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.
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 dazed 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 their aunt has taken a considerable liking. They go down to visit their aunt: partly to see her and partly to protect their interests.
Mrs. Welman 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. Mrs. Welman 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 three 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 only Mary and herself? What is the secret of Mary Gerrard's birth, which everyone seems so keen to conceal? Is 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) is difficult for anyone to really believe, 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. The capitalized prefix "Apo" had been carefully torn off. Nurse Hopkins had injected herself with this emetic, apomorphine, in order to vomit the poison that she had ingested in the tea, which explains her quick departure from the table as soon as the tea was consumed that fateful day. 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 illegitimate daughter of Laura Welman and Sir Lewis Rycroft, which made her the heiress to Mrs. Welman's estate since she was actually a closer relative than Elinor. When Nurse Hopkins encouraged Mary to write a will, Mary was prompted to name as beneficiary the woman that she supposed to be her aunt, Mary Riley (Eliza Gerrard's sister), in New Zealand. Mary Riley's married name is Mary Draper. Mary Draper is none other than Nurse Hopkins, as two witnesses of the defence (Amelia Mary Sedley and Edward John Marshall, both from New Zealand) confirm in court.
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. Lord'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, who gives evidence in the trial of Elinor Carlisle.
- Mrs Laura Welman, wealthy widow who owns Hunterbury, an estate near Maidensford. She is proud, by her own description.
- Mary Gerrard, a beautiful young woman of 21 years, her protégée, and unacknowledged illegitimate daughter with Sir Lewis Rycroft.
In the village
- Elinor Carlisle, Mrs Welman's niece, a beautiful, well-educated young woman of strong emotions.
- Roderick 'Roddy' Welman, nephew to the late Mr Welman.
- Dr Peter Lord, Mrs Welman's doctor, new to this practice.
- Nurse Jessie Hopkins, the District Nurse, known in New Zealand as Mary Riley Draper, sister to the late Mrs Gerrard. She did receive the letter to be sent to Mary, when living in New Zealand. She befriended Mary Gerrard. Wanted for several crimes of murder in New Zealand, and now in England.
- Nurse Eileen O'Brien, Mrs Welman's nurse since her stroke.
- Mr Seddon, Mrs Welman's solicitor who acts for Elinor first by making her will after Mrs Welman died and in her trial by securing the services of Mr Bulmer.
- Mrs Bishop, Mrs Welman's housekeeper for 18 years.
- Horlick, the gardener for Mrs Welman's estate.
- Ephraim 'Bob' Gerrard, the lodge keeper and Mary's legal father, by marrying Eliza Riley, woman who claimed to be Mary's mother, after Mary was born. He dies after the two poison victims; Nurse Hopkins claims to find a letter to be sent to Mary upon his wife's death among his things, which she shows to Poirot.
- Eliza Gerrard, née Riley, once lady's maid to Mrs Welman, who claimed Mary as her own daughter, and late wife to Bob Gerrard.
- Sir Lewis Rycroft, married to a woman confined to a mental asylum, lover to the widowed Mrs Welman, died in the Great War before daughter Mary was born.
- Ted Bigland, a farmer's son who likes Mary Gerrard.
- Mrs Slattery, housekeeper to Dr Lord's predecessor, who lived a long time in the village. Poirot interviewed her for all the gossip she might recall from times past.
In the courtroom
- The Judge, Mr Justice Beddingfeld, whose summary of the case is strongly for the defence.
- Sir Edwin Bulmer, Counsel for the defence, known as the "forlorn hope man", that is, cases looking bleak for the defendant.
- Sir Samuel Attenbury, Counsel for the prosecution.
- Dr Alan Garcia, expert witness for the prosecution.
- Inspector Brill, the investigating officer.
- Mr Abbott, the grocer and a witness.
- Alfred James Wargrave, a rose-grower and witness.
- James Arthur Littledale, a chemist and witness.
- Amelia Mary Sedley, a witness from New Zealand as to the identity of Mary Draper, as she attended her marriage there.
- Edward John Marshall, a witness from New Zealand as to the identity of Mary Draper.
Literary significance and reception
Maurice Percy Ashley in The Times Literary Supplement gave a positive review to the book in the issue of 9 March 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 15 September 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 10 March 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 11 March 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 2 April 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 later 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, 14 May to Thursday, 11 June at 10.00am to 10.30pm. All five episodes were recorded in the week of 16 to 20 March 1992.
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 26 December 2003 as a special episode in their series Agatha Christie's Poirot. Adaptation was quite faithful to the novel, though some minor changes were made, such as time (1937, around the time of Gershwin's death) and setting (the adaptation took place in the Welman household, whereas the book took place in criminal court).
- 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, 1 April 2008, Hardback, ISBN 0-00-727459-9
The book was first serialised in the US in Collier's Weekly in ten parts from 25 November 1939 (Volume 104, Number 22) to 27 January 1940 (Volume 105, Number 4) with illustrations by Mario Cooper.
The UK serialisation was in nineteen parts in the Daily Express from Saturday, 23 March to Saturday, 13 April 1940. The accompanying illustrations were uncredited. This version did not contain any chapter divisions.
- Czech: Temný cypřiš (A Dark Cypress)
- Dutch: Schuldig in eigen ogen (Guilty in her own eyes)
- Estonian Nukker küpress (A sad Cypress)
- French: Je ne suis pas coupable (I am not guilty)
- German: Morphium (Morphine)
- Hungarian: Vádol a rózsa! (The Rose Is Accusing!), Cipruskoporsó (Cypress Coffin)
- Indonesian: Mawar Tak Berduri (Thornless Rose)
- Italian: La parola alla difesa (The Words of Defence)
- Japanese: 杉の柩 (Pall of Cypress)
- Polish: Zerwane zaręczyny (Broken Engagement)
- Portuguese: Poirot salva o criminoso (Poirot saves the criminal)
- Russian: Печальный кипарис (=Pechal'ny kiparis, Sad Cypress)
- Spanish: Un Triste Ciprés (A sad Cypress)
- Swedish: Samvetskval (Remorse)
- Turkish: Esrarengiz Sanık (Mysterious Suspect)