Sad Cypress (1940) by Agatha Christie

Come away, come away, death,

And in sad cypress let me be laid.

Fly away, fly away, breath;

I am slain by a fair cruel maid.

My shroud of white, stuck all with yew,

O, prepare it!

My part of death, no one so true

Did share it.

Shakespeare, Twelfth Night, Act 2, Scene 4.

Elinor Carlisle is on trial for the murder of Mary Gerrard. a young woman from the village near Elinor’s country house. Mary has been poisoned after eating fish paste sandwiches made by Elinor, who has been behaving oddly. What might the motive for murder be? Mary was a great favourite of Elinor’s late aunt, Laura Welman, who left her niece a fortune and was apparently considering a bequest for Mary. Meanwhile, Elinor’s fiancé, Roddy, has fallen for Mary. Has jealousy driven Elinor to murder Mary over Roddy, her aunt or both? Is she a ‘fair, cruel maid’?

The book is in several sections. A prologue describes the opening of the trial, with Elinor in the dock, remembering. We hear her account of Mary’s death. Then comes the investigation, led by Hercule Poirot. We return to the trial for witness testimony, learning how and why Mary died. In the final chapter – in effect, a coda – Poirot explains his investigation and conclusions in detail, with all his characteristic brilliance. In effect, we are told the story again and again, each time from a different angle. What really happened? Who are we to believe?  

The puzzle at the centre of the book is suitably intriguing. You kick yourself at the denouement because it’s obvious, and you just missed it all the way along. And yet it was concealed in plain sight. The explanation you wouldn’t ever guess, but it too satisfies. Both puzzle and explanation are contrived almost to the point where the whole thing falls apart. But it just holds together, and in any case you have been swept up by the desire for the truth, and you don’t care. Fooled yet again, and apparently effortlessly, by Agatha Christie.  

The setting of the novel is familiar and, it has to be said, now dated.[i] We are in an English village, with a big house nearby. We know the residents: the gentry represented by Mrs Welman; her servants like Mrs Bishop, the housekeeper; and stalwart professionals like Dr Ford, District Nurse Hopkins and Nurse O’Brien, who cares for Aunt Laura. They move between the big house and the village, all in their appointed positions. But the younger generation is not so settled. Elinor and Roddy drift along, living on their expectations of inheritance. Mary Gerrard drifts too, but less comfortably, born in the servant class but educated by Mrs Welman’s kindness beyond her station. Too good for one class and not quite good enough for another, she does not fit in anywhere. Everyone, including Mary, knows it, and therein lies the trouble.  

Hercule Poirot comes late to this party. The murder does not happen in a house or on a boat or a train where he happens already to be a guest or passenger. Poirot is called in after the death to investigate. Without his usual flourishes, he asks questions and nods at the answers. There is no sidekick or policeman to patronise. He remains of course brilliant, seeing what no-one else does, but he is much less irritating than usual.

Perhaps the reason for Poirot being restrained, relatively speaking, is the focus on Elinor. Christie is often seen – dismissed? – as a puzzle-maker but she is also a psychologist. If you doubt this, read the novels such as Absent in the Spring (1944) which she published under the pen name of Mary Westmacott. There is no crime to distract from the psychological dissection. In Sad Cypress Christie’s subject is examining strong passion, made stronger by being repressed, and the tragedy it can bring.   

For the most part Elinor appears cool. But is she reticent or truly unfeeling?

Elinor sat quite still, staring ahead of her. Her face was quite impassive. There was no clue in it as to what was going on in her mind. But she sat there, motionless, for a long time…

Sad Cypress, ch 5, ii.

Her relatives and friends accept this. Only Mrs Welman suspects that Elinor may have depths: ‘When you were both much younger I thought you were perhaps beginning to care for Roddy – too much…’ (Sad Cypress, ch 2, ii). She is of course right: Elinor does love Roddy deeply. But in time even Mrs Welman finds her puzzling:

‘You do – care about him, Elinor?’

Elinor’s delicate brows lifted.

‘Of course.’

Laura Welman said quickly: ‘You must forgive me, dear. You know, you’re very reserved. It’s very difficult to know what you’re thinking or feeling…’

Sad Cypress, ch 2, ii.

Roddy, who is not at all perceptive, confesses his new love for Mary, while assuring Elinor that he is ‘so terribly fond’ of her:

‘Elinor, you’re wonderful! So clear-headed! So marvellously impersonal! There’s no trace of pettiness or meanness about you. I admire you more than I can ever say. … Oh Elinor, my dear, you don’t know how truly fond I am of you. I do realise you were always a thousand times too good for me. …’

Quick, impulsively, he kissed her cheek and went out of the room.

It was as well, perhaps, that he did not look back and see her face.

Sad Cypress, ch 5, iii.

‘Love – isn’t very reasonable,’ Elinor says (Sad Cypress, ch 4, v). She would know. When she talks to Mary, she thinks ‘Is it possible to hate anyone so much and not show it?’ (Sad Cypress, ch 5, ii). It gets no better. She laughs hysterically when she overhears Mary and Nurse Hopkins talking about making a will. When she is clearing her aunt’s house, she buys fish paste for lunch, mentioning ptomaine poisoning to the grocer. She invites Mary and Nurse Hopkins to share the lunch and, as she makes the sandwiches, she wishes Mary were dead, imagining a future for herself and Roddy:

If Mary Gerrard were to – die, for instance … If anything were to happen to Mary Gerrard…  

Sad Cypress, ch 7 ii.

And a little later:

A sick wave of revulsion passed over her. What had she come to now? What black abyss of hate – of evil…She swayed a little as she stood.

She thought: ‘I’ve been mad – quite mad.’

Sad Cypress, ch 7, iv.

By the time of the trial, Elinor is utterly distracted:

The words stabbed through the thick enveloping blanket of Elinor’s thoughts – pinpricks through a heavy muffling veil …

Sad Cypress, Prologue.

What has Elinor’s passion driven her to do? That is what the jury is asked to decide, and you are the jury.

[i] There is also a little of the casual racism, mild in this book, which puts it firmly in the mid-20th century.  

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