Elephants Can Remember

Elephants Can Remember

infobox Book |
name = Elephants Can Remember
title_orig =
translator =

image_caption = Dust-jacket illustration of the first UK edition
author = Agatha Christie
cover_artist = Not known
country = United Kingdom
language = English
series =
genre = Crime novel
publisher = Collins Crime Club
release_date = November 1972
media_type = Print (Hardcover & Paperback)
pages = 256 pp (first edition, hardcover)
isbn = ISBN 0-002-31210-7
preceded_by = Nemesis
followed_by = Postern of Fate

"Elephants Can Remember" is a work of detective fiction by Agatha Christie and first published in the UK by the Collins Crime Club in November 1972Chris Peers, Ralph Spurrier and Jamie Sturgeon. "Collins Crime Club – A checklist of First Editions". Dragonby Press (Second Edition) March 1999 (Page 15)] and in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company later in the same year [John Cooper and B.A. Pyke. "Detective Fiction - the collector's guide": Second Edition (Pages 82 and 87) Scholar Press. 1994. ISBN 0-85967-991-8] [http://home.insightbb.com/~jsmarcum/agatha68.htm American Tribute to Agatha Christie] ] . The UK edition retailed for £1.60 and the US edition at $6.95.

It features her Belgian detective Hercule Poirot and the recurring character Ariadne Oliver. This was the last of Christie's novels to feature either of these characters, although in terms of publication it was succeeded by "", which had been written in the early 1940's. The novel is notable for its concentration on memory and oral testimony.

Plot introduction

At a literary luncheon, the celebrated author Ariadne Oliver is asked a blunt question by a complete stranger: Mrs. Burton-Cox. Mrs. Burton-Cox’s son is considering marriage to one of Mrs. Oliver’s god-daughters, Celia Ravenscroft. The question is: did Celia’s mother murder her father, or was it the other way around? Disturbed but curious, Mrs. Oliver enlists Poirot’s help as she attempts to discover the truth about two deaths that had occurred many years earlier.

Plot summary

The deaths of General Alistair and Mrs. Molly Ravenscroft had taken place at Overcliffe. They were found by the cliff, both dead of bullet wounds, and a revolver between their bodies with their fingerprints (and only their fingerprints) upon it. In the original investigation it had proved impossible to determine whether the case was a double suicide or murder/suicide committed by one or other of the two.

Mrs. Oliver interviews several elderly witnesses whom she terms “elephants” based on the assumption that they will not have forgotten the events of the past. In a piece of misdirection on Christie’s part, each remembers (or misremembers) a very different set of circumstances, but Poirot notes one fact that he suggests has particular significance: Margaret Ravenscroft owned four wigs. He also decides that the investigation must search further into the past in order to unearth the truth.

Dolly (Dorothea) and Molly (Margaret) Preston-Grey were identical twin sisters, but Dolly’s connection with two violent incidents had led to her spending protracted periods in psychiatric nursing homes. She had married a soldier called Jarrow and, shortly after his death, was strongly suspected of drowning her son: something that she herself had tried to blame on the little boy’s older sister. The second murder was apparently committed in Malaya while Dolly was staying with the Ravenscrofts; it was an attack on the child of a neighbour.

It was again while staying with the Ravenscrofts, this time at Overcliffe, that Dolly apparently sleep-walked off the cliff and died on September 15, 1960. Molly and her husband died less than a month later, on October 3rd.

Poirot is contacted by Desmond Burton-Cox, Celia’s boyfriend, who gives him the names of two governesses who may be able to explain what happened. Turning to the Burton-Cox family, Poirot’s investigative agent, Mr. Goby, discovers that Desmond (who knows that he is adopted) was originally the illegitimate son of a deceased actress, Kathleen Fenn, with whom Mrs. Burton-Cox’s husband had conducted an affair. Kathleen Fenn had left Desmond a considerable personal fortune, which would under the terms of his will be left to his adopted mother were he to die unmarried. Mrs. Burton-Cox’s attempt to prevent Desmond getting married to Celia Ravenscroft is thus an unlovely attempt to obtain the use of his money (there is no suggestion that she plans to kill him and "inherit" the money).

Poirot suspects the truth, but uncovers it only by contacting Zélie Meauhourat, the governess employed by the Ravenscrofts at the time of their death. She returns with him from Lausanne to England, where she explains the truth to Desmond and Celia. Dolly had fatally injured Molly as part of her psychotic jealousy, but such was Molly’s love for her sister that she made Alistair promise to protect her from the police. Accordingly, Zélie and Alistair made it appear that Dolly’s was the corpse found at the foot of the cliff. Dolly took her sister’s place, and adopted her wigs. Only the Ravenscrofts’ dog knew the difference, and bit the false mistress. Ultimately, Alistair knew that he would be forced to kill Dolly in order to prevent further murders, after which he committed suicide.

Desmond and Celia recognise the sadness of the true events, but now knowing the facts are able to face a future together.

Characters in “Elephants Can Remember”

* Hercule Poirot, the Belgian Detective
* Ariadne Oliver, the celebrated author
* Chief Superintendent Garroway, the investigating officer, now retired
* ex-Superintendent Spence, a retired police officer
* Mr. Goby, a private investigator
* Celia Ravenscroft, daughter of the victims
* Desmond Burton-Cox, Celia’s boyfriend
* Mrs. Burton-Cox, Desmond’s adopted mother
* Dr. Willoughby, a psychiatrist specialising in twins
* Mademoiselle Rouselle, a governess to the Ravenscrofts
* Zélie Meauhourat, a governess to the Ravenscrofts

The "Elephants"

* The Honourable Julia Carstairs, a social acquaintance of the Ravenscrofts
* Mrs. Matcham, a former Nursemaid to the Ravenscrofts
* Mrs. Buckle, a former cleaner to the Ravenscrofts
* Mrs. Rosentelle, a hair stylist and former wig-maker

Literary significance and reception

Maurice Richardson in "The Observer" of November 5, 1972 said, "A quiet but consistently interesting whodunnit with ingenious monozygotic solution. Any young elephant would be proud to have written it." ["The Observer" November 5, 1972 (Page 39)]

Robert Barnard: "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." [Barnard, Robert. "A Talent to Deceive – an appreciation of Agatha Christie" - Revised edition (Page 193). Fontana Books, 1990. ISBN 0-00-637474-3]

"Elephants Can Remember" has been criticized as of lower quality than the bulk of Christie's output. 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". [cite book
title= The Cambridge Guide to Women's Writing in English
publisher=Cambridge University Press

References to other works

* The character of Superintendent Spence had previously appeared in "Taken at the Flood", "Mrs McGinty's Dead" and "Hallowe'en Party". The last two of these cases are discussed in Chapter 5 of the novel, along with the case retold in "Five Little Pigs".

* Mr. Goby is a recurring character in many of the later Poirot novels. Although he had not appeared personally in the previous novel, "Hallowe'en Party" he is mentioned as having contributed to that investigation in Chapter 21 of that novel.

* In Chapter 3, Mrs. Oliver fondly recalls a book called "Enquire Within About Everything" that had been owned by her Aunt Alice. This is also the book in a copy of which a will had been concealed in "Hallowe’en Party". The book is best remembered today, however, as the inspiration for a program called ENQUIRE written in 1980 by Tim Berners-Lee and which anticipated the functionality of wikis. [ http://www.technologyreview.com/read_article.aspx?id=13784&ch=infotech Retrieved 10-10-2006 ]

* In the Miss Marple story "A Murder is Announced", the character Edmund Swettenham, a writer, announces a play he has written after the murder is solved, similarly titled "Elephants Do Forget". Its author described it as "a roaring farce in three acts". [ "A Murder is Announced", Chapter 23 ]

Publication history

* 1972, Collins Crime Club (London), November 1972, Hardcover, 256 pp
* 1972, Dodd Mead and Company (New York), Hardcover, 243 pp
* 1973, Dell Books, Paperback, 237 pp
* 1973 GK Hall & Company Large-print Edition, Hardcover, 362 pp ISBN 0-81-616086-4
* 1975, Fontana Books (Imprint of HarperCollins), Paperback, 160 pp
* 1978, Greenway edition of collected works (William Collins), Hardcover, 256 pp
* 1979, Greenway edition of collected works (Dodd Mead), Hardcover, 256 pp

The novel was serialised in the "Star Weekly Novel", a Toronto newspaper supplement, in two abridged instalments from February 10 to February 17, 1973 with each issue containing the same cover illustration by Laszlo Gal.


External links

* [http://us.agathachristie.com/site/find_a_story/stories/Elephants_Can_Remember.php "Elephants Can Remember"] at the official Agatha Christie website

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