Poirot (Classic): S13E01 “Elephants Can Remember”

Je suis desole, mes amis – your faithful author watched his self-imposed deadline approach, then waved it on by as it sailed right over his head, which means I’m a week late on this, but eh bien, what can one do? Besides, this week’s episode is… weird.

The Setup:

In a great cold open, we see a man and a woman strolling with their dog along the cliffs behind their house (accurately named Overcliffe) on a pleasant evening… until a shot rings out, then another, and we cut to both people lying dead on the cliff, the dog in mourning.

We go immediately from that to a nightwatchman discovering a bound and trussed dead body in a bathtub full of water in the basement of an insane asylum. Turns out he’s the owner of the sanatorium, though he stopped regular practice years ago.

We go from THAT to a book signing for Ariadne Oliver, where she’s approached by Mrs. Burton-Cox (an unrecognizable Greta Scacchi) and asks if she’d mind awfully asking her goddaughter (the Gothically-named Celia Ravenscroft) whether her mum killed her dad or the other way round, her parents presumably being the couple from the cold open, which we learn happened thirteen years ago.

That’s right folks, it’s gonna be another Flashback Episode.

Well, sort of.

The Crime:

Look, it’s complicated. Ariadne basically spends the first half of the episode interviewing old people about their memories of the Ravenscrofts, trying to piece together what happened to Celia’s folks.

Poirot couldn’t be less interested, as he’s on the case of the drowned Dr. Willoughby in the asylum… until – sit down, you’re not gonna believe this – it turns out the murders are connected. Then Our Belgian gets interested with a quickness.

The Susp—- oh, let’s just do this instead.

Here’s the thing: this episode feels, for most of its running time, like it’s running down two separate tracks. Ariadne’s investigation into the Ravenscroft deaths, looking for “elephants” that remember details about the fateful day proceeds along amusingly and intriguingly, thanks in no small part to Zoe Wanamaker being a delight to spend time with. And it’s a pretty good setup, where the clues are doled out in pieces of pieces, half-remembered testimony and relationships and whatnot.

The second track – Poirot and DI Beale looking into the murder of the elder Willoughby – is much, much more dull, and it involves those two interviewing the younger Willoughby (Ser Jorah Mormont himself, Iain Glen) about a zillion times, because for some reason they only ask him about one question per interview. They also have a sit-down with his weirdly (i.e., American) accented assistant Marie, who is by turns off-putting and annoying.

The cases end up being entwined because of course they do, and it all ends in such an improbable series of coincidence and ludicrousness that even I couldn’t quite believe Dame Agatha had concocted it. I certainly hadn’t remembered it from the book (which, admittedly, I’d read something on the order of twenty-odd years ago, and all I recall about it is that it seemed astonishingly dull).

And it turns out – she hadn’t. The second track with the present-day murder and the crazypants ending with a thirteen year long revenge plot magically coming to a head at the same time Poirot’s friend is delving into the same events from so long ago? Entirely invented for the adaptation, and I suspect I know why.

If you stick with the book proper, you’re basically looking at a variation on the episode “Five Little Pigs”, only with Ariadne in tow. A crime happened a long time ago, and the heroes are essentially just sifting through unreliable memories to tell the story. “Five Little Pigs” – one of my favorite episodes of the series – is great, and does this with remarkable style, because it’s a very Rashomon-like way of relating the same event from different perspectives, and those being questioned were directly related to the crime.

But it’s hard to hang a whole hour and a half around interviewing people about a crime nobody even saw or was involved with, especially when the entire conceit of the plot is how unreliable memories can be, and how tiny clues can be buried in a long unrelated memory.

You know how about every other episode we get a scene where someone monologues something along the lines of “Oh, Colonel Stuffingham, yes, knew him back in India, him and that pretty wife of his, and oh, I remember now, they had a boy, terrible accident wasn’t it? They said the wife was involved, but my money is on the cousin that came to visit, son of the Colonel’s business partner Sir Boofington. Strange girl, always looking sideways at the boy. Of course, the Colonel also had his assistant with him, what was his name…” ? It would be 90 minutes of that. (As it stands, it’s already about 20 minutes of that.)

So they invented the present-day murder and subplot to, essentially, give us (and Poirot) something to do instead of all that. And God bless ’em for it, but it’s just excruciatingly dull and so wildly improbable that I wish they’d just stuck with the book after all, and found a way to keep the focus on the weirdly simple but astonishingly Byzantine story of the Ravenscrofts with a better script.

And this one also suffers from a common problem with these crimes-of-yesteryear tales, in that it continually makes reference to people and relationships that we either A) never meet, B) never see, C) aren’t supposed to see, or D) never existed in the first place. It makes keeping track of motives, characters, and plots that much harder, and this one in particular has a labyrinthine backstory that nearly had me diagramming on paper who married who and referred to which doctor and was in love with who and which person worked for… you get it.

It amplifies the problem with some serious cognitive dissonance in the age of actors, characters, and timelines, and here’s where real life intrudes, because the book has the exact same problem, and it very well might be on purpose – or it might be because Agatha Christie was in her eighties when she wrote it.

Elephants Can Remember was published (and set) in 1972, the last Poirot mystery written by Dame Agatha (Curtain would eventually be published posthumously, having been written in the 40’s, because girl played the long game). It’s been criticized by some for being, frankly, terrible, seeming to lose track of its own story at points, with characters describing things differently, dialogue that meanders, and details – so critical to her plots, every one – appearing one moment and being contradicted the next without ever so much as being acknowledged.

A lot of it is, honestly, something any halfway competent editor would catch in a first or second draft at the least. So one has to wonder whether this sort of thing was a metajoke on her part, an attempt to underscore the unreliability of memory (though this doesn’t excuse a lot of boring dialogue) and the fuzziness that age brings to even our best memories. She’s certainly clever enough and assured enough of her own ability – and maybe, too, bored enough – by this point where I can absolutely see her doing this.

But it might just be that at that point, Christie (who would pass four years after this was published) didn’t have the interest or ability to button up her stories in the airtight way she could when she was *checks notes* fifty years younger. (Cripes, I’m 45 and I can’t remember my own middle name half the time.) Her work from the mid-Sixties through her death didn’t hold a candle to her earlier stuff, and I semi-seriously wonder if anyone even was really editing her at that point in her career. What, you’re gonna “give notes” to Agatha Freakin’ Christie on her latest book? Just ship it and print the money already!

But the point is, no matter whether it was on purpose or an oversight, they carried that sort of loosey-goosey approach to age and timelines into the episode, and it makes an already murky backstory even murkier to follow in the present day. And sure, it’s been done before – but the difference here is that it doesn’t translate well to an entertaining (or even coherent) hour and a half of television.

I’m apparently in the minority on this one, as it’s one of the highest-rated episodes of the series (if Amazon ratings are anything to go by – I have my beefs with them in that most reviewers there howl like they’ve been poked in the eye with a needle the minute an episode dares to stray from the sacred texts). But I think on balance this is best viewed as an attempt to stretch a 40 minute story that wasn’t particularly well suited to television in the first place into 90 minutes (check out the extended sequence of Poirot, uh, traveling to Paris if you want proof), with predictably messy, often boring, occasionally eye-rolling results. Your mileage, as they say, may vary.

Next Week, on Poirot: Lest I give the impression Dame Agatha was incapable of writing a bad book in her youth, the prosecution presents as evidence an episode that manages to be only slightly less worse than the source material by virtue of the fact that it reunites Japp, Lemon, and Our Man! Buckle up for a big ol’ slice of stupid, kids, it’s… “The Big Four”!