DEBORAH CROMBIE: Karin Salvalaggio is one of the rising stars of the last couple of years in crime fiction. Karin is a bit of a cultural mish-mash--born in the US, she had a peripatetic childhood thanks to her military family. She's now lived more than twenty years in London, but she sets her books in Montana. (And you thought I was confused!) She's also my London tour guide, pub crawl buddy, and Thames Walk task master (I swear she broke my Fitbit when I was there in January...) Her books are riveting and evocative, bringing her detective, Macy Greely, and small-town Montana to brilliant life. I was not at all surprised to find that she was inspired by none other than Agatha Christie. And she's promised to take me to Devon to see Greenway! If you're not jealous yet, you will be when you've read about her own visit.
KARIN SALVALAGGIO: Pilgrimage to Greenway
‘I never had a definite place which was my room or I retired especially to write … All I needed was a steady table and a typewriter.’
– Agatha Christie, An Autobiography, 1977
Agatha Christie’s words seem to stand in stark contrast to Virginia Woolf’s assertion that a woman must have ‘a room of her own if she is to write fiction’ but I would argue that Christie actually takes Virginia Woolf’s premise to a whole new level. In Greenway, her historic holiday home overlooking the River Dart in England, Christie created not only a room of her own, but a world of her own. It is where she found inspiration, solitude and a comfortable space to spend time with her family and friends. Greenway is a truly idyllic hideaway that plays a part in at least 2 of her 66 detective novels – as Nasse House in Dead Man’s Folly and Alderbury in Five Little Pigs. With surroundings such of these and a typewriter at the ready there was no reason for the world’s most famous crime writer to confine herself to a room.
The Georgian house was built in the 19th Century, but there have been homes on the same site since the 1500s. Now a National Trust property, the home is a time capsule filled to the brim with all that Agatha Christie and her extended family held dear. The visitor gets much more than a glimpse into Christie’s private life. It is a place bursting with artefacts belonging to five generations of a family of avid collectors. The gardens and surrounding woodlands have been carefully tended for hundreds of years. In all 2700 plant species can be found there.
Greenway is a short ferry ride away from the town of Dartmouth, a historic port on the south coast of England. Full of tradition, the Britannia Royal Naval College still sits smartly on the hillside overlooking the river and the seafaring town. The tall ships that protected English sovereignty and transported Pilgrims to America have given way to sailboats, ferries and pleasure cruisers of all shapes and sizes. During the summer the town is chalk full with visitors and locals jockeying for space on its maze of streets and in the many pubs, bars and restaurants. A steady schedule of sailing regattas, music festivals and food festivals keep the area buzzing well into the autumn.
I am fortunate enough to have friends in Dartmouth who own a home that overlooks the inlet so I visit often. Last summer I went to the town’s quay and climbed aboard a charming twin-decked passenger ferry called the Christie Belle and sailed inland for about twenty minutes to Agatha Christie’s former summer home. From the River Dart I had views of the property’s gardens, boathouse and eventually the house itself. Greenway is a very grand white fronted Georgian residence that radiates out from the verdant hillside like a beacon. The ferry drops you off on a modest patch of ground across the river from a lovely village called Dittisham where a couple of excellent pubs can be found.
As a crime writer I viewed my journey to Greenway somewhat like a pilgrimage. Though the guidebooks stress that this is a space shaped by not just Agatha Christie but 400 years of history, you can’t help but be swept up by the thrill of knowing that she once inhabited this place. There is the chair where Agatha sat, the piano where she played, the living room where she read her unpublished manuscripts aloud to family members, the gardens where she wandered, the dining table where she celebrated her 80th birthday and the boathouse where she drank hot chocolate while plotting a murder scene that would play out in Dead Man’s Folly.
Writing novels requires so much more than a room of one’s own. In this day and age we are often on the road. Our writing space may be an airplane seat one day, a café the next and a kitchen table on another day. We need to be flexible as we work around our family commitments and increasingly hectic schedules. There is something special about being able to carve out one’s own room whatever our circumstances. I’d like to think that Agatha Christie was a pioneer of sorts. This was a woman who wrote 66 novels and 14 short story collections. If she says all that is required is ‘steady table and a typewriter’, I’m inclined to listen.
Karin was born in West Virginia in the 1960s. Her father was career military and her mother was a homemaker. Karin has fond memories of her nomadic childhood - the hours spent on the road, the anticipation of a new life, the unpacking of the old one. She’s lived in places as climatically diverse as Alaska and Florida and as culturally distinct as California and Iran. Karin attended the University of California Santa Cruz, graduating in 1989, but aside from two years in Italy, she has lived in London, England since 1994. She has an MA in Creative Writing from Birkbeck, University of London. Her short story “Walleye Junction” was published in the Mechanics Institute Review in 2011. Her novels featuring Montana detective Macy Greely include Bone Dust White and Burnt River. Walleye Junction will be available May 10th, 2016.
DEBS: Here's more about Walleye Junction:
When outspoken radio talk show host Philip Long is kidnapped and murdered, Detective Macy Greeley leaves her young son in the care of her mother and heads up to remote Walleye Junction, Montana to take charge of the investigation. It is initially believed that Long’s murder is the result of a controversial radio show he’s done on the rise of far right militias in the state. Within days the two kidnappers are found dead following a massive heroin overdose, and the authorities are hopeful the investigation is finished. But there are too many discrepancies for Macy to settle for obvious answers. The kidnapper’s bodies have been moved, their son is on the run and a series of anonymous emails point investigators toward the murky world of prescription painkiller abuse. Macy soon finds herself immersed in small town intrigues as she races to find who’s really responsible for Philip Long’s murder.
Meanwhile, Philip Long’s daughter Emma is dealing with her own problems. It’s been twelve years since she left Walleye Junction after her best friend died from a drug overdose. Emma finds that little in Walleye Junction has changed in her absence. She is also becoming increasingly uneasy as the familiar surroundings stir up memories that are best forgotten.
DEBS: And I particularly love this last photo of Karin at Greenway, doing what any writer would do...REDS and readers, would you make this pilgrimage? Just seeing the photos gave me goosebumps.
And how do you feel about "a room of one's own"?