Elephants Can Remember
A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp
English mystery writer Agatha Christie lived from 1890 to 1976. She wrote sixty-six novels and fourteen short story collections in her long career and is the most published fiction author of all time, with two billion copies of her books in print. She also wrote the world’s longest-running play, The Mousetrap, which ran in London from 1952 to 2020.
One of Agatha Christie’s last published works was her 1972 novel, Elephants Can Remember. The story involves a fifteen-year-old murder-suicide, or what appeared to be a murder-suicide. The “elephants” of the title are the people who remember the tragedy in all its detail because, as you know, elephants remember everything.
Ariadne Oliver is the character in Elephants Can Remember who sets the story in motion. As a successful novelist, she attends a “writers’ luncheon,” where she is accosted by an “odious” woman named Mrs. Burton-Cox. Ariadne Oliver’s goddaughter, a girl named Celia Ravenscroft, is considering marrying Mr. Burton-Cox’s adopted son, Desmond. In considering the murder-suicide tragedy that occurred fifteen years earlier, Mrs. Burton-Cox wants to know if Celia’s mother killed Celia’s father and then killed herself, or if Celia’s father murder Celia’s mother and then killed himself. (Got that?) It seems that Mrs. Burton-Cox can’t allow her adopted son to marry Celia Ravenscroft until this question is answered. She believes Ariadne Oliver knows the answer, or at least can find out.
Not being a detective, Ariadne enlists the aid of her friend Hercule Poirot, the Belgian detective who has solved so many different cases in so many other works of fiction by Agatha Christie. If anybody can find out what really happened, it is he.
Margaret “Molly” Ravenscroft and her husband, General Alistair Ravenscroft, seemed happy. He was about sixty and she thirty-five. People who knew them didn’t know of any reason why they would kill themselves. The police ruled the deaths a simple murder-suicide and nothing more. There are people, though (“elephants”) who never accepted the police version of what really happened. A lot of time has elapsed since the event (fifteen years), so the people Poirot talk to about the case have to dredge up fifteen-year-old memories. A lot of the “elephants” are old by this time.
We find that Mrs. Ravenscroft had an identical twin sister named Dorothea, who had severe mental illness. When Poirot uncovers the “truth” about this crazy twin sister, he is able to piece together what really happened, as only he can.
Elephants Can Remember is formulaic, as all of Agatha Christie’s novels are. They follow a certain predictable pattern. The reader is presented with a set of circumstances and a cast of “suspects”, and in the third act the intrepid detective (in this case, Hercule Poirot) gathers all the suspects together and explains in great detail the solution of the crime. The guilt party (or parties) is carted off to the hoosegow and the innocent suspects breathe a sigh of relief and go on their merry way.
Copyright © 2021 by Allen Kopp