I was honored to receive an advance copy of Death at Greenway annotated by the author Lori Rader-Day, which I won in a charity auction. I made myself read it slowly, savoring the experience of having the insight of the author as I read her fabulous story about Agatha Christie’s holiday home. Lori generously answered a few of my questions to share with Miss Demeanor’s readers.
What was the genesis of Death at Greenway? How did you come to write a historical mystery that is filled with Agatha Christie without making her the key figure in the story?
The origin story of Death at Greenway is that I was reading a nonfiction book about how Agatha Christie wrote—John Curran’s Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks—when I encountered a throw-away line about how Greenway House, Agatha Christie’s beloved holiday home, had been used to harbor child evacuees from the Blitz during World War II. It was a half-sentence, as though everyone already knew all about it, but I didn’t. I sat up in bed. I knew I had to read that book. Read it, but the problem was no one had written it. I kept that idea on the back burner for years, wondering if anyone would finally write it. And then I decided I would try.
I set out to write a book about the house, not Agatha Christie. To be honest, I really wanted the research to show that Christie hadn’t been in the house at all when the children were sent there, because I thought it would be easier to write around her entirely that way. She’s such an important figure to me, I didn’t want to risk getting her wrong. But it turns out she probably was in the house, at least for a little while before going to London to be near where her husband Max Mallowan was doing some war work. This is when she brushed off her apothecary skills and worked in the pharmacy at University College Hospital.
And then I read in Christie’s autobiography that she and Max were in Greenway’s kitchen when war was announced. Max’s autobiography also talked about this episode—it was an important moment to both of them, experienced at Greenway. I knew I had to include that moment, and once I had included her, I had to include her a few times. She’s a cameo. The book is still more about the house. What I wanted was for her presence—more than her person—to affect everyone in the house, and for her influence to live on within all these people who had collided there at her house, even after they left.
The book is clearly the result of tons of research and even sent this reader online looking for interesting points mentioned in the book. Can you talk a little about how you went about researching for Death at Greenway, including what it was like to go to Greenway?
It was tons of research! I visited Greenway in 2016, after having lived with the idea of the story for years. It was great to be there, trying to see if the story could be told. My friend Kirsten and I scoured the house for any mention of the children’s stay and found a notation about war refugees in the guest book that gave us hope. Later we asked a docent and were shown into a room kept locked that held a cabinet the children had used to store their clothes. The names of five girls were still written on the shelves. After I saw that cabinet, I knew I had to try to tell this story. I went back to Greenway with my husband in 2019, by which time I had written some of the story and I knew better what I needed to know. We lived in the house as guests of the National Trust for three days, tramping through the grounds and into the nearest town as the nurses might have done, took the ferry across the river, took a lot of photos and notes. In the evenings when the staff and volunteers left, we had the place pretty much to ourselves, just like Agatha and Max. We had a grand time.
In addition to on-the-ground research, I read several books on Agatha’s life and the war and that region, as well as all the books Agatha Christie wrote during that time or where she used features of Greenway in her fiction. Her autobiography was essential reading. One of the best pieces I read was a collection of oral histories of war experiences gathered from the people of the region. Another great source was a genealogy site where I could read primary documents, discovering the real names of the people who lived on and around the estate just before war began. I found the couple who came to Greenway as butler and cook and the couple who brought the children to Greenway, confirming their identities for the estate. The genealogy site was surprisingly generative. You could see a gap in a person’s census data only to find later that he’d been in a boy’s home while his father was in the workhouse, for instance. The real details of these lives helped me fictionalize their stories with a lot more heart and respect. It’s still fiction, but I got a greater sense of them as real people. Old newspapers online also helped give a sense of the times.
The best source of all, though, was Doreen, one of the Greenway evacuees. She’s 83 soon and living in Canada. Her memories, which she shared with Greenway and the BBC a few years ago, were so valuable to this story, especially that her experiences at Greenway were positive in a way that isn’t always what you expect from evacuation stories. She felt loved there. I knew whatever story I told, I wanted to get that across. Greenway was a gentle place to spend the war, and after the children were sent elsewhere, that region had a huge role in the eventual Allied victory.
Two female characters are featured prominently in Death at Greenway. How did you end up writing about Bridey and Gigi?
Early in the research, I realized I couldn’t write a book about the evacuees, not directly. I’m a crime writer, so I had to bring trouble into the story. The children were very young, and I had no interest in writing a story told by a four-year-old. (At least not completely—one of the young characters in Death at Greenway helps tell the story, but only because I had Doreen’s memories to work from.) In Agatha Christie’s autobiography, she says the children were accompanied by their chaperones and “two hospital nurses.” Those women are otherwise lost to history, so I decided that they would do well as characters who got into trouble.
I had wanted to use as much fact about this episode as I could and then turn to fiction. Writing Bridey and Gigi—totally fictional in a book where the facts really started to box me in—was wonderful, though I still had to worry about what words they would use. The historical writer’s curse. I loved pitting the nurses against one another and seeing what they could disagree on, how their friendship could evolve, and how their secrets could be revealed. I miss them, now they’re out on their own.
This is your first historical novel. Would you write another? Why?
Such a hard question to answer. I knew this project would be difficult but it was even more difficult than I imagined. I would love to do more period fiction, but I might hesitate to use real places, real people. Of course I have about three more ideas for period novels and they have connections to real people and places. History tends to have those connections! We’ll see what stories start speaking to me, I guess. That’s really the deciding factor. Death at Greenway was a story I wanted to have written. In some ways, it’s a once in a lifetime project.
I was the lucky winner of an online auction for a good cause and received an ARC with generous annotations that must have taken you considerable time to write. Why should writers give back and how should they do it?
Most of the writers I know and love give back all the time. They volunteer to help run Sisters in Crime and the other organizations we want to keep existing. They help other writers with blurbs, interviews, blog posts, and as event partners. They share fellow authors’ books on their social media. They put in at least some time helping the writers coming up behind them, answering questions, sharing intel, putting in a good word. Putting a basket of goodies into a charity auction is a pretty small chore that helps the cause (and gets your name out in front of readers). In your case, yeah, the prize I offered was a bit of work! But it was also a chance to capture some thoughts about the origins and sources of information that I didn’t want to forget, so you did me a favor by bidding on it, Michele! I could have bid against you and not have had to do the work… Don’t think I didn’t think about it.
Lori Rader-Day is the Edgar Award-nominated and Anthony and Mary Higgins Clark Award-winning author of The Black Hour, Little Pretty Things, The Day I Died, Under a Dark Sky, and The Lucky One.
Death at Greenway, based on the true events of a group of children evacuated out of the Blitz during World War II—to Agatha Christie’s summer estate, Greenway House (Harper Collins William Morrow) hit the bookshelves on October 12, 2021.
Lori is also the Immediate Past National President, Sisters in Crime; Co-chair, Murder and Mayhem in Chicago; Adjunct Lecturer, Northwestern University MA/MFA in Poetry & Prose
I am not even more desperate to have a look at the annotated copy of Death at Greenway! Must visit Michele….. And congratulations Lori on such an excellent book. Truly wonderful. I wish I could read it again for the first time.
Not a chance, Tracee. I’m leaving it in my estate to the highest bidder!