Poirot (Classic): S09E02 “Sad Cypress”

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.
W. Shakespeare

I mean, it’s no “One, Two, Buckle My Shoe”, but credit where it’s due, at least Dame Agatha took a break from nursery rhymes to lift a plot from the estimable Billy Shakes.

The Setup:

Cold open on the lovely Elinor Carlisle in the dock, on trial for two murders; we hear her internal monologue about how it all seemed so inevitable, and see Poirot in the gallery watching her. And so we go back to how it all began…

Ellie and childhood friend/cousin Roddy Winter are engaged to be married, and seemingly having a grand time of it — until Elinor receives an anonymous letter warning her of someone trying to screw her out of her dear old aunt’s fortune, which basically amounts to a zillion bucks and a grand old house in South Stranglebury, Devon.

Ellie and Rod take a trip to see dear old auntie, the 55-year-old Laura Welman, laid low by successive strokes and in her off hours wishing someone would just put her out of her misery. While there, the “gardener’s daughter” they both knew from childhood Mary Gerrard visits, having come home from school in Germany. Aunt Laura thinks the world of Mary – she seems sweet and innocent enough, and surely Rod’s fascination with her isn’t anything to worry about, right?

Nope, nothing to see here. Especially when a morphine bottle goes missing. And Laura wakes in a frenzy wanting to make provisions for Mary in her will. And Ellie catches ol’ Rod smooching on Mary in the parlor. And the two nurses seem more intent on gossiping about who inherits what. Nothing to see here at all, no siree.

(Also, just to underscore how deeply awful a person Rod is, he talks about how he admires what those National Socialists are doing over in Germany. So in addition to winning the prize for having the Most Punchable Face In West Stabbingford, Suffolk, he’s a Nazi.)

Someone over at ITV casting had a larf, because Paul McGann shows up as Doctor Lord, an old friend of Poirot’s (who’s in town to give evidence for another case). He convinces Poirot to take a look at the letter, but all Poirot can do is furrow his brow and predict of dark things to come for Mary.

(He’s right, of course.)

The Crime:

Well, finally Aunt Laura kicks it, and it turns out she had no will; everything instead goes to her surviving relative, Ellie. Ellie, despite being right pissed about the Rod/Mary hookup, gives Mary a few thousand pounds in accordance with what Laura would have wanted. She sacks the staff of the house and plans to sell it off, which raises a few eyebrows. To her credit, she also kicks Rod to the curb, in accordance with what any reasonable human being would do.

Which doesn’t stop her from being angry – she invites Mary and Nurse Hopkins to a lunch of seafood sandwiches (after idly wondering aloud in the shop if sandwich paste can poison people — Elinor is not subtle). After an incredibly awkward lunch where everyone just sort of sits and chews at each other, Hopkins goes to wash up and Elinor goes to start packing.

Finally, someone bothers to ask, “Hey, where’s the houseguest we just sort of walked away from, mid-sandwich?” And unfortunately the answer is, “She’s still in the library, but doing 100 percent less breathing than she was an hour ago.” Mary is dead of poison, presumably from the salmon sandwich paste (EWWWW) she ate but nobody else did.

It doesn’t take long for Laura’s body to be exhumed and show traces of morphine, a letter to be produced intimating that Mary was really Laura’s daughter and stood to inherit All The Monies (giving Ellie motive), and for Doctor Lord to engage M. Poirot to find out who really killed Mary, because he’s a bit sweet on Ellie himself.

Grey Cells:

This is where things get a bit complicated, not least because it involves New Zealand, about seven too many people suddenly named Mary, and the exhausting plot device where someone’s motive relies on inheriting someone else’s inheritance.

Suffice to say that Mary really was Aunt Laura’s daughter, and her dear old Mum in New Zealand was really dear old Nurse Hopkins in East Murdershire, Norfolk, and the poison was never in the sandwiches at all.

Poirot deduces that the poison was in the tea Hopkins served at the lunch, which she’d then vomited up while doing the washing thanks to injecting herself with an emetic; a scratch on her arm she’d blamed on the roses is actually from the injection, as the roses are of a thornless variety.

Hopkins convinced Mary to make out a will leaving everything to her mom (Mary had no idea that Hopkins was her “mum in New Zealand” who sent her nice things and returned her letters), then figured she’d kill Mary, get Ellie hanged for it, produce the letter showing that Mary should have inherited everything, then collect the inheritance by way of Mary getting killed. At least, I think that’s it; there’s some hoo-ha about adoption and a dude named Louis that gets thrown in there too, but you get the idea.

Elinor goes free, toddles off with Doctor Lord, and Poirot… maybe kills Nurse Hopkins? He steals her emetic when she tries the ol’ “serve us both poison tea but I’ll just vomit it up later” trick on him, anyway.

And Rod seems sad, but nobody cares about Rod because he’s a dink.

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Wot I Liked:

Poirot seems a bit cranky and impatient all episode long, and it really feels like he’s getting sick of all this bullshit and constantly being lied to. It’s a good look for him here, especially as Suchet has clearly aged into the part as well.

Also Poirot’s culinary tastes serve him well (HAR!), as he forces down spoonfuls of the no-doubt-hideous sandwich paste in an effort to tell salmon from crab once it’s been pulverized and drowned in… mayonnaise? Tomato paste? I don’t know, but it sounds disgusting and Suchet plays it well.

Another good supporting cast here, too, as McGann acquits himself nicely and Lovejoy‘s Lady Jane Felsham herself Phyllis Logan has a steely turn as Nurse Hopkins. MI-5 alum Rupert Penry-Jones brings his singular ability to look sleepy, stupid, and completely disinterested in being on TV to the role of Cad Rod, which basically requires that he look sleepy, stupid, and completely disinterested in other human beings, so… perfect fit?

The standout, though, is Elisabeth Dermot Walsh as Elinor – believable as she’s put through the emotional wringer early, and even more so when she’s stone-faced and a bit of a cipher once events start rolling downhill, Walsh is the heart of the episode and incredibly convincing in every scene she’s in.

Finally, the ep did a good job making me feel bad for the victims and making me hate the killer. I found I had a lot of sympathy for Aunt Laura; two strokes by age 55, apparently nice as all get out, and dying too young in service to a fistful of cash. And Mary may have had her faults, but I couldn’t help feel sad at the way ultimately her whole life had been a tool for a greedy killer. Again – these latter-day episodes are way more emotionally resonant than most of the early larks with Our Man, and this is no exception. Well done.

Wot I Not Liked:

The ending reveal, with the letter and Too Many Marys involved, felt messy, and I’m not a fan of inheritances-twice-removed as a motive (I’m lookin’ at you, Peril at End House). The New Zealand angle also strained credibility for a variety of reasons, not least of which was how someone could postmark something from New Zealand while living in North Killingspree, Essex or wherever this takes place.

And the mood here does get relentless; this is pretty dour, and coming off “Five Little Pigs” it hasn’t exactly been a barrel of laughs around Poirot Central recently. At least this one had Suchet making faces at sandwich paste.

So, not quite a favorite of mine for plot-related reasons, but undeniably a well-crafted episode and worth a watch if you haven’t seen it lately.

Next Week, on Poirot: It’s here! My Favorite Christie! Sure, we’ve seen the plot in a few different orientations before this, but this is My Favorite, so there. Will I be able to be objective in any way, shape, or form about this episode? Find out in… “Death on the Nile”!