Book Review: Sad Cypress #ReadChristie2023

Sad Cypress, by Agatha Christie (Hercule Poirot, #21)

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Welcome to Read Christie 2023!

Read Christie 2023 is the official reading challenge from Agatha Christie Ltd, which explores 12 stories and themes throughout the year. This year’s theme is Methods and Motives in Agatha Christie’s novels. Agatha Christie Ltd. picks a book to read at the start of each month. Follow along with our monthly blog reviews of the books. To learn more about how to get involved at

We are kicking the year off with a book review of the 1940 Agatha Christie classic, Sad Cypress, the first novel in the Hercule Poirot series set partly in the courtroom, with lawyers and witnesses exposing the facts underlying Hercule Poirot’s solution to the crimes. The title is taken from a song in Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night.

The Players

  • Mrs. Laura Welman: is an elderly woman with declining health and a vast fortune.
  • Elinor Carlisle: Mrs. Welman’s niece hopes to inherit Mrs. Welman’s fortune. She is engaged to Roderick Welman. Stands accused of murdering Mary Gerrard,
  • Roderick Welman: Mrs. Welman’s nephew through her deceased husband. He is engaged to Elinor Carlisle. 
  • Mary Gerrard: A young woman who lives on Mrs. Welman’s estate and who has taken a great interest in educating. She spends a lot of time reading to Mrs. Welman. She was a childhood playmate of Elinore Carlisle and Roderick Welman.
  • Nurse Eileen O’Brien: A nurse looking after Mrs. Welman. She believes Elinor Carlisle killed Mary Gerrard since she saw Elinor Carlisle looking at Mary Gerrard with black hate on her face. 
  • Nurse Jessie Hopkins: A district nurse helping nurse O’Brien to care for the ailing Mrs. Welman. She’s a competent nurse but known around the village as a busybody. She is fond of Mary Gerrard. On the day Mrs. Welman’s found dead, she’s unable to find a tube of morphine.
  • Doctor Peter Lord: Mrs. Welman’s doctor. Upon meeting Elinor Carlisle, he is instantly smitten. When Elinor Carlisle stands accused of murder, he pleads to Hercule Poirot to get her off no matter what the cost. 
  • Hercule Poirot: Investigates the deaths of Mary Gerrard and Mrs. Welman.

The Mystery

Sad Cypress begins with a mysterious letter penned to Elinor Carlisle and Roderick Welman. It states that a young woman is sucking up to Mrs. Laura Welman to inherit her vast fortune and estate, Hunterbury. Elinor Carlisle surmises that the unnamed woman is likely Mary Gerrard, the lodgekeeper’s daughter, who Mrs. Welman has supported and educated since childhood.

Elinor Carlisle and her fiance, Roderick Welman, are troubled by the letter because they imagine that after Mrs. Welman’s death, one or both of them will inherit the estate and money which would finance their life. Under the sole pretense of seeing their ailing, Aunt they travel to Hunterbury.

They are greeted at Hunterbury by the lovely and demure Mary Gerrard, Nurse O’Brien, and district Nurse Hopkins attending to Mrs. Welman. Mary Gerrard, with whom Roddy Welman instantly falls in love. He tried to keep his true passion hidden from Elinor Carlisle. Elinor Carlisle suspects Roderick has fallen for Mary Gerrard but is primarily concerned by her ailing aunt, who has suffered a stroke.

After Mrs. Welman’s second stroke, she is frantic to contact her solicitor and make a new provision to her will to provide a legacy for Mary Gerrard. It’s late, and before the solicitor comes the following day, Mrs. Welman dies. The morning that Mrs. Welman dies, Nurse Hopkins realizes that a tube of morphine is missing from her attache case. Still, she tells Nurse O’Brien that she may have left it at home or rolled it into the wastepaper basket next to the table her attache case was sitting on at Hunterbury.

Upon her death, Mrs. Welman’s solicitor reveals that Mrs. Welman has died intestate, that is to say, without making a will, so the money and estate pass absolutely to Elinor Carlisle, her next of kin. Elinor Carlisle tries to make amends to the disappointed Roddy, who doesn’t want to get married to Elinor Carlisle to sponge on her wealth and is battling with his growing love for Mary Gerrard. Unable to bear their new circumstances, Elinor Carlisle and Roddy Welman break their engagement.

Brokenhearted by the broken engagement and loss of future dreams, Elinor Carlisle struggles to suppress her mounting hatred towards Mary Gerrard. Not wanting to lose her composure and still hoping Roddy will return to her after a trip abroad to cool his head, Elinor Carlisle makes good on her aunt’s desires and settles 2000 pounds on Mary Gerrard. Grateful, Mary Gerrard accepts the money and plans to use it to study massage. 

After Mrs. Welman’s funeral, Elinor Carlisle decides to sell Hunterbury and spends time clearing out Mrs. Welman’s personal effects. While in town, Elinor Carlisle buys two pots of fish paste for sandwiches, and as she believes them, she muses on the safety of eating fish paste since it can spoil and lead to food poisoning. In the end, she buys the fish paste and makes up a large plate of sandwiches which she decides to share with Mary Gerrard, who has been staying with Nurse Hopkins since Mary Gerrard’s father died.

Elinor Carlisle, Mary Gerrard, and Nurse Hopkins eat luncheon, and Elinor Carlisle and Nurse Hopkins go upstairs to sort through the last of Mrs. Welman’s effects. When they return downstairs, they find Mary Gerrard in a coma, and she soon dies.

Mary Gerrard is found dead of morphine poisoning. The only suspect is Elinor Carlisle. Once Nurse Hopkins reveals that a tube of morphine had gone missing at Hunterbury to the police, Elinor Carlisle is tried for killing Mary Gerrard.

Frantic, Doctor Peter Lord goes to Hercule Poirot and expects to hire him to get Elinor Carlisle acquitted. Doctor Peter Lord tells Hercule Poirot that the crown will soon exhume the body of Mrs. Welman, who he suspects may have also been killed with a morphine injection. If so, Elinor Carlisle will be going down for two murders that he is sure Elinor Carlisle did not commit. With the twin motives of jealousy and inheritance, things look very black for Elinor Carlisle, and it’s up to Hercule Poirot to figure out who killed Mary Gerrard and Mrs. Welman and why.

The Motives

Unlike many of Hercule Poirot’s books, the most exciting aspect of the book is trying to figure out the motive for the two crimes. Was Mary Gerrard killed because of jealousy or what she inherited upon the death of Mrs. Welman? Is Elinor Carlisle so angry and jealous of Mary Gerrard that she would go from thinking about killing Mary Gerrard to doing it? Elinor Carlisle is convinced that her evil thoughts about Mary Gerrard should condemn her to conviction, a fascinating and compelling character trait explored in the book. 

The duality of each character’s nature reinforces the overall twin motives. Is Elinor Carlisle overcome with passion for Roddy Welman, which forces her to kill, or is she eminently controlled in her feelings and conscientious about her aunt’s dying wishes? Is Mary Gerrard a woman acting above her station, scheming to get money out of an enfeebled older woman who deserves what she got, or is she just a lovely young woman who is in the way of a grander scheme? 

Reading Sad Cypress studies weighing the intentions seen through the character’s actions and how others interpret those same actions favorably or unfavorably. Everyone struggles with their inner motives and expressing their truest nature, which makes this aspect of the book ring true.

The Verdict

However attractive the moral aspects of Sad Cypress are- the mystery is serviceable. The clues are not as deftly plotted or concealed as in several of Agatha Christie’s other courtroom dramas. The characters are not as rich and deeply human because their actions are dictated by Christie’s desire to wrestle with a duality of nature. In short, the theme gets in the way of a character-driven story. Even with a less intricate mystery, the story is still interesting, well-paced, and easy to read. Even great writers are bound to pen a middling book every once in a while. Sad Cypress will hit the spot if you want a quick, easy read to start 2023.

Similar Books You Might Enjoy:

Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers (Lord Peter Wimsey #5)

Harriet Vane stands accused of poisoning her lover, Philip Boyes. It’s up to Lord Peter Wimsey to uncover the truth before it’s too late!

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Witness for the Prosecution and Other Stories by Agatha Christie

Hercule Poirot must unravel the truth about who killed Emily French after Mrs. Romaine Vole, the wife of the accused, Mr. Leonard Vole, takes the stand for the prosecution and declares her husband the murderer.

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The Case of the Lonely Heiress by Erle Stanley Gardner (The Perry Mason Mysteries #2)

When Rose Keeling ends up dead after witnessing a contested will, it’s up to Perry Mason to figure out if his shady client, Marilyn Marlow, is actually the killer.

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