In which Elinor Carlisle is on trial for the murder of Mary Gerrard, and honestly – I haven’t given the game away, you discover that fact in the first sentence of the book! All the evidence is stacked up against her, but is Hercule Poirot convinced? As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to tell you whodunit! Although please note there are some comments below the blog that contain something of a spoiler, so please don’t read the comments if you haven’t already read the book!
The book is dedicated to Peter and Peggy McLeod, doctors who ran the hospital in Mosul, in present day Iraq, when Agatha and her husband were there on archaeological digs. They became friends and kept in touch when the McLeods returned to England and settled on the east coast. Christie was godmother to their daughter Crystal. At the time the book was published, the McLeods were under a lot of stress as their children were being evacuated due to the war, and I think the dedication was Christie’s gift of friendship during this difficult time. Sad Cypress was first serialised in the UK in the Daily Express in March and April 1940; and in the US in Colliers’ Weekly from November 1939 to January 1940. The full book was first published in the UK in March 1940 by Collins Crime Club (interestingly, before the Express serialisation had finished) and then subsequently in the US by Dodd, Mead & Co later that year.
First things first: the title comes from a passage from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. But how do you pronounce it?! Sigh-press? Sea-press? Sigh-prus? Sea-prus? I’ve done some research online and everyone seems to think that it should be pronounced the same way as the country. So Sighprus it is. Then why do I always instinctively call it Seapress? I’m annoyed at myself for doing it! My Arden Shakespeare tells me that the phrase means a coffin of cypress wood, by the way.
This book is structured very differently from most of Christie’s works. There’s a prologue, where we see Elinor in court, being asked whether she pleads guilty or not guilty to the murder of Mary Gerrard. Then we go back in time, and see the lead up to Mary’s death; the introduction of Poirot into the story and his additional investigations; and then finally back to the court to see the witnesses being cross-examined and to see Elinor in the witness box. It has a much more theatrical feel than most of her other books; we know right from the very start that Mary is going to die so there’s considerable use of dramatic irony as we see her make her fateful plans and live her daily life. And there’s always a buzz from a courtroom sequence, which certainly sets this book apart from most.
As the opening conversations between Elinor and Roddy develop, you feel this is more like a romantic novel than a thriller – and I must say after about thirty or so pages I was getting thoroughly fed up with this book. But it’s definitely worth sticking with it! You sometimes sense that Christie is trying her hand at different styles of writing, to see if they work. Part One, Chapter Six is purely epistolary in style, which cleverly moves the narrative forward without having to give a lot of background information to slow it down.
As the book progresses, and it reverts to its detective genre, it sneakily introduces ideas to put us off the scent. The thought that Elinor could take the opportunity to murder is carefully dripfed to us in a very theatrical way; and the awkward, stilted conversation between Elinor and Mary shortly before her death is almost painfully believable.
It’s a welcome back to Hercule Poirot after a brief absence of a couple of years, but to be fair we don’t see Poirot at his absolute best. He’s there purely to act as a detective, but we get to see very little of his character. He’s not particularly meddlesome, or vain, or dandyish; we don’t get any extra insights into what makes those little grey cells tick. I think this is largely because he is deprived of a confidant; Hastings has been off the scene for ages, and there is neither Japp, nor Race, nor even Battle with whom he can chew the sleuthing cud. He has a slightly different relationship with Dr Lord than with everyone else in the book because it is Dr Lord who has engaged him to look at the case; but Poirot can hardly take that as an invitation to share all his suspicions with him. No, Poirot is definitely flying solo in this book and it shows it.
He does have one brilliant moment of invention though; when he suspects that everyone he talks to is holding something back, he pretends that he knows what it is, and that draws out the truth. In conversation with Nurse O’Brien: “”You and Nurse Hopkins, you have agreed together, have you not, that there are some things which are best not brought out into the light of day.” Nurse O’Brien said: “What would you be meaning by that?” Poirot said quickly: “Nothing to do with the crime – or crimes. I mean – the other matter.” Nurse O’Brien said, nodding her head: “What would be the use of raking up mud and an old story, and she a decent elderly woman, with never a breath of scandal about her, and dying respected and looked up to by everybody.”” Before that, Poirot had no clue what “the other matter” might be.
Regular readers will know I like to have a look at the place names in Christie’s books to see if they’re genuine, made up, or a blur between the two. They’re a curious mix in this book: Dr Lord refers to a diphtheria epidemic in Stamford, which of course is a fine old Lincolnshire town with a population of approximately 20,000. Poirot ingratiates himself with the xenophobic Mrs Bishop with talk of a recent visit to Sandringham, which along with some fawning comments about the Royal Family, does the trick. Edward John Marshall, who is called to give evidence in court, gives his address as 14 Wren Street, Deptford; and even if the street doesn’t exist, the London suburb certainly does.
However, the majority of the story is centred on Hunterbury House at Maidensford, neither of which exist; Ted Bigland saw Clark Gable (who definitely did exist, and would have been 39 at the time of publication) at the pictures in Alledore, which doesn’t exist. Dr Lord was in Withenbury on the day of the murder (which doesn’t exist); nor does Boonamba, the fictional part of Auckland where Amelia Sedley lives. The expert gardener, Alfred Wargrave, lives at Emsworth, which is a real town near Portsmouth; in the book, however, it’s in Berkshire, near Maidensford. Maybe this suggests that Maidensford is based on Maidenhead?
Some other references that I thought I’d look into… Nurse Hopkins suggests Mary Gerrard should try to qualify in massage or in Norland. I’d not heard of that before, but apparently it is a college in Bath that specialises in training for childcare roles. Dr Lord mentions the Little Ease in conversation with Mrs Welman about having the will to live. That, if you didn’t know, was the torture cell in the dungeon of the White Tower at the Tower of London. When Roddy watches Mary run, with a sigh he murmurs “Atalanta…” and that’s the second time Christie has invoked this Greek myth to describe an energetically beautiful woman – the first time was in The Murder on the Links, so I’ve explained the Atalanta myth in that blog post.
I’d never heard the word stertorously before – yet in this book it appears twice. Just in case it’s new to you too, it’s a mid-19th century word meaning “like a snore”. Nurse Hopkins refers to seeing the film The Good Earth – commenting that women in China have a lot to put up with. Like the place names, it’s not often that Christie uses genuine film or book titles, but “The Good Earth” was a 1937 film based on Pearl S Buck’s 1931 book of the same name. It was nominated for five Oscars. She also refers to Mary as not “one of these girls who are all S. A. and IT.” That’s sex appeal (gasp!) and being an It girl – which is a reference that stretches back to a Clara Bow film of 1927, would you believe.
Poirot quotes melodramatically from Wordsworth when he is in conversation with Roddy: “But she is in her grave, and oh, the difference to me!” This comes from his poem “She dwelt among the untrodden ways” and is about a young woman, unnoticed, unloved, all apart from by the author. In another historical allusion, Elinor compares herself to her namesake, Eleanor of Aquitaine, wife of King Henry II, who offered a choice of a dagger or a bowl of poison to her rival in his love, Fair Rosamund. It’s not an unreasonable comparison.
In another, cheekier, literary reference, Dr Lord is recommended to Poirot by Dr John Stillingfleet, who said Poirot had done great work in the case of Benedict Farley. The majority of Christie’s readers at the time would not have had a clue what he was referring to, unless they had read the short story The Dream which had appeared in The Strand magazine in February 1938, and in the book The Regatta Mystery which had been published in 1939 but only in the USA. Most of her British readers would have had to wait until the story’s appearance in the 1960 collection, The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding.
A couple of other things to mention: Dr Lord drives a Ford Ten; they were built between 1934 and 1937, and were a fairly standard sort of car to have – nothing too flashy. And the rose growing up the trellis at the Lodge was a Zephyrine Drouhin; first cultivated in 1868 and still readily available today. And yes, the type of rose is indeed relevant to the story.
You’ll know, gentle reader, that I like to research the present-day value of any significant sums of money mentioned in Christie’s books, just to get a more realistic feel for the amounts in question. There are a few such sums mentioned in this book. Elinor proposes to make a gift of £2,000 to Mary from the estate of her mother. That’s approximately £78,000 in today’s money. No wonder she was staggered with the generosity. The other amounts to be paid were £500 to Mrs Bishop, £100 to the cook, £50 to the maids, and £5 to anyone else. That’s £19,500, £4,000, £2,000 and £200 at today’s rate. Major Somervell offers £12,500 to buy Hunterbury – and Elinor is strongly recommended to accept the offer. That’s just short of £500,000 at today’s money. Seems a bargain. And how much did Elinor stand to gain from Mrs Welman’s death, according to Nurse O’Brien? £200,000. Today that would be £7.8 million. Probably worth murdering for.
Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for Sad Cypress:
Publication Details: 1940. Fontana paperback, 25th impression, published in November 1989, priced £3.25. The cover illustration shows some half-eaten sandwiches, some roses, a framed sepia photograph and a few iffy looking tablets. All the clues are there!
How many pages until the first death: Depends on your definition! We know that Mary Gerrard has died on Page 1. However, as the story unfolds in retrospect, the first death comes on page 46. These more modern print Fontana paperbacks had a larger font and generally used more pages than the 60s/70s editions; so comparisons (should you wish to do such a thing!) are unreliable.
Funny lines out of context: Disappointingly none that I could identify.
None in particular. The important characters are somewhat one-dimensional and it’s hard to get much of an impression of most of them. However, we do see inside Elinor’s mind quite a bit, especially when she’s in court, so we may have a greater understanding of her than most of the others. Roddy is a weed, taking every opportunity to step away from trouble or emotion whilst profusely thanking Elinor for her thoughtfulness. Dr Lord’s description of him is helpfully apt: “a long-nosed supercilious ass with a face like a melancholy horse”. No love lost there, then.
Christie the Poison expert:
This is a book fairly dripping with poison, as that is not only its chosen murder method but also poison frequently pops up in other ways. When Elinor buys the fish paste she remarks to the grocer that there have been many cases of ptomaine poisoning from the product – and the grocer is horrified to think that he would be selling such a thing. In this context, Christie is describing what today we would simply describe as food poisoning; but it can still be lethal.
The charge against Elinor is that of poisoning Mary with morphine hydrochloride – again, today, more commonly known simply as morphine. The deceased had taken four grains of morphine, according to the distinguished analyst Dr Alan Garcia. Apparently, that’s the equivalent to more than a grain of heroin. There’s also a substance I’d never heard of called apomorphine, used here to mitigate against the effects of morphine, but a little research shows it has a very wide range of clinical uses, including treatment for Parkinson’s Disease and fighting addiction to smoking and alcohol. The police surgeon in court suggests that the morphine used might have been “foudroyante” – violent, in French – but my researches also suggest that, as a technical term at least, this might be a bit of Christie-style fantasy. Poirot, in conversation with Lord, wonders why atropine was not used, instead of morphine.
Class/social issues of the time:
There’s plenty of evidence of Christie’s usual themes although perhaps they’re not dwelt on in quite so strong a fashion as she’s sometimes tempted. Just like in her previous book, And Then There Were None, there is some unnecessary emphasis on Jewish traits and appearances; Sir Samuel Attenbury, Counsel for the Prosecution is described as “the horrible man with the Jewish nose”, and his affect on the court is that everyone was “listening with a kind of slow, cruel relish to what that tall man with the Jewish nose was saying” about Elinor. The word usage very much associates the adjectives “horrible” and “cruel” with being Jewish. Given the fact that the Second World War was in its early stages, I can’t help but think that’s particularly insensitive. Fascinatingly, much is made of the fact that Mary had gone to finishing school in Germany; by all accounts, this was quite the fashionable thing to do, as many young British ladies had a whale of a time living the High Life in Nazi Germany – like the Mitford girls, for example – providing they weren’t Jewish.
It’s no surprise to find at least one instance of xenophobia in this book – perhaps the surprise is that there’s only one. Mrs Bishop, the redoubtable ex-housekeeper at Hunterbury eyes Poirot with enormous suspicion until he starts chatting about the Royal Family (as I mentioned earlier). There’s a little nod to Christie’s political slant, with Mrs Bishop’s proud claim that Major Somervell, the new MP, was “returned unopposed […] We’ve never had anyone but a Conservative for Maidensford”.
And of course, there are always class issues. There’s a lot of latent criticism in the book about how Mary has been removed from her class – such as attending the finishing school in Germany – and how that now makes her a fish out of water. Roddy observes: “People never dream what harm they may do by “educating” someone! Often it’s cruelty, not kindness!” Her boyfriend Ted – a garage mechanic – observes how Mary has changed and she herself realises that he no longer suits her idea of what a boyfriend should be like. When Mrs Bishop regrets Roddy’s falling for Mary, “Men, they are all alike: easily caught by flattery and a pretty face”, even Poirot asks her, “she had, I suppose, admirers of her own class?” As ever with Christie, it’s not so much being in the wrong class that’s the problem, it’s meddling one’s emotional affairs in another class that gains her disapproval!
One other interesting subject that gets mentioned – although not in so many words – is euthanasia. Mrs Welman would welcome it: “if they went the proper way about things, my life could be ended here and now – none of this long-drawn-out tomfoolery with nurses and doctors.” Roddy and Elinor tend to agree. ““One does feel, Roddy, that people ought to be set free – if they themselves really want it.” Roddy said: “I agree. It’s the only civilised thing to do. You put animals out of their pain.”” The Voluntary Euthanasia Legalisation Society had only been formed in Britain a few years before the book was written. Added to the stories that must have been coming out of Germany about the Nazi use of euthanasia, it was a hot topic in many respects.
Classic denouement: No, not at all – a very different kind of denouement. As all the final scenes (apart from a short conversation featuring Poirot) take place in court, the great detective is not in a position to point a finger at a guilty party, he can merely explain things in private afterwards. Fascinatingly – and with some frustration too – the fate of the guilty party is never followed up, because, obviously, this is Elinor’s trial, not theirs. It’s quite excitingly written, but it doesn’t have the same impact as one of the classic denouements, and in the end you sense that part of the story hasn’t been told.
Happy ending? Probably, but it’s not a dead cert. And definitely not within the confines of the book, but maybe sometime in the future. Poirot thinks so, at any rate, and he’s usually right.
Did the story ring true? Personally, I have a problem with the credibility of Roddy’s infatuation with Mary. Admittedly, men are capable of doing silly things from time to time, when they become aware of a new person who pulls their strings. But he really does throw everything away on a complete whim. There’s no evidence that he had any real encouragement from Mary. I’m not sure I can believe all that story.
Overall satisfaction rating: Very much a curate’s egg. Slow to start, few if any Poirotisms, and a drippy and irritating character in the form of Roddy. That said, it’s a strong surprise revelation, and the courtroom scenes have their own buzzy life about them. So I’m going for a 7/10.
Thanks for reading my blog of Sad Cypress and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge is One Two Buckle My Shoe, the second of three Hercule Poirot novels in a row. Again I can’t remember much about this one, so I’m looking forward to revisiting it. As usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!