The Tuesday Night Bloggers: My favourite Agatha Christie paperback covers

The Tuesday Night BloggersIn 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”, which has transmogrified into the Tuesday Night Bloggers. Simply put, we’re going to publish a Christie piece every Tuesday in October. You’ll find a list of participants and associated links on
9eb1f129816deb6c879fb727e3d57109Curtis’s blog. We’ve recently decided to continue with a different Golden Age mystery writer every month; the first three weeks of November will be devoted to Ellery Queen.

#6: My favourite Agatha Christie paperback covers

Although I’ve had some fun recently showing you some of the “worst” paperback covers for Agatha Christie,
37ce9eb3f6234e8af79da9f12ce888bcI hope you realize it’s all in good fun. What seems modern and avant-garde to the contemporaneous eye may cause laughter 40 or 50 years later … every generation has its preferred style. What I find most attractive about early paperbacks is the raw and unaffected nature of the design. These folks weren’t running on research telling them where focus groups think they should be putting the author’s name, and how large, and what fonts they like most and least. They were inventing things that they thought would appeal to people and
58f85d84857417bee436ef6a985e4887marketing books as best they could. Sometimes they got it wrong; sometimes they got it hilariously wrong. But sometimes they created beautiful books.

Some of my favourites include, of course, early Dell mapback editions (I’ve talked about those separately); they will always be dear to my heart. But other houses had interesting approaches as well. I’ve always liked the “picture-frame” covers from perhaps a year’s worth of early Avon editions (check out Death in the
73d30ffb6304150ed794938186069a7cAir
 and Holiday for Murder nearby); Avon seemed to do a nice job in its early days with skilful illustration with a healthy helping of Good Girl Art (GGA). Similarly Pocket had a point in time when they seemed to be linking mysteries with surrealism (see Evil Under the Sun). Highly-regarded Christie cover artist Tom Adams also specialized in surrealism and there’s a copy of The Murder at the Vicarage near here that is a riff on a classic Magritte painting.

796b61befc1d8925869903994f9fbf39Some people may find it odd that I’ve got a classic Penguin greenback as a favourite — I’ve always thought these were the essence of minimalist chic, and their preferred font of Gill is one of my favourites.  There’s something just so audacious about it, like saying, “Oh, all our books are worth reading; the cover just lets you know that we’ve endorsed yet another title.” The very earliest Penguins come with matching dust jackets and I love that idea too.

Cards-on-the-Table-200x300And finally — one of my favourites is the crazy-looking cover for Cards on the Table where a clever artist has created a portrait of Christie herself out of a deck of playing cards and household objects! Perhaps not beautiful but original and challenging.

Enjoy! Next Tuesday night we’ll be switching to three weeks of material celebrating Ellery Queen. My first two pieces will be about books that I consider pivotal to understanding EQ’s oeuvre and that signal
308377518an intention to change literary direction; Halfway House and The Finishing Stroke. I hope lots of my new readers will be persuaded to continue along!

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The Tuesday Night Bloggers #5: Book-scouting Agatha Christie

The Tuesday Night BloggersIn 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”, which has transmogrified into the Tuesday Night Bloggers. Simply put, we’re going to publish a Christie piece every Tuesday in October. You’ll find a list of participants and associated links on Curtis’s blog. We’ve recently decided to continue with a different Golden Age mystery writer every month; November will be devoted to Ellery Queen.

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Someone’s very nice collection of Fontana Christie titles that I scooped from the internet.

Unknown#5: Book-scouting Agatha Christie

A book scout is an intermediary for books; she buys books at yard sales and charity shops inexpensively and then hopes to recoup her investment, at the very least, by selling the book to a book dealer or used book store. If you know your business well, you can buy inexpensive books “on spec” because you know someone will always want that particular book, sooner or later. But if you’re just starting out, or even want to start out but don’t know how, here’s what you do.

christielisterdalepbGo to the bookstore that you yourself shop at most often; perhaps you’re already well-known to the proprietor. Ask if you can book-scout the bookstore’s “want list”– come prepared to make a list of books that the bookstore already has had requested by other customers. “But,” you are saying already, “that’s why we have eBay and Amazon and the like, right?” It’s true, books are more available than they used to be. But the economics of the situation are such that unusual/rare books frequently have a commensurate price over the internet, and when you add in the bookseller’s mark-up (booksellers have to eat!) sometimes their customer will be looking at a $30 bill for a book that the customer probably thinks is expensive at $10. End result, no sale. So if the book scout can bring in that particular book at $5 — perfect. It never hurts to try.

67e1942bb86f2ef873b6b5e68a9f56f2If you’re lucky enough to live in a city that has a murder mystery bookstore, they frequently have a want list of mysteries you’ll never see in your lifetime; booksellers write these names down to be polite to the customer, mentally commenting, “Yeah, if anyone comes up with a copy of Obelists at Sea by C. Daly King, it’s going into MY collection!” Nevertheless, Obelists at Sea is going to be on the want list; if you find a Penguin paperback, it’s worth $25 to $50, except you won’t find one. But if you want to be a book scout in the real world and keep your mystery dealer happy, you can profitably focus on low-level bread-and-butter titles by, for instance, Agatha Christie.
0007154852Mystery fans tend to focus on reading in “sets”. They’re the people in used bookstores with little notebooks or iPads, because their collections are so large that they can’t remember if they own a certain book or merely have read it. They tend to collect, they like to collect uniform editions, and they are assiduous about wanting to complete those sets; they are the people who will spend that $30 if you have the one book that will complete their collection of, say, Agatha Christie. And collecting Christie is quite common. Some people say, “Oh, I’ll collect the Miss Marple novels.” Another’s collection will be “all the Miss Marple novels and short stories”. Or “All the Christies with the Tom Adams covers from Fontana”. “All the Christies.” “All the Christies under every title.” “Everything Christie ever wrote in every language and edition.” There’s medication for that last one ;-)

When I was behind the coun24191ter of a mystery bookstore, the purple unicorn of Agatha Christie paperbacks used to be a short-story volume called The Listerdale Mystery, especially with the Tom Adams cover featuring the banana morphing into a handgun. I used to get $20 for that at a time when a new paperback was about $7. For some reason, although there were a couple of British paperback editions, not many copies of that title seem to have made it to the west coast of Canada; I constantly had a list of perhaps ten people who needed any copy in any edition to complete some kind of collection. I know Listerdale is back in print, but most used bookstores will have one or two titles that they need to serve their customers’ needs; the trouble is, all bookstores have a different list. A suburban bookstore may be looking for a specific romance novelist; a bookstore near a university may be looking for a cyberpunk classic; and one near a residence of the elderly may be looking for specific classic westerns. It’s all in the clientele.

imagesBut mystery sellers always need a couple of unusual Agatha Christie titles if you can find them inexpensively (and, I can’t emphasize enough, in good condition; a book with loose pages is worthless). Talking to local booksellers is best, but here are a couple of principles that will let you buy Agatha Christie titles on spec … these are more likely to pay off than others.

  • 0652668181e91855978566f54514141414c3441Perfect, unopened, mint copies of any edition of any Agatha Christie title are worth buying and holding for the future, as long as you pack them away carefully.
  • Anything unusual with Christie’s name on it.  If it makes you think to yourself, “Oh, that’s out of the ordinary,” that’s what you’re looking for. This includes her Westmacott romances, biographies, plays, collective novels with other members of the Detection Club, and books about Agatha Christie and her works. Weird stuff like Agatha Christie cookbooks … someone’s always going to want that.
  • surprisepbEditions of any Christie paperback that predate about 1970.
  • Agatha Christie titles from Fontana with the Tom Adams cover art.
  • Agatha Christie titles that are movie tie-ins or TV tie-ins; anything with a picture of David Suchet or one of the TV Marples on it. Anything with 16 pages of “pictures from the film” bound into the centre.
  • Compendium volumes of Agatha Christie titles; especially ones which bind together three or more novels in hardcover format with a dust jacket. These might have a value all out of proportion to what you’d think, because some of them are first editions “as such”.
  • 4422Collections of short stories with variant titles. Publishers of Agatha Christie have a long and unfortunate history of repackaging collections of Christie short stories with a different table of contents and selling it with a different name. No one is really fooled by this, and it really annoys completists who have to have every title. But there’s always a collector who needs a copy of Surprise! Surprise!.
  • Audio books. I understand that some voices are esteemed while others are not, but you’ll have to ask your bookseller for more information.
  • And finally — pretty much anything I’ve shown you in my previous Christie paperback related posts this month. If it’s old and weird or funky and strange — if it sets off your spidey sense — go for it.

The Tuesday Club Murders #2: Christie’s rarest paperback editions

c3a5ddf268c9c4adb2f1c7bd607a8560In 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.

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Back cover of Dell #8.

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.

LA Bantam 26

LA Bantam 26

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.

LA Bantam 26illustrated- copy1

LA Bantam 26P

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.

ackroydpbAll 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.