Sad Cypress

Sad Cypress

Dust-jacket illustration of the first UK edition
Author Agatha Christie
Cover artist Barlow
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Genre Crime novel
Publisher Collins Crime Club
Publication date
March 1940
Media type Print hardback & paperback
Pages 256 (first edition)
Preceded by And Then There Were None
Followed by One, Two, Buckle My Shoe

Sad Cypress is a work of detective fiction by Agatha Christie and first published in the UK by the Collins Crime Club in March 1940[1] and in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company later in the same year.[2][3] The UK edition retailed at eight shillings and threepence (8/3)[1] – the first price rise for a UK Christie edition since her 1921 debut – and the US edition retailed at $2.00.[3]

The novel is notable for being the first novel in the Poirot series set at least partly in the courtroom, with lawyers and witnesses exposing the facts underlying Poirot's solution to the crimes. The title is drawn from a song in Shakespeare's play Twelfth Night.

The novel was well received, even by her usual critic, who said "Elegiac, more emotionally involving than is usual in Christie, but the ingenuity and superb clueing put it among the very best of the classic titles." Another reviewer remarked "it is economically written, the clues are placed before the reader with impeccable fairness, the red herrings are deftly laid and the solution will cause many readers to kick themselves."

Plot summary

Elinor Carlisle and Roddy Welman are engaged to be married when she receives an anonymous letter claiming that someone is "sucking up" to their wealthy aunt, Laura Welman, from whom Elinor and Roddy expect to inherit a sizeable fortune. Elinor is niece to Mrs Welman, while Roddy is nephew to her late husband. Elinor suspects Mary Gerrard as the topic of the anonymous letter, the lodgekeeper's daughter, whom their aunt likes and supports. Neither guesses who wrote the letter, which is burned. They visit their aunt at Hunterbury. Roddy sees Mary Gerrard for the first time in a decade. Mrs Welman is partially paralyzed after a stroke and dislikes living that way. She tells both her physician Peter Lord and her niece how much she dislikes living without full health, wishing the doctor might end her pain, which he refuses to do. Roddy falls in love with Mary; this provokes Elinor to end their engagement. After a second stroke, Mrs Welman asks Elinor to make provision for Mary. Elinor assumes there is a will her aunt wants modified. Mrs Welman dies before Elinor can call the attorney. There is no will. She dies intestate, so her considerable estate goes to Elinor outright as her only known surviving blood relative.

Elinor settles two thousand pounds on Mary, which Mary accepts. Elinor sells the house she inherited. Mary dies of morphine poisoning at an impromptu lunch at Hunterbury, as Elinor, at the house, and Mary with Nurse Hopkins, at the lodge, are clearing out private possessions. Everyone at the house had access to the morphine Nurse Hopkins claimed to lose at Hunterbury while Mrs Welman was ill. Elinor is arrested. Later, it is learned that her aunt died of morphine poisoning, after the body is exhumed. Peter Lord, in love with Elinor, brings Poirot into the case. Poirot speaks to everyone in the village. He uncovers a second suspect when Roddy tells him of the anonymous letter - the writer of that letter. Poirot then focuses on a few elements. Was the poison in the sandwiches made by Elinor, which all three ate, or in the tea prepared by Nurse Hopkins and drunk by Mary and Hopkins, but not by Elinor? What is the secret of Mary's birth? Is there any significance in the scratch of a rose thorn on Hopkins's wrist? The denouement is revealed mainly in the court, as the defence lawyer brings witnesses who reveal what Poirot uncovers.

A torn pharmaceutical label that the prosecution says is from morphine hydrochloride, the poison, is rather a scrap from a label for apomorphine hydrochloride, an emetic, made clear because the m was lower case. The letters Apo had been torn off. Nurse Hopkins had injected herself with the emetic, to vomit the poison that she would ingest in the tea, explaining the mark on her wrist – not from a rose tree that is a thornless variety, Zephirine Drouhin. She went to wash dishes that fateful day for privacy as she vomits, looking pale when Elinor joins her in the kitchen. The motive was money. Mary Gerrard was the illegitimate daughter of Laura Welman and Sir Lewis Rycroft. Had this been discovered sooner, she would have inherited Mrs Welman's estate. Nurse Hopkins knows Mary's true parents because of a letter from her sister Eliza some years earlier. When Hopkins encouraged Mary Gerrard to write a will, Mary named as beneficiary the woman whom she supposes to be her aunt, Mary Riley, the sister of Eliza Gerrard, in New Zealand. Mary Riley's married name is Mary Draper. Mary Draper of New Zealand it turns out is Nurse Hopkins in England, as two people from New Zealand who knew Mary Draper both confirm in court. Hopkins leaves the courtroom before the judge can recall her.

Elinor is acquitted, and Peter Lord takes her away from where reporters can find her. Poirot talks with Lord to explain his deductions and actions to him as he gathered information on the true murderer, and how the "quickness of air travel" allowed witnesses from New Zealand to be brought to the trial. Poirot tells Lord he understands his clumsy efforts to get some action in Poirot's investigation. Lord's embarrassment is alleviated by Poirot's assurance that Lord will be Elinor's husband, not Roddy.


The Victims:

In the village

In the courtroom


The title comes from a song from Act II, Scene IV of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night which is printed as an epigraph to the novel.

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.

Narrative voice and structure of novel

The novel is written in three parts: in the first place an account, largely from the perspective of Elinor Carlisle of the death of her aunt, Laura Welman, and the subsequent death of Mary Gerrard; secondly Poirot's account of his investigation in conversation with Dr Lord; and, thirdly, a sequence in court, again mainly from Elinor's dazed perspective.

Literary significance and reception

Maurice Percy Ashley in The Times Literary Supplement gave a positive review to the book in the issue of 9 March 1940: "In recent years the detective story-reading public has been so profusely drenched with thrills, 'wisecracks' and perverted psychology that one sometimes wonders whether there is still room for the old-fashioned straight-forward problem in detection. There are, however, a few first-class exponents of this art with us – though now that Miss Sayers has, for the moment at any rate, turned moralist and others have entered the easier field of thriller writing there seem to be increasingly few. Mrs. Christie in particular remains true to the old faith; and it is pleasant to be able to record that her hand has not lost its cunning". The reviewer regretted that Poirot had lost some of his 'foibles' and Hastings no longer featured in the plots but he ended on a high note: "Like all Mrs Christie's work, it is economically written, the clues are placed before the reader with impeccable fairness, the red herrings are deftly laid and the solution will cause many readers to kick themselves. Some occasional readers of detective stories are wont to criticize Mrs Christie on the ground that her stories are insufficiently embroidered, that she includes, for instance, no epigrams over the college port. But is it not time to state that in the realm of detective fiction proper, where problems are fairly posed and fairly solved, there is no one to touch her?"[4]

In The New York Times Book Review of 15 September 1940, Kay Irvin concluded, "The cast of characters is small, the drama is built up with all this author's sure, economical skill. Sad Cypress is not the best of the Christie achievements, but it is better than the average thriller on every count."[5]

In reviewing several crime novels in The Observer's issue of 10 March 1940, Maurice Richardson began, "An outstanding crime week. Not only is Agatha Christie shining balefully on her throne, but the courtiers have made an unusually neat artistic arrangement of corpses up and down the steps." Concentrating on Sad Cypress specifically, Richardson concluded, "Characterisation brilliantly intense as ever. In fact, Agatha Christie has done it again, which is all you need to know."[6]

The Scotsman's review in its issue of 11 March 1940 concluded, "Sad Cypress is slighter and rather less ingenious than Mrs Christie's stories usually are, and the concluding explanation is unduly prolonged. But it is only with reference to Mrs Christie's own high level that it seems inferior. By ordinary standards of detective fiction it is a fascinating and skilfully related tale."[7]

E.R. Punshon in The Guardian's issue of 2 April 1940 concluded, "The story is told with all and even more of Mrs. Christie's accustomed skill and economy of effect, but it is a pity that the plot turns upon a legal point familiar to all and yet so misconceived that many readers will feel the tale is deprived of plausibility."[8]

Robert Barnard: "A variation on the usual triangle theme and the only time Christie uses the lovely-woman-in-the-dock-accused-of-murder ploy. Elegiac, more emotionally involving than is usual in Christie, but the ingenuity and superb clueing put it among the very best of the classic titles. Her knowledge of poison is well to the fore, but the amateur will also benefit from a knowledge of horticulture and a skill in close reading."[9]

References to other works

Peter Lord says that he has been recommended to consult Poirot by Dr. John Stillingfleet on the basis of Poirot's brilliant performance in the case related in the short story, The Dream, which had been printed two years earlier in issue 566 of The Strand (magazine) and later printed in book form in The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding in 1960 in the UK and in The Regatta Mystery in the US in 1939. The character of Stillingfleet later reappears in Third Girl (1966).

One of the witnesses flown to the trial from New Zealand is named Amelia Sedley, a name borrowed from Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray in 1847-48.



The novel was adapted as a five-part serial for BBC Radio 4 in 1992. John Moffatt reprised his role of Poirot. The serial was broadcast weekly from Thursday, 14 May to Thursday, 11 June at 10.00am to 10.30pm. All five episodes were recorded in the week of 16 to 20 March 1992.

Adaptor: Michael Bakewell
Producer: Enyd Williams

Eric Allan
Jonathan Adams
Barbara Atkinson as Mrs. Welman
Margot Boyd as Mrs. Bishop
John Church
Susannah Corbett as Mary Gerrard
Alan Cullen as the Judge
Keith Drinkel
Emma Fielding as Elinor Carlisle
Eamonn Fleming as Ted Bigland
Pauline Letts as Nurse Hopkins
Peter Penry-Jones
David McAlister as Dr. Lord
John Moffatt as Hercule Poirot
Joanna Myers as Nurse O'Brien, and as the singer of the title song
Gordon Reid
Charles Simpson as Roddy Welman
John Webb as Mr.Gerrard


The book was adapted by London Weekend Television as a one-hundred-minute drama and transmitted on ITV in the UK on Friday 26 December 2003 as a special episode in their series Agatha Christie's Poirot. The adaptation was quite faithful to the novel, though some minor changes were made, such as time (1937, around the time of George Gershwin's death) and setting (the adaptation took place in the Welman household, whereas the original mystery took place partly in the criminal court during Elinor Carlisle's trial and partly at the home of Mrs Welman). At the end of the movie, nurse Hopkins tries to kill Poirot, putting a poison in the tea, but Poirot (who already knows that the nurse is the killer) only pretends to drink it, but instead had poured out the tea in a vase.

Adaptor: David Pirie
Director: David Moore

David Suchet as Hercule Poirot
Elisabeth Dermot-Walsh as Elinor Carlisle
Rupert Penry-Jones as Roddy Winter
Kelly Reilly as Mary Gerrard
Paul McGann as Dr. Peter Lord
Phyllis Logan as Nurse Hopkins
Marion O'Dwyer as Nurse O'Brien
Diana Quick as Mrs. Laura Welman
Stuart Laing as Ted Horlick
Jack Galloway as Marsden
Geoffrey Beevers as Seddon
Alistair Findlay as Prosecuting Counsel
Linda Spurrier as Mrs. Bishop
Timothy Carlton as Judge

Sad Cypress was filmed on location at Dorney Court, Buckinghamshire.

Publication history

The book was first serialised in the US in Collier's Weekly in ten parts from 25 November 1939 (volume 104, number 22)[3] to 27 January 1940 (volume 105, number 4) with illustrations by Mario Cooper.

The UK serialisation was in nineteen parts in the Daily Express from Saturday, 23 March to Saturday, 13 April 1940. The accompanying illustrations were uncredited. This version did not contain any chapter divisions.[10]


  1. 1 2 Peers, Chris; Spurrier, Ralph; Sturgeon, Jamie (March 1999). Collins Crime Club – A checklist of First Editions (Second ed.). Dragonby Press. p. 15.
  2. Cooper, John; Pyke, B. A. (1994). Detective Fiction – the collector's guide (Second ed.). Scholar Press. pp. 82, 86. ISBN 0-85967-991-8.
  3. 1 2 3 "American Tribute to Agatha Christie". The Classic Years: 1940 - 1944. May 2007. Retrieved 1 July 2015.
  4. Ashley, Maurice Percy. The Times Literary Supplement 9 March 1940 (Page 125)
  5. Irvin, Kay. The New York Times Book Review 15 September 1940 (Page 19)
  6. Richardson, Maurice. The Observer 10 March 1940 (Page 6)
  7. The Scotsman 11 March 1940 (Page 9)
  8. Punshon, E. R. The Guardian 2 April 1940 (Page 3)
  9. Barnard, Robert (1990). A Talent to Deceive – an appreciation of Agatha Christie (Revised ed.). Fontana Books. p. 204. ISBN 0-00-637474-3.
  10. Holdings at the British Library (Newspapers – Colindale). Shelfmark: NPL LON LD3 and NPL LON MLD3.
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