Elephants Can Remember
||This article's plot summary may be too long or excessively detailed. (January 2014)|
Dust-jacket illustration of the first UK edition
|Cover artist||Not known|
|Publisher||Collins Crime Club|
|Media type||Print (hardback & paperback)|
|Pages||256 pp (first edition, hardcover)|
|LC Class||PZ3.C4637 El4 PR6005.H66|
|Followed by||Postern of Fate|
It features her Belgian detective Hercule Poirot and the recurring character Ariadne Oliver. This was the last Christie novel to feature either character, although in terms of publication it was succeeded by Curtain: Poirot's Last Case, which had been written in the early 1940s but published last. The novel is notable for its concentration on memory and oral testimony.
At a literary luncheon, Mrs Burton-Cox, to whose son Celia Ravenscroft is engaged, approaches Mrs Ariadne Oliver, a school friend of the late Margaret Ravenscroft and godmother to her daughter. Mrs Burton-Cox asks Mrs Oliver what she believes is an important question: which of Celia's parents was the murderer, and which was murdered?
Ten years earlier, the bodies of General Alistair Ravenscroft and his wife Margaret were found near their manor house in Overcliffe. Both had bullet wounds, and a revolver with only their fingerprints left between them. In the original investigation, no one was able to prove whether the case was a double suicide or murder/suicide and, if the latter, who killed whom. Left behind are the couple's two children, including daughter Celia. Mrs Ariadne Oliver is initially put off by Mrs Burton-Cox's attitude; but, after consulting with Celia, Oliver agrees to try to resolve the issue. She invites her friend Hercule Poirot to solve the disquieting puzzle. Together, they conduct interviews with several elderly witnesses whom they term “elephants”, based on the assumption that, like the proverbial elephants, they may have long memories. Each "elephant" remembers (or mis-remembers) a very different set of circumstances, but Poirot notes two items of significance: Margaret Ravenscroft owned four wigs at the time of her death; and, a few days before her death, she was seriously bitten by the otherwise devoted family dog.
Poirot decides to investigate more deeply into the past. He and Mrs Oliver learn that Dolly (Dorothea) and Molly (Margaret) Preston-Grey were identical twin sisters, both of whom died within the space of a few weeks. While Molly led an ordinary life, Dolly had previously been connected with two violent incidents and had spent protracted periods of her life in psychiatric nursing homes. Dolly had married a Major Jarrow and, shortly after his death in India, was strongly suspected of drowning her infant son, which she blamed on his Indian ayah. A second murder was committed in Malaya while Dolly was staying with the Ravenscrofts; it was an attack on the child of a neighbour. While staying with the Ravenscrofts, this time at Overcliffe, Dolly apparently sleep-walked off a cliff and died on the evening of 15 September 1960. Molly and her husband died less than a month later, on 3 October.
Desmond Burton-Cox, Celia's fiancé, gives Poirot the names of two governesses who had served the Ravenscroft family. Turning an investigative light on the Burton-Cox family, Poirot's agent, Mr Goby, discovers that Desmond (who knows that he is adopted, but has no details about the adoption or his origins) is the illegitimate son of a now-deceased actress, Kathleen Fenn, with whom Mrs Burton-Cox's husband had conducted an affair. Fenn had bequeathed Desmond a considerable personal fortune, which would, under the terms of his will, be left to his adoptive mother were he to die. Mrs Burton-Cox's attempt to prevent Desmond's marriage to Celia Ravenscroft is thus an attempt to obtain the use of his money, although there is no suggestion that she plans to kill him for the money.
Poirot suspects the truth but can substantiate it only after contacting Zélie Meauhourat, the governess employed by the Ravenscrofts at the time of their death. She returns with him from Lausanne to England, where she explains the truth to Desmond and Celia. Dolly had fatally injured Molly as part of a psychotic episode; but, such was Molly's love for her sister that she made her husband promise to protect Dolly from arrest. Accordingly, Zélie and Alistair made it appear that Dolly's was the corpse found at the foot of the cliff. Dolly took her sister's place, playing the role of Molly to the servants. Only the Ravenscrofts' dog knew the difference, and this is why it bit her. Alistair committed suicide after killing Dolly to prevent her from injuring anyone else. Desmond and Celia recognise the sadness of the true events, but now knowing the facts are able to face a future together.
- Hercule Poirot, the Belgian Detective
- Ariadne Oliver, the celebrated author
- Chief Superintendent Garroway, the investigating officer, now retired
- Superintendent Spence, a retired police officer
- Mr Goby, a private investigator
- Celia Ravenscroft, daughter of the victims and one of Mrs Oliver's many godchildren
- Desmond Burton-Cox, Celia's boyfriend
- Mrs Burton-Cox, Desmond's avaricious adoptive mother
- Dr Willoughby, a psychiatrist specialising in twins
- Mademoiselle Rouselle, a governess to the Ravenscrofts
- Zélie Meauhourat, a governess to the Ravenscrofts
- The Honourable Julia Carstairs, a social acquaintance of the Ravenscrofts
- Mrs Matcham, a former nursemaid to the Ravenscrofts
- Mrs Buckle, a former cleaner to the Ravenscrofts
- Mrs Rosentelle, a hair stylist and former wig-maker
Literary significance and reception
Maurice Richardson in The Observer of 5 November 1972 said, "A quiet but consistently interesting whodunnit with ingenious monozygotic solution. Any young elephant would be proud to have written it."
Robert Barnard: "Another murder-in-the-past case, with nobody able to remember anything clearly, including, alas, the author. At one time we are told that General Ravenscroft and his wife (the dead pair) were respectively sixty and thirty-five; later we are told he had fallen in love with his wife's twin sister 'as a young man'. The murder/suicide is once said to have taken place ten to twelve years before, elsewhere fifteen, or twenty. Acres of meandering conversations, hundreds of speeches beginning with 'Well, …' That sort of thing may happen in life, but one doesn't want to read it."
"Elephants Can Remember" has been criticised as of lower quality than the bulk of Christie's output. According to The Cambridge Guide to Women's Writing in English, this novel is one of the "execrable last novels" where Christie "loses her grip altogether".
Elephants Can Remember was cited in a study done in 2009 using computer science to compare Christie's earlier works to her later ones. The sharp drops in vocabulary size and increases in repeated phrases and indefinite nouns suggested Christie may have been suffering from Alzheimer's disease. The subject of the book being about memory may be another clue.
References to other works
- The character of Superintendent Spence had previously appeared in Taken at the Flood, Mrs McGinty's Dead and Hallowe'en Party. The last two of these cases are discussed in Chapter 5 of the novel, along with the case retold in Five Little Pigs.
- Mr Goby is a recurring character in many of the later Poirot novels. Although he had not appeared personally in the previous novel, Hallowe'en Party he is mentioned as having contributed to that investigation in Chapter 21 of that novel.
- In Chapter 3, Mrs Oliver fondly recalls a copy of the book Enquire Within Upon Everything that had been owned by her Aunt Alice. This is also the book in a copy of which a will had been concealed in Hallowe'en Party. The book is best remembered today, however, as the inspiration for a program called ENQUIRE written in 1980 by Tim Berners-Lee and which anticipated the functionality of wikis.
- In the Miss Marple story A Murder is Announced, the character Edmund Swettenham, a writer, announces a play he has written after the murder is solved, similarly titled Elephants Do Forget. Its author described it as "a roaring farce in three acts".
The novel was adapted into a TV film with David Suchet as Poirot, as part of the final series of Agatha Christie's Poirot. It was broadcast on ITV on 9 June 2013, and later on the Acorn TV website on 11 August 2014, over a year later. Zoë Wanamaker returned to the role of Ariadne Oliver, marking her fifth out of six appearances on the show in total. Greta Scacchi (Mrs Burton-Cox), Vanessa Kirby (Celia Ravenscroft), Iain Glen (Dr Willoughby) and Ferdinand Kingsley (Desmond Burton-Cox) were also among the cast.
The adaptation is generally faithful to the novel, but includes some significant additions to the plot. Most notably, there is a gruesome present day murder for Poirot to solve, which raises the tension and allows for a suspenseful ending. The plot of the novel, involving delving into the past, is reduced to background information leading to the present day murder. Characters such as Mr Goby, Miss Lemon, George, Marlene Buckle (whose mother becomes Mrs Matcham's housekeeper) and ex-Chief Superintendent Spence were removed from the story (Spence's character is replaced with an original character named Beale), whilst the characters of Zélie Meauhourat and Mme Rouselle were combined. Instead of immediately helping Mrs Oliver with the Ravenscroft case, Poirot instead chooses to investigate the murder of Dr Willoughby's father, which is a subplot that is not in the novel; as a consequence, Dr Willoughby's character is greatly expanded. When Poirot realises that Dr Willoughby and his institute have a connection to the Ravenscrofts, Poirot decides to solve both mysteries. This subplot also includes an original character named Marie McDermott, an Irish-American girl who works as Dr Willoughby's filing clerk and turns out to be his mistress. The character is ultimately revealed to be Dorothea Jarrow's daughter, who is avenging her mother for the cruel treatments she experienced at the hands of Professor Willoughby (an entirely fictional version of hydrotherapy), and also for her mother's murder (as she was at Overcliffe on the day of the tragedy and overheard General Ravenscroft make his plans) by trying to kill both Celia and Desmond. Zélie spirited her away to Canada after the tragedy, and she had to wait thirteen years before she could earn enough money to travel to England and exact her revenge. Also, in keeping with the other episodes, the story is moved from the early 1970s to the late 1930s.
Elephants Can Remember was adapted for radio by BBC Radio 4, featuring John Moffatt as Poirot.
- 1972, Collins Crime Club (London), November 1972, Hardcover, 256 pp
- 1972, Dodd Mead and Company (New York), Hardcover, 243 pp
- 1973, Dell Books, Paperback, 237 pp
- 1973 GK Hall & Company Large-print Edition, Hardcover, 362 pp ISBN 0-8161-6086-4
- 1975, Fontana Books (Imprint of HarperCollins), Paperback, 160 pp
- 1978, Greenway edition of collected works (William Collins), Hardcover, 256 pp
- 1979, Greenway edition of collected works (Dodd Mead), Hardcover, 256 pp
The novel was serialised in the Star Weekly Novel, a Toronto newspaper supplement, in two abridged instalments from 10 to 17 February 1973 with each issue containing the same cover illustration by Laszlo Gal.
- Chris Peers, Ralph Spurrier and Jamie Sturgeon. Collins Crime Club – A checklist of First Editions. Dragonby Press (Second Edition) March 1999 (Page 15)
- The Observer, 5 November 1972 (p. 39)
- Barnard, Robert. A Talent to Deceive – an appreciation of Agatha Christie – Revised edition (p. 193). Fontana Books, 1990. ISBN 0-00-637474-3
- Sage, Lorna (1999). The Cambridge Guide to Women's Writing in English. Cambridge University Press. p. 132. ISBN 0-521-66813-1.
- Flood, Alison (3 April 2009). "Study claims Agatha Christie had Alzheimer's". The Guardian (London). Retrieved 1 May 2010.
-  Retrieved 10 October 2006
- A Murder is Announced, Chapter 23
- "'Poirot: Elephants Can Remember' Is the First of David Suchet's Final Series As Belgian Detective". The Huffington Post. 29 May 2013.
- "TV review: Suchet splendidly wraps up Poirot". San Francisco Chronicle. 21 July 2014. Retrieved 6 February 2015.
- Elephants Can Remember at the official Agatha Christie website
- Elephants Can Remember (2013) at the Internet Movie Database