This week, the alphabet in crime fiction meme is making its nineteenth stop, at the Hotel “S.” Thanks, as ever, to our tour guide, leader, and all-around top-notch blogger, Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise, for managing the tour so well. My choice for the letter “S” is Agatha Christie’s Sad Cypress, published in 1940 in the U.K. and the U.S.
Sad Cypress begins with the opening of the trial of Elinor Carlisle for the poisoning murder of Mary Gerrard. Introductory comments are made, and then Elinor is asked whether she is guilty or not of the crime. She pleads, “Not guilty,” and the opening arguments begin. Elinor, though, isn’t paying close attention to what’s being said. She’s thinking back on the events that led to her trial, and as she remembers, the reader goes back, too, to the real beginning of the story: an anonymous letter…
Elinor Carlisle is the niece of wealthy widow Laura Welman. For as long as she can remember, Elinor’s been in love with Aunt Laura’s nephew-by-marriage, Roderick “Roddy” Welman. He’s devoted to her as well, and fond of Aunt Laura, so when Elinor receives an anonymous letter about Aunt Laura, they both decide to visit her at Hunterbury, the family home in the village of Maidensford. The letter warns that someone is trying to influence Laura Welman to leave her fortune away from her kin. While neither Roddy nor Elinor is particularly greedy, they both realize how much the money will mean to both of them, no matter which one Aunt Laura names in her will. Besides, they want to tell Aunt Laura that they’ve become engaged. With this rationalization, they pay a visit to Aunt Laura.
When they arrive, Elinor and Roddy find that Aunt Laura, who’s been in ill health anyway, has had a stroke and is no longer able to get around or do much without assistance. So she has help from two nurses: Eileen O’Brien and District Nurse Jessie Hopkins. She also gets a great deal of help from Mary Gerrard, the daughter of the couple who keep the lodge at Hunterbury. Once Elinor and Roddy settle in, Elinor gets the chance to meet the local doctor, Peter Lord, who’s immediately smitten with her.
Despite Aunt Laura’s stroke, she’s able to interact and communicate, and she’s delighted about Elinor and Roddy’s engagement. She’s bedridden, but hopes to make progress. In fact, all seems stable, and Elinor and Roddy are considering returning to London. The next morning, though, everything changes. Roddy, who hasn’t seen Mary Gerrard in years, happens to meet her and immediately falls in love with her. In fact, he becomes nearly obsessed with her, a fact which isn’t lost on Elinor (nor on anyone else in the household). Elinor and Roddy leave Maidensford, their relationship strained, but are soon called back when Aunt Laura has a second stroke.
That’s when events in Elinor’s life seem to spin out of control. Roddy, the center of her life, admits that he’s in love with Mary Gerrard, and Elinor breaks off her engagement with him. Aunt Laura dies suddenly, and Elinor is faced with administering her will. Then, Mary Gerrard dies suddenly of what turns out to be morphine hydrochloride poisoning. Before she knows it, Elinor has been charged with murder and will now stand trial for her life.
There’s plenty of evidence against her, too. First, everyone in town knows about her broken engagement with Roddy Welman and his infatuation with Mary Gerrard. It turns out, too, that Aunt Laura was quite taken with Mary, and many people thought that she might leave most, if not all, of her fortune to her, instead of to Elinor or Roddy. Also, it becomes clear that Mary ingested the poison during a meal of sandwiches and tea. Elinor herself prepared the sandwiches, and even commented about food poisoning while she was buying the provisions for them.
The case against Elinor Carlisle looks very black, but she has a champion: Dr. Peter Lord. Lord’s fallen in love with Elinor and is willing to do whatever he can to see that she is proved innocent. He visits Poirot and asks him to find any evidence that he can that will clear Elinor’s name. He even tells Poirot that it doesn’t matter to him if Elinor really is guilty; he wants her cleared. Poirot is intrigued by the case and visits Maidensford.
He soon finds out that village feeling runs strongly in this case. Some feel that Mary was an innocent victim, struck down by a spiteful and greedy Elinor Carlisle. Others feel that Mary was “above herself.” Aunt Laura had taken an interest in her and paid for her to go to finishing school and take other lessons, and many people feel that, for a girl from the lodge, Mary is too full of herself now and deliberately broke up Roddy’s and Elinor’s engagement. As he sifts through what everyone says, Poirot slowly builds up a picture of the people involved in this drama. In the process, he has several conversations that give him valuable information. In fact, when one character tells a seemingly inconsequential lie during one of them, Poirot begins to realize who the murderer was. He soon findss that this story has its roots in a long-held secret, and that there’s more to Mary’s death than simple spite or jealousy. Mary’s death is directly related to long-ago events.
Sad Cypress is as much of a character study as it is anything else. We learn, bit by bit, who the characters really are and what motivates them. Most interesting in this regard is the character of Mary Gerrard. As Poirot learns what different people thought of her and why, we learn small pieces of information about her that add up to the total picture of who she really was.
Many of the other characters in the novel are also interesting, and some of the village characters are almost comical. For instance, there’s a funny scene during which Poirot is having a conversation with the housekeeper, Mrs. Bishop, who is very status-conscious and certainly unwilling to talk to Poirot until she finds out that he’s been called in by Royalty. Then, her guard down, Mrs. Bishop and Poirot have an interesting and animated conversation about who would be an appropriate husband for (then) Princess Elizabeth. It’s only then that Poirot gets the information he’s looking for from Mrs. Bishop. There are also some interesting scenes of village life. Those are appealing, especially for those who enjoy the English village as a setting for murder mysteries.
Sad Cypress also contains some interesting courtroom scenes. What makes those scenes compelling is that we see the trial through the eyes of the Elinor Carlisle, the defendant. We learn through her point of view who comes up to the stand, and we get to hear the testimony of several of the witnesses. That, too, is interesting as the reader is challenged to figure out who’s committing perjury. The courtroom scenes don’t dominate the book, though. It’s really the relationships among the characters that take center stage in this novel.
Underlying the plot in Sad Cypress is also a social commentary on class and class structure. The differences between the way that Mary Gerrard and Elinor Carlisle are seen because of their births make for an interesting study in contrasts. Several characters make reference to Elinor being “a lady” and Mary being “the lodgekeeper’s daughter.” I don’t know for sure, but it seems to have been Christie’s way of commenting on the class differences that were integral parts of the England she knew.
I recommend Sad Cypress, especially for Poirot fans. He’s particularly effective as he gets involved in what seem like casual conversations with various characters, but which all lead him to the true killer. The pace of the novel is even, with Christie’s trademark twists in a few places, and the motive for the murder is based on old secrets and buried truths and what they mean for one of the characters, so fans of novels focused on “old sins with long shadows” will not be disappointed.