Sad Cypress – Agatha Christie (1940)

SadCypress“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.

SadCypressBackIt’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.

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20 thoughts on “Sad Cypress – Agatha Christie (1940)”

  1. I read this one out of order, too, and remember having come to it after a bunch of her “large cast” books (y’know — Evil Under the Sun, Murder in Mesopotamia, etc). By contrast, I loved the tiny cast and tight focus of this — it just felt really refreshingly different, and showed to me that Christie had an affinity with many different types of murder plot. Now, sure, she didn’t necessarily exploit this — indeed, there’s a argument that she really just told two stories; big cast and small cast — but at the time it felt lovely to have a different approach from someone who was getting a little…samey.

    Bold of them to put Tony Randall on the cover of your edition; I thought everyone would be keen to forget that movie. After all, it’s not like malkovish is going to be cropping up on the next set of reprints. Uh, is he…?

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    1. I could see this as being a refreshing change of pace. Sometimes I think that an opinion of a book can be influenced by the books that you read surrounding it, and perhaps this one just didn’t come at the right time to make an impact.

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      1. It’s also one of the few books where the main culprit’s refusal to be drawn on whether or not they’re guilty doesn’t annoy me. The justification is a little bit wonky, but I still remember not finding it irritating as I usually do when authors try that kind of thing.

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  2. This is one I remember enjoying very much and definitely had an emotional resonance with me. However, I would need to do a re-re-read to say anything remotely intelligent on it. Maybe next month…
    Very jealous of you getting a mapback so cheaply, given the difficulties us Brits have getting our mitts on them! You must have quite the mapback collection now? Definitely feel like a writer needs to do a classic styled mystery novel where the motive for bumping someone off is their extensive GAD collection in much sought after conditions. As it is I’m sure JJ must have rigged up some ingeniuous device to keep his copy of Death of a Jezebel safe!

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    1. I wouldn’t say I have a large collection of map backs – Sad Cypress, Through a Glass Darkly, The Mysterious Mr Quin, Three Blind Mice, The Tuesday Club Murders, Sailor Take Warning, Death From a Top Hat, The Boomerang Clue, and The Man in the Brown Suit. Most regrettably I don’t have any Carr map backs – I filled out most of my collection by the time I started being selective about covers.

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  3. Nice review! I always saw this one as a romance novel in disguise – perhaps Christie’s shot at writing a Mary Westmacott novel with added Poirot, to please her loyal readership. As such, it’s a bit long on atmosphere (& pining), low on action, but pleasant enough all the same.

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  4. Like possibly everyone, I like this more than you. While I do think it’s clever, I think of it less as a standard whodunnit and more of a character piece. It’s all about the redemption of Elinor Carlyle, which makes Poirot’s task that much more personal.

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    1. I concur, Brad. While Sad Cypress has a solid, satisfying mystery and solution, the book serves more as a character piece. The focus is more on characterization — they are more fleshed out then characters in such Christie mysteries like The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Murder on the Orient Express and even Death on the Nile — and may I say, even atmosphere is enlarged too. Sad Cypress is one of those mysteries that doesn’t stand out like the three masterpieces I previously mentioned, but the book is definitely a testament to Christie’s skills to writing more in the literary vein (way before P.D. James came on the scene), with the lens zoomed in on characterization, something that she didn’t always do, though I must say she never wrote flat, one-dimensional characters like her fellow critics say. If her critics can’t see how rich her characterization is in Sad Cypress, they will perceive Christie as a writer who penned hollow, deflated characters in her oeuvre.

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    2. From Brad’s blog (Ahsweetmysteryblog) when he reviewed Sad Cypress and and this particular paragraph caught my eye. I capitalized the words that beautifully describes the book and the Agatha Christie’s progression as a writer:

      “More than anything, we see here an author embarking in a NEW DIRECTION, one where DEPTH OF CHARACTER plays a GREATER role, where real life social and political history is interwoven into the plots, and where at journey’s end order is more shakily restored and personal happiness far less assured. If the books of the 1930’s reveal Christie’s mastery of the puzzle, the novels of the 1940’s show us a MATURE NOVELIST who can IMBUE the cleverest of whodunits with a DEEP EMOTIONAL JOLT.”

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  5. I know I’ve read this one, yet I remember almost nothing about it. Which seems to be a common reaction, judging by the comments. I remember enjoying it, but I think it’s an above average, at best, Christie, not one of the classics.

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  6. This book is sort of a riff on one of the most famous GAD novels, STRONG POISON by Christie’s friend and fellow Detection Club member Dorothy L. Sayers, which features a very similar hook and another semi-impossible poisoning. The name “Peter Lord” in this novel is almost certainly a reference to Sayers’ detective Lord Peter Wimsey.

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    1. That an interesting bit of trivia there. I may have to seek that out since I’m always a fan of the impossible poisoning (even if only semi-impossible). A few others that come to my mind immediately are Death in Five Boxes, The Burning Court, The Red Widow Murders, The Nine Wrong Answers, Till Death Do Us Part, Below Suspicion, and Suddenly at His Residence.

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      1. I’d definitely recommend it! It’s an example of what could be called an “impossible frameup”–the evidence makes it seem like only one person could possibly have committed the crime, and the detective has to prove that someone else was responsible.

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    2. Dorothy L. Sayers’ STRONG POISON and Christie’s SAD CYPRESS are definitely similar in many ways and obviously Christie read the book and was influenced by it that gave way to the book that we have now. Not only is the hook and semi-impossible poisoning similar to Sayers’ book but I think both Elinor Carlisle and Harriet Vane, while they have their differences, are both similar too.

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  7. In the film adaptation, Mary Gerrard was portrayed more as a sly, sneaky girl who didn’t come across as the innocent girl that Christie penned. I felt in the film, Mary gave off the air of one who went for the kill, taking away all the soft edges to Mary’s character, kissing Roddy and not giving a darn that he was engaged to Elinor. Now it’s been a while that I read the book, but I don’t recall such a scene. Roddy’s feelings turned to Mary but I don’t remember her reciprocating. I don’t think she did. Just the thought of Roddy’s affections changing was enough for Elinor to see red. We didn’t need a kiss or any other physical touch shown. By Christie not writing any physical scene between Roddy and Mary or Mary returning any feelings for him speaks volumes of Elinor’s intense, unhealthy love for her fiancee, which you still get in the film but more powerfully in the book. This description right in the first chapter just proves how Roddy didn’t have to do much to set off Elinor’s emotions:

    ‘As always when she saw Roddy, Elinor was conscious of a slightly giddy feeling, a throb of sudden pleasure, a feeling that it was incumbent upon her to be very matter-of-fact and unemotional. Because it was so very obvious that Roddy, although he loved her, didn’t feel about her the way she felt about him. The first sight of him did something to her, twisted her heart round so that it almost hurt. Absurd that a man – an ordinary, yes, a perfectly ordinary young man – should be able to do that to one! That the mere look of him should set the world spinning, that his voice should make you want – just a little – to cry. Love surely should be a pleasurable emotion – not something that hurt you by its intensity.’

    The road that the adaptation took is the most obvious approach that I expected in the film medium and it’s the one most often traveled. But I can understand how showing an affectionate scene as Elinor watches on raises more tension and perhaps makes more sense in that medium then merely showing Roddy’s affections turning away from Elinor which would be difficult I guess to show on-screen.

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