“Come away, come away, death, and in sad cypress let me be laid”
Although I’ve recently started an effort to read Agatha Christie in order, I’ve always intended to cheat on my diet. It isn’t so much that I’m determined on reading Christie completely sequentially, but rather that I’m curious to read the first decade of her work in that way. My reasoning is her first ten or so books don’t quite enjoy the same reputation as her 1930s-40s period (with the obvious exception of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd), and so if I’m going to tackle them, it might as well be with the added appreciation of where the author was in her career.
Sad Cypress has been a title that I’ve been eying for a while, and so it seemed like a good candidate as a diversion from my chronological affair. I was lucky to track down a Dell map back edition for about a dollar a few months ago, and as you can appreciate, it’s pure torture to leave a map back sitting on the To Be Read pile. It’s worth noting that there is actually another Dell edition with a very different cover and a different map on the back. I would have preferred that other edition because I love the cover, but hey, you can’t argue with a one dollar map back!
As my edition’s cover makes clear, Sad Cypress is a Hercule Poirot mystery. The story opens with Poirot in court during the murder trial of Elinor Carlisle. This isn’t a courtroom drama though, just a teaser of what’s to come. The story quickly leaps to the past, covering the circumstances that led to Elinor being accused of murder and the subsequent investigation.
It all starts with a letter sent to Elinor, warning her that her prospect in a future inheritance may be in danger. Elinor’s wealthy aunt owns a sprawling estate some distance away, and with Elinor rarely taking the time to visit, the letter warns that somebody else is trying to worm their way into the will. It may speak volumes to Elinor’s character when she shows up on her aunt’s doorstep the next day.
Rather than the Crooked House-esque hornet’s nest of scheming relatives that you may expect we walk into, the occupants of Hunterbury Hall are rather tame, if not likable. In fact, it is Elinor who comes across as the most scheming, which is unexpected given that she’s the closest thing to a point of view character that we get.
You won’t be surprised when the aunt kicks the bucket, although this isn’t the death with which the book is concerned. It is a poisoning that occurs soon after the aunt’s passing the finds Elinor destined for the gallows.
It might be fun to look at the crime here as a variation of an impossible poisoning. Three women ate the same meal – a plate of sandwiches – and if you discount Eilnor (who made them and handed them out) as the culprit, then there really isn’t any way that the poisoner could have targeted the correct victim. But… there’s holes in that logic, as well as holes in the circumstances of the crime, and the perceptive reader is going to spot avenues for an answer.
It’s almost unfortunate that the opening court room scene starts by stating the murder victim’s name, as I think the identity of the victim could have otherwise come as a complete shock. It’s sometimes fun to go into a book not knowing what is going to happen, and if you lopped off that first court room chapter, I think I would have suspected Elinor (or her cousin/lover – yeah, there’s that) would have died, rather than the actual victim.
Christie plays an interesting trick with the opening court scene though, as it creates a lot of doubt surrounding the character of Elinor. She’s obviously not guilty, right? Poirot’s going to get her off, right? Or, is Christie tricking us into thinking all of this and Elinor really is the killer?
On top of that dilemma, Christie throws a few other red herrings for the astute mystery reader. I’ll admit that I fell for several of them, although the downside was that I was certain that I had solved the mystery, which always kind of takes away from the experience. Fortunately I was fooled and Christie’s surprise ending caught me with full effect. Not her best twist by far, but still what you’re looking for in one of these books.
I’m kind of stuck in the middle though with Sad Cypress. 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. There are books that I liked much less than this one, but at least I feel like I have something to say about them. What do I have to say about Sad Cypress? “Yeah, it’s pretty good.” Somehow that feels kind of empty.
At least it had a map back.
The David Suchet version
One of my favorite parts about finishing a Poirot novel is watching the David Suchet adaptation. The settings are always enchanting, and Sad Cypress may well have the best set pieces of them all. My mind never captures the ornateness of these country houses, and this one took it to a whole new level.
As for the story… it was interesting. It struck me kind of like the writer/director had read a two paragraph summary of the story, chucked back a shot, and then said “let’s do this.” Christie’s story is kind of floating around somewhere in there, but the film felt very much like its own thing. Some heavy liberties were taken with the ending. I would normally consider that to be sacrilege, but in this case I’ll admit it led to a very dramatic solution… and kind of a dark one if you think it through.
My least favorite part of the adaptation is that the character of Mary Gerrard – quite possibly the highlight of the book – is portrayed in a completely different light. I’m guessing the writers were trying to highlight the drama and create some suspicion, but the change of character really altered the story for me.