Agatha Christie - Elephants Can Remember

Written towards the end of Agatha Christie’s life, at the age of 82, Elephants Can Remember is another retrospective novel investigating a murder from a long time past. It is typical of her later works in its nostalgia, and several references are made in the story to her earlier books.

Elephants Can Remember is the last novel that she wrote featuring Ariadne Oliver, and also Hercule Poirot – although ‘Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case’ was published after Agatha Christie’s death, it was actually written in the 1940s during World War II.

At a literary lunch for female writers, Ariadne Oliver is approached by a complete stranger, the large and forceful Mrs Burton-Cox. She explains that her son is planning to marry Ariadne’s god-daughter, Celia Ranvescroft. However Mrs Burton-Cox stuns Ariadne by asking “Did her mother kill her father, or was it the father who killed the mother?”

Completely shocked and confused by this strange question, Ariadne Oliver recalls that Celia Ravenscroft’s mother was Margaret (Mollie) Preston-Grey, an old school friend, who married a military man. Although everyone else seems to have forgotten this tragedy, Mrs Burton-Cox’s persistent attitude that Celia is not good for her son, annoys Ariadne Oliver.

She manages to get in touch with Celia who gives Ariadne Oliver’s investigations her blessing, and although put off by Mrs Burton-Cox’s attitude, she decides to try to answer her question. She enrols the help of her friend, Hercule Poirot.

About twelve years earlier, the bodies of General Alastair Ravenscroft and his wife Molly Ravenscroft were found on the cliff-top near their home. They had both been shot with a revolver which lay beside them, and both of their fingerprints were found on the weapon.

The original investigation was unable to prove whether it was a double suicide pact, or whether one had murdered the other and then in a fit of remorse committed suicide. They left behind their daughter Celia, and their son, both of whom were away from home at the time of the tragedy.

Celia Ravenscroft, who was only young at the time of their deaths, remembers little. She cannot begin to think why her parents would want to commit suicide, or why anyone else would want to murder them.

Hercule Poirot and Ariadne Oliver are confused by Mrs Burton-Cox’s motives – does she believe that Celia might have her parent’s murderous tendencies? Or does she have other motives? However Ariadne’s curiosity has been aroused, and so for her own peace of mind she needs to investigate further.

Hercule Poirot and Ariadne start to conduct their interviews with the witnesses, acquaintances and employees of the Ravenscrofts, whom they nickname “elephants”, in the hope that Elephants Can Remember. However each “elephant” remembers a different story and set of circumstances.

During the course of their investigations they learn more about Molly’s history, and hear speculation that Molly was involved with another man, and also rumours that General Ravenscroft was involved with another woman.

Ariadne’s old friend, Julia Carstairs, tells her that Lady Ravenscroft had a penchant for wigs, and wonders whether she was trying to impress someone other than her husband? Yet more rumours abound about Molly Ravenscroft, but there is confusion about whether these stories relate to Molly or her twin sister, Dorothea, also known as Dolly.

Hercule Poirot gets in touch with an old friend, Superintendent Garroway, who was part of the original investigation. He tells Poirot that the Ravenscrofts had spent many years living abroad, mainly in Malaya, before returning home to the UK. Molly had however spent time in a nursing home with her nerves, immediately before her death.

Rumours everywhere… but what is the truth. And is it really true that Elephants Can Remember?

Not one of Agatha Christie’s best detective stories; certainly not as sharp and well defined as those of her earlier period. The plot device used which relies on an elderly housekeeper with extremely poor eyesight is a little unbelievable, but it is still an entertaining story.

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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

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