In which celebrated author Ariadne Oliver is contacted by the prospective mother-in-law of her goddaughter Celia Ravenscroft, to ask if she knew anything of the circumstances of the apparent double suicide of Celia’s parents. Suspicious of the woman’s motives, but curious about the case, she shares the information with Hercule Poirot, and they decide to see what those involved with the Ravenscrofts remember about their tragic death. Will the testimony of these “elephants” explain the deaths? As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, as always, I promise not to reveal what happens and whodunit!
The book is dedicated “to Molly Myers, in return for many kindnesses”. My research so far hasn’t been able to uncover a Molly Myers in Christie’s circle – perhaps you know who she is, in which case, please tell me! Elephants Can Remember was first published in the UK by Collins Crime Club in November 1972, and in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company in the same year. It was also published in two abridged instalments in the Star Weekly Novel, the Toronto newspaper supplement, in February 1973.
Elephants Can Remember continues Christie’s gradual decline in inventiveness, writing style and thematic topics. As she got older, she seems to have become fonder of nostalgically revisiting her old books, with the stories of Five Little Pigs, Mrs McGinty’s Dead and Hallowe’en Party all being quoted and recalled by Poirot and Spence. Indeed, she even occasionally adds explanatory footnotes as an aide-memoire, clarifying which old case it is that they are recalling. Some of her references were clearly old favourites, such as the case of Lizzie Borden or the Sherlock Holmes story where the parsley sank into the butter and the dog did nothing, as she has quoted them more than once before in other books. The Lizzie Borden case was cited in After the Funeral, Ordeal by Innocence and The Clocks, and the Sherlock Holmes parsley story in Partners in Crime, Hickory Dickory Dock, The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side and The Clocks again. The dog reference was also mentioned in Cards on the Table. It’s almost as though her thinking days are over; if it worked once, it will work again – if she actually remembered that she had referred to these cases before. She also runs out of steam early; you can measure this simply by means of the word/page count. A typical Christie in a Fontana paperback will run to approximately 192 pages. This book, same publisher and font, only gets to 160 pages.
One aspect of the book that gets done to death by repetition is the notion of elephants. If the book is about one thing, it’s memory – perhaps not surprising, given it’s written by an 82-year-old author. Poirot and Mrs Oliver are trying to solve a case that happened many years in the past, so it all depends on what people remember. An elephant never forgets, goes the saying, so they need to find as many elephants as possible. However, the adherence to this metaphor just gets dragged out endlessly throughout the book. It’s as though Christie had to write an essay where the title was How Many Times can you Substitute the word Elephant for Witness, and she diligently constantly referred to the title of the essay like a good school student. What starts out as a light-hearted notion quickly becomes repetitive and tiresome.
Nevertheless, despite the repetitiveness, the lack of inventiveness and the occasional lapse of continuity, it’s still quite an entertaining book. Admittedly, the basis of the solution is telegraphed strongly early on, so one aspect of the conclusion is easy to guess; but not the whole story, so there are still some surprises left at denouement-time. The characters are probably not as well-drawn or interesting as they ought to be, but there are some entertainingly written scenes, and it also poses a dilemma about whether honesty is always the best policy and how far you can or should take blind acceptance of the flaws of those whom you love.
As Nemesis would be the last book that Christie wrote about Miss Marple (although not the last book published that included her), Elephants Can Remember would be the last she wrote featuring Poirot – although Curtain was still to be posthumously published and the short story collection Poirot’s Early Cases which featured his 1920s cases that had only been published in the US was still to come. Unlike Mrs Oliver, who is still full of beans and is happy to traverse the length and breadth of the country in search of elephants (sigh), Poirot remains content to stay seated and thoughtful, and thus susceptible to Mrs O’s constant criticism that he does nothing. “”Have you done anything?” said Mrs Oliver. “I beg your pardon – have I done what?“ “Anything,” said Mrs Oliver. “What I asked you about yesterday.” “Yes, certainly, I have put things in motion. I have arranged to make certain enquiries.” “But you haven’t made them yet, “ said Mrs Oliver, who had a poor view of what the male view was of doing something.” He does, however, grandly plan a flight to Geneva – amusingly refusing Mrs Oliver’s offer to accompany him. So there is life and independence in the old dog yet.
Age may, however, be a reason why he’s no longer quite so well known as he used to be. When Mrs Oliver introduces Celia to Poirot her reaction isn’t what he normally would expect. “”Oh,” said Celia. She looked very doubtfully at the egg-shaped head, the monstrous moustaches and the small stature. “I think,” she said, rather doubtfully, “that I have heard of him.” Hercule Poirot stopped himself with a slight effort from saying firmly “Most people have heard of me.” It was not quite as true as it used to be because many people who had heard of Hercule Poirot and known him, were now reposing with suitable memorial stones over them, in churchyards.”
Just as a side note, you can see here in those two recent quotes from the book how Christie had become bogged down in repetition. Consider the dual use of the word “view” in the conversation with Mrs Oliver, and that of the word “doubtfully” in the conversation with Celia. Here’s a fascinating quote from the Wikipedia page about the book: “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 size of vocabulary and the increases in repeated phrases and indefinite nouns suggested that Christie may have been suffering from some form of late-onset dementia, perhaps Alzheimer’s disease.”
There are a few other names from the past that we catch up on in this book, primarily Superintendent Spence, who featured prominently in other Poirot stories, Taken at the Flood, Mrs McGinty’s Dead and Hallowe’en Party. Spence is solid, reliable, thoughtful and helpful; he was the original investigating officer for the case. Spence provides a good function in the story without ever being a really interesting character. Another recurring chap is Mr Goby, that odd private investigator to whom Poirot subcontracts the task of finding out about the backgrounds of various suspects over the years. Goby still cannot look anyone in the face, which is an amusing observation of an essentially shifty character. But it’s hard not to consider Goby as an easy device for providing the reader with information without having to imagine how you’d go about getting it yourself. Perfect for a Christie whose powers of imagination are beginning to wane.
As usual, the book contains a mixture of real and fictional locations. Poirot and Celia both live in London, Poirot, as ever, at Whitefriars Mansions (which doesn’t exist) and Celia having lived at addresses in Chelsea and off the Fulham Road, neither of which are real. The Ravenscrofts had lived at Bournemouth – undoubtedly real – but the other locations in the book, Little Saltern Minor, Chipping Bartram and Hatters Green are all fictional.
Now for the references and quotations in this book. As I mentioned earlier, Garroway refers to the case of Lizzie Borden, did she “really kill her father and mother with an axe?” She was an American woman, tried and acquitted of the murder of her parents with an axe in August 1892. Garroway also asks “who killed Charles Bravo and why?” Bravo was a British lawyer, fatally poisoned with antimony in 1876, and to this day the case remains unsolved. And Superintendent Spence refers to the Sherlock Holmes case where the parsley sank in the butter. That refers to “The Adventure of the Six Napoleons”, published in The Return of Sherlock Holmes in 1904.
In her recollections, Mrs Carstairs refers to St Teresa of Avila. She was a 16th century Spanish noblewoman who became a Carmelite nun. Poirot and Mrs Oliver share a quote, “qui va a la chasse perd sa place” – which basically means that when you leave a spot, a place, an object or anything you possessed at the time to do something else, you might lose it when you come back. It’s an old French saying.
Poirot says he is “like the animal or the child in one of your stores by Mr Kipling. I suffer from Insatiable Curiosity”. This is the story of the Elephant’s Child, in Kipling’s Just So Stories, published in 1902. And in conversation with Poirot, Celia quotes “and in death they were not divided”, thinking that it might come from Shakespeare. She’s wrong; normally if it’s not Shakespeare, it’s the Bible; and it’s the description of Saul and Jonathan in the first chapter of the Second Book of Samuel, verse 23. And finally, “the dog it was that died”, says Garroway, quoting from Oliver Goldsmith’s Elegy on the Death of a Mad Dog.
Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for Elephants Can Remember:
Publication Details: 1972. My copy is a Fontana Paperback, the first impression of “this continental edition”, proudly boasting the words first in paperback, published in 1973, bearing the price on the back cover of 35p. As a “continental edition” my guess is that I bought it on holiday in Spain! I’m afraid I can’t remember. The cover illustration very simply has an elephant stomping all over a revolver. Not terribly inventive!
How many pages until the first death: It’s only 9 pages until we discover the deaths that Poirot and Mrs O investigate, but there are no other deaths during the course of the narration.
Funny lines out of context:
““Nom d’un petit bonhomme!” said Hercule Poirot. “I beg your pardon, sir?” said George. “A mere ejaculation,” said Hercule Poirot.”
Memorable characters: The “elephants” that Mrs Oliver visits tend to merge into one and are not as memorable as they should be. Mrs Burton-Cox is frequently referred to as unpleasant and bossy, but Christie’s writing doesn’t really present her like that to us. Celia and Desmond are worthy more than interesting, but I did like Zelie, the old governess.
Christie the Poison expert: Nothing to see here.
Class/social issues of the time:
As Christie was writing much nearer to the present day – certainly in my lifetime (I was 12 when this book was published) perhaps any class or social issues of the time seem less distinct from our perspective. One significant use of language comes with the use of the N word in connection with the word brown to describe the colour of Mrs Oliver’s hat. It stands out today as an appalling choice of words, but fifty years ago it was much more acceptable.
Poirot still plays upon the general xenophobia/racism of the time and allows himself to “play the foreigner” to help get information. “Everyone tells everything to me sooner or later. I’m only a foreigner, you see, so it does not matter. It is easy because I am a foreigner.”
Apart from that, the strongest theme or concept in the book is that of memory; how reliable one’s memory is, particularly as one gets older – although people often find they remember stuff from their childhood very clearly but can’t remember why they walked into a room. Mrs Oliver confesses to Poirot that she can’t remember how long they have been friends: “Oh I don’t know. I can never remember what years are, what dates are. You know, I get mixed up.” Christie gives Mrs Oliver’s housekeeper Maria the same affliction: “…these here literary luncheons. That’s what you’re going to, isn’t it? Famous writers of 1973 – or whichever year it is we’ve got to now.”
It isn’t, however, credible when Christie does the same for the much younger Celia. Celia was at school when her parents died – which is a catastrophic thing to happen to a young person’s life. Yet when Mrs Oliver asks her what she remembers about her parents’ deaths, she replies: “nothing […] I wasn’t there at the time. I mean, I wasn’t in the house at the time. I can’t remember now quite where I was. I think I was at school in Switzerland, or else I was staying with a school friend during the school holidays. You see, it’s all rather mixed up in my mind by now.” This is nonsense! I lost my father when I was 11 and I can remember every aspect of it – it’s imprinted in my brain. There’s no way Celia would be this vague, unless she was deliberately trying to be secretive (which she isn’t.)
A knock-on effect of memory loss and, indeed, ageing – such as Christie herself was facing – is a preoccupation with how one might be looked after in one’s old age. Time was when larger families would always have space and time to look after ageing family members – but that was becoming a thing of the past. Julia Carstairs is living in a “Home for the Privileged” – what we would now describe as sheltered housing. “Not quite all it’s written up to be, you know. But it has many advantages. One brings one’s own furniture and things like that, and there is a central restaurant where you can have a meal, or you can have your own things, of course.“
Mrs Matcham had a different experience. “When I was in that Home – silly name it had, Sunset House of Happiness for the Aged, something like that it was called, a year and a quarter I lived there till I couldn’t stand it no more, a nasty lot they were, saying you couldn’t have any of your own things with you. You know, everything had to belong to the Home, I don’t say as it wasn’t comfortable, but you know, I like me own things around me. My photos and my furniture. And then there was ever so nice a lady, came from a Council she did, some society or other, and she told me there was another place where they had homes of their own or something and you could take what you liked with you. And there’s ever such a nice helper as comes in every day to see if you’re all right.”
Classic denouement: No – it’s not the kind of book to have one. However, I think Christie gives us the solution in a very charming scene, where a somewhat Deus ex Machina character arrives unexpectedly and confirms Poirot’s suspicions by telling everyone exactly what happened.
Happy ending? Certainly – the young lovers are determined to press ahead with their marriage and there’s nothing that can stop them. They’re also reunited with an old friend, with whom they can presumably now keep in contact. The old friend is also delighted to see them; but she may have ongoing concerns about whether or not she did the right thing.
Did the story ring true? You can conceivably believe that the way the double deaths occurred is credible – just about. I still think Celia’s lack of recollection is highly unlikely. What is undoubtedly believable is that those people who did remember the event all those years ago remember different – and indeed contrasting – things.
Overall satisfaction rating: It’s not that well written, most of the solution is telegraphed a mile off, and it’s rather repetitive. Yet it does retain a certain charm – I think 6/10 is fair.
Thanks for reading my blog of Elephants Can Remember, and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge is Postern of Fate, which is the last new work by Christie to feature Tommy and Tuppence, and indeed, the last new work she was to write. Again, I can remember nothing about this book, but I understand that I shouldn’t have high hopes! As usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!