even the false ones, would give Poirot a clue to long guarded secrets and to the passions that had played such havoc with the destinies of the innocent as well as the guilty.

Contemporary reviews

NY Times (Newgate Callendar, 26th November 1972, 260w): Criticise Elephants Can Remember?  As well criticize the Brooklyn Bridge or the Tower of London…  Suffice it to say that sometimes [Poirot] talks with a French accent and sometimes without.  He still takes cases for the love of the game.  At least, in this book he expends considerable time and money, and never is there a question of payment.  Suffice it also to say that the experienced reader will figure out the solution to this not too mysterious mystery halfway through the book.  This is vintage of Christie.  But it is, alas, not very good.

Library J (H.C> Veit, 1st January 1973, 100w): Agatha Christie is at her most endearingly English self in her new mystery…  She is cosier, chattier and more motherly than ever, in a lethal way, of course.  Christie has resurrected Hercule Poirot, and all’s well with the world if he is still around; she also features what must be a self-portrait, Ariadne Oliver, as the slightly scatty lady novelist.  The plot is total confusion…  It is less a mystery than a lovely gossip, ratiocination being substituted for detecting, atmosphere for action.  Nevertheless, Christie has kept her sterling ear for dialogue.