This solid Poirot mystery has the prettiest title of all Christie novels, which I didn’t realise was borrowed from an equally beautiful passage from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.
I remembered the basic story pretty well from years ago, but I forgot that, for a Poirot novel, Sad Cypress has an unusual structure, beginning and ending in a courtroom. The person on trial is Elinor Carlisle, an elegant and calm young woman who is accused of murdering another young woman named Mary Gerrard. While standing in the dock, Elinor reflects on the chain of events that have led her to this moment – beginning with an unpleasant anonymous letter.
In the letter, Elinor is warned that an unnamed young girl is sucking up to her rich bedridden Aunt Laura, and that if she doesn’t take steps she could well be cheated out of her rightful inheritance along with her Aunt’s nephew by marriage, Roddy. Elinor quickly figures out that the letter must be referring to Mary Gerrard, the lodgekeeper’s daughter, who Aunt Laura was always very fond of, taking care to give her extra education. Elinor and Roddy – who are engaged to be married – decide to check out the situation at Hunterbury for themselves.
As it turns out, they needn’t have worried about their financial future: when Aunt Laura passes away after a stroke, she dies without a will and Elinor inherits everything by default. The unintended consequence of the visit is that Roddy becomes completely infatuated with beautiful Mary, and the engagement is off. Behind her cool and remote exterior, Elinor hides a deeply passionate nature, and so she’s absolutely devastated and full of hatred for her rival. When circumstances bring her and Mary together back at Hunterbury, it all ends with a tragedy when Mary is found slumped in a chair after lunch, fatally poisoned.
Part II of the book is where Poirot finally makes an appearance, called in by Aunt Laura’s doctor Peter Lord, who not-so-secretly carries a torch for Elinor and wants to save her from the gallows – regardless of whether she’s guilty or not. Poirot therefore is tasked with finding any evidence that could get Elinor acquitted; the difficulty is that everything points to her guilt and she seems like the only person with the motive and opportunity. Worse still, when certain revelations lead the authorities to dig up Aunt Laura, she’s found to be full of morphine – with Elinor once again the most likely culprit.
This novel is probably one of Christie’s strongest efforts at combining murder mystery with romance. I tend to give her flack for her awkward, sudden and unbelievable matchmaking, but here the romantic triangle works and the characters’ emotions ring true. I was especially taken with Elinor and her secretly strong passion, which she feels compelled to hide so as not to scare Roddy away with the force of her feelings. As opposed to romance, the observations on class is something that Christie novels always excel at; while Mary Gerrard herself is not particularly interesting as a person, her character allows for some exploration of attitudes to people who are stuck in between clearly delineated social positions, not quite servant class and not quite a lady.
Sad Cypress also succeeds nicely as a mystery, tightly plotted with a clever resolution and some elements that I don’t remember appearing often in other Christie novels. On this re-read though I did spot a potential fatal flaw in the murderer’s plan that goes unaddressed and is something of a weak spot; without spoiling anything it hinges on a character acting precisely how the murderer would have wanted them to act, when the murderer had no say in the choice whatsoever. Also, while the courtroom framing device does make the book feel distinctive, I confess I missed Poirot giving his usual dramatic drawing room presentation.
P.S. Since we’re all back in Lockdown No. 6 here in Melbourne, I gave myself a fun project of finding a nice background of flowers for the review hero shot on my daily walk.