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Christie purchased Greenway in 1938. Years later, she recalled the spell that the estate had cast on her: "a white Georgian house of about 1780 or '90, with woods sweeping down to the Dart...the ideal house, a dream house." (Michael Freeman)

Where Agatha Christie Dreamed Up Murder

The birthplace of Poirot and Marple welcomes visitors looking for clues to the best-selling novelist of all time

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On a crisp winter morning in Devon, England, sunlight streams through the floor-to-ceiling French windows of the manor house called Greenway, the secluded estate where Agatha Christie spent nearly every summer from 1938 until her death in 1976—and which opened to the public in February 2009. Gazing beyond a verdant lawn through bare branches of magnolia and sweet-chestnut trees, I glimpse the River Dart, glinting silver as it courses past forested hills. Robyn Brown, the house’s manager, leads me into the library. Christie’s reading chair sits by the window; a butler’s tray holds bottles of spirits; and a frieze depicting World War II battle scenes—incongruous in this tranquil country retreat—embellishes the cream-colored walls. It was painted in 1944 by Lt. Marshall Lee, a U.S. Coast Guard war artist billeted here with dozens of troops after the British Admiralty requisitioned the house. “The Admiralty came back after the war and said, ‘Sorry about the frieze in the library. We’ll get rid of it,’” Brown tells me. “Agatha said, ‘No, it’s a piece of history. You can keep it, but please get rid of the [14] latrines.’”

Agatha Christie was 48 years old in 1938, gaining fame and fortune from her prolific output of short stories and novels, one series starring the dandified Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, another centered on the underestimated spinster-sleuth Jane Marple. Christie’s life had settled into a comfortable routine: part of the year was spent at her house in Wallingford, near Oxford, and part on excavations in the deserts of Iraq and Syria with her second husband, archaeologist Max Mallowan. But Christie longed for a vacation refuge. That summer, she heard of a handsome Georgian manor house, built around 1792, going up for sale; it was set on 33 acres, 15 miles from her birthplace, the village of Torquay. For Christie, Greenway—reachable only by boat or down a narrow country lane one and a half miles from the nearest village of Galmpton—represented, as she wrote in her autobiography, “the ideal house, a dream house.” The estate’s owner, financially strapped by the Great Depression, offered it for just £6,000—the equivalent of about $200,000 today. Christie snapped it up.

Here, the author and playwright could escape from her growing celebrity and enjoy the company of friends and family: her only child, Rosalind Hicks; son-in-law Anthony Hicks; and grandson Mathew Prichard, whose father, Rosalind’s first husband, Hubert Prichard, had been killed in the 1944 Allied invasion of France. Greenway served as the inspiration for several scenes in Christie’s murder mysteries, including the Poirot novels Five Little Pigs (1942) and Dead Man’s Folly (1956).

After Christie died, at age 85, the estate passed to Hicks and her husband. Shortly before their own deaths in 2004 and 2005, respectively, the couple donated the property to Britain’s National Trust, the foundation that grants protected status to historic houses, gardens and ancient monuments and opens the properties to the public.

Brown recalls several meetings with the frail but alert 85-year-old Rosalind, whose failing health required her to move around the house by mobility scooter. At one of them, Brown broached the subject of Greenway’s future. “The sticking point for Rosalind was that she didn’t want us to create a tacky enterprise—the ‘Agatha Christie Experience,’” Brown told me. Indeed, Hicks first demanded that the house be stripped bare before she would donate it. “If we show the rooms empty, the house will have no soul,” Brown recalled telling Rosalind. “If we bring things in from outside, it will be contrived.” Brown proposed that the house be left “as though you and Anthony just walked out the door.” Eventually, Rosalind agreed.

In 2009, after a two-year, $8.6 million renovation—“the house was in terrible shape,” says Brown—Greenway opened to the public. During the first eight-month season, it attracted 99,000 visitors, an average of 500 a day, nearly double expectations. Today, Greenway offers an opportunity to view the intimate world of a reclusive literary master, who rarely gave interviews and shunned public appearances. “She was hugely shy, and this was her place of solitude, comfort and quiet,” Brown says. Greenway “represents the informal, private side of Agatha Christie, and we have striven to retain that atmosphere.”

Greenway’s success is the latest, most visible sign of the extraordinary hold that Agatha Christie continues to exert nearly 35 years after her death. Her 80 detective novels and 18 short-story collections, plus the romances written under the pseudonym Mary Westmacott, have sold two billion copies in more than 50 languages—making her by far the most popular novelist of all time. Her books sell four million copies annually and earn millions of dollars a year for Agatha Christie Limited, a private company of which 36 percent is owned by Mathew Prichard and his three children, and for Chorion Limited, the media company that bought a majority stake in 1998. A stream of dramatized Poirot and Miss Marple whodunits continue to appear as televised series. A new version of Murder on the Orient Express, starring David Suchet, who plays Poirot on public television in the United States, aired in this country last year. Meanwhile, Christie’s Mousetrap—a thriller centered on guests snowed in at a country hotel—is still in production at the St. Martins Theatre in London’s West End; the evening I saw it marked performance number 23,774 for the longest-running play in history.

Every year, tens of thousands of Christie’s admirers descend on Torquay, the Devon resort where the author spent her early years. They walk the seafront “Agatha Christie Mile” (“A Writer’s Formative Venue,”) that delineates landmarks of her life, from the Victorian pier, where the teenage Agatha roller-skated on summer weekends, to the Grand Hotel, where she spent her wedding night with her first husband, Royal Flying Corps aviator Archie Christie, on Christmas Eve 1914. The annual Christie Festival at Torquay draws thousands of devotees, who attend murder-mystery dinners, crime-writing workshops and movie screenings and have been known to dress as Hercule Poirot look-alikes.

And Christie’s own story is still unfolding: in 2009, HarperCollins published Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks, an annotated selection of her jottings, unearthed at Greenway in 2005 before renovations began there. The cache provided new insight into her creative process. “There are notes for a single novel scattered over a dozen notebooks,” says John Curran, a Christie scholar at Trinity College Dublin, who discovered the 73 notebooks after he had been invited to Greenway by grandson Mathew Prichard. “At her peak, her brain just teemed with ideas for books, and she scribbled them down any way she could.” The book also includes a never-before-seen version of a short story written in late 1938, “The Capture of Cerberus,” featuring a Hitler-like archvillain. Earlier in 2009, a research team from the University of Toronto caused an international tempest with its report suggesting that she had suffered from Alzheimer’s disease during her final years.

The restoration of Greenway has also catalyzed a reappraisal of Christie’s work. Journalists and critics visited Devon in droves when the estate opened, pondering the novelist’s enduring popularity. Some critics complain that, in contrast to such masters of the form as Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, or Georges Simenon, the Belgian-born author of the Inspector Maigret series, Christie was neither a prose stylist nor a creator of fully realized characters. “Her use of language is rudimentary and her characterizations thin,” Barry Forshaw, editor of British Crime Writing: An Encyclopedia, recently opined in the Independent newspaper. Christie set her novels in “a never-never-land Britain, massively elitist,” he declared; her detectives amounted to “collections of tics or eccentric physical characteristics, with nothing to match the rich portrayal of the denizen of 221B Baker Street.” To be sure, Poirot lacks the dark complexity of Sherlock Holmes. And alongside her own masterpieces, such as the novel And Then There Were None, published in 1939, Christie produced nearly unreadable clunkers, including 1927’s The Big Four. But Christie’s admirers point to her ability to individualize a dozen characters with a few economical descriptions and crisp lines of dialogue; her sense of humor, pacing and finely woven plots; and her productivity. “She told a rattling good story,” says Curran. What’s more, Christie’s flair for drama and mystery extended to her own life, which was filled with subplots—and twists—worthy of her novels.

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About Joshua Hammer
Joshua Hammer

Joshua Hammer is a foreign freelance correspondent and frequent contributor to Smithsonian magazine.

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