I read Sad Cypress, one of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot novels, several times while I was in junior high. It was probably my favorite book featuring the dapper, egotistical, foreign (to the English) sleuth.
In Agatha Christie’s 1940 murder mystery, young and beautiful Elinor Carlisle stands accused of murdering young and beautiful Mary Gerrard. The story is told partly in Elinor’s extended flashbacks, in discussions between Belgian detective Hercule Poirot and Dr. Peter Lord, and in courtroom scene.
In the beginning, bright, young thing Elinor receives an anonymous note informing her that her ailing aunt, the wealthy Laura Welman, is being manipulated by an “artful” girl. Elinor and Laura’s nephew by marriage, Roddy Welman, decide to visit their aunt to make sure she’s well—and to ensure that their inheritance isn’t hijacked.
Elinor and Roddy are engaged. From the first, Roddy is described as sensitive and fastidious—disliking emotional display. What he says he loves most about Elinor is her polish and reserve—he likes the fact that she’s a cold fish.
She’s really, really not.
In fact, Elinor loves Roddy with a passion bordering on desperate, but she has twigged on to the fact that Roddy prefers that she act distant.
At the estate, Elinor deals with her aunt’s nurses and makes the acquaintance of her new doctor, Peter Lord, who is immediately smitten with her. Meanwhile, Roddy runs into Mary Gerrard, the lodge keeper’s daughter and Aunt Laura’s favorite, and in turn falls head over heels. Elinor is distressed by this development and her behavior becomes somewhat erratic; She laughs hysterically at her own jokes and gives dark looks to her rival.
Not long afterward, Aunt Laura dies intestate, resulting in her entire fortune going to Elinor. She breaks off her engagement with Roddy and Mary Gerrard dies after eating a sandwich prepared by Elinor.
Elinor is seemingly the only one with motive to kill Mary Gerrard, and she has plenty of opportunity.
Lovelorn Peter Lord asks Poirot to find enough evidence to acquit Elinor and he proceeds to unravel the case in a way that I still find wholly satisfying.
Christie, who lived from 1890 to 1976, is one of the most read and widely translated writers in the world.
She penned 66 full-length detective novels, 33 of which were Hercule Poirot books, and the character also starred in 54 of her short stories. Her other mysteries featured sleuths such as Miss Jane Marple and Tommy and Tuppence Beresford, and she wrote a handful of “romances” (the stories are bittersweet) under the name Mary Westmacott.
My junior high school library had a full shelf of Christie, but I went and bought my own paperback copy of Sad Cypress.
I liked the structure of murder mystery. I liked the scattering of clues, the red herrings, that final gathering of evidence where minor statements suddenly acquired major significance.
In many ways, reading Agatha Christie’s Poirot books trained young me to be a close reader. Instead of looking at bluster and swashbuckling, I started paying attention the small movements of characters, to slips, and to tiny, betraying details: shared names, a scratch on a wrist, a figure of speech.
But the books educated me in other ways. Christie’s work was full of tossed-off literary references (she could always be depended on for out of context Shakespeare quotes). One Poirot mystery I remembered, Appointment With Death, has one of the characters spontaneously reciting a song from Cymbeline. The title, Sad Cypress, is from Twelfth Night and one point, in the book, Peter Lord describes watching Elinor cutting bread and butter and Poirot interjects, “Charlotte and the poet Werther.”
References to The Sorrows of Young Werther by German Romantic poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe went over my young head—and frankly, I didn’t know that much more about the Bard. Within 10 years of reading Sad Cypress, though, I went on to graduate school to study Elizabethan and Jacobean literature—including lots of Shakespeare.
Of course, it now seems marvelously ironic to me that I received my first education on the importance of high literary culture by reading supposedly low culture detective novels.
But there were other mysteries in Sad Cypress.
For instance, the book had jokes which I found completely inscrutable. At one point, Dr. Lord hears Elinor in a fit of hysterical laughter. He asks why she is laughing. She says she doesn’t know. Peter Lord persists:
“I’ll write you out a tonic.”
Elinor said incisively: “How useful!”
He grinned disarmingly. “Quite useless, I agree. But it’s the only thing one can do when people won’t tell one what is the matter with them!”
I puzzled over this exchange. The rhythm of it—and Peter Lord’s grin—made me understand that it Elinor had made a joke. I looked up the definition of “incisive.” But I didn’t quite get it.
Now, I see that maybe Elinor had what all the het, white men of online dating claim they have: a sarcastic sense of humor.
In another passage, the prosecutor, Sir Samuel, questions Roddy Welman about Elinor’s feelings for him.
“If a lady were deeply in love with you and you were not in love with her, would you feel it incumbent upon you to conceal the fact?”
“Where did you go to school Mr. Welman?”
Sir Samuel said with a quiet smile: “That is all.”
My reaction then as now is about the same: Hahaha. What the fuck?
There was a whole world that the characters in these books knew—that the author knew—that I didn’t. I wanted to understand what that was. That was the real mystery to me.
There are literary conventions, and there are social conventions—the uncodified rules and norms of living in a specific culture. Sad Cypress is bound up in both of these things.
Murder mysteries catch people in primal acts, doing things out of the bounds of civilized society. (Yes, my young, ridiculous mind conflated English society with civilized society.) They feature dignified dowagers strangling their enemies with their bare hands and nervous minor gentry poisoning their blackmailers. The very structure—the conventions—of these books emphasize that there are written and unwritten laws: murder is bad and it will be discovered and punished. But laughing hysterically out of turn is also not done and it can get you accused of terrible things.
“Miss Elinor’s a lady,” one character notes. “She’s the kind—well, you couldn’t imagine her doing anything like that—anything violent…”
Elinor is a lady and that means something. Roderick Welman is a gentleman who went to Eton and that somehow means something. The allusions, the titles, the wit—they all meant something. Hercule Poirot—a white man—is foreign, lives in England, and understands English convention; he grasps the meaning while not being held to it.
I would probably have been considered a savage.
I was a young girl in Canada. My parents were very much not English. They’d grown up in a non-western culture which had its own specific and mystifying codes of behavior and my parents often grew impatient because I didn’t know or understand things that to them seemed innate. But how could I have absorbed this knowledge absent that society? And how could I grasp the mores of the place I did live—in a midsized Canadian city, in a mostly-white junior high school—with only the guidance of my equally confused peers?
Learning about the impenetrable grown up world is, of course, frustrating for young people. But I had too many sets of unspoken rules to pick apart, and too many environments in which to apply them.
So much about my thinking then seems ass-backwards now.
I tried to absorb by osmosis the rules of late 1930s English society and apply them to Canada in the late 80s. I learned about Shakespeare to understand allusions in a detective novel. I read about murder to give myself polish. I consumed story after story about England and English people–or was I really reading because of the non-English detective whose powers of understanding came from being apart?
I came about it in a confused way, and yet, years later here I am alive, reasonably couth, and able find some jokes funny. One might say that I’m civilized enough.
But this would not have satisfied younger me. I would have preferred to be like Elinor: beautiful, charming, reserved yet passionate, just a little tragic. I would have liked to drink cocktails—whatever those were—and make witticisms that I couldn’t understand.
Now, I’d rather be Poirot.