Sad Cypress by Agatha Christie

Elinor Carlisle is having a rather bad time of it. After visiting her Aunt to check on her health – and, to be honest, the health of her inheritance, she finds herself in court charged with the murder of Mary Gerrard – the young nurse who had become close to both her aunt and her fiance… and possibly her aunt’s money as well. As she stands in the dock, it seems that no-one can help her. Well, apart from that funny looking Belgian in the corner…

That’s not the biggest mystery here. The biggest mystery here… how is it that, having been reading crime fiction since goodness knows when, did I manage to miss this Poirot? That’s right, somehow the somewhat-obsessional completist managed not only to miss this one, but also not to notice that I’d missed it. How strange. So, what was it like, reading a “new” Poirot for the first time in over twenty years?

Well, let’s see why I missed it in the first place. I know we had it in the house when I was growing up, so I probably started it at some point. But I’ve always had difficulty keeping focus with one of Christie’s plot styles, namely the one that goes:

  • Prologue with a hint of Poirot
  • Long flashback leading up to the murder
  • Investigation

You see, with my shortish attention span, I’d have trouble getting past section two. In other such books, sometimes it was worth it – After The Funeral, for example, and sometimes it wasn’t – The Clocks. Both of those books, it took a couple of goes for young me to get through them. For whatever reason, I never made it back to Sad Cypress. Who knows why – maybe it was just after The Clocks. Anyway, enough nostalgia, on with Sad Cypress.

It’s not a classic, let’s be honest. The central character, Elinor, is either sympathetically portrayed as having a breakdown, hence the lack of any protestation of her innocence, or just unbearably irritating. I can see people thinking the former, but I’ll plump for the latter. There’s no reason for her to be accepting her fate as readily as she does, apart from for Poirot to be investigating with a minimum of information. Come to think of it, given her ultimate fate, Christie is clearly going for the former, but not desparately convincingly.

The mystery as well is oddly structured, with the crucial clue standing out a mile, even if you can’t work out what it means. You’ll need knowledge of the existence of a certain thing in order to solve it properly, but I imagine a lot of people won’t know that it exists.

Overall, I think this book might work better if it wasn’t an  Agatha Christie. For a large part of the book, the reader is shown no hint that Elinor might be innocent – indeed, Poirot is recruited to get her proved innocent in court, not to show that she is innocent in general. But the nature of Dame Agatha’s work implies that she isn’t and – and sorry if this is a bit of a spoiler – once innocence is established, the clues and corroboration come so thick and fast, you wonder how on earth she was convicted in the first place.

But anyway, maybe I’m being a little harsh. It’s a decent enough read, but compared to her best work, it’s decidedly average. Cautiously recommended, if you’ve run out of the good Poirot books.

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About Puzzle Doctor

I'm a mathematician by nature and as such have always been drawn to the logical side of things. Hence my two main hobbies being classic mysteries and logical puzzling. Oh, and cats. No logic there, I'm afraid.
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11 Responses to Sad Cypress by Agatha Christie

  1. richmcd says:

    I think you’ve been eminently fair – beyond Agatha’s always readable prose there’s really not a great deal to recommend here.

    I’ve never really been able to work out which Christies people will find baffling but surely this one MUST be the easiest? I think the only way you could miss the vital clue is if you somehow convinced yourself it was TOO obvious… It’s surprising, because usually she’s so very good at knowing what sorts of things will and won’t stick out a mile if you mention them twice in two different contexts.

    And I agree, it’s a bit annoying that solving it beyond the general gist of the method requires some pretty obscure knowledge. I know there are other Christies where she used things like this (The Pale Horse, for example) but at least there you’ve got a large number of clues cleverly slipped into the story. Here you either know the name of it or you don’t…

    • I think there is a difference between spotting the murderer and working out exactly what happened and why, which is where the challenge lies here. Unfortunately, for me and, I imagine, for most people, spotting the murderer is the crucial bit and it is blindingly obvious here. Maybe Dame Agatha thought she was hiding it better by trying to make the reader think that Elinor was actually guilty – which might work if you hadn’t ever read one of her books before…

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  3. Sarah says:

    This is one of Agatha Christie’s stranger books I think.It edges into the supernatural which doesn’t really good and it’s not one her classics in my opinion.

  4. Sarah says:

    I posted the above without rereading it. Apologies for the grammar. For ‘good’ read ‘work’. :-(

  5. I haven’t read Christie in years but would like to get back to some of her books. I do recall especially enjoying Poirot, but never read this one. It is too bad that is doesn’t stand up to the others.
    Is there an Agatha Christie blog thing going on? I have seen a lot of Agatha Christie books this week. - FABR Steph

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