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

Murder on the Orient Express (1934) by Agatha Christie

(10/10 stars)

“At half an hour after midnight, we ran into the snowdrift. No one can have left the train since then.” Monsieur Bouc said solemnly, “The murderer is with us–on the train now…”

A snowbound train. A man lying dead in his compartment. Thirteen suspects, thirteen alibis, and clues that each seem to point to a different killer. Hercule Poirot has never been so close to murder before. As he faces the most baffling case of his career, Poirot must decide what it really means for justice to be served.

Continue reading “Murder on the Orient Express (1934) by Agatha Christie”

The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920) by Agatha Christie

The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie

7 Stars (7/10 stars)

“Beware! Peril to the detective who says: ‘It is so small—it does not matter. It will not agree. I will forget it.’ That way lies confusion! Everything matters.”

Captain Hastings can’t think of a more peaceful spot to recover from his war injuries than Styles Hall, the country home of his old friend John Cavendish. He soon learns, however, that life at Styles is now very different than it was before the war. John’s marriage is in turmoil. He and his brother have grown apart from their stepmother Emily, who controls the entire estate. Worst of all, Emily has remarried to the horrible Alfred Inglethorpe. Even the normally stolid Hastings is uneasy about this volatile situation. He is soon proven right. Continue reading “The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920) by Agatha Christie”

Murder in the Mews by Agatha Christie (1937)

Murder in the Mews by Agatha Christie

8 Stars (8/10 stars)

It is like the mirror smashed on the wall. The dead man’s mirror. Every new fact we come across shows us some different angle of the dead man. He is reflected from every conceivable point of view. We shall have soon a complete picture. . . .”

Murder in the Mews contains three excellent short works by Agatha Christie (including one of her very best stories, Triangle at Rhodes) and a middling one, The Incredible Theft. Continue reading “Murder in the Mews by Agatha Christie (1937)”

Third Girl (1966) by Agatha Christie

Third Girl by Agatha Christie

7 Stars (7/10 stars)

“I really can’t think what more you want,” said Mrs. Oliver.

“I want a murder,” said Hercule Poirot.

Nothing gets between Hercule Poirot and his breakfast, but he is willing to make an exception for a damsel in distress—especially one who claims to have committed a murder. His would-be client is horrified by the sight of the great detective, however. She runs off, declaring, “You’re too old. Nobody told me you were so old.”

Poirot can’t stop thinking about the encounter, and not just because of the affront to his vanity. He’s worried. This young woman needs help. And she’s going to get it…even if Poirot has no idea who she is. Continue reading “Third Girl (1966) by Agatha Christie”

The Hollow (1946) by Agatha Christie

The Hollow by Agatha Christie

10 Stars (10/10 stars)

“Blood and blue water—like the jacket of a detective story. Fantastic, unreal. The sort of thing that doesn’t happen to oneself.”

All the usual guests are confirmed for Lucy Angkatell’s house party. Her cousins, Midge and Edward, will be there. So will the brilliant doctor John Christow and his dull, plodding wife Gerda. And so will Lucy’s other cousin, Henrietta Savernake, a sculptor whose beauty and intelligence have placed her at the center of two separate love triangles.

There’s no reason to expect this weekend to be different from countless others, but an uninvited guest is about to crash the party: murder. The stage is set for a crime of passion quite unlike anything else in Agatha Christie’s ouevre. Continue reading “The Hollow (1946) by Agatha Christie”

Evil Under the Sun (1941) by Agatha Christie

Evil Under the Sun by Agatha Christie

9 Stars (9/10 stars)

“It is romantic, yes,” agreed Hercule Poirot. “It is peaceful. The sun shines. The sea is blue. But you forget, Miss Brewster, there is evil everywhere under the sun.”

Once, long ago, pirates and smugglers roamed this section of the Devon coast. Today, the island is home to the Jolly Roger Hotel, where a very different sort of piracy seems to be taking place. The hotel is abuzz over the apparent romance between former actress Arlena Marshall and Patrick Redfern, a handsome younger man. Three guests are especially worried by the gossip. Two of them are the lovers’ spouses, Kenneth Marshall and Christine Redfern. The third is Hercule Poirot.

Such an explosive situation is bound to ignite. One morning, Arlena is found sunbathing on an isolated beach, her usual habit. The only difference is that this time, Arlena is dead. Continue reading “Evil Under the Sun (1941) by Agatha Christie”

Death on the Nile (1937) by Agatha Christie

Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie

10 Stars (10/10 stars)

“I am afraid,” he said simply. “Yes, I Hercule Poirot, am afraid.”

Heiress Linnet Ridgeway has everything. She’s beautiful, rich, and completely independent. When she meets handsome Simon Doyle, her happiness is complete. The fact that Simon is engaged to her friend Jacqueline de Bellefort is surely just a technicality. Jackie doesn’t see it that way, however. She devotes herself to making the couple miserable, trailing them wherever they go.

As Linnet confides to Hercule Poirot, the newlyweds hope that a Nile cruise will help them escape Jacqueline. But Jacqueline isn’t the only one who might be dangerous to them. Someone like Linnet, who has so much of everything and takes it all for granted, provokes strong reactions. In the shadow of ancient temples, death has never been nearer, leading to a shocking crime. It won’t be easy for even the great Poirot to uncover a shipload of deadly secrets. Continue reading “Death on the Nile (1937) by Agatha Christie”

Lord Edgware Dies (1933) by Agatha Christie

Book cover of Lord Edgware Dies/Thirteen at Dinner by Agatha Christie (1933)

7 Stars (7/10 stars)

“When planning a murder never depend upon a woman doing what she says she’ll do.”

As a famous actress, Jane Wilkinson is used to being the center of attention. But this time, she’s the one seeking an audience with a celebrity, master detective Hercule Poirot. Her request is simple: “M. Poirot, somehow or other I’ve just got to get rid of my husband!” Continue reading “Lord Edgware Dies (1933) by Agatha Christie”

Hallowe’en Party (1969) by Agatha Christie

Book Cover of Halloween Party by Agatha Christie (1969)

6 stars (6/10 stars)

“Nothing could be more agreeable than a juicy English apple—And yet here were apples mixed up with broomsticks, and witches, and old-fashioned folklore, and a murdered child.”

Everyone in Woodleigh Common agrees that Joyce Reynolds is not a nice little girl. So when she brags of having witnessed a murder, fellow guests at the Halloween party dismiss it as another of her tall tales. All except one—the murderer. By the end of the evening, young Joyce is dead, drowned while bobbing for apples.

Unfortunately for the killer, detective novelist Ariadne Oliver is also at the party. Soon her friend Hercule Poirot is on the case. What he finds is a perfect-looking community that is seething with dark secrets, a shiny red apple full of worms.

Continue reading “Hallowe’en Party (1969) by Agatha Christie”