You’ve heard of Elephants Can Remember (1972): it’s the final time Hercule Poirot investigates a case at Agatha Christie’s direction, written in the final stretch of her career when everything she did was awful and without merit. Not even I could find something positive to say about it…could I?
Look, cards on the table, I didn’t hate this. I actually didn’t mind it that much at all — sure, it’s not one to proffer as an example of everything Christie does well, but the relentless negativity surrounding it is, I feel, perhaps a little unearned. A great any of you are already shaking your heads, and that’s fine — to help engage those of you who feel I’m wrong, I’ve hidden ten Christie titles among the text of this review so that you can distract yourself playing a little game of “How many can I find?”. Something for everyone, me.
It’s interesting to contrast ECR with the final Miss Marple novel Nemesis (1971) [I feel I should point out that this does not count as one of the hidden titles, being as it is in Title Case and with a date and everything — you should have found two hidden titles by now, and that is not the third] where Christie seemed just to want to spend time with Aunt Jane one last time, perhaps becoming more attached to the old dear now they had age, and the associated seeming redundancy, in common. For Hercule Poirot we know her ardour had dimmed, and that she would frequently banish him to the latter stages of certain cases purely in fan service (famously claiming that one book was ruined by his inclusion, a sentiment it’s difficult not to at least partly agree with). Elsewhere he was diluted with the inclusion of fellow partners in crime-solving — Colonel Race, Superintendent Battle, and, here as in several other occasions, the long-accepted Christie avatar Ariadne Oliver.
To deal with that first, it does feel as if Christie is both keen to play on Poirot’s presence — witness the exchanges with his manservant George — and also exclude him from a fair amount of proceedings: it is Mrs. Oliver who does most of the investigating for the first section, with Poirot little more than a talking head, and even then a talking head as realised by an author who does not wish to assume too much familiarity with the character: stripped of all but a few desultory foreignisms and a reference of two to his hideous-sounding liquors of choice, this is almost a Malkovichian Poirot for whom the solving of a murder is easy to separate out from the rest of his well-ordered life. His interest is stirred only by Mrs. Oliver’s visits, like a man worn out after too long staring into the face of the enemy, and, despite initial encouraging her to do nothing, when he does bestir himself for some international travel in the closing stages his involvement here is as anticlimactic as was Harrison Ford’s appearance in The Expendables 3.
And that’s a shame, because, in stark contrast to Nemesis, the plot here is a doozy: a man and his wife undertaking what appears to be a murder-suicide some years previously — the timeline of precisely how long previously is a little messed up, but we’ll get to that — and the question of who committed the murder and suicide is raised: as is repeated far too frequently to not become just a little jarring, “Did her father kill her mother and then kill himself, or did her mother kill her father and then kill herself?”. The “her” in this case is Celia Ravenscroft, one of Mrs. Oliver’s numerous godchildren — “you had to remember to think when you had seen them last, whose daughters they were, what link had led to your being chosen as a godmother…How much easier it was to remember silver coffe-pots or strainers or christening mugs than it was the actual child” — and the question is raised by the bossy, overbearing Mrs. Burton-Cox to whose son Desmond Celia is to be married. Contrast this with the vague, focus-shifting narrative Aunt Jane finished up with and it’s a masterstroke of clarity and complexity: we’re too long gone for physical clues to be any use, so it’s left to supposition, recall, and psychology as the weapons with which to attack this problem.
Disappointingly, the motive for asking this question is something of a washout (especially when contrasted with the likes of The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club (1928) by Dorothy L. Sayers, which is built on a far more rewarding who-died-first edifice, though resolved in a manner so staggeringly lazy as to render the average reader dumb): witness the little consideration given to the reason for the question once it is answered, which might as well be “Well, M. Poirot, I thought you’d like something to keep you busy in your dotage”. By the time Mrs. Oliver has established for herself that there is “no good reason” for such a query, you almost wonder how much of the investigation was really necessary. Mrs. Burton-Cox hardly temporises when confronted over her reasons for asking, so it’s odd that things continue all the way to the conclusion we reach…a conclusion, as many have noted, that most of us immediately jump to once a certain piece of information is declared, the sort of ‘plot twist’ most people could devise while sleeping.
Murder, though, at least warrants a fundamental level of investigation; were you to read a book in which the detective went “Well, I didn’t know that X and Y were ______ — clearly that’s the answer!” and it ended there and then you’d rightly be livid. I’m aware the nature of the investigation here is also something that causes great displeasure to a lot of people, but I’m going to break here and explain why afterwards.
I’ve put the objections to the book first in order to acknowledge that it’s not the handsel one would take out of Christie’s top drawer, and that many of the complaints are justified in how it fails to utilise so many of the strengths that were evident in her better books. But here’s the point where I split from the “this book is abominable and has no redeeming features” pack because, see, I really liked the hearsay, repetition, and faulty memories of the investigative passages. Yes, yes, I know, I know, it gets a little prolix and there’s a notable absence of real progression until that signpost of a plot development…but I enjoyed it. Because, well, if you were to sit down a series of people and, without any authority to do so, gradually steer conversation around to a tragedy to which they had some tangential association over a decade ago, this is exactly how those conversations would go — never a full picture gained from an individual, pieces tantalisingly scattered, sure, but the puzzle itself always frustratingly unfinished; portrait of the investigation as an exercise in patience and tact. And, sure, it can be dismissed as Christie’s own failing memory or her incipient dementia or whatever you like, but the vagueness, the sudden clarity of little details here and there which seemingly add nothing to the overall picture but jump sharply to mind…this is how people talk, especially when they’re not prepared for the direction the conversation is being steered.
It brings to mind — and this is no insight on my part, since the case itself is mentioned a few times in the text of this novel — Five Little Pigs (1942) in the “my parents committed a murder” retrospective investigation stakes, and while the solution here is far less interesting (or surprising) than there, the repetition is perhaps far more bearable (gleeps, I do not have good memories of that book — a wonderful resolution, amongst her best, but it’s a novella padded up to novel length by effectively including the first third twice…however, I digress). Does it make a great novel? No, we’ve established that, but equally as I said when I reviewed Hallowe’en Party (1969):
Scoff if you like, but there’s a real softness and a distinct absence of interrogation to the interviews Poirot conducts. Gone is the posturing of “I am the great Hercule Poirot and you will tell me what I want to know…” and instead comes in a sort of naturalism whereby the topic is raised in general terms — leading, no doubt, to a certain amount of repetition — before the specifics of Poirot’s intended interrogation are worked in. If you look at each interview from Poirot’s perspective of needing to get his subject on his side before probing down into what he wants to know, this repetition makes a lot of sense.
So this isn’t a new strain in Christie’s writing: we once again have that acknowledgement of Poirot’s own glory days having passed when Christie writes that “many people who had heard of Hercule Poirot and known him were now reposing with suitable memorial stones over them in churchyards”, and so this more conversational approach, at which we would scoff were the ‘elephants’ here able to summon decade-plus-old memories in pin-sharp detail, is necessary as much out of consideration for the feelings of those involved as for the lack of authority Poirot now has. And let’s not claim for a second that Christie is under the impression she’s constructing something here with the same rigour of Evil Under the Sun (1941):
“Did you, may I ask, get any results?”
“Plenty of results,” said Mrs. Oliver. “The trouble is, I don’t know whether any of them are any use.”
“You learnt facts, however?”
“No. Not really. I learnt things that people told me were facts, but I strongly doubt myself whether any of them were facts.”
“They were hearsay?”
“No. They were what I said they would be. They were memories. The trouble is, when you remember things you don’t always remember them right, do you?”
This “first figure of the Lancers” approach — “advance, retreat, hands out, turn round twice, whirl round, and so on” — covers ground more than once, brings out contrasting timelines in the memories of the ‘witnesses’, and made for me a pleasant change to the evidence-based certainties of a lot of my recent reading. No, it doesn’t mean that the destination reaches is necessarily any more certain, the burden of proof estalished beyond any doubt, but the journey there, if you’re willing to apply a little patience, is rather charming. And there’s still life in Christie’s prose yet — hell, even Passenger to Frankfurt (1970) managed some charming turns of phrase — with lovely moments such as the elderly lady who can’t pronounce “lapis lazuli”, or Mrs. Oliver’s attempts at keeping the terrifyingly efficient Miss Livingston both occupied and out of the way, or the kindly venom in the desription of Mrs. Oliver’s journey through a department store in which she walks “past the well-displayed aids to beauty as imagined by Elizabeth Arden, Helena Rubinstein, Max Factor, and other benefit providers for women’s lives” (the expectations for, and manipulation of, women’s beauty is something Christie was scathing about all the way back in They Do it With Mirrors (1952), so don’t tell me I’m imagining this!).
In terms of the solution here, I had the advantage, and I appreciate that this is just me, of being under the impression this had been spoiled in a very key way — our very own Bradley McGillicuddy Friedman having used a phrase when discussing this and others with the late Noah Stewart that I managed to read in the way it wasn’t intended, meaning I was expecting an entirely different guilty party and the “X and Y are ______” thing seemed like an obvious flag to therefore be ignored. There’s no accounting for that in your personal response to this book, but all reviews are individual encounters and it’s worth acknowledging here that my context for reading this was not the blank slate I typically like, though for once that happened to work out (the chance of that, incidentally, are astronomical…).
“Yes, this does not seem very relevant…”
As a final hurrah for Poirot, though, there’s evidently a sigh of relief when the final line rolls around and Christie can put the little Belgian to bed. She left Aunt Jane with a dewy-eyed harking back to her (as yet untold, may that always remain the case…) younger days, and while Poirot gets to remain undefeated in the manner of unmasking the various guises under which death comes, as the end of a 52 year relationship it seems a little sad and also perhaps rather apt that no such fondness is evinced here. Still, Poirot will have one final appointment with death [that’s the tenth, incidentally], and it’s encouraging to think that he gets to go out on more of a high than this, even if this wasn’t the disaster it was presaged as, and even if I’m pretty sure Curtain (1975) has been spoiled for me in a way that is not going to enhance my enjoyment.
Anyone got any tips for Postern of Fate (1973)…?