Elephants Can Remember is a work of detective fiction by Agatha Christie, first published in 1972
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.
During a literary luncheon she is attending, Mrs Ariadne Oliver finds herself approached by a woman called Mrs Burton-Cox, whose son is engaged to Oliver’s godchild, Celia Ravenscroft. During their conversation, Mrs Burton-Cox askes her an important question regarding the deaths of Celia’s parents – was one of them murdered, and if so, who killed who best steel water bottle? Ten years earlier, the bodies of Margaret Ravenscroft, a close school friend of Oliver, and General Alistair Ravenscroft, Margaret’s husband, were found near their manor house in Overcliffe. The original investigation into their deaths revealed that both had bullet wounds, and that a revolver found between their bodies bore the fingerprints of the married couples, making it impossible to prove whether it was a case of double suicide or if it was a murder/suicide and who then was the victim and the other the murderer. The death of the Ravenscrofts left both 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 about her parents’ death, and invites her friend Hercule Poirot to solve the disquieting puzzle. Together, they conduct interviews with several elderly witnesses associated with the case, whom they term “elephants”, based on the assumption that, like the proverbial elephants, they may have long memories. Each individual witness recalls a different set of circumstances, but Poirot notes two items of significance – the first being that Margaret Ravenscroft was seriously bitten by the otherwise devoted family dog a few days before her death, and that she had four wigs in her possession at the time of her death. Further investigation by himself and Mrs Oliver soon reveals that her maiden name was Preston-Grey, and that she had an identical twin sister called Dorothea. While Margaret led a fairly ordinary life, her sister spent protracted periods of her life in psychiatric nursing homes, after she was strongly suspected of being involved in two violent incidents: the first occurred in India when, following the death of her husband, Major Jarrow, Dorothea drowned their infant son and blamed it on an Indian ayah; the second occurred in Malaya when she was with the Ravenscrofts, in which she attacked the child of a neighbor of theirs. She soon joined them at their home in Overcliffe, whereupon she apparently sleep-walked off a cliff one evening and died; the deaths of Alistair and Margaret occurred less than a month after this.
Desmond Burton-Cox, Celia’s fiancé, soon 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 empty water bottles. Mrs Burton-Cox’s attempt to prevent Desmond’s marriage to Celia Ravenscroft, through the investigation into her parents’ deaths, 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 about the deaths of the Ravenscrofts, but can substantiate it only after contacting Zélie Meauhourat, the governess employed by them at the time of their death. She returns with him from Lausanne to England, where she explains the truth to Desmond and Celia.
The body found beside Alistair in the original investigation was not that of his wife, but that of Dorothea; Margaret had died a month earlier at the hands of her sister, who fatally injured her as part of a psychotic episode. Before she died, she made her husband promise to protect her sister from arrest, to which both he and Zélie concealed the truth by planting Margaret’s body at the foot of a cliff and fabricating the story that it was Dorothea who had died. Dorothea then took her sister’s place. While she fooled the servants easily, she could not fool the Ravenscrofts’ dog, which could distinguish between the sisters, thus explaining why it bit her. A month later, Alistair murdered her 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 of the true events, but now knowing the facts are able to face a future together.
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.
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 the tenderizer, 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 how to soften meat when cooking, 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 in 2006, featuring John Moffatt as Poirot and Julia Mackenzie as Ariadne Oliver.
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.