Elephants Can Remember (1972) – Agatha Christie

Title: Elephants Can Remember
Author: Agatha Christie
Date published: 1972
Publisher: William Collins  Sons & Co Ltd
Star Rating: ⭐⭐⭐
“He hadn’t forgotten. He remembered. That’s the point, you see. Elephants remember. What I’ve got to do is – I’ve got to get in touch with some elephants”

Taking into consideration that this Agatha Christie offering is one of her later ones, it is indeed very refreshing to notice that the novel deals with an array of ‘modern’ issues such as abortion, and other less modern issues such as adoption, adultery and mental illness that were alluded to in the past but in 1972 are discussed more openly among the characters of this chilling mystery.

Unlike a lot of Christie’s cases that involve the detectives Hercule Poirot, Tommy and Tuppence and Miss Marple conducting investigations on present cases, this novel rather deals with what we would consider today a ‘cold case’ – a tragic incident that occurred over a decade previously and which had no satisfying conclusions. There are even several references early in the novel that mention old Hercule Poirot cases that refer to previous novels such Five Little Pigs (1942), Hallowe’en Party(1969) and Mrs McGinty’s Dead (1952). Basically it’s a novel about going back, and in a way it’s sort of fitting that even Poirot’s reminiscing is indicative of his own mortality as at one point he jokingly admits that these days the only people that remember him already have their own tombstones. I don’t know if anyone else has ever noticed Christie’s morbid sense of humor, but I sure have and its one of my favorite elements of her writing.

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A recurring character of Christie’s is the crime fiction writer, Ariadne Oliver who is not a particularly social person. She much prefers to be at home with her books and writing, however she occasionally gets forced into attending literary luncheons which are attended by society people and those in the publishing industry. At one particular luncheon poor Ariadne is accosted by a woman whose very presence is tiresome to the writer. This woman is a Mrs Burton-Cox, and claims to be the mother of Desmond Burton-Cox, a man who is planning on marrying Ariadne’s goddaughter Celia Ravenscroft. As Ariadne attempts to conjure up an image or memory of this particular godchild (she claims to have a few), Mrs Burton-Cox demands information pertaining to a tragedy that occurred over a decade ago, and that involved the parents of Celia’s. It seems that many years ago the Ravenscrofts went for a stroll and were both found dead the next day by a servant. Sir Alistair Ravenscroft and Lady Margaret “Molly’ Ravenscroft were found lying with a gun between them. The investigations at the time had been inconclusive as those involved were unable to determine whether the father had killed the mother and then himself, or whether the mother had killed the father and then herself, or whether it had simply been a suicide pact. Ariadne is disturbed by Mrs. Burton-Cox’s question and approaches her old friend and the famous Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot to help her solve this decade old mystery.

The title of the novel refers to Ariadne and Hercule’s constant reference to those who never forget the past, even if they only remember fractions of it. The two crime aficionados embark on a quest to speak to as many people as they possibly can that may have had not just something, but anything to do with the Ravenscroft tragedy. Their investigation has them interviewing beauticians and maids, former policemen and nannies, as well as Celia Ravenscroft whose memory of that time is slightly stunted.

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It’s important to remember that this is a novel not only about a past tragedy and the hope of redemption and peace, but also of memory and how easily it changes from year to year, and even from person to person. Rumors of affairs and even deep depression abound as the writer and the detective seem to spin further and further away from the truth, and essentially helping Celia find peace with her parent’s death. Their investigation makes them aware that Molly Ravenscroft had a twin sister who was mentally ill, Lord Ravenscroft was rather fond of his children’s nanny and even Mrs Burton-Cox had a few skeletons in her closet.

The plot of this novel may seem convoluted, and it is, but not to its detriment. As unbelievable as it may seem at times that there can possibly be so much scandal and secrecy in one family, Poirot always manages to tie up all the ends perfectly, and manages to bring a heart-warming end to the tragedy. This novel is not just about figuring out who the murderer is, but about making sense out of a tragedy, finding forgiveness and questioning morality and what it means to love another.

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