“It is not I that twist things round; they come round of themselves. It is like the pointer at the fair. It swings round, and when it comes to rest it always points at the same name: Elinor Carlisle.”
Elinor Carlisle on trial for her life, accused of murder. Elinor is the only one with the means and opportunity to have committed the crime, and she certainly has the motive. Yet despite Elinor’s desperate position she refuses to assist in her own defense. Is it because she is guilty—or is Elinor hiding some other secret? Even Hercule Poirot cannot be certain.
Sad Cypress is a different kind of country house mystery, and one that I have a real soft spot for. Bookended by courtroom scenes (rare for Christie), Sad Cypress focuses on Elinor’s state of mind during the sequence of events that will lead, slowly and inevitably, to murder. This central section of the book looks ahead to Christie’s more psychologically focused 1940s mysteries, carefully building up the characters and their relationships. As a result, the reader develops empathy for Elinor even as it seems not only unlikely, but outright impossible that anyone else could have committed the murder. Bit by bit, Poirot must chip away at the evidence looking for the tiniest crack that might allow for a different culprit, with no guarantee that he will find it.
It all begins with an anonymous letter warning Elinor that her inheritance may be in danger. Mary Gerrard, the caretaker’s lovely daughter, is spending too much time by the sickbed of Elinor’s aunt Laura Welman. Elinor and her cousin/fiancé Roddy Welman don’t take the threat seriously. But they do visit their aunt Laura, setting into motion a chain of events they are powerless to stop. Elinor is deeply in love with her cousin (ugh). She hides her feelings, however, knowing that Roddy prefers to keep everything in his life as light as possible, free from real emotion. Their engagement is a friendly one that also makes financial sense. As Laura Welman’s only living relatives, Elinor and Roddy expect to inherit her estate, so if Elinor’s life lacks passion, she does have security. At least, until Roddy sees Mary Gerrard for the first time.
Roddy said, and there was bitterness and exasperation in his voice, “Why should these things happen to one? It’s not as though one wished them to happen! It is contrary to all—to all one’s ordered expectation of life!”
Hercule Poirot said, “Ah but life is like that! It does not permit you to arrange and order it as you will. It will not permit you to escape emotion, to live by the intellect and by reason! You cannot say, ‘I will feel so much and no more.’ Life, Mr. Welman, whatever else it is, is not reasonable!”
What looks like a simple love triangle turns out to be far more unpredictable. As powerful as the opening chapter is, it gives away far too much about the events to come, including the identity of the murder victim. While there is still plenty of suspense in watching the volatile situation unfold, the tension could be so much greater without this foreknowledge. There are points in the story where it seems as if any of the characters could end up as either slayer or slain. My suspicion is that either Christie or her publisher felt compelled to reassure readers that there would be a murder eventually, since the path leading to the crime is rather a winding one. It isn’t really necessary, however, as the anonymous letter is enough of a hook to draw the reader in.
This story is so compelling because what seems like a cliché romance plot has been stripped of many of the traditional signposts of storytelling, the ones that tell us who to sympathize with and where things may be headed. The author appears to dispassionately recount events, appearances, and dialogue without overt interpretation (all the while, of course, making her own subtle choices that invisibly shape the narrative). The reader is therefore placed in the position of a voyeur, an eavesdropper, forced to make their own decisions about which pieces of information are important or reliable.
On the surface, Elinor is not a sympathetic character. She feels sorry for herself in spite of her immense privilege and always seems to be lying or hiding her feelings from others. Elinor and Roddy neglect their aunt while taking it for granted that she will leave them her fortune. Yet the reader does come to sympathize with Elinor and root for her innocence, mainly because she is the character whose inner thoughts are most exposed. As imperfect as she is, Elinor learns some very hard lessons, discovering too late that nothing in life can be taken for granted. Even here, however, much is held back from the reader, leaving it quite possible that Elinor is guilty after all.
It is not until Hercule Poirot enters the case that we begin to learn more about the other characters involved in the crime. Mary Gerrard herself is the most intriguing. Mary is beautiful, and “with that there are always complications.” Thanks to the fine education provided by Laura Welman, Mary is almost a lady…almost. Poirot must discover whether she is a vixen, a saint, or simply an ordinary young woman in a difficult position through no fault of her own.
Poirot’s role in Sad Cypress is smaller than usual, but he provides full value. He parachutes into Hunterbury for a quick but intense series of interrogations, ruthlessly extracting information before the interview subjects know what has hit them. He misses nothing; even a quiet moment lingering by the garden gate will be turned to good use. Poirot’s flamboyance is a delight as always, especially in contrast to Elinor’s glumness. “Everything is easy for Hercule Poirot!” he boasts—and it is, perhaps a little too easy, as the answer seems to fall into his lap without much trouble.
“You must be an incredibly simple man. Don’t you realize how easy it is for me to lie to you?”
Hercule Poirot said placidly, “It does not matter.”
[Elinor] was puzzled. “Not matter?”
“No. For lies, Mademoiselle, tell a listener just as much as truth can. Sometimes they tell more.”
The last portion of Sad Cypress returns to the trial, parceling out, bit by bit, the information that will solve the crime. The one moment in the courtroom that could have been a clear, dramatic revelation ends up as a rather muddled anticlimax. The book really needs Poirot to sell this solution but his heart isn’t in it, leaving things on a rather flat note. Here, his normal theatrical flair is undercut by the evidence that has already been revealed in other testimony. This may explain why Christie rarely makes use of the courtroom: it takes away her detectives’ chance to shine.
Sad Cypress is a bucolic countryside mystery with a hard, tense core just below the surface. Since I can never remember the ending, only the tantalizing possibilities, it is probably the Christie novel I have reread the most. It is always a pleasure. I begin these rereads smugly convinced that I know exactly what is going to happen with Elinor, Mary, Roddy, Aunt Laura, and her gossipy nurses, only for Christie to prove me wrong every time. And whatever else I forget about Sad Cypress, one memory persists, the same one Poirot envisions at the garden fence. It is the image of Elinor Carlisle, standing before the window on a hot summer’s day making sandwiches, the moment before her life changes forever.
To my mind, the cleverest aspects of the mystery occur before and after Poirot’s sleuthing, when we are lulled into a sense of not quite knowing what sort of book to expect. In the end, though, we are handed another fine puzzle.
Sad Cypress has an excellent plot, unlikely but fairplay, and the character of Elinor is beautifully done – Christie has her set ideas on the relations of men and women, but inside the clichés you get a stamp of conviction and the voice of experience.
A solid if unspectacular mystery, but even an average Christie is a good thing.
All these make it possible to maintain the attention of the reader and, in essence, the novel ends up being quite entertaining. Likewise its resolution turns out fairly convincing. Probably the biggest drawback of the story, in my view, has to do with the way in which Poirot arrives to solve the mystery. It has very much reminded me the way a magician pulls a rabbit out of his top hat.
One of Agatha Christie’s simplest books, almost an exercise in minimalism: the reader should be able to deduce the murderer’s identity without much difficulty, but will be puzzled as to how the crime was committed.
It was a good enough read and checked many of the boxes that I’m looking for with this sort of golden age mystery. At the same time, I don’t know that I really feel anything about it.
It’s a decent enough read, but compared to her best work, it’s decidedly average. Cautiously recommended, if you’ve run out of the good Poirot books.
Sad Cypress is available in paperback, ebook, and audiobook formats from HarperCollins