Sunday 12 May 2019

Sad Cypress by Agatha Christie

Sad Cypress (the title is taken from Shakespeare) is an adroit little Poirot novel — the 22nd in the series, published in 1940.

It isn't in the league of the stunning Five Little Pigs (a masterpiece) or the fiendishly clever and groundbreaking ABC Murders, but it is neat, effective and, as usual for Christie, quite unguessable.

At the heart of the novel is Mary Gerrard, a beautiful and spirited young woman who is just about to set off on her path in life.

If I have major reservation about the book, it's that I really wish Christie hadn't killed off Mary. I suppose it's a testament to the author's skill at bringing the character to life in the first place that I cared so much about the poor girl.

Rest assured I'm not giving anything away here by mentioning her death; we learn on the very first page of the book that Mary is dead and another young woman, Elinor Carlisle, is accused of murdering her.

And sitting in the court, watching Elinor, is none other than Hercule Poirot.

Apart from this brief appearance at the beginning, we won't see Poirot again until page 83. In the meantime Christie establishes the situation and the characters.

And the plot.

Once more poison is to the fore, and Christie's knowledge in this area — or at least, her research into it — is impressive: the plot of Sad Cypress hinges on the difference between two kinds of morphine.

At stake — and serving as one possible motive for murder — is a large fortune left behind by a sick old lady, Elinor's aunt. The book is set in motion (after that short court-room flash-forward) by an absolutely fantastic anonymous letter  — Christie is so good at writing in the voice of unsavoury characters: "there's Someone sucking up to your aunt." 

The anonymous letter hints that Elinor's aunt might be about to leave her entire fortune to Mary Gerard, the daughter of a servant. Well, we can't have that, can we?

In short order, the plot is writhing like a nest of snakes. Christie absolutely wrings the reader with suspense — the old lady has had a serious stroke and is unable to express her wish for how her will should be made out. 

And indeed her niece Elinor may be trying to deliberately thwart her...

Knowing in advance that Mary is going to die makes the unfolding story horrible — almost painful — to read. Poor Mary. (Reflecting on the dead girl's considerable beauty, Poirot observes, "with that there are always complications." Indeed.)

Soon enough Mary Gerard's gone, dispatched by poison (morphine in a fish-paste sandwich; that's a new one) and Elinor is in the frame for her murder. Everyone thinks she did it...

Except Poirot.

I know the prevailing wisdom is that I'm not supposed to like Poirot, or at least I'm supposed to regard him with affectionate contempt, as a crude caricature. But he's really starting to grow on me.

I love his cool ruthlessness, his arrogance, and the way he's always one step ahead.

Sad Cypress builds up terrific suspense in the court room sequences towards the end, with Elinor in the shadow of the gallows.

And Christie is as deft as ever — I absolutely never saw the truth about the killer coming... I still regret that she had to kill Mary, though.

(Image credits: The main image is a scan of my own, very battered copy with a Tom Adams cover painting. The other book covers are all from Good Reads. The Indonesian one is particularly brilliant in blending several crucial plot elements — the death's head to signify poison along with a tea cup, which is also a rose!)

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