Some books, eg the Alexandria Quartet, James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux series set in New Orleans, Robert B Parker’s Spenser in Boston, are intimately associated with a sense of place. The setting is almost a character in itself. This is also true of the Charlie Hunter books, the Chilterns are central to the story.
South Bucks is where I grew up, although I’m a Londoner by birth. So I know the Chilterns well. They are not particularly rural, there’s a high population density, but the woods, hills, valleys and fields are lovely. It’s not a dramatic landscape, it’s not stunning. It’s gentle, shaped by the hand of man. People have lived here for a long time. There were Roman villas near High Wycombe. West Wycombe contains the notorious Hellfire Caves. Thomas Jefferson was a visitor. The Chalfonts are listed in the Domesday Book.
The bones of the Chilterns are chalk and flint, its flesh, clay. There are pits in my local woods where this clay was dug out to make earthenware items. A local pub is called the Potters Arms, a nod to the past.
In somewhere like Italy; a place similar to where Charlie has her restaurant would maybe have a historic wall around it, a detail out of a mediaeval, baroque painting. The village where I live looks like it has come from an Enid Blyton Famous Five book illustration. Like the fictional Hampden Green, it has a common and a couple of pubs (although not one as dramatically awful as The Three Bells, Charlie’s local). In short, it’s cosy, a cosy village for cosy crime.
Charlie, the chef, as an incomer, is regarded by the locals with instant suspicion. This, of course, isn’t just a typical Bucks phenomenon. Villages are villages the world over, insular and mistrustful of outsiders. Anything untoward will be blamed on the outsider, the other.
Life in her kitchen is more or less exactly as I’ve experienced life in commercial catering. But a lot smoother. So reading a Charlie Hunter book is a window onto a reality all of us experience, dining, but never get to see - how a kitchen functions.
Researching the settings for the first couple of books was mainly based on real life places, (certainly not events) but sometimes transplanted for dramatic effect. The Three Bells in the books is based on a pub I used to drink in. That was in North London and it has been lovingly recreated, ghastly detail by ghastly detail and re-assembled in a Chiltern village. The pub no longer exists, it’s become some sort of chi-chi drinkery, but its spirit has been reborn. The woods where Charlie discovers the body and hides the knife, are real. Sometimes places are invented. Chandlers Ford and its pub, the Greyhound, are both fictional but rooted in a certain reality, and Aylesbury certainly exists, as of course does Slough, put on the map by Ricky Gervais’ The Office. High Wycombe, winner of the 11th Worst Town awards in iLiveHere website, features in the books as it is where the mysterious psychic Anna Bruce lives. Neither Anna, nor I would agree with iLiveHere, but Wycombe is certainly not picturesque.
Another book in the series features an outdoor opera season in a field adjacent to the house of a local aristocrat. The idea for that came from Penn Fest, an open air rock festival held near where I live.
So, to get a flavour of the books, visit the Chilterns. Go to Amersham, very historic. Visit the surrounding villages, Penn, Hyde Heath, Penn St, Chalfont St Giles, there are quite a few to choose from. Go for a walk along the many footpaths. The woods such as Penn or Hodgemoor are lovely. You won’t be disappointed.
And, unlike the books, they’re relatively crime free.