Author: Hilary Macaskill

Publisher: Francis Lincoln, Ltd.

ISBN: 978-0-7112-3563-2

Now as an affordable, glossy paperback -- here is a popular subject treated in depth with generous amount of very interesting and beautiful photos. If you haven’t seen the hardcover edition (2009), it’s the domestic side of Agatha Christie that will be a surprise. “At Home” really means in her various residences, as this capable Englishwoman was personally involved in decorating and restoring several old houses while she was writing best-selling mystery novels from 1920 until 1976. To top that, she earned a reputation as an excellent hostess and cook. With her second husband, Max Mallowan, an archeologist, for whose team she labored at digs in her spare time, she collected fine furnishings, and at Greenway, the most notable of her addresses, she collected plants.

Hilary Macaskill is a dogged researcher as well as lively travel journalist. She presents a colorful panorama of real places and people related to some famous fictional ones. She reports gossip, but draws on reliable sources, including Christie’s grandson, for facts. The resulting montage makes a towering celebrity seem modestly human and deeply humane by showing how she built her life around her family and community. Christie was creative but practical, generous but sensible, ambitious but also productive. She had many appetites. It is obvious, taking it all in, that she was intelligent, and not at all a snob.

Had you heard that Dame Agatha was a certified apothecary and that’s why she knew her poisons so well? Perhaps, but maybe not that she performed dispensary duties during World War II. The front of one of her houses was hit by a bomb, by the way, and a good thing it is that she was not at home.

As I happen to be living in London for six months – and in the very part of London Christie favored for domestic purposes – it is easy for me to imagine her in the 1940s and 50s. Indeed, I could walk to her Cresswell Gardens place in five minutes or so. Even though the traffic may be screeching, honking and rattling nearby, a turn into a short, ‘unimproved” street still is evocative of a London where you knew your neighbors. The truth is Christie was an investor in real estate, at one time owning eight houses. She lavished attention on ones she actually lived in, but spent her summers and her Christmas holidays in Devon.

Greenway is now a National Trust property. A fine, white, Georgian house, it is situated on a bluff jutting out above the River Dart as turns, so that the views from above or below are extraordinary. In 1938 it was just a remnant of an historic 750-acre estate, and Christie bought it for £6000. She spent 30-some years of her life making it the showplace that it is today. It fascinates me to read that young Walter Raleigh prepared for his 16th century adventures in the Dart waters where she later dropped an anchor during her active and very public life.

This part of England is relatively hard to get to, and to emphasize the remoteness, visitors are urged to take a boat from the nearest towns. Trains to those towns are recommended, and the whole point seems to be to relax back into an era when crimes such as Christie conjured up were not daily events. The author is not going to deceive us, however. She makes the last chapter “The Legacy – Tourism and the Brand.”

Reading this highly detailed biography, I wished it hadn’t been so long since I was reading Agatha Christie novels. The TV series featuring Miss Marple and Inspector Poirot are not quite the same, but I will pay better attention watching the reruns from now on, and I may even go down to Devon myself. In the meantime, there is a lot more information unfolding on the National Trust’s Greenway website.

I have one complaint about the book design. Too many of the wonderful photos (many from private sources) were not dated. Still, it is wonderful to have them.

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