As the greatest-selling author of all time, in line behind only Shakespeare and the bible, Agatha Christie undoubtedly has a good deal to teach writers of mystery and suspense. But she never would have written a craft book—not about writing, which she considered a job, one at which she worked hard but put away gladly. Once drafts were turned in and contract obligations were met, Christie happily retreated from vocation, withdrawing to her beloved holiday home, Greenway, in an area known as the English Riviera.
Greenway is, in Christie’s words, a perfect house, a dream house. It is situated on more than 30 acres of lush, verdant land criss-crossed by paths down to a boathouse on the River Dart and back up to a hilltop from which one can see, on a clear day, the estuary all the way to Dartmouth and the English Channel. It must have been a glorious place to restore one’s nerves before going once more into the breach of another novel. A perfect retreat, a dream retreat.
When I learned that Greenway had been used in World War II to harbor children evacuated from the Blitz, I immediately imagined a crime story featuring those harbored under Greenway’s flat Georgian roof.
A daunting task ahead
To tell Greenway’s war story, I had to learn about the war, about England, about England’s experience of the war versus that of Americans, about English phrasing, slang, and regional dialects, about nursing. Then as I discovered the real people who had undertaken the mission of bringing ten children to Greenway and those who populated the isolated rural region of South Devon and the Greenway estate, more topics revealed themselves: the evacuation of the Channel Island Jersey, what happened to Victorian-era children whose parents were sent to the workhouse. I researched the house and its lands and the communities up and down the Dart (in person—sometimes research is fun), and Agatha Christie herself.
Research was daunting but so was overcoming my own doubt. As an American, as an author of contemporary novels, not period ones. As a person who is quite research-averse, actually, I wasn’t certain the story was mine to tell. I expected someone else to come along any minute and tell it.
A World War II story. Any minute now.
Of course the real obstacle to getting this story told ended up being something none of us predicted. I had a draft of Death at Greenway when the COVID-19 forced cancelation of three months of promotions for my 2020 book, The Lucky One. To stamp down anxiety, I put my head down and worked. I went to Greenway, on the page. The first lesson I took from Agatha was retreat.
Learning from Christie
For would-be students of crime fiction, the best how-to is Agatha Christie’s body of work. The 66 detective novels and 14 short story collections—and several more collaborations, Mary Westmacott novels, plays, an autobiography, and more— are a master class for a long-ranging career. They play with structures, with styles, with point of view choices and effects, with history and other references, with both classic art and contemporary influences, even with the unwritten rules of the genre (some of them written down, actually). Readers may choose favorites among her many titles, sometimes selecting for tradition over innovation, but the innovation is there. It’s worth noting that Agatha Christie was entirely self-taught when it came to writing fiction and somewhat “unschooled” generally as it’s called today, except a few attempts at private instruction. But despite her obvious natural skill and unequivocable success as a writer, she wasn’t precious about the work.
In her Autobiography, allowed to be published only after her death, Christie discusses the goal of writing succinctly, saying, “If you like to write for yourself only, that is a different matter—you can make it any length, and write it in any way you wish; but then you will probably have to be content with the pleasure alone of having written it. It’s no good starting out by thinking one is a heaven-born genius—some people are, but very few. No, one is a tradesman—a tradesman in a good honest trade. You must learn technical skills, and then, within that trade, you can apply your own creative ideas; but you must submit to the discipline of form.”
Christie’s apprenticeship started as a lark, gained momentum, and then became a necessity. When her first husband, Archie Christie, famously broke her heart, Agatha was already published, well-known if not well-paid by contracts that did not protect her. (A lesson in there, certainly.) The divorce was the turning point. “That was the moment when I changed from an amateur to a professional,” Christie wrote in her autobiography. “I assumed the burden of a profession, which is to write even when you don’t want to, don’t much like what you are writing, and aren’t writing particularly well.”
That feeling in your gut right now is the gong of recognition. I feel it, too. We would all rather work only when the words flow, but no idea can burn bright every minute of the creative process—which is exactly what Christie thought. Also from her autobiography:
“You start into it, inflamed by an idea, full of hope, full indeed of confidence (about the only times in my life when I have been full of confidence.) If you are properly modest, you will never write at all, so here had to be one delicious moment when you have thought of something and know just how you are going to write it, rush for a pencil, and start in an exercise book buoyed up with exaltation. You then get into difficulties, don’t see your way out, and finally manage to accomplish more or less what you first meant to accomplish, though losing confidence all the time. Having finished it, you know that it is absolutely rotten. A couple of months later you wonder whether it may not be all right after all.”
She sounds like a someone writing into the unknown, but as John Curran illustrates in his book The Secret Notebooks of Agatha Christie, Christie worked over her ideas, if in a scattershot sort of way. She kept notebooks dispersed across multiple households and used them over the course of years, jotting ideas, trying out options until the pieces dovetailed and showed the way forward. Her system worked for her, though there was anxiety built into the beginning, every time. “There is always, of course, that terrible three weeks, or a month, which you have to get through when you are trying to get started on a book,” Christie wrote in her autobiography. “There is no agony like it. You sit in a room, biting pencils, looking at a typewriter, walking about, or casting yourself down on a sofa, feeling you want to cry your head off.”
Do tradesmen cast themselves down on a sofa?
I like this version of Christie’s process better, because the distress seems familiar—and legitimate, for someone writing as quickly and with as many expectations as she did. With each book, Christie always thought this was the time she wouldn’t pull it off. But torment was part of her process. (Girl, same.) “And yet it seems that this particular phase of misery has got to be lived through,” she wrote. Only then could she count on “that wonderful moment in writing which does not usually last long but which carries one on with a terrific verve as a large wave carries you to shore.”
What can you say?
While Christie found confidence in writing, she never felt comfortable with the public aspects of the job, even when her career became very public indeed.
In her autobiography, Christie wrote, “The most blessed thing about being an author is that you do it in the private and in your own time. It can worry you, bother you, give you a headache; you can go nearly mad trying to arrange your plot in the way it should go and you know it could go; but you do not have to stand up and make a fool of yourself in public.”
(I plan to use that quote to begin future events.)
In Dead Man’s Folly, where Christie fictionalized Greenway as a crime scene and herself in the form of Ariadne Oliver, a mystery author who calls upon Hercule Poirot for help. When Poirot arrives, Oliver says, “I was just going out to give a talk on How I Write My Books. Now I can get my secretary to ring up and say I am unavoidably detained… I’d have made the most awful fool of myself. I mean, what can you say about how you write books? What I mean is, first you’ve got to think of something and when you’ve thought of it you’ve got to force yourself to sit down and write it. That’s all. It would have taken me just three minutes to explain that, and then the Talk would have ended and everyone would have been very fed up. I can’t imagine why everybody is always so keen for authors to talk about writing. I should have thought it was an author’s business to write, not talk.”
Was Oliver a voice box for the author’s own opinions? Christie doubled down in her autobiography: “The trouble is that it is awfully hard for an author to put things in words when you have to do it in the course of conversation,” she wrote. “You can do it with a pencil in your hand, or sitting in front of your typewriter—then the things come out already formed as it should come out—but you can’t describe things that you are only going to write; or at least I can’t. I learnt in the end never to say anything about a book before it was written.”
All this to say that Agatha Christie was a writer for whom the process of writing was almost entirely internal. When she gives Ariadne Oliver three minutes to complain, she comes as close to telling us how it’s done as she ever did: Stop talking about writing and write.
‘Admit I am beat’
When the pandemic started, I watched on social media as people baked bread and celebrities played free concerts. A certain kind of person grew expansive and generous, planned Zoom meet-ups and Netflix watch parties, but I didn’t have the Blitz spirit. Which was how I came to the central characteristic of Bridget Kelly, one of the young nurses-in-training compelled to evacuate children to the countryside in Death at Greenway.
I don’t write every day but when I do, I understand why the tradesman’s approach works. Working every day, the mind starts to do some of the work, fitting together loose ends. Everything you see and experience and read begins to play into the story you’re writing in a way you couldn’t have planned or predicted. Is that the writer grasping for any tool that will fit, in order to get the word count done and dust off her hands? Or is it something more artful? Psychological? Sometimes it can seem a little—I hesitate to say it—magical.
For instance: about six or seven years into the idea of life of Death at Greenway, I discovered this passage in Christie’s Autobiography: “It is an odd feeling to have a book growing inside you, for perhaps six or seven years knowing that one day you will write it, knowing that it is building up, all the time to what it already is. Yes, it is there already—it just has to come more clearly out of the mist.”
I never felt this way about Death at Greenway. The mist stayed thick. One day late in the research phase, I was getting caught up, reading Janet Morgan’s Agatha Christie: A Biography, when I discovered an excerpt of a letter Agatha had written to Max where she laments a literary experiment—her first historical novel.
Ah, sweet torment.
Death Comes at the End is set in 11th century Egypt, based in part on real letters from the Egyptian Middle Kingdom period, a pretty big swing. “One has to deduce a great deal from little evidence,” Christie wrote in her autobiography about writing from history. Her research also relied upon “some lovely books” on loan from a friend but, she wrote to Max, “so far I have been enjoying them under false pretences…but soon I shall either have to have a shot at it—or else admit I am beat!”
Which was exactly how I felt, surrounded by the mountains of information I’d gathered.
I used every tool I could think of to make Death at Greenway what I had imagined. I had a lot of them, borrowed from reading how other people write: Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, Stephen King’s On Writing, Walter Mosley’s The Year You Write Your Novel, Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic, Ben Percy’s Thrill Me. If Agatha Christie had written about her process in any detail, it would be added to the shelf of books I return to again and again—to put off the work but also to come back to the work, to remind myself what the work requires of me, each time. But that’s the place her fiction takes, too. Her legions of fans come back to her books again and again, always something new to learn, always the perfect retreat.