Queen of Crime
A Very British Crime Scene: At Home With Agatha Christie
You’d never guess she dreamt up such macabre and violent ends for her characters when you visit Agatha Christie’s idyllic holiday home on the banks of the River Dart in Devon.
When I asked Danny, my cab driver, if he often brought Agatha Christie fanatics to the gates of her holiday house called Greenway, he said, “Sure, lots of grans.” He then glanced back and smiled. “Never any as young as yourself.”
The irony of this spring pilgrimage—one that involved a four-hour train journey from London’s Waterloo Station all the way west through the neon-green meadows and sheep fields of Devon to the seaside resort town of Torquay—was that in many ways I was fulfilling the dream of a much younger self.
“Fanatical” is not hyperbolic in describing my obsession at age 11 and 12 with Agatha Christie.
The white, plastic shelves of my childhood bedroom in Cincinnati, Ohio functioned as a shrine of paperback Christie’s, organized by detective: Hercule Poirot, Jane Marple, the five slim volumes devoted to Tommy and Tuppence Beresford, and the motley, one-off mysteries such as The Man in the Brown Suit, Ten Little Indians, They Came to Baghdad, and Death Comes as the End.
Whereas most of my grade-school friends were decorating their bedrooms with the usual pre-pubescent symbols of identity quests (posters of the local sports teams, aspirational images of Madonna or the Smiths, perhaps even nascent clues of future teenage rebellion via ripped-out ads of Absolut Vodka or half-naked supermodels), the wall across from my bed was devoted to two movie posters: Murder on the Orient Express (1974) and Death on the Nile (1978).
Did I have any friends? Did I ever invite them up to my room and if so, did they wonder what the hell kind of fantasy world was orbiting behind my eyes? On a positive note, my single-minded devotion made gift ideas rather routine around birthdays and Christmas.
My only recreation during sixth and seventh grade was reading Christie. I craved her murders. I envisioned myself strolling through the village of St. Mary Mead or attending an archeology dig in Mesopotamia alongside Poirot and a number of suspicious, well-tailored aristocrats.
And once I began on chapter one, nothing could stop me from reaching the last page: not warm summer days or tornado warnings or the taunting of my older sister who had already dumped all evidence of her Sweet Valley High collection in time for high school.
In his 1948 takedown of mystery novels, W.H. Auden compared detective stories to an addiction like alcohol and tobacco (he then incorrectly deduced that such novels can never be considered works of art).
Whatever Auden’s ultimate point, I most certainly was an addict. The compulsion reached its zenith when, in the seventh grade, my English teacher Mrs. Wing assigned us to choose a biography of a great public figure and create a felt banner celebrating our respective subject’s accomplishments.
On the day of the unveiling, I was surrounded by fabric, glue-gunned commemorations of Mother Theresa, Joe DiMaggio, and Louisa May Alcott, and I unfurled my black, felt tribute to Agatha Christie and the 1989 biography written about her complete with a magnifying glass and a bottle of poison marked with a skull and crossbones.
Mrs. Wing took me aside after class and said, as delicately as she could (she might have stepped behind her desk for protection), “Christopher, I think it’s fantastic that you love reading so much. But there is an entire world of books out there, and you shouldn’t limit yourself to one author and these… murders.”
I stared at her like she was asking me to renounce a deity (did I mention this was a Catholic school?). You do not wean an addict off their preferred drug by offering weaker substitutes. Like any junkie, it was all or nothing.
Reading had become my calling, and through Christie I had even begun scribbling my own mystery stories set in places like Baghdad and Cape Town and littered with characters with names like Linnette Otterbridge and Count Van Adjani.
While I knew I wasn’t the reincarnation of Agatha Christie—I was born in late 1975 and she died in early 1976; we had shared the planet for exactly 48 days—I did feel as if I had stumbled upon my future career as the great budding mystery writer of the Not So Golden Age.
My short stories had a high body count and, as I recall, usually involved the revelation that the murderer was the wife or girlfriend of the protagonist.
As it happened Mrs. Wing was right. And for a long time in my teens and twenties, I felt Auden might be right, too: detective stories didn’t stand up to the measure of high art. I abandoned Christie and her Britain of crumbling estates and money-hungry inheritors.
The writing remained, but I found inspiration and influence in more certified masterpieces. It wasn’t until 2011, when I had finished my first novel and was searching for the kernel of a second one that I decided I might try my hand at a murder mystery.
There comes a liberating point in adulthood where you can reclaim your childhood interests, dust them off, and realize they weren’t temporary, slightly shameful distractions but in fact helped frame your sense of the world.
Christie’s contribution as a model for me wasn’t simply her brilliant whodunit puzzles; she was also an exceptional chronicler of class, character, and community dynamics.
Perhaps Gore Vidal said it best when mentioning the author in a 2011 interview for the New York Times: “I like Christie because I thought she was a great naturalist—those are real villages she writes about—and it’s fascinating. I used to like to read not for the mysteries but I read her for the characters.”
Vidal then goes astray with his next sentence. “They are of no use to an American writer, but anyway they are very nice to read.”
They are of every use. I set my second novel in a small village on the North Fork of Long Island called Orient, which also serves as the book’s title.
And although it was coincidental that the name of the village echoed Christie’s greatest mystery, Murder on the Orient Express, I liked that my Orient held a quiet acknowledgement of the master.
Thus, in April, for the publication of Orient in the U.K., I flew to London and decided to commit a day to visiting the place Christie called “the ideal house, a dream house.”
For me Greenway was something like the Graceland of Torbay; the superfan travels there with head bent slightly up in satisfaction and slightly down in homage to a god.
On the train west, as the countryside swept by magically without a single leaf from last year marring the grass, I read Christie’s autobiography as well as a more recent biography, where among its fascinating facts, was a quote from Christie on leisure: “our greatest loss. The one really valuable thing in life—a possession that is yours to do what you like with. Without it, where are you?”
In fact, Greenway, a late 18th Century Georgian house built on a hill overlooking the River Dart, was Christie’s principle getaway for the pursuit of leisure.
Here, right near her native Torquay, she purposely didn’t work on writing and went by her married name Mrs. Mallowan (her second husband, Max, was the archeologist whose expeditions helped inform some of her more exotic locales).
Christie purchased the house in 1938 for sixteen thousand pounds, having known it as one or the more beautiful estates in the area since her childhood, and in a move strikingly similar to her tightly constructed plots, decided to demolish the Victorian addition built in 1892 and return the house to its original footprint.
Other than that alteration and the addition of a bathroom and a cloakroom, she left the mansion largely untouched. “I only wish now that I had had the gift of foresight,” she wrote in her autobiography about the missed opportunity of renovating the extensive kitchen quarters. “But it would never have occurred to me that a day would come when there was no domestic help. So we left the kitchen wing as it was.”
I arrived at Greenway on Easter Monday. The house and grounds are now part of the National Trust, and docents were underway preparing for the earliest childhood mystery game of an egg hunt.
Spring had arrived, with magnolias and white reedy buds blossoming along the slant of hill, and far below the gray, snaking Dart was dotted with sailboats.
On the other side of the river, sheep grazed in the faraway meadows. And there was the house, a grand manor of elegant simplicity, all straight lines and white walls, so angelically set against the wild gardens that it erased any conception I had of Christie favoring some forebodingly Gothic sanctuary full of menace and uneasy shadows.
Greenway is disarmingly happy; it seems the wrong place for a body to turn up unannounced. One is more inclined to imagine Gerard Manley Hopkins gathering verses here than clever methods to strangle a part-time dancer from a failing resort hotel.
It is no surprise that the woman who did so much to define the aesthetics of 20th century murder—the scarlet Rolls Royce, the scarlet kimono—was also a natural aesthete when it came to home décor.
Nearly every room in Greenway is open to visitors, decorated with Christie’s impeccable jumble of familial relics, mementos from her travels abroad, shards of pottery from a dig at Nimrud, arcane collections of silver, china, snuff boxes, and watches (I’ve always wanted to write a dissertation on Christie’s manipulation of time in her novels).
If Elvis’s Graceland exudes a certain shag-carpet, jittery rock-and-roll glamour coming loose near the liquor cabinet, Christie’s Greenway conveys a sense of reflective post-war tranquility, the kind of place intended for standing still or writing a long letter by hand or picking at the keys of the Steinway grand piano in the corner.
There is no specific tour to speak of, but each room contains a laminated highlight sheet as well as a quiet docent in the corner—a fleet of very kind and observant Jane Marple-types who clearly hope some visitor will stagger in with a knife in their chest so Greenway can go into lockdown and the work of solving can finally get underway. Highlights are many. Here are some of my favorites:
• A portrait of Agatha at age four in The Morning Room, wearing a white dress and looking adorable deflated in an armchair with a far more enthusiastic-looking doll at her side.
• Cards and dominos left out in The Drawing Room where the family gathered and Christie would read aloud from her completed manuscripts. “Max [Christie’s husband] apparently dozed in a chair, but was always able to work out the perpetrator before the story finished.” I couldn’t find evidence in her autobiography to suggest that this one-upmanship caused any marital strife.
• Christie had such a cool upstairs bathroom! I once watched a documentary on Norman Mailer, and Mailer’s ex-wife recalled a time when she and her husband visited Arthur Miller’s home in the hopes of meeting Marilyn Monroe. Mailer’s ex-wife, who I love simply for this anecdote, admitted to using the bathroom just so she could sit on the same toilet seat that supported Monroe’s bottom.
I was inclined to do the same at Greenway, except Christie’s bathroom is a strange wooden bench affair and a toy frog is permanently blocking the plumbing. (In her autobiography, Christie talks at length about the problem of bathroom plumbing in her house in Baghdad; this was clearly an ongoing source of anxiety.) But, décor points: the interior door has been covered in red fabric, which looks so soft and gorgeous and warms the room.
• Christie’s bedroom still contains a walk-in closet filled with her party dresses and coats—very chic and festive—with silks and furs and leopard print.
There’s also an exquisite mother-of-pearl inlaid chest that Christie bought in Damascus in 1929. Here a docent asked if I’d like to hear Christie’s voice.
At first, I thought she was going to perform a piece of ventriloquism, but she instead played a recording. There was Agatha speaking of how she wrote her novels.
“I haven’t much method,” she said. “The real work is thinking about the development of the story and worrying about it.” I could imagine her worrying, pacing these rooms, choosing weapons and suspects like books on a shelf.
• The downstairs library has a fascinating blue frieze ringing the walls. Greenway was requisitioned during World War II, eventually occupied by the US Coastguard, and one lieutenant painted the mural depicting the regiment’s travels around the world, from Key West through Europe and Africa and ending right at the River Dart.
When the war was over, the army offered to paint it over, but Christie—um, how terrific was this woman?—asked that it be kept intact as part of the history of the house.
• Apparently, Christie loved to eat. Perhaps it isn’t so strange that a writer whose favorite agent of demise was poison turned out to be a foodie. Christie didn’t smoke or drink, but she did have a passion for lobster and blackberry ice cream. In The Dining Room, a ceramic lobster dish commemorates this compulsion.
When you leave the house, there are plenty of grounds to explore, including a boathouse (which was the inspiration for the death site in Dead Man’s Folly), greenhouses, tennis courts, a camellia garden, and even a Napoleonic battery with cannons aimed in defense at the river.
I began to feel in my visit as if I were in a game of Clue, rolling the dice and taking the corresponding number of steps through a lavish setting, only there was no murder. What is Clue without a murder? It’s just a really nice life. And that’s what Christie had.
As a kid, I desperately wanted to be one of her characters. Now, at age 39, I wanted to be Christie, not for her fame or success (okay, maybe for her prolific output and her Rubik’s Cube—like mind), but for this pocket of peace and beauty she managed to draw around her.
In the epilogue of her autobiography, Christie reflected, at age 75, the inevitable end: “While I’m still comfortably waiting in Death’s antechamber, I am enjoying myself. Though with every year that passes, something has been crossed off the list of pleasures. Long walks are off, and, alas, bathing in the sea; fillet steaks and apples and raw blackberries (teeth difficulties) and reading fine print. But there is a great deal left. Operas and concerts, and reading, and the enormous pleasure of dropping into bed and going to sleep, and dreams of every variety, and quite often young people coming to see you and being surprisingly nice to you. Almost best of all, sitting in the sun—gently drowsy…”
I sat on a bench in Christie’s garden, myself gently drowsy in the Devon sun. Books and their plots last after death. And sometimes houses. Now children crawled through the shrubs and wiggled over stone walls in search of colored eggs. Maybe amongst them were one or two future addicts, little murder writers in training.