The Read Christie 2021 challenge for February was to read a book featuring love. I knew immediately which one I was going to read. Sad Cypress is a novel I read when I was in my early teens and it has truly stuck with me for decades. I can vividly remember where I was, the weather, the seat I was on (in case you’re wondering, it was a sun bed in the back garden), and exactly how I felt when I devoured this book the first time. It, I believe, was completely responsible for my lifelong wish to write books containing poisons (which I did manage to achieve in Baby up the Chimney). Anyway, back to Sad Cypress.
Elinor Carlisle stands in the dock, accused of murdering Mary Gerrard. Elinor was in line to inherit the estate of her aunt, Mrs Welman, but after an anonymous letter, it seems that Mary Gerrard might have been getting a bit too close to Mrs Welman for some people’s liking. To make matters worse, Elinor’s boyfriend’s sudden love for Mary causes the engagement to be broken off. Meanwhile, Mary, encouraged by the local nurse, nurse Hopkins, has made a will, and now it seems she has something to leave to its recipient. Elinor, too, has made a will, leaving everything she inherits to Roddy, the ex boyfriend.
While clearing out the house and the lodge, Elinor makes sandwiches, and invites Mary and nurse Hopkins who has taken a shine to Mary and is helping out, to have lunch with her. An hour later, Mary is dead.
So, did Elinor poison Mary Gerrard with Morphine in the sandwiches, like the police think she did? Or has someone got it in for Elinor and is framing her for the murder? The local doctor is determined to get Elinor off at all costs, and enlists the help of Hercule Poirot to do so. And Poirot searches for the truth, even if that means he discovers that Elinor is guilty of murder after all.
Okay, so there’s much more to the plot than that, but I really don’t want to give you any spoilers. Onto the book itself…
One of the first things I noticed – and loved – about this book is its cyclic structure. I almost always flick through a Christie book before I start reading (I have no idea why, because I’ve inadvertently ruined the end of a few of them by doing it. I don’t necessarily recommend doing it!). In so doing with this one, though, I discovered the very interesting mechanics of this story. It is set out in three parts and includes what I would certainly describe as a prologue.
The book opens with the court case of the suspect, Elinor Carlisle, on trial, and this part is seen from her perspective. There are enough indicators in this very short section to intrigue a Christie fan and give her ample motive for murder. I became totally hooked on the character of Elinor. I’m not at all sure she’s meant to come across as particularly likeable, but she endeared herself to me, and that’s good enough for this reader!
The book is then split into three parts: the first depicts the events leading up to the murder, from the viewpoints of the characters who are all in and around the house at the time. We, therefore, get a good opportunity to find out about these characters and, in some cases, discover what is going on inside their heads and this becomes very important as we, as readers, are swayed this way and that as the book progresses. This particularly is relevant to Elinor, Mary, and the boyfriend, Roderick (Roddy). For me, I felt that my feelings were adroitly manipulated back and forth by Christie over who I felt sympathy with, but I still kept coming back to Elinor.
The second part gives us Poirot, who takes on the case at the request of Doctor Peter Lorde, and sets about interrogating the major and minor players, and typically noticing the tiny details which make all the difference to the case against Elinor Carlisle. This really is the part where Poirot fans can enjoy watching his wonderful brain at work. The clues are all there, in the detail, if only you know what you’re looking for! It’s very worthwhile paying close attention to what people say, as well as what they do.
In the final section, we return to where we started. The third section revolves almost exclusively around the court case. For anyone who loves the intricacies of the to-ing and fro-ing of arguments put forward by barristers, then this is brilliant, and I was fascinated. The ending itself, for me, was both a suitable and realistic solution to the personal issues all the characters have faced throughout, and it highlights Poirot’s astute grasp of the human heart.
If you have watched the TV film version of Sad Cypress, you will notice some differences on reading the novel. The characters’ actions are developed in such a way as to give us a definite and directed indication as to how we are meant to feel about the main characters. For me, the film gives the love triangle a contemporary dimension, altering the actions of Roddy and Mary just enough to bring about a level of overt sexual tension not quite found in the book. The film has also developed some of the scenes, particularly those that occur in letter-writing format, to bring things more inside the main house and the lodge in the grounds, too. Very handy for filmic reasons, I am sure. This, notably, includes the build up to the ending and the final discovery of the culprit. In the book, this all happens in court and very little of it involves Poirot directly. So, as far as the film goes, I’m glad the court case was substituted with other scenes – or we might not have seen much of David Suchet as Poirot at all!
I have absolutely no hesitation at all in recommending this book to anyone who wants to read a Christie mystery that is not just a very clever whodunnit with well-planted clues, but that gets inside the main character’s head in a way that wrings out your insides, and that has a really interesting play on structure. You can find Sad Cypress here. (Full disclaimer: this is an Amazon US affiliate link, as are the ones below, which means I earn a small commission if you are a US customer and choose to buy through my link. You don’t have to, though!).
And my March book choice? It has to be a book involving a society figure. Well, there are a number to choose from, including Death on the Nile, Lord Edgware Dies and Sparkling Cyanide. But for my choice next month, I’ve gone for Death in the Clouds. More on that in a few weeks. If you’re participating in #ReadChristie2021, I’d love to hear from you, and to know what you’ve been reading – and what you’re planning on reading. It took me ages to plan out my choices because I want to read ‘all the things’. 🙂
Whatever you’re reading, I hope you’re loving it!