Sad Cypress (1940) by Agatha Christie

Sad Cypress by Agatha Christie

7 Stars (7/10 stars)

“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 by Agatha ChristieSad 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.

Sad Cypress by Agatha Christie Mapback

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.

Second Opinions

ahsweetmysteryblog

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. 

Clothes in Books

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.

Countdown John’s Christie Journal

A solid if unspectacular mystery, but even an average Christie is a good thing.

A Crime Is Afoot

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.

The Grandest Game in the World

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.

The Green Capsule

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. 

In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel

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.

Availability

Sad Cypress is available in paperback, ebook, and audiobook formats from HarperCollins

The Golden Box (1942) by Frances Crane

The Golden Box by Frances Crane

6 stars (6/10 stars)

“What can we do? All we’ve got is the knowledge in our minds and hearts that it was murder. But what else? There isn’t anything. It’s one of those perfect crimes.”

After a close brush with love and murder, Jean Holly is eager to retreat to a simpler life back in her hometown. What she finds is a community on the brink of war. It is November of 1941, and tiny Elm Hill, Illinois, is bracing itself for the country’s possible entry into World War II. Meanwhile, wealthy matriarch Claribel Fabian Lake is determined to seize control once and for all—not only of Elm Hill, but also of her three daughters.

Mrs. Lake’s sudden death is ascribed to natural causes. But Jean isn’t so sure, especially when rumors circulate that the dead woman was found clutching a golden box, a box which has now vanished. Even more disconcerting, her old flame, private investigator Pat Abbott, is in town. It’s hard to know what has Jean more flustered: the murder next door, or the handsome detective investigating it. Continue reading “The Golden Box (1942) by Frances Crane”

The Adventures of Ellery Queen (1934) by Ellery Queen

The Adventures of Ellery Queen by Ellery Queen

8 Stars (8/10 stars)

“Mr. Ellery Queen, watching the world rush by in a glaring Long Island sunlight, mused that life was like a Spanish wench: full of surprises, none of them delicate and all of them stimulating. Since he was a monastic who led a riotous mental existence, he liked life that way; and since he was also a detective—an appellation he cordially detested—he got life that way.”

An excellent short-story collection highlighting some of Ellery Queen’s most unusual cases. These stories are all from Queen’s first period, with a strong emphasis on detection and elaborate solutions. The shorter length plays to the authors’ strengths, allowing for airtight plotting against a striking backdrop, without time for the doldrums that sometimes afflict their full-length novels during this period. Continue reading “The Adventures of Ellery Queen (1934) by Ellery Queen”

The Better to Eat You (1954) by Charlotte Armstrong

The Better to Eat You by Charlotte Armstrong

3 Stars (3/10 stars)

Have you ever heard of a Jonah? Someone who brings trouble, bad luck, wherever she goes?”

Sarah Shepherd isn’t the type to draw attention to herself. Older than most of her college classmates, she sits quietly in the back row, hiding shyly behind her glasses. Sarah can’t hide her intelligence, though, and the thoughtfulness of her writing inspires history professor David Wakeley to seek her out. It’s a bigger challenge than he expects.

David learns why she is so desperate to avoid human contact: Sarah is convinced she is a jinx. Ever since the war, catastrophe has befallen everyone around her. The only way to keep others safe is by keeping away from them. David feels he must help Sarah, before her life is destroyed by what must certainly be a delusion. The dangers that threaten Sarah are all too real, however, and for once the professor doesn’t have all the answers. Continue reading “The Better to Eat You (1954) by Charlotte Armstrong”

Another Woman’s House (1947) by Mignon G. Eberhart

Another Woman's House by Mignon G Eberhart

7 Stars (7/10 stars)

“I expect you’ve got into a habit of seeing to things. Taking my place, giving orders, seeing to the servants and the flowers. But it is not your house yet, Myra.”

Myra never intended to fall in love with a married man. Of course, Richard Thorne’s situation is unique: his wife Alice is serving a life sentence for murder. Richard and Alice can never be together again, yet if he divorces her, it will look as if he believes in her guilt. Ever since she came to live at Thorne House with her guardian, Lady Cornelia, Myra has admired Richard’s loyalty to his wife. She would never ask him to betray his marriage. Yet it has become intolerable, living in Alice’s house, loving Alice’s husband.

She can’t go on like this much longer. Something has to happen. When it does, however, it’s the last thing Myra ever expected. Alice comes home, her conviction overturned. But if Alice didn’t shoot Jack Manders on that dark night two years ago, then who did? Continue reading “Another Woman’s House (1947) by Mignon G. Eberhart”

The Case of the Curious Bride (1934) by Erle Stanley Gardner

The Case of the Curious Bride by Erle Stanley Gardner

7 Stars (7/10 stars)

“What,” asked Perry Mason, “is it that you’re keeping from me?”

“Something horrible,” she told him.

Rhoda Montaine has this friend. And her friend has this problem. You see, her friend’s husband was presumed killed in a plane crash years ago. Believing herself to be a widow, the friend has remarried, only for her first husband to pop up again, very much alive. She doesn’t think her new husband would understand—he might even walk away from the marriage altogether. Rhoda wants to help her friend. Is there any way this bride can legalize her new marriage without the groom finding out?

Perry Mason has encountered many “friends” in difficult situations. While initially amused by Rhoda’s subterfuge, he grows increasingly annoyed by her refusal to admit that she is seeking aid for herself. Rhoda runs out, leaving Mason regretting his mishandling of the meeting: “She came to me for help, because she needed help. When I refused her that help, I betrayed my calling. I wasn’t playing the game.” There is only one way he can make amends. Mason must find Rhoda before someone else decides to solve her problem…permanently.

The Case of the Curious Bride by Erle Stanley Gardner 2The Case of the Curious Bride is compulsively readable, with an inventive plot that gives Mason plenty of opportunities to use his brains and get his hands dirty. The opening is a little belabored, as Mason, Paul Drake, and Della Street spend a lot of time confirming information that is already obvious from Rhoda’s original account. Once those early formalities are completed, however, the story picks up steam quickly and doesn’t let up until the end.

Among the colorful characters involved in the case are Rhoda’s husband Carl and his wealthy father C. Phillip Montaine. The relationship between Rhoda and Carl dates back to when he was a hospital patient and she was his nurse. That dynamic still holds. “He’s weak, I love him, and perhaps one reason is because he’s weak.” Rhoda thinks she can “make a man” of Carl, but his snobbish father’s influence is proving difficult to shake. The elder Montaine wants Rhoda out of his son’s life by any means necessary and has infinite resources to make it happen. It’s a lot of fun to see Mason pitted against such a challenging rival, especially since the other figures in this case are not the brightest bunch.

When the awful Gregory Moxley meets an untimely end—for real, this time—the suspect list is short and so is the timetable. It is known that several people arrived at Moxley’s house within minutes of each other on the night of his death. The way Mason juggles doorbells, alarm clocks, and ringing telephones to nail down the timeline is enormously clever. There are only a few pieces of physical evidence, but Mason makes them all count, drawing impressive deductions from each.

The reader also gets some unexpected insight into Mason’s day-to-day pressures here. His impatience with Rhoda in their first meeting seems out of character, but it is clear that Rhoda is just one of a parade of evasive would-be clients Mason has to deal with every day. They come to him for advice only to hamper him by withholding information. Mason’s legal schemes require almost superhuman self-control to carry out, so it’s actually refreshing to see him slip and give in to frustration just this once.

It is also pointed out that Mason is free to run his law practice however he pleases because he doesn’t have to worry about earning repeat business. “Ordinarily, a man is arrested for murder but once in a lifetime,” so Mason can afford to be a little unorthodox, including his relationship with his secretary Della.

Between Della Street and Perry Mason was that peculiar bond which comes to exist between persons of the opposite sex who have spent years together in an exacting work where success can only be obtained by perfect coordination of effort. All personal relations are subordinated to the task of achievement, which brings about a more perfect companionship than where companionship is consciously thought.

This is quite a buildup for Della, who unfortunately doesn’t do much in this book to justify it. Not all personal relations are absent, however, much to the amusement of investigator Paul Drake who catches them holding hands in the office.

Mason may not concern himself with impressing current clients, but he is keenly aware of how he conducts himself in public. That dull man in the elevator who wants to tell Mason how he should have handled a past case may be a potential client or, even more importantly, a potential juror, so Mason plasters on a patient smile. He never knows when his own past interactions might come back to help or harm his client. Indeed, a former juror will help him carry out an outlandish, and likely illegal, ploy in this very case.

By now, I should no longer be surprised by Mason’s questionably legal stunts, yet he always seems to top himself. His actions here lead to a spectacular courtroom sequence that elicits an especially strong reaction from prosecutor John Lucas. One of the reasons this climax works so well is because Mason has been subtly laying the groundwork for it all along, using his psychological acumen to steer witnesses, jurors, and the prosecutor in exactly the direction he wants them to go. The sheer oddity of the Montaine case will require all of his wiles.

When a person is guilty, a clever attorney makes up a story for him to tell a jury. Therefore, the defendant’s story usually sounds pretty convincing. When a defendant is innocent, the facts don’t sound nearly so plausible as they do when they’re fabricated. When a person makes up a story, the first thing he tries to bear in mind is to make up a story that’s plausible. When he relates events just as they happened, the story doesn’t sound as plausible […] There are millions of facts which may fall from the wheel of chance in any possible combination. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred these facts are plausible and convincing, but once out of a hundred the actual truth challenges credulity. When a defendant is caught in that kind of a trap, it’s one of the worst cases a lawyer can get hold of.

One of the hallmarks of the Perry Mason series is its recognition that justice does not happen in the courtroom. Even when Mason “solves” the case in court, there are usually some additional twists to follow, exposing the full extent of the crime and demonstrating how accurately Mason is able to predict human behavior. The Case of the Curious Bride, while it boasts an excellent solution, reveals the truth about the murder in an offbeat way that does not do it justice. All of the details are crammed together into a long, breathless block paragraph that makes it hard to discern what has actually happened. Just a little more breathing room is needed to showcase an otherwise highly satisfying conclusion.

The Case of the Curious Bride is brisk, lively, and bursting with ideas, a particularly impressive feat considering that it is only one of three Perry Mason adventures published in 1934. Gardner doesn’t know quite what to do with Della and Paul yet, but the series is finding its feet in other ways. It’s nice to get some glimpses into Mason’s thoughts about his profession, and while he still spends more time detecting than he does in the courtroom, the trial scenes are first-rate. All in all, it’s a good time for any curious reader.

Second Opinions

Mysteries Ahoy!

Pulpy but very engaging story about a woman. One of the most readable Mason stories I have read so far.

Vintage Pop Fictions

Gardner really is in fine form in The Case of the Curious Bride. Courtroom scenes can be dull in the hands of lesser writers but they’re never a problem for Gardner – he knows how to build up to the inevitable display of legal pyrotechnics from Mason. We can see that Mason is about to pull a rabbit out of the hat but we have no more idea than the luckless Deputy D.A. as to how he’s going to do it. This is a lovely piece of plotting and a very very enjoyable tale. Highly recommended.

Availability

The Case of the Curious Bride is available in ebook and audiobook formats. The 1935 film version turns up on Turner Classic Movies fairly regularly; a detailed review can be found at Tipping My Fedora. This novel was also adapted for season 2, episode 5 of the Perry Mason TV series in 1958.

Take Two at Bedtime (1949) by Margery Allingham

Take Two at Bedtime by Margery Allingham

6 stars (6/10 stars)

“You don’t want the scandal, of course (I don’t blame you), nor do I. But neither of us can help it. This is murder.”

At first glance, Take Two at Bedtime seems like an odd swerve for Margery Allingham, the crime queen known for her detective stories featuring Albert Campion. This is one of two volumes collecting romantic suspense novellas she published in American magazines during the 1940s. Allingham was always a chameleon, however. Brought up in a household of penny-a-word writers, she was willing to write anything that might sell and frequently used the Campion series as a way to experiment with trendy subgenres, from wartime spy stories to the paranoid thrillers of the late 1960s. Dipping a toe into the waters of romantic suspense fits right into Allingham’s surprisingly varied career. The results are entertaining enough, if unlikely to win over anyone who is not already inclined toward this brand of suspense. Continue reading “Take Two at Bedtime (1949) by Margery Allingham”

He Ought to Be Shot (1955) by Joan Fleming

He Ought to Be Shot by Joan Fleming

8 Stars (8/10 stars)

“Have you ever stood on Westminster Bridge at 2 A.M. with a large dead body in the car behind you and the desire to cast same into the river? No, I thought not.”

Something needs to be done about Caspar Hotter. Bad enough that he’s an artist and a foreigner, who is rumored to practice black magic in the ruins of Owl Hall. Now he’s seduced Hero Torrent into living with him out of wedlock. Everyone feels terrible for her mother, Margaret; she’s one of the very nicest women in the village. Even nice people have their breaking points, however. When Hotter disappears after a wild party, it’s not a matter of who did want to kill him. The question is, who didn’t? Continue reading “He Ought to Be Shot (1955) by Joan Fleming”

Jack O’Lantern (1930) by George Goodchild

Jack O'Lantern by George Goodchild

5 Stars (5/10 stars)

“Here is a drama of vengeance—carried out with a consummate skill and deadly resolve. Perhaps vengeance is not the right word. It is a mistaken notion of justice.”

Nothing could be cozier than reading by the fire on a cold winter’s night…until Sonia Freeling glances up to see a white face pressed against the window. By the time police arrive, only one sign of the strange visitor remains: the initials “JOL” scratched into the glass.

For several years, the phantom killer who calls himself “Jack O’Lantern” has been terrorizing London. Sonia’s fiance, Scotland Yard Inspector John Wrench, believes that her guardian Judge Wallington may be the next victim—unless the real threat is even closer to home. Continue reading “Jack O’Lantern (1930) by George Goodchild”

The Sleeping Car Murders (1962) by Sebastien Japrisot

The Sleeping-Car Murders by Sebastien Japrisot

9 Stars (9/10 stars)

To tell you the truth, I’m a very bad cop; I hate suspecting people. I’d rather condemn them all. There’s no such thing as an innocent man.”

Five passengers board the 10:30 sleeper train from Marseille. When the train arrives in Paris the next morning, however, only four disembark. The fifth passenger is still lying in her berth, but she hasn’t overslept. She is dead. Inspector Grazziano is prepared for a tedious effort to identify this woman and the other passengers who shared her sleeping car. What he doesn’t expect is that someone else is also hunting for these witnesses—a cunning killer who always seems to be one step ahead of the police. Continue reading “The Sleeping Car Murders (1962) by Sebastien Japrisot”