Tag: The Body in the Library

Agatha Christie’s England

Where is St Mary Mead, anyway?

My guide to Agatha Christie’s England is now available to pre-order from the publisher at shedunnitshow.com/map (ships 19th July 2021). It’s also available to order from Amazon, Waterstones, Blackwell’s and other booksellers. An audio version is available for purchase at shedunnitshow.com/audiomap (if you are entitled to a free copy from your pre-order, you will have received an email from the publisher about this).

There are no major spoilers either in this episode or the guide.

Books mentioned:

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie
An Autobiography by Agatha Christie
Peril at End House by Agatha Christie
N or M? by Agatha Christie
Sleeping Murder by Agatha Christie
Five Little Pigs by Agatha Christie
Ordeal by Innocence by Agatha Christie
The Secret Adversary by Agatha Christie
Three Act Tragedy by Agatha Christie
The Secret of Chimneys by Agatha Christie
They Do It With Mirrors by Agatha Christie
Hercule Poirot’s Christmas by Agatha Christie
The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie
Third Girl by Agatha Christie
A Murder is Announced by Agatha Christie
4.50 from Paddington by Agatha Christie
The Body in the Library by Agatha Christie
Dumb Witness by Agatha Christie
By the Pricking of My Thumbs by Agatha Christie
The Mystery of the Blue Train by Agatha Christie

NB: Links to Blackwell’s are affiliate links, meaning that the podcast receives a small commission when you purchase a book there (the price remains the same for you). Blackwell’s is a UK independent bookselling chain that ships internationally at no extra charge.

Thanks to today’s sponsor, The Box in the Woods  by Maureen Johnson. It’s available now wherever books are sold — get your copy today.

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Find a full transcript of this episode at shedunnitshow.com/agathachristiesenglandtranscript.

Music by Audioblocks and Blue Dot Sessions. See shedunnitshow.com/musiccredits for more details.

Agatha Christie’s England Transcript

Caroline: When you close your eyes and imagine the setting of an Agatha Christie story, what do you see? A grand country house, perhaps, or an idyllic English village complete with its own spinster sleuth. For all that the Queen of Crime is lauded for her plots, she deserves praise for her settings, too.

Beyond the more exotic locations featured in books like Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile, there is a whole network of interconnected, seemingly ordinary, places that lie behind Christie’s fiction. It interacts with her biography too — the more you read her work, the more you realise that her characters’ lives are superimposed upon her own.

If you’ve ever walked into a hotel lobby or a village hall and thought “this looks like it should be in an Agatha Christie novel”, then this episode is for you. Because today, we’re exploring Agatha Christie’s England.

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Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.

This episode marks a very special occasion. Over the last few months I’ve been working on something behind the scenes, and now it’s finally being released out into the world. It shares the title of this episode — Agatha Christie’s England — and is a map and a guide to the real life locations that appear in Christie’s fiction. I’ve scoured every novel and short story, as well as the Queen of Crime’s own life and autobiography, to find the most interesting places to include. As well as my writing, it also includes period-inspired illustrations and a postcard, so that you can send a loved one your best wishes from somewhere you discover on your travels with the map. It’s being published by Herb Lester Associates, an independent publisher that produces lovely literary guides and gifts, and is now available to order directly at shedunnitshow.com/map. I have also made an audiobook version of it, for those who really like to hear me talking about Agatha Christie. The first 100 people to pre-order the map will get the audiobook for free, and then after that it’s available for purchase. This has been a really fun project to work on, and I hope you like it as much as I do.

If you’ve been listening to this show for a while, you already know that I’m someone who really, really loves to research. Amassing information is something I’m pretty good at — I’m arguably better at that than knowing what to do with it once I have it. It won’t be any surprise to you, then, to know that the initial list of places I gathered for the map was a lot longer than the ones that we could actually fit. There are I think 45 entries in the guide, and my initial list had at least double that. Agatha Christie wrote a lot of books, stories and plays, and she sent her characters to a lot of different places.

In this episode, I’m going to talk about the sense of place in Christie’s books, her own favourite locations, and some of the trends that I observed while putting together the map. We’re also going to look into a surprising mystery connected to one of Christie’s most famous places.

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Agatha Christie was a very well travelled woman, both by the standard of her time and even compared with how much most people move around today. She attended a finishing school in Paris for a year in her teens and then spent the winter after she turned 17 in Cairo. This trip was supposedly organised for the sake of her mother’s health, but there was an ulterious social motive to it. The family was comfortably off but not so wealthy that they could afford to give their second daughter a “season” as a debutante in London. By wintering in Egypt, Agatha was able to go to lots of dances at a fraction of the cost and there was a ready supply of British suitors from the colonial regiments and administrative services stationed there.

Then in 1922 Agatha and her husband Archie Christie were invited to join a tour to promote international participation in the upcoming British Empire exhibition. This was a ten month trip that required them to leave their small daughter Rosalind at home with her grandmother, and took them to South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii, and Canada. And of course, towards the end of the 1920s Agatha began to travel to the Middle East, and her subsequent marriage to archaeologist Max Mallowan made her familiar with parts of Syria and Iraq where they travelled for excavations. The locations for some of her best known books, such as Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile, were drawn from her personal experiences of travel.

But our focus here is Agatha Christie’s England, not her adventures overseas. Where I do think the two are connected is in her powers of observation — a seasoned traveller often possesses the ability to imbibe the atmosphere of a place quickly and accurately, and I think that’s part of the skill on display in Christie’s writing about place. She doesn’t devote lengthy passages to the description of landscape, but she makes sure that the reader is aware of how bumpy the road is or what the house feels like when you first walk into it.

Something that I became very aware of while working on the map and guide is how much Christie’s personal orbit influenced the places she included in her fiction. She was born in Torquay in Devon, in the south west of England, and retained a connection to that area all of her life. Although she moved away when she first got married and later sold her childhood home Ashfield in 1938, she always had a residence in Devon. It’s easiest to write what you know, and she was very familiar with the seaside resorts of Cornwall, Dorset and the English riviera (as the coast of south Devon is sometimes called). Torquay, Salcombe, Dartmouth, Sidmouth and others all make repeated appearances in novels throughout her career, from the fictional Cornish resort of “St Loo” in Peril at End House to Tommy and Tuppence’s trip to Bournemouth in N or M?. Specific seaside hotels, such as the Imperial Hotel in Torquay, even turn up multiple times, sometimes in disguise, and sometimes – as in the case of Sleeping Murder, just as themselves.

This is a regular trick of Christie’s — the places that she knew best are reused over and over again. Her own house in Devon, Greenway, makes numerous appearances in novels as different as Five Little Pigs and Ordeal by Innocence, with different aspects of the house and grounds emphasised as the plot requires. Realism in the setting for whodunnits is so established in the genre that the inclusion of maps and floorplans is standard, so it makes sense that being able to pace out the distances in a real place when working out an alibi would be a big help to an author.

Aside from the south west, London is another area where Christie’s locations are clustered thickly together. She lived in London on and off throughout her adult life, from the time immediately after the first world war when she and Archie were first setting up home together, though to her time working in a hospital there during the second world war, and beyond. Perhaps because her readers were more likely to be familiar with the city’s geography, I found that in London she was less likely to play fast and loose with the layout. The Ritz Hotel, for instance, crops up whenever a flashy American character needs to be introdued, such as in the case of Julius P Hersheimer in The Secret Adversary. It is sometimes poorly disguised as “the Blitz”, but it’s always the same luxurious establishment on Piccadilly. Christie’s characters, too, rarely stray from central and west London — again, the places that she would have been familiar with herself. She had a variety of London addresses over the years, but they were all in west London — Kensington, Chelsea, St John’s Wood, Hampstead, and so on. And thus, I found, rarely if ever do her characters stray into east London or south of the river.

Almost as interesting the places that Christie does include in her fiction are the ones that are absent. Since the map and guide are about “Agatha Christie’s England”, I was keen to put in locations all around the country, both just for interest’s sake and because it visually makes for a better map if the dots are nicely spread out. However, Christie really didn’t make this easy for me. There are two hotspots in the south west and in London, as I’ve said, and then a smattering of other places in the south east — such as the real house and swimming pool on the south Downs that inspired the house in The Hollow. But then there’s a big gap in the Midlands, and a much sparser spread of locations in the north of England. With a few exceptions that I’ll talk about in a second, her northern places also tend to be much less defined. Even I, who love digging through footnote after footnote late at night, had to admit defeat on a few where I just couldn’t find any real life analogue for a place in a book. I suspect that Christie just wasn’t as familiar with the north in general, and as such was much vaguer about her descriptions. Sir Bartholomew Strange’s country house in Three Act Tragedy, Melfort Abbey, particularly haunted me — it is only described as being “in Yorkshire”, and has no distinguishing features beyond the basic requirements of four walls and a door that might help to plot it on a map.

The exception to this northern vagueness, however, is to be found in Christie’s familiarity with the area around her brother in law’s estate at Cheadle near Manchester. Agatha’s older sister Madge married James Watts, heir to Abney Hall, in 1902 and the writer stayed with them often. Country houses such as Chimneys in The Secret of Chimneys and Stoneygates in They Do It With Mirrors were inspired by her stays at Abney, and Hercule Poirot’s Christmas — another country house murder mystery — is dedicated to Watts.

After the break: what actually is Miss Marple’s address?

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Agatha Christie’s writing career began in 1920, and her last full novel was published after her death in 1976. England changed a lot during the six decades in which she was writing, and we can track that through the way she writes about the settings of her stories. In her first book, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, we have a very typical English village of the early twentieth century. Styles St Mary, the village near the country house Styles Court, is meant to be in Essex, but it could really be anywhere in southern England within easy reach of London. The big house has an expansive park around it, and the lady of the house does good works in the village – mostly in aid of the war effort, since this book is set during the first world war. There’s a land agent who helps to take care of the estate and a home farm where tenants work the land. Part of the mystery that Christie weaves is to do with the shock people experience when this template is disrupted, and how much this impedes their ability to disentangle what is real and what is not. Mrs Inglethorp’s marriage to an inappropriate and bearded younger man is tantamount to a declaration of war on a way of life.

Compare this to a book like Third Girl from 1966, which revolves around a flatshare in west London and takes in the much freer, looser social mores of the time in which it was published. Norma Restarick, the main character, is 19 or 20 and doesn’t really know what to do with her life, but she certainly craves a kind of independence that would have been unthinkable for her counterparts in the Christie novels of three decades earlier.

Agatha Christie has a reputation for portraying an idealised version of England, in which everyone knows their place and the perfect village is untouched by progress. I don’t think she really does this, though. I think it’s a perception imbibed from serial television adaptations, in which screenwriters flatten the chronology in order to get around the problem of how Poirot or Miss Marple might age. There’s a cosy “forever England” aesthetic to Miss Marple’s home village of St Mary Mead in the various TV series that isn’t there in the books. After all, Miss Marple is always telling the reader that there is nowhere so vicious and dangerous to live as a small village. She derives all of her detective skill, she says repeatedly, from having observed all of the worst vagaries of the human character in such a small, rural idyll.

And that village is not static either. When we first visit St Mary Mead, there is a certain sense of permanence about it — that everyone knows everyone else inside out. But then in post WW2 Miss Marple novels such as A Murder is Announced, things are changing. St Mary Mead is expanding with new houses and new people are moving in. People who don’t come with formal letters of introduction and who haven’t got grandparents who have always lived in this village. It’s a destabilising force that is woven into the mystery, but it’s not something that really comes through strongly on television, where all of Miss Marple’s cases seem to occupy a kind of timeless state somewhere between 1935 and 1955.

Speaking of St Mary Mead — where actually is it? I get asked this fairly regularly by listeners, likely confused by all the different references to its location in various books and adaptations. It’s a regular mystery, and one that I’ve devoted a lot of time to trying to solve. Sometimes it seems like it’s in the west country, such as in 4.50 from Paddington when the village is clearly on a train line that heads west out of the capital. At others, it seems to be near the Hampshire or Dorset coast, as in The Body in the Library. On occasion, Christie unhelpfully defines its location in relation to other entirely fictional places that she’s invented, such as in Nemesis when we are told that it is 12 miles from Danemouth, 12 miles from Loomouth and quite near Much Benham.

Miss Marple’s house itself, Danemead, is modelled on Christie’s own house near Wallingford in Oxfordshire, which in turn serves as the pattern for the recurring location of Market Basing in books like Dumb Witness and By the Pricking of My Thumbs. But St Mary Mead itself remains elusive.

Just to complicate matters further, St Mary Mead actually first appears in a Poirot novel, The Mystery of the Blue Train as the village from which heiress Katherine Grey departs for the south of France. Then, it’s in Kent, but in later stories it moves variously to the fictional counties of Downshire, Radfordshire and Middleshire. The BBC used the Hampshire village of Nether Wallop as the setting for the Joan Hickson Miss Marple adaptations, that being both a good filming location and also a decent guess at where a St Mary Mead type village might be.

At a certain point, awash with all of the contradictory distances and locations for St Mary Mead, I became convinced that Agatha Christie was teasing her readers. As the fanbase for her books increased, more and more companion texts were published that sought to expand and explain the universe of her works — I even came across one very patronising guidebook that tried to explain to Americans how small England is by comparison to the US. Perhaps by refusing to give St Mary Mead a real world location, Christie was resisting the force that was turning her work into a miniature tourism industry in its own right. Or maybe it was just more convenient to keep Miss Marple’s village firmly in the realm of the imagination, where it could be moved about southern England as plots required.

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So while there are plenty of real life locations from Agatha Christie books that you can visit, from the grand hotels of the English riviera to the chilly hills of the Isle of Man, the most famous place in her fiction, St Mary Mead, isn’t on any maps. The fact that it is so real to her readers, though, is testament to her skill as a writer. There’s more than one way to travel, and paging through a smart whodunnit is certainly a good one.

Even if you can’t travel very far in real life at the moment, I hope you can still open up your map and get lost in Agatha Christie’s England.

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This episode was written and narrated by me, Caroline Crampton. My guide to Agatha Christie’s England, published by Herb Lester Associates, is now available to order at shedunnitshow.com/map. Links to this and all the other books and sources I mentioned in the episode are available at shedunnitshow.com/agathachristiesengland. On the website I also publish transcripts of every episode including this one; find them all at shedunnitshow.com/transcripts.

If you’d like to support the podcast’s continued existence, become a paying member of the Shedunnit Book Club and get access to two bonus episodes a month and the reading community. Sign up at shedunnitbookclub.com/join.

Shedunnit is edited by Euan MacAleece. Member support for the Shedunnit Book Club from Connor McLoughlin. The podcast’s advertising partner is Multitude.

Thanks for listening. I’ll be back soon with another episode.

Swan Song

How do you say goodbye to a beloved detective? Agatha Christie, of course, made a mystery out of it.

Thanks to my guest, Mark Aldridge. You can find out more about his work at markaldridge.info and order a copy of his new book, Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Greatest Detective in the World, from all good booksellers.

Spoiler warning: there are major spoilers for Curtain and Sleeping Murder by Agatha Christie in this episode.

Books mentioned and other sources:

Sleeping Murder by Agatha Christie

Curtain by Agatha Christie

The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie

The Secret Adversary by Agatha Christie

The Thirteen Problems by Agatha Christie

The Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie

“The Dispenser” episode about Agatha Christie’s wartime hospital work

An Autobiography by Agatha Christie

Evil Under The Sun by Agatha Christie

Five Little Pigs by Agatha Christie

The Body in the Library by Agatha Christie

The Labours of Hercules by Agatha Christie

Dumb Witness by Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie’s Complete Secret Notebooks by John Curran

The Moving Finger by Agatha Christie

Taken at the Flood by Agatha Christie

Nemesis by Agatha Christie

Elephants Can Remember by Agatha Christie

Postern of Fate by Agatha Christie

“A Christie for Christmas” episode about Agatha Christie’s seasonal publication schedule

“Hercule Poirot is Dead; Famed Belgian Detective”: obituary in the New York Times, 6th August 1975

Cover Her Face by P.D. James

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie

Ronald Knox’s “Ten Commandments” for detective fiction, also discussed on “The Rules” episode of the podcast

NB: Links to Blackwell’s are affiliate links, meaning that the podcast receives a small commission when you purchase a book there (the price remains the same for you). Blackwell’s is a UK independent bookselling chain that ships internationally at no extra charge.

Thanks to today’s sponsor, Best Fiends. You can download Best Fiends free on the Apple App Store or Google Play.

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Find a full transcript of this episode at shedunnitshow.com/swansongtranscript

Music by Audioblocks and Blue Dot Sessions. See shedunnitshow.com/musiccredits for more details.

Swan Song Transcript

Caroline: Detectives have to be fundamentally infallible. On their journey to a mystery’s solution they can be fragile, or flawed, or unreliable, or uncertain, but the reader has to be able to rely on the sleuth to find a satisfactory answer in the end. It’s a fundamental part of what makes a whodunnit work. After all, who is going to keep reading a type of story where the hero shrugs their shoulders on the final page and says “I dunno, maybe they did it with mirrors”?

Over time, pulling that rabbit out of the hat in a plausible yet surprising way becomes more and more difficult for the writer. Wearying of their creation, most detective novelists either move onto a different character or drift away from the genre altogether — writers like Ngaio Marsh and Michael Innes who stuck with the same sleuth for five decades apiece are definitely in the minority. For the rest, a tricky question then arises: how best to conclude the career of a beloved detective? With the bang of a triumphant final case, or a whimper as they are never heard from again?

Agatha Christie, the best known and most widely read of the authors to come out of detective fiction’s golden age, grappled with this issue in perhaps the most unexpected way of all. Join me, then, as we delve into the surprising story of her sleuths’ swan song.

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Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.

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Today’s episode merits a rare overall spoiler warning from me. I generally try to keep my episodes free of major plot revelations, as I’m aware that some listeners use the show as a way to discover new mysteries to read. However, it’s not possible to do this particular topic justice without discussion of what happens in Sleeping Murder and Curtain by Agatha Christie, so if you want to read either of those books for the first time without prior knowledge of how they end, I recommend choosing a different episode to listen to for now and returning to this one once you’ve finished them.

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By the time the Second World War began in 1939, Agatha Christie had been publishing mysteries for almost two decades. All of her major recurring characters had already appeared in print somewhere in her canon. Hercule Poirot, of course, first stepped onto the page in The Mysterious Affair at Styles in 1921. He was followed by Tommy and Tuppence in 1922’s The Secret Adversary. Miss Marple came into being for the short stories that were serialised separately and then collected in 1932’s The Thirteen Problems. Secondary sleuths like Mr Quin, Mr Satterthwaite, Ariadne Oliver, Parker Pyne, Colonel Race and Superintendent Battle had also all appeared in at least one novel and story by the mid 1930s. Her most productive and innovative writing years were arguably already behind her.

Poirot was, of course, by far her most popular character, and has had a life far beyond the books, as discussed on the previous episode of the podcast. At this point, Miss Marple had only appeared in one full length novel — 1930’s The Murder at the Vicarage — but she was certainly second only to the little Belgian with the egg shaped head in readers’ hearts.

Although she carried on writing at a great pace during the war, Agatha Christie’s life was greatly changed by it. Her husband Max Mallowan worked for the Air Ministry and was posted abroad to North Africa. Their home in Devon, Greenway, was requisitioned by the US Navy (who installed a great number of extra lavatories in the house, much to Christie’s dismay post 1945). The author herself removed to London, where she refreshed her chemist’s training from the First World War and once more volunteered as a hospital dispenser. Many years later, she wrote in her autobiography that this period didn’t seem real at all — the war years were “a nightmare in which reality stopped”.

It was a furiously productive nightmare, however. Christie later put this down to the fact that she had no social life at all, and instead spent her days at the hospital and her nights at her desk, turning out whodunnits. She published thirteen novels between 1939 and 1945, including acclaimed classics like Evil Under The Sun, Five Little Pigs and The Body in the Library.

Those weren’t the only books that she worked on, however. Two more novels flowed from her pen during this time. Apart from her literary agent and a few trusted friends and family members however, nobody knew of their existence. Curtain and Sleeping Murder were destined to spend decades in a bank vault under the greatest secrecy. Their author intended that they would only see the light of day after she was dead.

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Agatha Christie was not shy about discussing her own demise. Perhaps fittingly for someone whose livelihood depended on inventing clever ways for people to die, in her autobiography she expresses her surprise that her agent always looked so upset when she brought up the question of what might happen to her characters and her work if she were to pass away. She didn’t feel that it was a subject to be embarrassed about at all.

It seems to be this practicality about mortality that lead her to begin work on Curtain in the early 1940s. Although the manuscript isn’t precisely dated, her notes for the story are mingled in with those for the stories in The Labours of Hercules that were published around this time and she sent a draft of the finished book to her agent in 1941, so we can make a reasonable guess that she was mostly working on it in 1940.

This was to be Poirot’s swan song — his final outing. There is some evidence in her notebooks that the idea for this story came to her several years before she actually began to write it, but the circumstances of life past 1939 are perhaps what pushed her to get it finished. Every aspect of the plot reeks of finality. It sees Poirot return to the setting of her very first novel, Styles Court, now come down in the world from country manor to genteel guesthouse. It rekindles his partnership with the Watson of his early adventures, Captain Hastings, who last appeared in 1937’s Dumb Witness and would not show his face again in Christie’s canon until Curtain came out. And most importantly of all, it is Poirot’s last case in every sense of the word, because the detective does not survive the investigation. It’s a book hemmed in by death on all sides.

Mark: So this was during the war, when Agatha Christie didn’t know how long she was going to live for — nobody knows, you don’t know what’s happening.

You don’t know if you’re going to be hit by a bomb, which indeed one of her houses was in Sheffield Terrace. So there’s all sorts of reasons to be thinking about your future. So it wasn’t that she was necessarily thinking ‘when I die at a great old age, this will be something’, but for all she knows, she might never have written another Poirot afterwards because you know, people did die in bombing attacks.

So it sort of comes down to that, this posthumousness. I guess it makes sense that if you’re really wanting to kill Poirot off, that’s the one that you can write and put to one side for later.

Caroline: That’s Mark Aldridge, the Agatha Christie historian and author of a recent book about Hercule Poirot. Christie always intended Curtain to be the last Poirot novel to be published, whether she was to be killed in the Blitz or, as actually happened, live for several more decades. It was to be the punctuation at the end of his story, the hard stop that would prevent other unauthorised uses of her most popular and valuable character. And it was also something of a financial insurance policy. The rights to the book were legally gifted to her daughter Rosalind, meaning that any proceeds from sales or subsequent adaptations belonged to her. The reason for this? Well, they do say that death and taxes are the only two certainties in life…

Mark: The intention was that along with various other things that she distributed to lots of people, but that actually it’s very difficult to tax-wise whilst you’re still alive to gift things to people. And so it was basically designed to be a posthumous gift that meant that Rosalind would be able to reap the rewards of this.

Caroline: Christie wrote later that she understood very little of what she’d been told about death duties, but that she did grasp that her demise was going to cost her relatives a great deal of money in inheritance taxes and so on. Gifting the rights to her works, then, was a way of distributing her success to friends and relations while she was still alive. And Curtain was undoubtedly going to be the jewel in the crown — even in 1940, I think she would have had a fair idea about how popular a book with the subtitle “Poirot’s Last Case” was going to be. Rosalind would be well taken care of.

Christie’s second husband Max received the rights to Sleeping Murder in a very similar way. This was a last outing for Miss Marple, although it differs from Curtain in several important regards. Firstly, Miss Marple doesn’t die in this book and she doesn’t even seem to have aged substantially — unlike Poirot, who is quite infirm by the time of his final visit to Styles and of course passes away there. Christie also doesn’t seem to have had quite such a clear vision for Sleeping Murder, because the story went through various different iterations in the planning, at one time with Poirot attached at detective, and then Tommy and Tuppence, before it eventually found its final form as a Marple story.

Historians have long thought that it must have been written around the same time as Curtain, since it had a similar purpose in insuring Max against Christie’s death, and the author herself does bracket both books together in her autobiography. However, some detective work by John Curran, the editor of Christie’s notebooks, suggests that Sleeping Murder came together in the mid or even late 1940s. It contains a reference to the “poison pen trouble down near Lymstock” which is an allusion to The Moving Finger, published in 1943, and its planning is closely intertwined with that of Taken at the Flood, which came out in 1948.

Regardless, both books eventually ended up in the bank vault, heavily insured, to be published after Christie’s death. Even though she would go on to write many more outings for both characters, Agatha Christie had already had the final word on Hercule Poirot and Jane Marple.

After the break: How Poirot kept breaking rules, right to the end.

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Agatha Christie may have been more relaxed about contemplating her own death than her friends and relatives expected, but that didn’t mean that she had any idea when it would happen, and thus when her two secret novels would see the light of day.

In the event, Curtain actually appeared a few months before Christie passed away in January 1976. She had published a Miss Marple in 1971, Nemesis, and then a Poirot, Elephants Can Remember, in 1972, but things really came to a stop with 1973’s Postern of Fate, a Tommy and Tuppence novel that isn’t really up to the quality of what she had done with the characters before. And so her daughter Rosalind, who owned the rights to Curtain, had an idea.

Mark: It was quite a complicated thing for them to work out by the end, but it was actually Rosalind’s suggestion. By the time it was obvious that Agatha Christie wasn’t going to be able to write another novel, certainly, she actually suggested that perhaps it could be published, obviously you don’t know how long, you know, Agatha Christie is going to live, there’s no way for them to know that.

But she did say, well I’m going to surprise you, I think as the way she phrased it, when she wrote to her that her agent and publisher, Agatha Christie’s agent and publisher and said, and I think that we would quite like to publish Curtain. And then she spoke to Agatha Christie who seemed quite happy with it because I think Agatha Christie, by the end of her life, all I know from what she writes, that she felt a great deal of responsibility for the Christie at Christmas as it was by this point.

Caroline: And so to keep up that tradition of a new Christie for Christmas, Curtain was published in 1975. It caused a global sensation, and earned Hercule Poirot a new and surprising accolade — he became the first fictional character to receive a front page obituary in the New York Times. “Hercule Poirot is Dead; Famed Belgian Detective” the headline announced on the 6th August 1975. “His career, as chronicled in the novels of Dame Agatha Christie, his creator, was one of the most illustrious in fiction,” the article declared.

Curtain was actually one of the earlier Agatha Christie books I read when I was discovering her work as a teenager. I just got it out of the library and had no idea that it had been written getting on for 40 years before it was published. When you think about this, it’s rather marvellous — somehow Christie in 1940 managed to write a novel that didn’t feel anachronistic or out of place in 1975.

Mark That was a deliberate choice that she says that in her letters that she had deliberately done that. And she also said that she gave permission to Rosalind or whoever to make any changes to it before publication that they felt was necessary. Bear in mind she’s probably thinking at this time that it might be, you know, 30 years in the future, not necessarily 36 or whatever it ends up being.

So it’s quite a long, old time and so much changes in that time that you can’t envision that, can you, so she was probably thinking along the lines of, you know, whether it’s the brands of coffee or something could come in and out of fashion. In the end, it is still a sort of period piece because the tone of it is different to how she is writing in the sixties.

In particular, I would say that it goes back to this sort of country house feeling. But yeah, absolutely, you wouldn’t know. I mean, now we’re so far away from it again, now that you’ve read it and it’s 45 years and is it really that different reading a book that’s 45 years than one that’s 75 years, maybe a little bit, but the further away we get, the more these, these periods seem to condense in history a little bit don’t they?

Suddenly things that felt massively distinctive about them they sort of start to get mixed a bit so in our sort of cultural memory. So I think that that over time most people will approach it like you did.

Caroline: I recommend rereading both of these novels, actually, and thinking about their long sojourn in a bank vault as you do so. It really seems extraordinary that they worked for readers at the time of publication, stripped of all of the detail of setting and place that would have situated them in the 1970s rather than the 1940s. But perhaps it’s because the atmosphere of an Agatha Christie was so well established by this time that readers barely noticed anything out of the ordinary. These stories happen in a kind of alternate whodunnit universe, and time doesn’t work in quite the same way there.

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Caroline: Miss Marple’s final full length novel Sleeping Murder, was actually published posthumously as planned. It appeared later on in 1976, and had a slightly more troubled gestation period than Curtain. Twice during the decades between the novel being written and her death Christie had to change its title. Originally she wanted to call it “Murder in Retrospect”, which is a good representation of the plot’s focus on crimes of the past that resurface in the present, but then her American publishers used this title when they brought out Five Little Pigs in the US. It was then renamed Cover Her Face, which is a quotation from the Jacobean revenge tragedy The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster — the full line being “Cover her face — mine eyes dazzle — she died young”. P.D. James used this title for a novel in 1962, though, so Christie once more had to think again, and eventually plumped for Sleeping Murder.

It’s a strong story, with some extremely creepy moments, but it in no way climbs to the heights that Curtain does.

The best thing about Curtain, I think, is the way that it brings together several of Christie’s best moments with Hercule Poirot while also working as a story in its own right. This is no greatest hits album that rests on its laurels. This is a story about a canny, unlikely murderer, who goes about his crimes in such a way that even Hercule Poirot is — for a while — at a loss as to how to bring him to justice. Back at Styles and in the company of his loyal friend Hastings once more, Poirot eventually has to perpetrate a break in the rules of classic golden age detective fiction even more dramatic than the one Christe pulled off in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd in 1926. “The detective must not himself commit the crime,” Ronald Knox declared in his famous ten commandments for the genre, but Poirot ends up taking matters into his own hands and executing the murderer before gently allowing his own illness to end his life.

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John Curran writes that “[Curtain] is the most dazzling example of literary legerdemain in the entire Christie output, and I agree. Christie has hinted at Poirot’s egotism when it comes to the dispensing of justice before — most notably in Murder on the Orient Express — and it is that certainty and command of every situation that readers love. Hastings and Japp might roll their eyes as he extols the superiority of his little grey cells, but they, and we, know that he’s right.

In this final case, Agatha Christie makes the detective’s power over life and death practical rather than just theoretical. Hercule Poirot is infallible, to the last.

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This episode of Shedunnit was written and narrated by me, Caroline Crampton, and edited by Euan MacAleece. Member support for the Shedunnit Book Club is provided by Connor McLoughlin and the podcast’s advertising partner is Multitude.

You can more information about this episode and links to all the books mentioned at shedunnitshow.com/swansong. I provide transcripts for every episode of the podcast too: find them at shedunnitshow.com/transcripts.

Thanks for listening. I’ll be back soon with another episode.