Elephants Can Remember: Agatha Christie’s Last Hercule Poirot Novel

Past sins cast long shadows.

Was it suicide or was it murder? That is the question at the heart of this Agatha Christie novel about memory and the influence of the past. More than once the saying “past sins cast long shadows” is noted.

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Elephants Can Remember is striking in the manner in which it is written. It’s told in a series of dialogues that take place in various situations. I can’t help but think of Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason dramas in which descriptions are sparse, story details emerging via dialogue.

The two main characters in this story are Hercule Poirot — that odd little Belgian with a singular musthache and an abundance of brain matter (“little grey cells”) that is pertpetually in motion — and Ariadne Oliver, a famous author of murder mysteries, who says she has no idea how murders take place in real life, that her works are simply fiction.

The central event in this story involves the deaths of an apparently happy husband and wife about 15 years earlier. They were found on a hillside near their home shot with a gun that lay between them, the only fingerprints present being their own. Did he kill her, then take his life in remorse? Or did she shoot him first? Did they agree to die together like this or was something else at play.

The Ravenscrofts had a daughter Celia, who was Mrs. Oliver’s goddaughter. Celia, somewhat rudely to Mrs. Oliver’s thinking, asks Mrs. Oliver to help her. Celia is about to marry a man, but rumors of mental illness in the family were stirring up concerns, and this double death on a hillside was never properly resolved. Mrs. Oliver turns to Poirot and the two set about to see what the elephants can remember.

The story is especially fascinating to me after having read Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go this summer, which is essentially a story made of memories. Insights from later in life illuminate earlier moments and give them new meaning.

Agatha Christie had been publishing for more than half a century when she wrote this, and was purportedly experiencing the onset of dementia at the time. This undoubtedly contributed to her interest in the subject of memory. It may also have contributed to the writing style which some Amazon reviewers criticized sharply. One call it her worst book and says, “Skip it.” Another says, “Stick with her earlier books.” Yet others say, “Don’t miss this one.”

Ironically, I have found it exceedingly compelling. And I like the set up. A writer of murder mysteries teams up with the greatest contemporary sleuth to solve a long forgotten mystery.

Each person they talk with reveals new details about the Ravenscrofts, thereby patching together an image in the reader’s mind. But which details are accurate? How much is true and how much is rumor? Aren’t we all subject to partially flawed memories because of our biases, our tendency to incorrectly interpret stories we heard, or question their veracity?

I remember a kid on our block when I was growing up who tortured grasshoppers and seemed like a troublemaker. A year or two after he moved away a rumor circulated that he’d been killed because he was sticking his head out the window of a school bus which got too close to a telephone pole. What stuck with me from the story was that he was told not to stick his head out the window like that.

In retrospect, the story doesn’t seem credible, but we believed it, perhaps because it seemed consistent with his character. (Wouldn’t the rear-view mirror hit the pole before something sticking from the window? Wouldn’t the bus have to be over the curb for that to happen?) Alas, we did not have Snopes in the 60s and here’s what Snopes has to say about a similar urban legend.

I should mention here that I am “reading” audio books from the library, and they are a special joy in part because of the readers. I love the way Poirot says “Ah!” — or rather, the reader has Poirot say “Ah” with a delightfully crisp little puff. The pacing feels peaceful and reflective. It’s been a good read.

Related Links

A New Thought Regarding Agatha Christie’s Crime Fiction
Shooting an Elephant (Notes on an Essay by Orwell)

An avid reader who writes about arts, culture, literature & other life obsessions. @ennyman3 Look for my books on Amazon

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