“Elephants Can Remember” is my first Agatha Christie novel and I rather fear that I may have begun my reading at the nadir of her accomplishments rather than at the apogee.
“Elephants Can Remember” was published in 1972, when Agatha Christie was eighty-two. It was the last novel that she wrote featuring either Hercule Poirot, the Belgian Detective, or Adriadne Oliver, who appears to be an avatar of the author.
The theme of the book is memory and how unreliable it and oral histories are. The final line of the book is rather fine, I think:
“Elephants can remember, but we are human beings and mercifully, human beings can forget.”
The plot revolves around an apparent suicide of a respectable married couple some twenty years earlier. Oliver and Poirot attempt to discover the truth of the “why” behind this event by interviewing “Elephants”, people who had contact with the couple at or before the time of their death, and sifting through their, often conflicting and inaccurate, memories.
There are flashes of brilliance in this novel. Poirot’s dialogue is crisp and distinctive, building a picture of his character while weaving intriguing clues into possible versions of the truth. The idea the plot curls around is ingenious and original. Many of the “Elephants” have strong voices and deliver views of the couple that say as much about the social background and beliefs of the “Elephant” as they do about the couple.
Unfortunately, these flashes appear through a fog of indiscipline that marred my enjoyment of the novel. ironically perhaps, for a book about memory, Agatha Christie seems to have lost her grip on time in this story: the ages of the characters and the timing of events change as the tale is told. Although the novel is set in the late Sixties or early Seventies and two of the characters are under twenty-five, this still reads like a period piece set decades earlier. Statements are repeated in a rambling way that seems to serve no purpose.
I found myself torn between thinking that this was a clever attempt to illustrate that time and the memory of time are only distantly related, or that Agatha Christie’s editor was too lazy or too intimidated by the author to do their job or that Agatha Christie was suffering from memory problems that prompted her interest in this theme.
Despite the problems with time and the tendency to ramble, this was an enjoyable read, even if the rambling gave me the opportunity to figure out the puzzle a few chapters ahead of the denouement. My enjoyment was enhanced by Hugh Fraser’s narration, which was flawless.
Now I want to read a Poirot book that shows me what Agatha Christie is capable of at her best.