Elephants Can Remember is a work of detective fiction by Agatha Christie, first published in the UK by the Collins Crime Club in November 1972 and in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company later in the same year. 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 Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case, which had been written in the early 1940s. The novel is notable for its concentration on memory and oral testimony.
At a literary luncheon, the celebrated author Ariadne Oliver is asked a blunt question by a complete stranger: 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?
(may contain spoilers - click on expand to read)
The bodies of General Alistair Ravenscroft and his wife were found near their manor house in Overcliffe. Both had bullet wounds, and a revolver with only their fingerprints left between them. In the original investigation no one was able to prove whether the case was a double suicide or murder/suicide and, if the latter, who killed whom. Left behind are the couple's two children, including daughter Celia.
Ten years later, Mrs. Ariadne Oliver, a school friend of the late Margaret Ravenscroft and godmother to her daughter, is approached at a literary luncheon by a Mrs. Burton-Cox, to whose son Celia Ravenscroft is engaged. Mrs. Burton-Cox asks Mrs. Oliver what she appears to believe is a very important question: which of Celia's parents was the murderer, and which was murdered? Initially put off by the woman's attitude, after consulting with Celia herself, Mrs. Oliver agrees to try to resolve the issue. She invites her friend Hercule Poirot to solve the disquieting puzzle. Together they conduct interviews with several elderly witnesses whom they term “elephants”, based on the assumption that, like the proverbial elephants, they may have long memories. Each "elephant" remembers (or mis-remembers) a very different set of circumstances, but Poirot notes some facts that may have particular significance: Margaret Ravenscroft owned four wigs at the time of her death, and a few days before her death, she was seriously bitten by the otherwise-devoted family dog.
Poirot decides that the investigation must delve deeper into the past in order to unearth the truth. He and Mrs. Oliver discover that Dolly (Dorothea) and Molly (Margaret) Preston-Grey were identical twin sisters, both of whom died within the space of a few weeks. While Molly generally led an unremarkable life, Dolly had previously been connected with two violent incidents and had spent protracted periods of her life in psychiatric nursing homes. Dolly had married a major called Jarrow and, shortly after his death in India, she was strongly suspected of drowning her infant son, something that she had tried to blame on the little boy’s Indian Ayah. A second murder was apparently committed in Malacca while Dolly was staying with the Ravenscrofts; it was an attack on the child of a neighbour.
While staying again with the Ravenscrofts, this time at Overcliffe, Dolly apparently sleep-walked off a cliff and died on the evening of September 15, 1960. Molly and her husband died less than a month later, on October 3.
Poirot is contacted by Desmond Burton-Cox, Celia Ravenscroft's fiancé, who gives him the names of two governesses who had served the Ravenscroft family, who he thinks may be able to explain what happened. 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. Kathleen Fenn had left Desmond a considerable personal fortune, which would, under the terms of his will, be left to his adoptive mother were he to die. 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 can substantiate it only after 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 a psychotic episode, but such was Molly’s love for her sister that she made her husband promise to protect Dolly 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, playing the role of Molly to the servants. Only the Ravenscrofts’ dog knew the difference, and this is why it bit its "mistress". Ultimately, Alistair committed suicide after killing Dolly in order to prevent her from injuring anyone else.
Desmond and Celia recognise the sadness of the true events, but now knowing the facts are able to face a future together.
- Mrs Burton-Cox, Desmond’s adoptive mother
- Celia Ravenscroft, daughter of the victims and one of Ariadne Oliver's many godchildren
- Desmond Burton-Cox, Celia’s boyfriend
- Hercule Poirot, the Belgian Detective
- Ariadne Oliver, the celebrated author
- Chief Superintendent Garroway, the investigating officer, now retired
- Superintendent Spence, a retired police officer
- Mr. Goby, a private investigator
Precursors to "Elephants"
- The Honourable Julia Carstairs, a social acquaintance of the Ravenscrofts
- Mrs Matcham, a former nursemaid to the Barnabys (friends of the Ravenscrofts in Malacca)
- Mrs Buckle, a former cleaner to the Ravenscrofts
- Mrs Rosentelle, a hair stylist and former wig-maker
- Hugo Fothergill
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."
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."
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".
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.
References or Allusions
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 copy of the book Enquire Within Upon 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.
- 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".
References to actual history, geography and current science
- The poisoning of Charles Bravo is mentioned.
Film, TV, or theatrical versions
Agatha Christie's Poirot
A television film was produced with David Suchet as Poirot in the ITV series Agatha Christie's Poirot, first broadcast on 9 June 2013. 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.
- 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 0-8161-6086-4
- 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.
- Czech: Sloni mají paměť (Elephants Have a Memory)
- Bulgarian: Слоновете помнят (Elephants Do Remember)
- Dutch: Een olifant vergeet niet gauw (An Elephant Doesn't Forget So Quickly)
- French: Une mémoire d'éléphant (An Elephant's Memory)
- German: Elefanten vergessen nicht (Elephants Don't Forget)
- Hungarian: Az elefántok nem felejtenek (Elephants Don't Forget)
- Indonesian: Gajah Selalu Ingat (Elephants Always Remember)
- Italian: Gli elefanti hanno buona memoria (Elephants Have a Good Memory)
- Polish: Słonie mają dobrą pamięć (Elephants Have a Good Memory)
- Russian Слоны помнят всё (Elephants Remember Everything), Слоны умеют помнить (Elephants Can Remember)
- Slovenian: Sloni si zapomnijo (Elephants Can Remember)
- Spanish: Los Elefantes pueden Recordar (Elephants Can Remember)
- Swedish: Långa skuggor (Long Shadows)
- Turkish: Filler de hatırlar (Elephants can also remember)