Elephants Can Remember
Dust-jacket illustration of the first UK edition
|Publisher||Collins Crime Club|
|Media type||Print (hardback & paperback)|
|Pages||256 (first edition, hardcover)|
|LC Class||PZ3.C4637 El4 PR6005.H66|
|Preceded by||The Golden Ball and Other Stories|
|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.
While attending a literary luncheon, Ariadne Oliver finds herself approached by a woman named Mrs Burton-Cox, whose son Desmond is engaged to Oliver's godchild, Celia Ravenscroft. During their conversation, Mrs Burton-Cox questions the truth regarding the deaths of Celia's parents. Ten years ago, Oliver's close school friend, Margaret Ravenscroft, and her husband, General Alistair Ravenscroft, were found dead near their manor house in Overcliffe. Both had been shot with a revolver found between their bodies, which bore only their fingerprints. The investigation into their deaths found it impossible to determine if it was a double suicide, or if one of them murdered the other and then committed suicide. Their deaths left Celia and another of their children orphaned. Although initially put off by Mrs Burton-Cox's attitude, Mrs Oliver decides to resolve the issue after consulting with Celia, and invites her friend Hercule Poirot to solve the disquieting puzzle.
Meeting with a number of elderly witnesses associated with the case, whom the pair dub "elephants", along with researching the case further, the pair make note of a few significant facts: Margaret was in possession of four wigs; the Ravenscroft's dog was devoted to the family, but bit Margaret a few days before her death; Margaret had an identical twin sister Dorothea, who had spent time in a number of psychiatric nursing homes, and was believed to have been involved in two violent incidents in Asia, including the drowning of her infant son after the death of her husband; a month before the couple died, Dorothea had been sleep-walking and died after falling off a cliff. Desmond later gives Poirot the names of governesses who had served the Ravenscroft family, one of whom, Zélie Meauhourat, travelled to Lausanne after the couple's death.
Poirot soon turns his attention to the Burton-Cox family, and towards Desmond's birth, as Mrs Burton-Cox is his adoptive mother; Desmond knows he is adopted but doesn't know any details about his birth mother. Through his agent Mr Goby, Poirot learns that Desmond is the illegitimate son of deceased actress Kathleen Fenn, a woman who had conducted an affair with Mrs Burton-Cox's husband. Unbeknown to Desmond, Fenn bequeathed a considerable personal fortune to him, held in trust until he was of age or had married, and which would go to his adoptive mother should he die. Poirot suspects Mrs Burton-Cox desired to prevent the marriage between Desmond and Celia, through having the deaths of Celia's parents investigated, in order to obtain the use of the money, but he finds no suggestion that Mrs Burton-Cox wishes to kill her son. Eventually he begins to suspect the truth about the Ravenscrofts' death, and contacts Zélie to return to England to help explain it to Desmond and Celia.
Poirot reveals to the pair that the woman that died with Alistair was not his wife, but Dorothea. A month earlier, she fatally injured Margaret as part of a psychotic episode. Before Margaret died, she made her husband promise to protect her sister from arrest. Alistair had Zélie help him to conceal the truth of his wife's death, planting her body at the foot of a cliff and fabricating a story that it was Dorothea who had died, before having his sister-in-law take the place of his wife. While she fooled the Ravenscrofts' servants, the family dog couldn't be deceived as it could distinguish between the sisters, and thus bit her. A month after his wife's death, Alistair murdered Dorothea to prevent her from injuring anyone else, making certain she held the revolver before she was killed, and then committed suicide afterwards. Desmond and Celia recognise the sadness behind the truth of the 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."
Other critics were less kind. Robert Barnard wrote "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." 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 some form of onset dementia, perhaps what later became known as Alzheimer's disease. The subject of the book being 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. This leads to an anachronism when there are references to chemotherapy as a cure for cancer.
- 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.