Sad Cypress by Agatha Christie

published 1939   chapter 5

Young and severe in her black dress, Elinor sat in front of Mrs Welman’s massive writing-table in the library. Various papers were spread out in front of her. She had finished interviewing the servants and Mrs Bishop. Now it was Mary Gerrard who entered the room and hesitated a minute by the doorway.

‘You wanted to see me, Miss Elinor?’ she said.

Elinor looked up. ‘Oh, yes, Mary. Come here and sit down, will you?’

Mary came and sat in the chair Elinor indicated. It was turned a little way towards the window, and the light from it fell on her face, showing the dazzling purity of the skin and bringing out the pale gold of the girl’s hair.

Elinor… thought ‘Is it possible to hate anyone so much and not show it?’

observations: I was astonished to find this book was published in 1933. That’s because it wasn’t, despite what it says on the copyright page of my paperback. The correct date of 1939 makes much more sense - for a start there’s a reference to discussing possible husbands for Princess Elizabeth (the current Queen) which is less strange when she was 13 than when she was 7.

But the real giveaway is a reference to more relaxed divorce laws, the result of a 1937 Act of Parliament. A couple tied together by the insanity of one partner, 
unable to divorce – this used to crop up often enough in books of the first part of the 20th century, and it is agreed in the book that the new law was much kinder and more sensible. Mind you, in the closing pages of Sad Cypress, an important character is told ‘you are going to a sanatorium’: ‘that’s all arranged… Quiet place. Lovely gardens.’ This is shown as being a kind thought – perhaps like going to a spa today – and there is no suggestion this person is being bundled away, but it comes over very oddly indeed.

Another classic theme comes with the fishpaste sandwiches as a possible vehicle for poison – detective story fans find it difficult to take the snack seriously in real life, as it was such a favourite in books. We cannot be the only household where anything being offered around is accompanied with the words ‘Sandwich Mrs Bickleigh?’

Sad Cypress has an excellent plot, unlikely but fairplay, and the character of Elinor is beautifully done – Christie has her set ideas on the relations of men and women, but inside the clichés you get a stamp of conviction and the voice of experience. There is even a joking reference to Aunt Agatha’s Advice Column for tips on romances - is it a strange choice for her to have used her own first name?

Links up with: Agatha Christie has featured many times – click on the label below.

The picture is from a treasure trove of photos of utility clothes, taken by the Ministry of Information and recently released by the Imperial War Museum. Sorrel in Theatre Shoes thinks she will be reduced to wearing a utility dress to a first night, and tries to be brave about it...


  1. Moira - An excellent post on this novel! I've always liked the character of Elinor Carlisle, and I think Christie does an excellent job of depicting what it's really like to be charged with murder. She also does a good job of suggesting just enough doubt that we wonder whether, after all, Elinor is guilty... And thanks for that interesting background on the date of publication. The year of 1933 never did made sense to me given the style and as you say, some of the topics. Oh, and I do love your choice of 'photo. That's exactly the way I picture that dress.

  2. Fishpaste sandwiches? We were still eating those in our family in the 1970s. I think there were other books where dodgy paste sandwiches have caused illness and death.

  3. I agree, this is an excellent post. I haven't read this book yet, but I am reading an Agatha Christie a month and looking for suggestions. This one sounds very good. And I did not know anything about utility clothes during World War II. I knew there was a shortage of materials, of course. This dress looks very nice to me.

  4. Thanks all - yes it is a lovely dress, no-one could object to it! And I think you can still get fishpaste for sandwiches - but who would dare?

    Tracy, I think it is one of her very good ones, I recommend it.

  5. I believe Sad Cypress is published in 1940. I agree to all that Elinor Carlisle is a very good character and the plot is superb.

  6. I just re-read "Sad Cypress" and realised that it is in some ways quite similar to "Strong Poison" by D.L. Sayers, above all the fact that it starts off with a young woman of strong moral integrity who is (wrongly) accused of murder, that the case looks foolproof, it doesn't seem possible that anybody else could have done it, but there is a young man in love with the young woman who is desperate to prove her innocence. (There is another similarity too, but that's a bit of a plotspoiler, so I will not go into it.)Now, here's the thing: Whereas in "Strong Poison", published in 1930, the man in love is (obviously)Lord Peter, in Christie's novel he is called… wait for it... drums... PETER LORD! It just has to be a conscious little wink from one author to another, and maybe this is well known by everybody who is into Golden Age detective novels, but I had to share it with somebody.

    Oh, and it does actually say in the novel that it all happens in 1939. It's important for the plot, because one character is 21 and it's 1939 now, so she is upset when she realises that her parents only married in 1919, when she was a year old - after the fact as it were.

    1. Thanks for this Birgitta - what a great perception, I had never thought of that despite knowing both those books very well. It is one of my favourite Christies. (Although I do have about a dozen favourites, and am forever changing the order of them)

  7. Excellent, but still the solution of the German matchbox, the person who stood watching behind the shrubs, the puzzle of Peter Lords car number as mentioned by Horlick - all these still remain a mystery to me

    1. Ha! I will have to re-read it now and see what I think of those red herrings....


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