A few weeks ago, when Shedunnit‘s Caroline Crampton and I discussed Watsons in fiction, she mentioned Agatha Christie’s England (2021), a project she had worked on for Herb Lester Associates mapping the locations of Agatha Christie’s UK-set mysteries. And then the lovely people at Herb Lester got in touch to ask if I’d like a copy, and here we are.
The principle is simplicity in itself, which means you know it took bloody ages: scour the novels and short stories by Dame Agatha, make a note of any locations mentioned therein, and then find them on a map. All in a day’s work for a GAD nerd — hell, half of you reading this probably know various locations around your part of the country where certain novels are set (John Dickson Carr was very fond of my corner of London at one stage, it would seem) — except of course that fiction is tricky because authors make stuff, and places, up. So, as noted on the map, Jane Marple’s beloved village of St. Mary Mead is said in different accounts to be found in both Downshire and Radfordshire…neither of which exist (be thankful it’s not in Casterbridge, creating a Christie-Hardyverse that would tear the continuum of fiction asunder). And, naturally, fans of the various adaptations will expect you to know about the locations used to film the stories, so there’s also that to consider.
Suddenly the task of “read the books and find the places” starts to look even more complicated, eh?
Crampton’s solution to this conundrum is to cleverly garnish, where possible, the fiction with such facts as can be established. Hercule Poirot lived, from The ABC Murders (1936) onwards, in the equally fictional Whitehaven Mansions, which is again never pinned down by anything so gauche as an actual geographical marker, and so the location chosen for it on the map here is Charterhouse Square, the location of the building used for the exterior shots for the duration of David Suchet’s tenure in the role on television. Whether the precise location of a fictional place really matters is a debate for another time, but there can be no denying that the depictions of Christie’s two most famous sleuths by Suchet and Joan Hickson (whose St. Mary Mead on screen was played by…? Nether Wallop, #14 here — give yourself a point if you knew that) are a huge part of how so many people came to the books, and this is a neat way to please both camps.
With real locations — the Ritz hotel, or Doncaster racecourse, say — we are naturally on firmer ground, and Crampton does a lovely job on the reverse side of the map of giving a spoiler-free precis of the details of the plot(s) bringing these places into Christie canon. For someone like me who has read the books and isn’t thrilled with the prospect of Christie’s own, reportedly rather sanitised An Autobiography (1977) — nor in the speculations done by biographers like Laura Thompson in Agatha Christie: A Mysterious Life (2007), no matter how much others praise them (I just don’t go in for biography, a quirk of personality we can put under the microscope another time) — there is easily enough here, presented in bite-size portions, to intrigue beyond simply a repeat of plots and clues you’ve already encountered.
And there is some lovely history to be found, too, as sprinkled throughout can be found carefully curated tidbits from real life, such as Christie’s house Greenway in Devon, or the location from which Miss Marple’s name was taken: nothing close to scholarship or original research, but that’s not the intent. We already know there is much interest in Christie’s life away from writing — you may have heard that she disappeared for 11 days after discovering her first husband was having an affair, which you’d think some people might make a big deal about — and folding in these places from non-fictional elements is another clever way to acknowledge the richness of Christie’s allure. Plus, some of the really interesting stuff isn’t even about Christie: Croydon airport was, in the 1930s, the only international airport in Great Britain, from which a staggeringly rammed schedule of flights to and from France ran for about 20 years. C’mon, only one international airport in the entire country? How did I not know that? I live under about seventeen flight paths, and that seems impossible to me.
The presentation, too, is gorgeous. Artist Ryan Bosse has done a superb job with clean, uncluttered images that manage to convey a sense of timeless art-deco styling — no mean feat, considering that the choice of precisely how to represent the sheer range of ages and possible representations Christie’s work covered must have been a nightmare in itself (her novels cover 57 staggeringly transformative years in this country’s history — from post-WW1 austerity to the Swinging Sxities and beyond). The sheer scope of this undertaking runs the risk of tipping it into overload, with potentially lots of information to relay but only so many locations of actual interest. Tempting it must have been to fill that empty space with more diagrams, more text, more more more, but the decision to leave free space for the eye to move over is a wise one: one side of this features the map itself in contrasting teal and orange, with 44 locations marked and enumerated on the legend, and the reverse side then contains Crampton’s notes, broken up by some of Bosse’s compact, clear illustrations of the likes of Durdle Door and the Queen Elizabeth Tower. There’s a lot here, but it never feels overstuffed.
Also, since someone will ask and I don’t know how to work this in casually: the map is 40cm x 65 cm. Approximately. No, I don’t know what that is in imperial. You have a computer, look it up if you’re that worried. It all comes packaged in a neat little foldy box — doubtless it has a proper name, but I’m an imbecile where these things are concerned — which is 8⅛” x 148mm x ¾ barleycorns. And it comes with two postcards, too, which is a nice touch. Those are your standard postcard size: 1 postcard length x 1 postcard height.
I don’t normally go in for this sort of thing — much like with modern crime fiction marketing departments, I tend to view slapping Christie’s name on something as a shorthand for pushing upon you a product that isn’t really worthy of being mentioned in the same bracket as the amazing work she did. But you, like me, have doubtless listened to Shedunnit and know full well the work that Crampton puts in there, and her involvement with this had me curious because she wouldn’t simply pass of substandard work as worthy of your time and money. The care taken over the contents, the presentation, and especially the artwork is genuinely something to admire; sure, I got a free copy, but if you think that would stop me criticising something cheap that wasn’t worthy of your time, attention, and — importantly — money, you’re clearly new here.
Agatha Christie’s England is, all told, smartly researched and written, gorgeously designed, beautifully produced from high quality materials, and a lovely piece of Golden Age-adjacent invention to add to the volumes doubtless jostling for space on your overcrowded bookshelves. Herb Lester have been doing this for a little while now — I love that you can also buy a Bertram’s Hotel notepad, shown above…that’s just geeky fun — and, if this sounds like your sort of thing, you can find the map on their website here. We live in a cynical age, so let me assure you that I receive no commission should you buy one, nor any payment or other form of remuneration; I’m doing this because it’s a cool thing that I like so a) I want you to know that you might like it too, and b) any company putting care of this nature into such endeavours is to be celebrated, in the hope that they might produce more high-quality stuff that reflects well on a passion many of us take far, far too seriously.
Nerds gotta nerd together, y’know? Other people think they understand, but they don’t. Find a like-minded soul and hug them close.