elephants“Mrs Oliver looked at herself in the glass.”

If I’ve done the maths right, I’ve only got twelve Agatha Christie novels left to go before I’ve made my way through all of them. I reckon that means there’s only a year to go, if I continue at the rate of roughly one a month, so soon this blog will become devoid of fresh Christie reviews. Some people might like that, who knows, but until then, let’s soldier on with the last book she wrote that contained Hercule Poirot.

Ariadne Oliver, the well-known crime novelist, has decided to attend a literary luncheon for the first time. Normally she avoids the things, and doesn’t enjoy the business of talking to people who want to compliment her while she has nothing to say back. However, she is enjoying this one and making pleasant conversation with those around her, until she is cornered by a bossy woman who gives her name as Mrs Burton-Cox. While they’ve never met, Burton-Cox asks Oliver to confirm that she is indeed the godmother of one Celia Ravenscourt. Oliver states that she is and then Burton-Cox drops a bombshell of a question: “Did her mother kill her father, or was it the father who killed the mother?”

More than a decade previously, Celia’s parents were found dead on a clifftop, both shot and with a gun between them on the ground, both their fingerprints present on the weapon. The police ruled that it was a suicide pact and while much gossip passed between friends and locals at the time, much of the detail has been lost to history. But now questions are arising, and they aren’t necessarily welcome ones. Was that conclusion really the truth? Who killed whom? And why is it so important that Mrs Burton-Cox finds out? Her curiosity piqued, Ariadne Oliver seeks out help from her old friend Hercule Poirot, and together they track down the people involved who have the best memories; the, as it were, elephants who never forget.

Ariadne Oliver has turned up in several previous novels, and this is her last appearance, but it’s where I feel she really comes into her own. Poirot is not so central to the story here, and it is Oliver who does much of the early legwork and shows her talents at getting people to talk. This is really her most wonderful appearance, although I will thankfully meet her once more in earlier novel Third Girl which I’ve yet to read. Oliver was notably based on Christie herself, and the two share many traits, including being the inventors of foreign detectives that they grew to loathe, and a lack of enthusiasm when it comes to public speaking and literary events.

The novel uses extensively the themes of memory and oral testimony. Some people cite this, as well as the reduced vocabulary size as evidence that Christie was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, with which she was never officially diagnosed. While they might have a point with the style and language, the use of memory is nothing new. Indeed, the book itself discusses the plots of Five Little Pigs, Hallowe’en Party and Mrs McGinty’s Dead, all of which, along with the unmentioned Ordeal by Innocence, feature murders that took place years before the events of the novel. It’s an interesting idea, and one that allows for a variance on a typical murder plot.

Astute readers will have noticed that I’ve not explicitly said whether I liked it or not. I did – I always do – but it’s definitely not one of my favourites, which seems to often be the case with the books she wrote later in her career. There’s a certain amount of rambling, and the solution isn’t hidden very well, so I can’t even consider this a win when I got it right because it’s obvious from about halfway though. I wondered if she’s pull the rug from under me with a double bluff at the end, but it wasn’t to be.

Frankly, it’s not her strongest, but the right people get happy endings, and for a big fan, it’s of course a must-read, but it’s not one to start with. It lacks a certain sparkle, but it’s still classic Christie.

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