EXPERIENCES: Travelling in Christie's footsteps: "The Ikoson Spies"
Travelling in Christie’s footsteps continues to be a popular activity for fans of her works. Over her life, Christie lived in many homes and travelled extensively. While her home in Devon is well known to all, it may surprise some that she actually moved to and lived in central London during the height of World War II. For six years, Christie lived in Flat #20 at Lawn Road Flats or the Ikoson Building, located on Lawn Road, Belsize Park in north London. For those seeking a Christie experience a visit to see the Isokon building is a must which is now enhanced by the wonderful onsite museum that shares the rich history of this building and its famous inhabitants.
The Building: Ikoson is essentially an abbreviation of ‘isometric construction’ and its design was one of the earliest modernist buildings. It was opened in July 1934 and offered 32 flats for rent, furnished and with various services including laundry and meals delivered to you. It also had a restaurant and bar – The Isobar - on site for members. As the first building to be made from reinforced concrete it was viewed as one of the safest structures in London once the German’s started bombing London in World War II.
The Residents: The building became known for those who lived there – especially its spies. In 1935, Arnold Deutsch moved into the building, portraying himself as a University lecturer. In reality, Deutsch was an Austrian Communist spy who controlled the ‘Magnificent Five’ Cambridge graduate students who were spying the Soviet Union from 1934 until 1963. He wasn’t the only spy who ever lived in this building. In flat 22 lived the Australian Communist and archaeologist Vere Gordon Childe, who later became Christie’s bridge partner.
In fact, the building housed many other individuals with secretive sides. These included the family of Professor Jurgen Kuczynski, a Soviet secret agent who recruited the atomic bomb spy Klaus Fuchs to Soviet Intelligence. He moved into the flats in April 1940. His sister, Ursula, also lived in the building. She ran Melitta Norwood as an atomic spy both during WWII and in the years following. In 1997, files released by MI-5 showed that at least 7 additional Soviet spies lived in the building from 1934-1947.
Agatha Christie’s residency: It was during the height of the Blitz in February 1941 that Agatha Christie moved into the flats. Having relinquished the use of Greenway in Devon to the war effort, and given up on living in central London which was too frequently bombed, the Lawn Road Flats provided just what she and her husband wanted – a safer building away from the high risk areas. She learned of the building from their friend and Egyptologist Professor Stephen Glanville who lived in flat #2 and was working for RAF intelligence at the time. Of note, Glanville had assisted Christie with Death on the Nile, Death Comes as the End and Akhnaton. This support and friendship were rewarded with the dedications of both Five Little Pigs and Death Comes as the End to him in gratitude for all his support.
Christie moved into flat #20 it had just been vacated by the alleged communist spy Eva Collett Reckitt, and she stayed there until 1947. Part of the desire to live in a safer part of London was influenced by Max Mallowan who had offered his services to the RAF to assist as a foreign liaison due to his knowledge of Arabic. This meant he was moving to Cairo leaving Christie alone for the first time in 10 years. Stephen Glanville also moved to the Middle East during this period.
The Books: With Max and Stephen gone, Christie sought social company by meeting the other residents in The Isobar and restaurant. Though by being in a new home with few friends she primarily solved her loneliness by writing heavily. During her years here she is known to have completed writing The Body in the Library, N or M?, Five Little Pigs, The Moving Finger and Sparkling Cyanide. The first two she states she wrote simultaneously.
The Spies in N or M?: Many have speculated that since Christie demonstrated great knowledge of spy tradecraft and Fifth Column activity in England, she was likely inspired by the stories and conversations of unusual residents past and present while enjoying social time in The Isobar. Perhaps her friend Stephen Glanville who had already been living in the building had shared stories with her before the move. Regardless of whether or not the Isokon building and its tenants provided inspiration for N or M? it certainly seems an odd coincidence that her only spy novel was written (or completed) during her first month on site. It is a fair argument to make that she may have picked up on conversations in the building or sensed who lived there. However, it should be noted that since Christie moved into the flats in February 1941 and N or M? was first serialized in March 1941, it was either very quickly written or mostly finished before the move.
Visiting: The Isokon Gallery has reopened to the public (as of July 2020) and is housed in the building’s original garage. Admission is free and the displays provide a history on the building, its architecture, interior design and its residents. The gallery is open from 11am – 4pm on Saturday and Sunday. Located at: Lawn Road, London, NW3 2XD. Closest tube station: Belsize Park.
Collecting the Books: The first edition of N or M? published by Collins Crime Club in 1941 borders the books that are very expensive and those that are much more affordable. When the dust jacket art is uninspired, high quality copies of the book are hard to locate especially in original dust jackets reflecting the original price (7s 6d) and without a sunned spine. Expect to pay £1,000 - £1,500 UK ($1,300 - $1,950 US) for an above average copy. The US Dodd Mead first edition generally would command 50% of the price of the UK version for a high quality copies. Paperbacks are much more affordable. Tom Adams did two designs for Fontana. The first is of a hammer and a ring in sand and is quite common. The second, reflecting a jigsaw puzzle design (image above) is harder to find and often in well-read condition. A high quality collector copy of that book can still be acquired for £10-15 ($13-$18).