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Literature / Sad Cypress

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"Mrs Welman, whose money went to Elinor Carlisle, was murdered by morphine; Mary Gerrard, who stood between Elinor Carlisle and her fiance, was murdered by morphine. And nobody in the world had the slightest motive to commit these murders other than the accused; no one had the slightest opportunity other than the accused."
Prosecuting attorney, Sad Cypress (TV adaptation)

Sad Cypress is a 1940 murder mystery novel by Agatha Christie. Elinor Carlisle seems to be the only possible suspect for the murders of her wealthy aunt, Laura Welman, and her romantic rival, Mary Gerrard. However, doctor Peter Lord, who is in love with Elinor, asks Hercule Poirot to clear her name, insisting she can't be guilty, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Hercule Poirot points out that there's an extremely strong case against her, but still he agrees to investigate the case and find out the truth.

The novel opens with a prologue where we get to see part of Elinor's trial and follow some of her thoughts, and proceeds with a series of flashbacks which tell the story in three parts. It contains Courtroom Drama; it's one of the two times Christie used the lovely-woman-in-the-dock plot (the other being Five Little Pigs, to a much lesser extent.) Interestingly, instead of having a Summation Gathering, the solution is presented at court at the end of the book. The novel has been criticized for its abrupt ending and lack of plausible suspects, but it has received positive reviews as a suspenseful and well-written detective story.

The novel has been adapted for radio in 1992 by BBC Radio 4 with John Moffat as Poirot. It has also been adapted for TV by London Weekend Television as part of the ninth season of Poirot starring David Suchet as Poirot and Elizabeth Dermot-Walsh as Elinor Carlisle. Tropes for the TV adaptation can be found on the page for the series.

Warning: unconcealed spoilers ahead.

Sad Cypress contains examples of:

  • All Love Is Unrequited: Dr. Lord is in love with Elinor, who is in love with Roddy. Roddy is fond of Elinor but has fallen head-over-heels for Mary Gerrard. Mary finds Roddy's attentions annoying and keeps telling him to go back to Elinor. Meanwhile, Mary has Ted, her boyfriend in the village. She likes him but has ambitions that are likely to take her away from him. (However, after about two hundred and fifty pages of this, a subversion is implied in the end with Elinor and Dr Lord. D'aw.)
  • As You Know: A passage at the beginning of the book finds Elinor and Roddy talking about Aunt Laura. For no particular reason, Roddy feels the need to spell out that Elinor is Aunt Laura's blood niece while he's her nephew only by marriage, and that Aunt Laura is rich, and that her late husband Henry (Roddy's uncle) was rich, and that Elinor's father speculated and lost most of his share of the family fortune, and that Aunt Laura has done well in investments. It's three whole paragraphs of Roddy telling Laura tons of stuff that she already knows for the benefit of the reader.
  • Blame the Paramour: Elinor develops a seething hatred for Mary, after Roddy dumps Elinor.
  • The Butler Did It: No, seriously. Well, not an actual butler, but still. Nurse Hopkins, who is little more than hired help, is the actual murderer. And she has killed at least twice before.
  • Childhood Friend Romance: Elinor and Roddy practically grew up together (as cousins), and were later engaged.
  • Clear Their Name: Poirot is hired by Peter Lord to prove that Elinor is innocent. Although skeptical in light of the clear evidence against Elinor, Poirot's investigations do eventually lead him to become convinced of her innocence.
  • Continuity Nod: Fewer than usual in Poirot novels, but Dr. Lord admires how Poirot handled "that Benedict Farley case", which is short story "The Dream".
  • Courtroom Drama: A rarity in the works of Agatha Christie, in which we see the trial of an alleged killer.
  • Emotionless Girl: Elinor often behaves aloof, detached and coldly logical, but hides intense passion within herself.
  • English Rose: Jilted suitor Ted Bigland describes the late Mary Gerrard as "like a flower," and elsewhere she is described as blonde-haired and pure-hearted and startlingly beautiful.
  • Fair-Play Whodunnit: The book is quite upfront about the clues, up to and including showing the torn medicine label in enough detail to allow the reader to work out that it wasn't from a morphine bottle.
  • Foreshadowing: Nurse Hopkins becomes vehemently insistent on Mary making a will after Mrs. Welman dies. Now why might that be so important to her?...
  • Frameup: Peter Lord is convinced this is happening to Elinor. He turns out to be right.
  • Gossipy Hens: Nurse Hopkins, who can't stop sharing gossip about the complicated secrets in Aunt Laura's family history. At one point she catches her breath just long enough to say "I'm not one to gossip." The ending reveals that she had an ulterior motive for gossiping about the Welman family.
  • Finger-Tenting: Poirot, displaying his usual arrogance, "joined his fingertips" before demanding that Peter tell the secrets he's hiding.
  • Funny Foreigner: More so than in other Poirot books. Poirot is not taken seriously by several of the people he talks to. He has to fake an interest in the royal family to get one of the villagers to talk to him.
  • Green-Eyed Monster: Miss Carlisle feels intense jealousy towards Mary Gerrard, and daydreams about killing her. However she mostly keeps her thoughts to herself.
  • Hair of Gold, Heart of Gold: Mary has "pale gold" hair and is very sweet and gentle.
  • Hooked Up Afterwards: Implied. During and shortly after the trial, Elinor Carlisle finds Dr. Peter Lord's presence in her life to be comforting. She asks him to visit her frequently while she recovers in a clinic. Peter was already in love with her, and Poirot encourages him to pursue the relationship. This is as far as the novel goes.
  • How We Got Here: After a brief introduction at the trial, the story spends many chapters covering the events that led to the trial.
  • I Didn't Mean to Turn You On: Mary towards Roddy. They barely interacted with each other, but he fell for her. She twice rejected his advances.
  • I Gave My Word: Elinor promised her aunt Laura that she would see to it that a provision was made for Mary Gerrard in Laura's will. When Aunt Laura died before she could write a will, Elinor made sure that a suitable amount of money was given to Mary, despite outright hating the girl because of Roddy's love and subsequent breaking of his and Elinor's engagement to pursue her.
  • Improbable Antidote: Mary was killed by morphine poisoning. Nurse Hopkins ingested some morphine as well to divert attention from herself but quickly took apomorphine to remove the poison from her own body.
  • Inheritance Murder: This is the obvious motive for Elinor Carlisle to have committed the murder she is accused of. Naturally, the relationships in play turn out to be more complicated. However, in the end, this is actually the motive... just several steps more removed. Mary Gerrard was the illegitimate daughter of Laura Welman, and a plausible heir in case her mother died without a will. Mary's own will left all her property to an adoptive aunt. Said aunt turns out to be the murderer, Nurse Hopkins.
  • I Want My Beloved to Be Happy: While still deeply in love with him, Elinor breaks up with Roddy and gives him relationship advice about Mary.
  • Karma Houdini: The killer, Nurse Hopkins, flees the trial when it looks like their scheme is about to be exposed. The book ends without any word that she's been apprehended.
  • Kissing Cousins: Though not related by blood, Elinor is the daughter of Laura Welman's brother, while Roddy was the nephew of her late husband, and the two were raised as cousins. Roddy lampshades this by pointing out that they have all the advantages of being cousins without the potential downsides of a blood relationship.
  • Love Makes You Crazy:
    • Peter Lord. Just listen to him.
    "Does it matter? She might have done it, yes! I don't care if she did. [...] But I don't want her hanged, I tell you! Suppose she was driven desperate? [...] Haven't you got any pity?"
    • Also true of Elinor's love for Roddy and implied about Mrs. Welman's experiences. The one thing love definitely does not make anyone in this book is happy.
    • It's also heavily implied that Elinor actually was planning to murder Mary after her heart was broken, only to come to her senses before she could pull it off. Unfortunately for Elinor, someone else was also gunning for Mary and didn't have such a strong conscience...
  • Love at First Sight:
    • Roddy meets the grown up Mary when he and Elinor were visiting their aunt. He becomes immediately smitten with her, and soon breaks off his engagement with Elinor.
    • Likewise, Dr Lord saw Elinor for the first time during that visit, and fell so hard in love with her that he hired Poirot to clear her name despite having no solid evidence to suggest that the girl was not guilty. The series averts this by having Elinor and the doctor know each other beforehand — and Dr Lord was the only other person apart from Roddy to whom Elinor showed the anonymous letter.
  • Love Hurts: Elinor discusses love with Laura Welman, who agrees that love often brings more sadness than joy.
  • Love Triangle: Elinor loves Roddy who falls for Mary (who is seeing Ted, but it is implied that there is no future for this relationship).
  • Luke, I Am Your Father: The revelation that Mary isn't actually Gerrard's daughter. Followed by the revelation that she is Mrs. Welman's daughter. And that the nurse is actually Mary's aunt.
  • Mercy Kill: One potential motive given for why Elinor might have killed her aunt; she knew that her aunt wouldn't have wanted to live crippled by the second stroke.
  • Murder the Hypotenuse: The reason why Elinor was considered the prime suspect of the murder is because her fiance broke of her engagement to go after Mary, and to the prosecution, her jealousy is the only reason why anyone would want to harm such a nice, likable kid.
  • Never One Murder: Mary Gerrard died of morphine poisoning after the death of Laura Welman, whose death was first thought to be of natural causes. Further investigation revealed that Mrs. Welman was also poisoned by morphine shortly after her second stroke attack.
  • Never Speak Ill of the Dead: Mrs Bishop lectures Poirot about respecting the dead and how she can not possibly judge the dead Mary Gerrard, but then she somehow manages to make him understand exactly what she thought of her.
  • Not Blood Siblings: Roddy and Elinor are raised as cousins and have been sweethearts for a long time, but are only related due to the marriage of Roddy's uncle to Elinor's aunt. Roddy later dumps Elinor to pursue Mary Gerard, but still has some feelings for her.
  • Not So Stoic: Elinor is initially portrayed as a stoic, unemotional ice queen, but as she and Roddy are characterised in more detail it becomes clear that she is actually the more caring and emotional of the two.
  • Orgy of Evidence: Things do not look good for Elinor Carlisle throughout the entirety of the book. She's the only one with any sort of motive to kill both Mrs. Welman (she's the sole heir to her fortune) and Mary Gerrard (who inadvertently caused Roddy to break his engagement by falling hopelessly in love with her); she had access to poison; and Mary died immediately after eating a meal they shared together. There's a reason that Poirot warns Dr. Lord that trying to prove her innocence will be nearly impossible.
  • Plot Hole: If Nurse Hopkins wanted to murder Mary and frame Elinor for the murder, then it doesn't make sense to offer the poisoned tea to Elinor as well; Elinor would have died, too, which would have been extremely risky and there would have been no one to frame. The TV adaptation seals up the hole by Elinor stating publicly that she doesn't drink tea; she prefers coffee. Ironically, this brings up a question in itself since the prosecution alleged that Elinor poisoned either the tea or the sandwiches, why didn't Elinor's lawyer point out as part of her defence that Nurse Hopkins didn't die from eating and drinking the same things as Mary, which would imply that Mary was poisoned elsewhere - or ask why that was so?
  • Pull the Thread: Poirot is set on the right path when a character tells a seemingly pointless lie. Nurse Hopkins has claimed that a piercing mark on her arm was caused by a certain flower's thorn. Since said flower happens to have no thorns, Poirot starts doubting Hopkins' stories. He eventually deduces that the mark was caused by a hypodermic needle and realises its role in the murder. By that time, Hopkins' other lies are more evident to him.
  • Quizzical Tilt: Poirot is "holding his head a little to one side", when he asks Dr. Lord "Why?", after Dr. Lord simply assumes that Poirot will want to go to the scene of the crime. (Poirot's whole method involves careful questioning of suspects rather than examination of crime scenes.)
  • Referenced by: William Shakespeare: This title is taken from the Clown's song from Twelfth Night (II, iv).
  • Rock Bottom: When Poirot warns Dr. Lord that he will reveal any evidence he finds in the investigation, even if it makes the case against Elinor look worse, Dr. Lord informs him that the case against Elinor can't possibly get any worse.
  • Satiating Sandwich: Elinor makes salmon paste sandwiches for Mary. Subverted at first when it is apparent that Elinor has poisoned the sandwiches, but then Double-Subverted when it turns out via Poirot's taste-test that the sandwiches were actually harmless and that it was the actual suspect who poisoned the tea.
  • Self-Poisoning Gambit: Nurse Hopkins drinks the poisoned tea right along with Mary, but then gives herself a dose of an emetic that makes her vomit it up.
  • She Is All Grown Up: Mary Gerrard was described by Roddy as a "scrawny kid with lots of messy hair" in her childhood, and it is clear that he doesn't think of her as attractive at that age. At 21 years old, Mary is a very beautiful woman who causes Roddy to fall in Love at First Sight with her. Roddy is so shocked he can barely talk when he sees her again.
    Mary: I've changed, of course, since you saw me.
  • Sizable Semitic Nose: In Elinor's POV at the trial, she repeatedly describes prosecuting attorney Sir Samuel Attenbury as having a "Jewish nose." There's mild anti-Semitism scattered throughout much of Agatha Christie's early work, and in this case it's meant to portray the prosecutor as antagonistic.
  • Someone to Remember Him By: It turns out that the reason Aunt Laura was so solicitous of Mary Gerrard is that Mary is her biological daughter. Laura got knocked up by a married army officer who was then killed in the war; she passed off the baby as the daughter of one of her maids.
  • Spotting the Thread: Heavily discussed, almost to the point of deconstruction. Poirot explains that it isn't the fact that the culprit told a lie about where she got a pinprick mark on her wrist that alerted him—nearly all murderers and criminals do, after all. Rather, it's the fact that the lie was so utterly pointless and easily proven false that drew his attention to it. Only someone with something to hide would tell a fib like that, which sets Poirot on the right track.
  • Take That!: When Poirot visits the scene of the crime, Dr Lord hopes he will find something to aid Elinor that the police overlooked. Poirot chides him, saying that he reads too much detective fiction, and points out that the English police are very thorough and collect evidence as they find it, with no bias in their work.
  • Troubled Backstory Flashback: Following the introduction set in present time, extended flashbacks reveal the events of Laura Welman and Marry Gerrard's deaths, Elinor Carlisle's doomed engagement to Roddy, and why she was implicated in the murders. Only then do we return to the trial and the related investigations.
  • Two Aliases, One Character: Nurse Jessie Hopkins and Mary Gerrard's namesake aunt Mary Riley are revealed to be the same person.
  • Unable to Support a Wife: Roddy cites this as a reason for backing out of his engagement to Elinor, now that Aunt Laura has died intestate, thus causing Elinor to inherit all the money instead of she and Robby each getting half. But Elinor guesses correctly that he's really bailing because he is infatuated with Mary Gerrard.
  • Wedding Ring Removal: Elinor pulls off her engagement ring and gives it to Roddy after they decide they aren't getting married after all.
  • Wrong Guy First: Elinor is passionately in love with Roddy, and the two are initially engaged. But he neither loves her as intensely as she does, nor, in many ways, does he quite deserve her love. The ending implies that Elinor will eventually find love and happiness with Peter Lord, the loyal doctor who has constantly admired and defended her from afar.