How do we contribute to making history every day? When we learn history, there’s often a huge emphasis on the leaders who make things happen, whether they are presidents, businessmen, or heads of social and political movements. But what about the people who make these movements happen: the ones who campaign for the presidents or labor movements, the ones who fight the wars, the people who get things done at the ground level. Each of us in our own way contributes to making history, even if it isn’t always apparent. As Studs Terkel wisely said in a 2007 interview, “Ordinary people are capable of doing extraordinary things, and that’s what it’s all about. They must count!”
That’s at the core of Lori Rader-Day’s latest mystery Death at Greenway. Set in England during World War II, a young, disgraced would-be nurse, nicknamed Bridey, takes a job as a nanny to help care for ten evacuated children in the countryside during the height of the Blitz. She along with another nurse bring the children to Greenway House in Dartmouth, England, which turns out to be the private residence of the “queen of crime” Agatha Christie. Christie is more of a specter, a hovering presence over the characters of the story, than a character in her own right. That draws the focus on Bridey and her fellow characters. Their stories are the ones that matter here.
Bridey’s fellow nurse, Gigi, seems ill-suited for the job and her story does not line up. But Bridey just wants to keep her head down, get a good reference, and put the accidental death of a man in her care behind her. When a young man is found dead nearby, Bridey fears that her past mistakes will be revealed. Can she take care of the children and uncover the truth without her horrible past coming out? The narration is written with eight shifting points of view, mostly focused on Bridey, but also showing us the perspectives of one of the evacuated children as well as some of the servants.
What I loved about the novel was the picture it painted of the home front. As President Franklin Delano Roosevelt said during one of his WWII-era fireside chats, “There is one front and one battle where everyone in the United States—every man, woman, and child—is in action, and will be privileged to remain in action throughout this war. That front is right here at home, in our daily lives, and in our daily tasks.”
In Death at Greenway, the nurses may not be on the battlefields, but they are quietly making a difference caring for the small children, including two infants. The townspeople are playing their role by keeping watch for enemy planes or spies and caring for one another, especially when their neighbors’ sons (and daughters) are killed in battle.
We can see that these are quiet but important contributions that support the war effort. But for the people within the story, their role in the larger theater of war is not clear. There’s a lot of guilt and grief for being at home and not on the front lines. (Even the idea of the front line is tenuous—the war comes to them when enemy planes fly over and bomb parts of England.)
Rader-Day’s work itself is a historical act. A lifelong fan of Christie’s, she had come across the story that children had been evacuated to Greenway, an actual home that can be visited, and really wanted to read a book about it. But no one had written about it. She was initially unsure if she should write it, in part because she was not a historical writer nor British. In fact, she’s been a Chicago resident for 20 years.
But after five years of the idea rattling around in her brain, Rader-Day mentioned it to her editor and the book was sold in 2018. The book ticked off too many of Rader-Day’s interests. She has been a big Christie fan since she was 11. In a phone interview this month, Rader-Day told me that Christie’s work “is very tied up in my reading history and the kind of reader I always was, the kind of writer I became.”
She found it fascinating how Christie’s mythical home that she loved became intertwined with this evacuation story. She still has fond memories of the Disney film Bedknobs and Broomsticks that features two children evacuated to Angela Lansbury’s house during the Blitz. She drew upon her interest in evacuation stories as well as her love of Agatha Christie to create Death at Greenway.
Of course, Rader-Day notes that there is nothing necessarily new about the evacuation story. She said, “A lot of Americans have an evacuation story deep in their heart, but they don’t even think of it that way,” like in The Chronicles of Narnia—the children find the infamous wardrobe when they are evacuated from London.
It took Rader-Day three years to conduct the research for the book, including an overnight stay at Greenway itself, describing the experience as “one of the best things that has ever happened to me through my writing!” She had to gather together snippets of information, sometimes a half sentence here and a nugget of information there.
While she was worried about how daunting the research would be, she was able to piece together facts that had been lost to time. “I found them. I confirmed that they were the real people who worked for Agatha Christie, and were left in the house to help care for this group, or the chaperones that brought the kids down. That was just really fun. Now we know this. We know it’s 100 percent forever, and hopefully, it’ll never be lost again.” She connected with Doreen, one of the children who had been evacuated to Greenway when she was two.
There’s some disputed information about the nurses. Christie had written that they were hospital nurses in her autobiography, but other sources suggest they were the daughters of the chaperones. Rader-Day used the nurses, especially Bridey, to move the story along.
Granted, there were no reported murders at the time either. But given that it was Christie’s home, Rader-Day felt “it seemed appropriate to try to sneak a murder mystery into this real episode in history.” But she set it outside of the house and property, feeling nervous about introducing the fiction into the story.
Even though she took a few liberties with the story, Rader-Day has played her own role in making history—bringing life to a piece of forgotten history.
While Death at Greenway is Rader-Day’s first foray into historical mystery, it’s her sixth crime book. She’s the former national president of Sisters in Crime, a professional organization for crime writers, as well as the co-chair of Murder and Mayhem, a mystery readers’ conference here in Chicago. She said she found the Chicago and midwest mystery communities to be very supportive in her career. She cites Chicago crime writers Sara Paretsky, Clare O’Donohue, and Tracy Clark amongst her favorite crime writers, along with Agatha Christie, of course.
Born in Indiana, Rader-Day came to Chicago with her husband, for work. She had a fondness for the city, coming here on vacations and school trips. She remembers driving around for errands and being astounded that they live here with the skyscrapers, which tie into pivotal moments in her marriage. Rader-Day related how she won a contest so that she and her husband could get married at the top of the Empire State Building in New York City; a year later, they celebrated their one year anniversary on the 95th floor of the John Hancock Center.
While her latest book takes place in England, Rader-Day has two books set in the Chicagoland area. She drew inspiration for her first book, The Black Hour (published in 2014), when she worked in Evanston at Northwestern University. Details get changed, of course, but the characters visit notable Chicago landmarks and experience Chicago culture. But she admits, “Chicago’s always kind of sneaked in, but I haven’t always felt prepared to write about Chicago, since I’m not from here.”
Eventually, she’d set her fifth book The Lucky One in Chicago and Milwaukee since she felt she’d been here long enough to do the city justice.
While she may have turned her sights on England for her most recent book, she wants people to take some new perspective of social issues from her work, starting with her first book through the newest one. For Death at Greenway, she said, “It is a story about refugee children in wartime. I think that’s the sort of thing that, sadly, is still relevant to us . . . You can give a dose of a lot of serious stuff if you’re also entertaining people.”
With Death at Greenway, she reminds us that each of us plays our part in these larger historical narratives. Sometimes we fight on the physical front lines but sometimes we are in the back, taking care of one another.