Elephants Can Remember (Hercule Poirot #37), Agatha Christie. New York: Harper Collins, 2011 (first published 1972).
Summary: Poirot and crime writer Ariadne Oliver team up at the request of a mother and young couple, to learn the truth about an unexplained double suicide many years earlier.
Celia Ravenscroft and Desmond Burton-Cox want to marry. Desmond’s mother by adoption, looking for cause to oppose it, seeks out the help of crime writer Ariadne Oliver, who is Celia’s godmother. Celia’s parents died years ago in what authorities determined to be a suicide pact. Mrs. Burton-Cox want to know who killed who, and if there is a streak of mental instability that Celia might inherit. Celia and Desmond wish the truth as well.
Oliver enlists her old friend Poirot, and the two of them go in search of “the elephants,” those who remember crucial facts that might bring to light what truly happened, and incidentally, why Mrs. Burton-Cox is really so bent on discouraging the marriage. Along the way, we learn of Mrs. Ravenscroft’s deranged identical twin sister, who died by falling from the same cliffs where the Ravenscrofts took their lives three weeks later. Poirot wonders about the exceptional number of wigs worn by Mrs Ravenscroft, despite a healthy head of hair. What did French au pair know, who was staying at the time of their deaths? Finally, we wonder about the affectionate dog that inexplicably bit.
Reading the story, I was curious how much of Agatha Christie is written into the character of Ariadne Oliver. It was fun to envision Agatha going about with Poirot crime solving. I have to admit that the solution was fairly apparent before the denouement. What I liked about this story was the diverse set of characters Christie offers us: the somewhat eccentric Ariadne Oliver, the strong-willed Celia, the determined Desmond, the unlikable Mrs. Burton-Cox, and the au pair torn by love and the promise to keep a secret. We also encounter an older Poirot, one who sits and thinks even more. We wonder, as does Ariadne at one point, whether he still has his edge. As always, we discover his edge is to listen, to observe, to wait, and to think, drawing on his insights into human nature, until the pieces fall in place.
I didn’t think this was Christie at her best. She left too many clues, too few red herrings. Yet I found the story a pleasant diversion, with a great mix of characters and good pacing. This was published less than four years before her death. Some have speculated that she was struggling with the onset of some form of dementia when she wrote Elephants Can Remember. Perhaps the title was a valiant attempt to say “I’ve still got what it takes!” She was in her early 80’s when she wrote this–and still capable of writing circles around younger writers!