In the spirit of celebrating Agatha Christie’s 125th birthday anniversary,my friend and fellow GAD mystery blogger Curtis Evans, whose highly recommended blog, The Passing Tramp, is found here, proposed recently that some members of our Golden Age of Detection Facebook group should undertake “The Tuesday Club Murders”. Simply put, we’re going to do a Christie piece every week on Tuesday, “for a while anyway”. You’ll find a list of participants and associated links on Curtis’s blog.
I thought about merely giving my opinion on this or that Christie title, but that seemed relatively unnecessary. There’s plenty of opinion/review material out there and quite a few graduate theses; not much untrodden ground for me there. Instead, I thought I could offer pieces based on my experience as a book dealer, or book scout, or behind the counter of a mystery bookstore.
Agatha Christie has sold more paperback books than pretty much anyone. That means, if you scout books, you are accustomed to charity shops and used bookstores that have a stack of beaten-up Agatha Christie volumes, and 99 times out of a hundred they’re not worth looking at. In my own experience buying used paperbacks and reselling them, sensible retailers draw a line at keeping more than three copies of the same book in stock. It’s easier for a retailer to say, “No, no Christies, thanks” than it is to dig through the same editions of the same Poirot novels looking for nuggets of gold; but as mystery booksellers know, there are a couple of paperback editions of Agatha Christie for which you should be on the lookout. This is a way that a beginning book scout can make a score — booksellers don’t want to dig through Christies, but if you have the time and the eye, you can fill their want lists. So here’s the insider view of the very few Christie paperbacks that might actually be worth something some day.
When I half-jokingly proposed the cover art you see at the head of this post as an identifying artwork for Tuesday Club, I did so quite a bit because what you see there is Dell mapback #8 — and my regular readers know I am very, very fond of the Dell mapback editions. This very low number from the first months of Dell’s entry into the paperback market in 1943 is charming, with more restrained artwork than most mapbacks (art by George Fredericksen). The map on the back … well, it’s crude, they hadn’t developed the style they would present, say, 150 titles later. But to me it’s delightful in its ineptitude.
As of September 24, 2015, there’s two copies for sale on ABE that seems like good value at US $47 plus shipping for this Dell edition, both about VG or VG+. That means, by the way, that a book dealer will pay you half of $47 because book dealers need to eat too. Of course, if you find one at your local used book store for $5, grab it as long as it has all its pages. But buying a nice tight copy for $20 or $30 and then storing it away for 10 or 20 years will also be wise. My best recommendation is to find, if you can, an absolutely superb copy and pay well over the market price for it. You will bless your wisdom in years to come as less perfect copies do not hold their value as well as yours.
One of the scarcest snowflakes in the vast blizzard of Christie paperbacks is, paradoxically, one of the plainest and least interesting paperbacks you’ll ever see. L.A. Bantams were a delightful experiment beginning in 1939 (and therefore within months of the first paperbacks sold in North America). The company in question has no connection whatever with the large present-day Bantam imprint; this was a short run of 28 titles that was designed to sell for a dime — out of vending machines. Since their original distribution was very limited, they are rare and scarce and valuable, especially in the most desirable condition. There were 28 titles, but some titles have two or three different cover states as the publisher experimented with marketing techniques.
Christie’s Mystery of the Blue Geranium and other Tuesday Club Murders — a unique title, with as far as I’m aware a unique story roster cut back from The Tuesday Club Murders — exists in two states, 26 (non-pictorial) and 26P (pictorial). As of September 24, 2015, I found a copy for sale of 26 in indifferent condition for $145. 26P in similar condition might sell for $200. Ten years from now, who knows? These books are exceptionally scarce and prices change dramatically, especially since the Internet has rationalized the collectibles market globally. This is the kind of find that a book scout talks about for years … I’ve had one single copy go through my hands in 40 years.
All LA Bantams are rare birds indeed, but there’s one Christie paperback that is, as one dealer puts it, “a cornerstone of any collection of vintage paperbacks”. Early in 1939, in North America, the paperback book was about to enter the North American marketplace as anything except an imported curiosity. Pocket Books, of New York City, released its first ten titles in a test printing of about 10,000 copies each, only within New York City itself. The first ten titles included a volume of Shakespeare, a Pearl S. Buck novel, and Bambi, but #5 was The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and that makes it the single most valuable mystery paperback. Important note: First Edition Only. There are two copies of the first edition available as of September 24, 2015 on ABE; one is $1,100 and the other is a mere $875. Yes, $1,100. That makes it more expensive than about half of Christie’s first editions, at the very least. But if you don’t mind the second edition, from some months later, that will set you back a mere $150. Pocket helpfully puts a careful publishing history into each of its early books so there’s no excuse for getting this one wrong. Anything beyond the 2nd edition is not absolutely worthless, but the price declines dramatically. So don’t emit a high-pitched squeal in a charity sale until you’re absolutely sure of what you have. If you live outside the New York City area, chances are you have a third edition or later.
In the course of preparing this, I found enough material on the second rank of collectible paperback Christie titles that I’ll get another Tuesday Club entry out of it — next Tuesday. But I did want to mention a few points about collectible paperbacks. Simply put, it can be very satisfying to put together the “complete” Agatha Christie — a copy of every title, and every variant title, and … ad infinitum, depending on how serious you want to get. Years ago, I knew a man who was putting together every cover variant for every title, and I hope that crazy guy managed to keep going, because that would be a collection worth seeing. But if I were starting out as a collector and wanted to invest in books that might hold their value, no matter that that value is the price of a venti vanilla latte, I’d look for Christie titles from Fontana with the Tom Adams covers, in the best condition possible. They’re a uniform size and colour, they look impressive on your shelves, Adams is a great artist, and the cost of an individual title is fairly small at this point. There are a couple of variants for a few titles that would be fun to track down. And if you want to set out to accomplish a real feat of collecting, go for the first paperback edition of every Christie title.