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Sad Cypress is a work of detective fiction by Agatha Christie and first published in the UK by the Collins Crime Club in March 1940 and in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company later in the same year. The UK edition retailed at eight shillings and threepence (8/3) – the first price rise for a UK Christie edition since her 1921 debut - and the US edition retailed at $2.00.

The novel is notable for being the first courtroom drama in the Poirot series.

Explanation of the novel's title

The title comes from a song from Act II, Scene IV of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night which is printed as an epigraph to the novel.

Come away, come away, death,
And in sad cypress let me be laid;
Fly away, fly away breath;
I am slain by a fair cruel maid.
My shroud of white, stuck all with yew,
O, prepare it!
My part of death, no one so true
Did share it.


Plot summary

The novel is written in three parts: in the first place an account, largely from the perspective of the subsequent defendant, Elinor Carlisle, of the death of her aunt, Laura Welman, and the subsequent death of the victim, Mary Gerrard; secondly an account of Poirot’s investigation; and, thirdly, a sequence in court, again mainly from Elinor’s perspective.

In the first part, distant cousins Elinor Carlisle and Roddy Welman are happily engaged to be married when they receive an anonymous letter claiming that someone is "sucking up" to their wealthy aunt, Laura Welman, from whom Elinor and Roddy expect to inherit a sizeable fortune. Elinor immediately suspects Mary Gerrard, the lodge keeper’s daughter, to whom Laura has taken a considerable liking. They go down to visit their aunt: partly to see her and partly to protect their interests.

Laura is helpless after a stroke and speaks of a desire to die, most notably to Peter Lord, her physician. After a second stroke, she asks Elinor to ask the family solicitor to prepare a will under which it is clear that Mary is to be a beneficiary. Roddy has fallen in love with Mary, provoking Elinor’s jealousy. Laura dies intestate during the night and her estate goes to Elinor outright as her only surviving blood relative.

Subsequently, Elinor releases Roddy from the engagement and makes moves to settle money on him (which he refuses) and two thousand pounds on Mary (which Mary accepts). At an impromptu tea party thrown by Elinor for Mary and Nurse Hopkins, Mary dies of poison that had supposedly been put into a fish-paste sandwich. Elinor (who has been behaving suspiciously) is put on trial. Worse, when the body of her aunt is exhumed it is discovered that both women died of morphine poisoning. Elinor had easy access to morphine from a bottle that apparently went missing from Nurse Hopkins’s bag.

In the second part of the novel, Poirot is persuaded to investigate the case by Peter Lord, who is in love with Elinor and wants her to be acquitted at all costs. Poirot’s investigation focuses on a small number of elements. Was the poison in the sandwiches, which everyone ate, or something else, such as the tea that was prepared by Nurse Hopkins and drunk by them both? What is the secret of Mary’s birth, which everyone seems so keen to conceal? Was there any significance in the scratch of a thorn on Nurse Hopkins’s wrist? Is Peter Lord right to draw Poirot’s attention to evidence that someone watching through the window might have poisoned the sandwich, thinking that it would be eaten by Elinor?

In the third part of the novel, the case appears to go badly for Elinor, until her Defence unveils three theories that might exonerate her. The first (that Mary committed suicide) seems thin, and the second (Peter Lord’s theory of the killer outside the window) is unconvincing. But the third theory is Poirot’s.

A torn pharmaceutical label that the Prosecution supposed to have held morphine hydrochloride, the poison, had in fact held apomorphine hydrochloride, an emetic. This was revealed because on an ampoule, the M in Morphine would be capital; Poirot finds a lowercase M - thus it isn't morphine. Nurse Hopkins had injected herself with this emetic, apomorphine, in order to vomit the morphine that she had ingested in the tea. Her claim to have scratched herself on a thorn is disproved when it is revealed that the rose tree in question was a thornless variety: Zephyrine Drouhin.

If the means were simple, the motive is complex. Mary Gerrard is not the daughter of Eliza and Bob Gerrard. Instead – as Poirot has discovered from Nurse Hopkins in the course of the investigation - she is the daughter of Laura Welman and Sir Lewis Rycroft, which made her the heiress to Laura’s estate since she was actually a closer relative than Elinor. When Nurse Hopkins encouraged Mary to write a will, Mary named as its beneficiary the woman that she supposed to be her aunt, Mary Riley (Eliza’s sister), in New Zealand. Mary Riley married (and, as it happens, murdered) someone called Draper, and Mary Draper is none other than … Nurse Hopkins.

Poirot ends the novel by rebuking Peter Lord for his clumsy efforts to implicate the hypothetical killer outside the window. He has planted evidence and led Poirot to it in a desperate bid to free Elinor. Peter’s momentary embarrassment is presumably alleviated by Poirot’s assurance that it is to him, and not to her former love Roddy, that Elinor is now likely to become married.

Characters in “Sad Cypress”

  • Hercule Poirot, the Belgian detective
  • Mrs. Laura Welman, a widow
  • Mary Gerrard, her protégée


Suspects:

  • Elinor Carlisle, Laura’s niece
  • Roddy Welman, Laura’s nephew by marriage
  • Dr. Peter Lord, Laura’s doctor
  • Nurse Jessie Hopkins, the District Nurse
  • Nurse Eileen O’Brien, Laura’s nurse
  • Mr Seddon, Laura’s solicitor
  • Mrs Bishop, Laura’s housekeeper
  • Horlick, the gardener
  • Bob Gerrard, the lodge keeper and Mary’s father
  • Ted Bigland, a farmer’s son


Characters in the courtroom:

  • The Judge
  • Sir Edwin Bulmer, Counsel for the Defence
  • Sir Samuel Attenbury, Counsel for the Prosecution
  • Dr. Alan Garcia, expert witness for the Prosecution
  • Inspector Brill, the investigating officer
  • Mr. Abbott, a grocer
  • Alfred James Wargrave, a rose-grower
  • James Arthur Littledale, a chemist
  • Amelia Mary Sedley, a witness from New Zealand
  • Edward John Marshall, a witness from New Zealand


Literary significance and reception

Maurice Percy Ashley in The Times Literary Supplement gave a positive review to the book in the issue of March 9, 1940: "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 straight-forward 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". The reviewer regretted that Poirot had lost some of his 'foibles' and Hastings no longer featured in the plots but he ended on a high note: "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. Some occasional readers of detective stories are wont to criticize 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?"

In The New York Times Book Review of September 15, 1940, Kay Irvin concluded, "The cast of characters is small, the drama is built up with all this author's sure, economical skill. Sad Cypress is not the best of the Christie achievements, but it is better than the average thriller on every count."

In reviewing several crime novels in The Observer's issue of March 10, 1940, Maurice Richardson began, "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." Concentrating on Sad Cypress specifically, Richardson concluded, "Characterisation brilliantly intense as ever. In fact, Agatha Christie has done it again, which is all you need to know."

The Scotsman's review in its issue of March 11, 1940 concluded, "Sad Cypress is slighter and rather less ingenious than Mrs Christie's stories usually are, and the concluding explanation is unduly prolonged. But it is only with reference to Mrs Christie's own high level that it seems inferior. By ordinary standards of detective fiction it is a fascinating and skilfully related tale."

E.R. Punshon in The Guardian's issue of April 2, 1940 concluded, "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."

Robert Barnard: "A variation on the usual triangle theme, and the only time Christie uses the lovely-woman-in-the-dock-accused-of-murder ploy. Elegiac, more emotionally involving than is usual in Christie, but the ingenuity and superb clueing put it among the very best of the classic titles. Her knowledge of poison is well to the fore, but the amateur will also benefit from a knowledge of horticulture and a skill in close reading"

References to other works

Peter Lord says that he has been recommended to consult Poirot by Dr. John Stillingfleet on the basis of Poirot’s brilliant performance in the case related in the short story, The Dream, which had been printed two years earlier in issue 566 of The Strand Magazine and was printed in book form in The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding in 1960 in the UK and in The Regatta Mystery in the US in 1939. The character of Stillingfleet later reappears in Third Girl (1966).

Film, TV or theatrical adaptations

BBC Radio 4 Adaptation

The novel was adapted as a five-part serial for BBC Radio 4 in 1992. John Moffatt reprised his role of Poirot. The serial was broadcast weekly from Thursday, May 14 to Thursday, June 11 at 10.00am to 10.30pm. All five episodes were recorded in the week of March 16 to 20, 1992.

Adaptor: Michael Bakewell

Producer: Enyd Williams

Cast:

John Moffatt

Margot Boyd

John Church

Eric Allan

Pauline Letts

Gordon Reid

Keith Drinkel

Emma Fielding

John Webb

David King

David Thorpe

Jonathan Adams

Joanna Myers

Ann Windsor

John Evitts

Gudrun Ure

David Mcalister

Charles Simpson

Peter Penry-Jones

Barbara Atkinson

Susannah Corbett

Alan Cullen

Eamonn Fleming

Agatha Christie's Poirot

The book was adapted by London Weekend Television as a one hundred-minute drama and transmitted on ITV in the UK on Friday December 26, 2003 as a special episode in their series Agatha Christie's Poirot.

Adaptor: David Pirie

Director: David Moore

Cast:

David Suchet as Hercule Poirot

Elisabeth Dermot-Walsh as Elinor Carlisle

Rupert Penry-Jones as Roddy Winter

Kelly Reilly as Mary Gerrard

Paul McGann as Dr. Peter Lord

Phyllis Logan as Nurse Hopkins

Marion O'Dwyer as Nurse O'Brien

Diana Quick as Mrs. Laura Welman

Stuart Laing as Ted Horlick

Jack Galloway as Marsden

Geoffrey Beevers as Seddon

Alistair Findlay as Prosecuting Counsel

Linda Spurrier as Mrs. Bishop

Timothy Carlton as Judge

Louise Callaghan as Hunterbury maid

Ian Taylor as Turner

Sad Cypress was filmed on location at Dorney Courtmarker, Buckinghamshire

Publication history

  • 1940, Collins Crime Club (London), March 1940, Hardcover, 256 pp
  • 1940, Dodd Mead and Company (New York), 1940, Hardcover, 270 pp
  • 1946, Dell Books, Paperback, 224 pp (Dell number 172 [mapback])
  • 1959, Fontana Books (Imprint of HarperCollins), Paperback, 191 pp
  • 1965, Ulverscroft Large-print Edition, Hardcover, 239 pp
  • 2008, Poirot Facsimile Edition (Facsimile of 1940 UK First Edition), HarperCollins, April 1, 2008, Hardback, ISBN 0-00-727459-9


The book was first serialised in the US in Collier's Weekly in ten parts from November 25, 1939 (Volume 104, Number 22) to January 27, 1940 (Volume 105, Number 4) with illustrations by Mario Cooper.

The UK serialisation was in nineteen parts in the Daily Express from Saturday, March 23 to Saturday, April 13, 1940. The accompanying instalments were uncredited. This version did not contain any chapter divisions.

References

  1. Chris Peers, Ralph Spurrier and Jamie Sturgeon. Collins Crime Club – A checklist of First Editions. Dragonby Press (Second Edition) March 1999 (Page 15)
  2. John Cooper and B.A. Pyke. Detective Fiction - the collector's guide: Second Edition (Pages 82 and 86) Scholar Press. 1994. ISBN 0-85967-991-8
  3. American Tribute to Agatha Christie
  4. The Times Literary Supplement March 9, 1940 (Page 125)
  5. The New York Times Book Review September 15, 1940 (Page 19)
  6. The Observer March 10, 1940 (Page 6)
  7. The Scotsman March 11, 1940 (Page 9)
  8. The Guardian April 2, 1940 (Page 3)
  9. Barnard, Robert. A Talent to Deceive – an appreciation of Agatha Christie - Revised edition (Page 204). Fontana Books, 1990. ISBN 0006374743
  10. Holdings at the British Library (Newspapers - Colindale). Shelfmark: NPL LON LD3 and NPL LON MLD3.


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