Sad Cypress (Agatha Christie)

  • First published: UK: Collins, March 1940; USA: Dodd Mead, 1940

My review

One of Agatha Christie’s simplest books, almost an exercise in minimalism: the reader should be able to deduce the murderer’s identity without much difficulty, but will be puzzled as to how the crime was committed. Elinor Carlisle, on trial for the murder of the protégée of her elderly aunt, also murdered, is believed innocent by Dr. Peter Lord (a reference to Sayers‘ detective and to the 1930 novel, Strong Poison), who calls in Poirot. Since this is a character-driven drama rather than an orthodox detective story, Poirot plays a much smaller part in this story than in others, appearing only in Part II and at the very end of Part III; his detection is workmanlike, if routine and rather pedestrian; all the clues are given, and the solution hinges on the identity of the next-of-kin, a falsehood and a scandal buried in the past. The scientific method is worthy of John Rhode.

 Note also discussions of euthanasia, as much of an issue then as today; John Rhode’s The Murders in Praed Street, Dorothy L. Sayers’ Unnatural Death, Gladys Mitchell‘s Speedy Death and When Last I Died all concern euthanasia.


Blurb (UK)

The young and beautiful Elinor Carlisle stands in the dock charged with the murder of Mary Gerrard.  Before her misty blue eyes stretches a court packed with people, all watching and wondering…  Who murdered Mary Gerrard?  Faces!  Rows and rows of faces!  One particular face with a big black moustache and shrewd eyes.  Hercule Poirot, his head a little on one side, his eyes thoughtful, watching the woman in the dock.  Who did murder Mary Gerrard?  “C’est difficile,” murmurs the famous detective.  It is a difficult case, one of the most difficult in his vast experience.  The incomparable Agatha Christie brings all her great talents to bear on this grimly fascinating poison drama.

Blurb (US)

Hercules [sic] Poirot, who can be designated without exaggeration as the most widely celebrated detective of contemporary fiction, faces one of the most difficult tasks of his brilliant career.  A young woman has been murdered – by poison.  There was a motive – very definitely an urgent, compelling motive; there was opportunity to commit the crime; there was evidence, plenty of it – some circumstantial, some pretty direct and damaging.  When the case came to trial the prosecution was confident, the defense prepared for a last ditch fight.

What upset the case and led to a last-minute, dramatic climax was one little, apparently insignificant lie.  That as much can be learned from lies as from truth is a famous tenet of Poirot.  And one little lie, told to cover up a detail of no presumptive importance, set Poirot to thinking.  From thought came action, and in its train the unravelling of a particularly complicated and well-concealed plot.


Contemporary reviews

New Statesman (Ralph Partridge, 9th March 1940): DETECTION

Within four months of the appearance of that masterpiece Ten Little Niggers, we are faced with another work by Mrs. Christie.  Are English detective authors forced to work overtime by the exigencies of war?  Even under the private exigencies of peace far too many were doing so.  It would be a national disaster if our great lady, peerless in her own right, were reduced to mingle with the commoners by the mere exhaustion of her noble talent.  Sad Cypress would be a most admirable piece of detection—by any other writer.  The blue-print of the plot indicates the supreme architect; only the actual edifice has been hastily run up.  In the narrative we miss the polish, and above all the faultless construction on essentials which we expect in Mrs. Christie’s finest work.  The scene opens with a young and beautiful girl on trial for her life: she is charged with the murder of another young and beautiful girl, and the evidence against her is overwhelming.  Even her counsel goes through an anxious moment when she is called on to plead.  Was she going to lose her nerve and plead “Guilty”?  No, Elinor Carlisle pleaded “Not Guilty” of the murder of Mary Gerrard, but there was not a single person in court who believed her, not one, not even Poirot.  Yet someone wanted to believe her, and Poirot is set to work to reconstruct the crime.  This process, as you may well believe, leads to a most unexpected conclusion.  It is indiscreet to analyse chess problems for people who expect to have the pleasure of working them out for themselves, but I venture to remind readers of Mrs. Christie’s predilection for that most incalculable piece on the chess-board—the knight.  Knight to move and mate in three!  Yes, but which is the knight?  It seems almost unfair that Mrs. Christie should enjoy the extra advantage over the chess problemist of not being obliged to identify her pieces.

Times Literary Supplement (Maurice Percy Ashley, 9th March 1940): DETECTION PROPER: STYLE AND PLOT

In recent years the detective story-reading public has been so profusely drenched with thrills, “wisecracks” and perverted psychology that one sometimes wonders whether there is still room for the old-fashioned straightforward problem in detection.  There are, however, a few first-class exponents of this art with us—though now that Miss Sayers has, for the moment at any rate, turned moralist and others have entered the easier field of thriller writing there seem to be increasingly few.  Mrs. Christie in particular remains true to the old faith; and it is pleasant to be able to record that her hand has not lost its cunning.

In Sad Cypress M. Poirot, the retired Belgian detective, returns to confound the British police, who still seem slovenly in their investigations.  Some of us may regret that Poirot has cast off most of his foibles with age and that his ami Hastings has permanently disappeared, but the problem he is called upon to solve is as ingenious as ever.  His confidant now is young Dr. Peter Lord, who invokes his aid in freeing a woman accused of poisoning a young girl and suspected of doing away with a rich aunt.  The book opens with the trial scene, then takes us back over the circumstances of the crimes, then takes us back over the circumstances of the crime, then forward to Poirot’s investigation and finally back to the trial scene again.  Like all Mrs. Christie’s work, it is economically written, the clues are placed before the reader with impeccable fairness, the red herrings are deftly laid and the solution will cause many readers to kick themselves.

MRS. CHRISTIE’S PROBLEMS

Some occasional readers of detective stories are wont to criticise Mrs. Christie on the ground that her stories are insufficiently embroidered, that she includes, for instance, no epigrams over the college port.  But is it not time to state that in the realm of detective fiction proper, where problems are fairly posed and fairly solved, there is no one to touch her?

Observer (Maurice Richardson, 10th March 1940): THE CRIME RATION

An outstanding crime week.  Not only is Agatha Christie shining balefully on her throne, but the courtiers have made an unusually neat artistic arrangement of corpses up and down the steps.

Halfway through Sad Cypress Poirot is called in to save Elinor from the hangman for poisoning her rich aunt’s ward, Mary.  Nobody else had motive or opportunity; Elinor contemplated doing it so hard that she nearly pleads guilty; it looks as if she also murdered her (dying) aunt.  As Poirot investigates, suspicion is diverted from the real criminal with all the usual Christie guile, but construction of the underlying plot is sound and skilful.  Characterisation brilliantly intense as ever.  In fact, Agatha Christie has done it again, which is all you need to know.

Spectator (Rupert Hart-Davis, 8th March 1940, 120w): Mrs. Christie wastes no words, and her timing is accurate.  Here is the modern English detective story in its most agreeable form.

Manchester Guardian (E.R. Punshon, 2nd April 1940, 130w): The story is told with all and even more of Mrs. Christie’s accustomed skill and economy of effect, but it is a pity that the plot turns upon a legal point familiar to all and yet so misconceived that many readers will feel the tale is deprived of plausibility.

Sat R of Lit (14th September 1940, 40w): Long sans-Poirot preamble may be slow for some, but French [sic: Belgian!] sleuth has rarely done his stuff so admirably.  Good—as usual.

Books (Will Cuppy, 15th September 1940, 190w): Sad Cypress may not be Mrs. Christie’s best opus, but it gets by easily in the current market.

NY Times (Kay Irvin, 15th September 1940, 220w): Sad Cypress is not the best of the Christie achievements, but it is better than the average thriller on every count.

New Yorker (21st September 1940, 30w): Fine reading, although the end may annoy the precisionists.