Notes On Sad Cypress

Year of Publication: 1940

Motive for Murder: Wealth

Rating: four out of five

Plot:

On the dock Elinor Carlisle pleaded “not guilty” for poisoning Mary Gerrard with morphia. Whilst the court was proceeding, her mind wandered; flashback of events flooded in her head. She saw Roderick Welman, her ex-fiance and Hercule Poirot among the audience.

Elinor had thought of getting rid of Gerrard. She had the opportunity and moreover a motive.  Her  engagement to Welman had broken because of the woman.

As evidences pointed at Elinor, she was on the verge of being sentenced with the murder.  Was jealousy and unrequited love enough to kill a childhood friend?

Help was at hand from a secret admirer. The young Dr. Peter Lord, having fallen head over heels to the defence, managed to persuade Poirot to take the case. He was adamant of Elinor’s innocence.  ‘I want this girl acquitted,’ he said to the sleuth. Did Poirot agree, considering his partial views on her?

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

(Twelfth Night, Act 2 Scene 4)

Highlights:

Three people and a triangle of love. Elinor loved Roderick since they were little but the moment he set his eyes on Mary Gerrard when he saw her again years later he was completely besotted with her beauty. The three of them grew up together at Hunterbury estate, of which it belonged to Laura Welman, Elinor’s aunt. Rody was Mrs. Welman’s nephew by marriage. As for Gerrard, she lived in the Lodge, for her father worked for Mrs. Welman. She was fond of both girls and ensured that Mary also got the same level of education as Elinor.

The book began with Feste’s song; a sad story of love (Twelfth night, Act 2 Scene 4). In Christie’s adaptation of the play, Elinor was much similar to Viola, Roderick was more or less Orsino and Mary was none other than Olivia. Nonetheless, Sebastian might have been Dr. Lord  – Viola’s twin brother she did not know had survived. In Christie’s world, the twins were equated to soul mates. The young doctor was Elinor’s soulmate, of whom she did not realise exist.

David Teniers the Younger’s The King Drinks, a baroque painting inspired by Twelfth Night

Just as in Twelfth Night, nearly everyone was a fool or sort of a fool – except of course Hercule Poirot. Dr. Lord called Rody “a superlicious ass” and Ted Bigland, Mary’s admirer, said to her that “you look like a duchess or countess or something” – a sneering remark to a Lodgekeeper’s daughter.  Then how about Dr. Lord’s ranting at Poirot begging him to acquit the apple of his eye? I felt for his frustration, his being madly in love to Elinor and his bewilderment regarding his feelings (see Clues). If anything, those only depicted him as a man with feelings; a concept that might have shocked the man readers of the authoress in the forties. They might have said: what did a woman know about a man’s feelings? (the answer was in Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth).

Pearl S. Buck wrote about the life of a Chinese man in the thirties; thinking and acting as a “him” despite her gender and race. 

I supposed at the time of publication such mattered little. The country suffered from the war as the Germans started bombing London while across the English Channel in Dunkirk opionions had been divided as to the success of the evacuation. A bit of feelings did not hurt, did it? Of equal merit was Poirot’s matter-of-factly and fatherly responds to Dr. Lord, having disregarded the other’s somewhat offending remarks and highlighted flaws in his logic.

Personally the best part was the chapter in which letters among minor characters were exchanged. Just like in Cat Among The Pigeons, news and gossips were narrated with a degree of sensitivity and distinctive styles for each personality. These gave a flavour to readers in which each was unique and provided more about the minor characters -as people tend to be more honest in letters- as well customs upheld in the forties’ Britain.

From the point of view of writing technique, letters were as interesting as dialogues as they were intimate. Christie’s skill in letter writing was exemplary; such a skill spoke volumes of her generation and might have been part of her “training” as a writer. It is pitiful nowadays many writers in novels and short stories seem to overlook the beauty of letters and instead opt for long descriptions after long descriptions.

Towards the end, I recalled the similar sadness engulfed in Ian McEwan’s Atonement. As memories of the novel’s plot began to fill my mind, I was reminded of Briony’s infatuation towards Robbie and her jealousy to her elder sister Cecilia.  Briony atoned herself by apologising to both Robbie and Cecilia in her novel while Elinor’s feeling to Roderick did not wane although she did not want to know him any more. The foolishness of love?

Finally, a special thank you for Stephanie Chidester’s essay, which reminded me of  “the fools” in Twelfth Night and the role of Feste the jester.

On the whole, Christie was brilliant in her interpreting Twelfth Night for the War Era Britain. The public’s sour mood at that time was captured well without losing the spirit of the thrills in the crime itself.

 

The Twists:

-Sir Lewis Rycroft’s photograph kept by Laura Welman

-A scrap of label Apomorphine Hydrochloride (the antidote to Morphine Hydrochloride) found in the pantry

-The exhumation of Laura Welman’s body

– The Rose Trellis at Hunterbury

-The letter Jessie Hopkins showed to Hercule Poirot

-The presence of Amelia Mary Sedley at the court

 

Cast of Characters:

Amelia Mary Sedley (A witness at the court who came from Auckland, New Zealand)

Mr. Abbot (owned a grocery shop at Hunterbury)

Mrs. Bishop (the housekeeper at Hunterbury Hall)

Eileen O’Brien (nurse to Laura Welman)

Elinor Carlisle (Laura’s niece, the heir)

Ephraim Gerrard (Mary’s father, the Lodgekeeper at Hunterbury Hall)

Jessie Hopkins (the District Nurse at Hunterbury)

Laura Welman (Elinor’s aunt, who owned Hunterbury Hall and Ephraim’s employer)

Marry Gerrard (Laura’s protégé, the daughter of  Ephraim Gerrard)

Dr. Peter Lord (the village doctor)

Roderick Welman ( Laura‘s nephew by marriage)

Mr. Seddon (Laura Welman’s lawyer)

Ted Bigland (Mary’s admirer, who worked in a garage in the village)

The Most Fascinating Character: Roderick Welman

Rupert Penry-Jones starred as “Roddy Winter” in 2003’s novel adaptation for Poirot series.

Who was he – Christie’s Orsino? An orphan whose uncle was married to Laura Welman? A childhood’s friend of Elinor Carlisle? A penniless gentleman? A man who loved Mary Gerrard?

As I pondered on him, it occurred to my mind that this character was powerless and weak. He was grateful for Laura Welman to treat him as if he was a nephew by blood. Nonetheless, he did not appear to possess courage and passion although his self-deprecating attitude and honesty were without doubt. To Elinor Carlisle he admitted that he was not somebody without the generousity of Mrs. Welman.

In their conversation he said: ‘The same with me,. I’ve got a job, of sorts. Being with Lewis and Hume is not too arduous. It suits me. I preserve my self respect by having a job; but-mark-this-but I don’t worry about the future because of my expectations-from Aunt Laura’.

Furthermore, he was easily the young Sir Lewis Rycroft; Laura Welman’s lover, who died in the Great War in 1919. For the gentleman had a wife who was mad and lived in an asylum; that his love to the widow Laura Welman could not be realised as he was not able to divorce his wife. Yet, as their love was consummated there was a child whose true identity was known only to the late Elizabeth Gerrard and her husband Ephraim.

Unbeknown to him, he was Elinor’s heir – her wealth upon her death would have become his. He only learnt the fact much later on in the court. Before Mary died, he proposed her but was not accepted. I wondered: would he have married Elinor had he had knowledge about the will?

In the end he gained nothing and was mourning for the loss of love. He was, in a nutshell, the Sad Cypress itself.

Clues:

Mrs. Bishop: (to Poirot)

‘…But Men, they are all alike: easily caught by flattery and a pretty face.’

Elinor Carlisle:

‘Love isn’t very reasonable…’

‘If Mary wasn’t there…’

‘So you’re making your will, Mary. That’s funny. That’s very funny..’

(to Mr. Abbot) ‘One used to be rather afraid of eating fish pastes. There have been cases of ptomaine poisoning from them, haven’t there?’

Jessie Hopkins:

(to Mary Gerrard) ‘That’s all right. Put down you leave everything to Mary Riley, sister of the late Eliza Gerrard of Hunterbury, Maidensford.’

(her answer to Elinor Carlisle’s remark ‘You’ve pricked yourself’): ‘On the Rose trellis at the Lodge-a thorn. I’ll get it out presently.’

Mary Gerrard:

(to Jessie Hopkins) ‘Don’t you see? This is 1939. And I’m twenty-one. In 1919 I was a year old. That means- that means- that my father and mother weren’t married till-till-afterwards.’

‘I wonder who my real father was…’

Dr. Peter Lord:

(to Laura Welman)

‘The point is that one’s got an instinct to live. One doesn’t live because one’s reason assents to living. People who, as we say, “would be better dead,” dont’ want to die.! People who apparently have got everything to live just let themselves fade out of life because they haven’t got the energy to fight.’

(to Hercule Poirot):

‘Of all the things to say – so prim and smug, too! Who’s asking you to approve? I’m not asking you to tell lies! Truth’s truth, isn’t it? If you find something that tells in an accused person’s favour, you wouldn’t be inclined to suppress it because she’s guilty, would you?’

Mr. Seddon:

‘Ah, my dear Miss Elinor, the human mind is a very curious piece of mechanism. Mrs. Welman may have thought she wanted to die; but side by side with that feeling there ran the hope that she would recover absolutely. And because of that hope, I think she felt that to make a will would be unlucky. It isn’t so much that she didn’t mean to make one, as that she was eternally putting it off.’

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4 thoughts on “Notes On Sad Cypress

  1. Thank you very much. I am trying to offer Christie’s fan to see her writing from a different angle. I am glad you seem to agree with me. Did you like the book?

  2. I never looked beyond Elinor and Jessie as possible suspects…IMHO, the book was one of the simplest Christie’s ever written…it wasn’t like Evil Under The Sun or Murder on the Orient Express where you begin to doubt each and every character….And simple always translates into beautiful, doesn’t it?

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