The Strange Case of the Sixth Penguin Book

The first ten Penguin books were all published together in July 1935 with an edition size of 20,000 books per title and launched a publishing phenomena. being a fraction of the cost of any other books available at the time, but there was to be a problem with book number six. It soon became clear that Penguin Books might not have the rights to publish a paperback version of ‘The Mysterious Affair at Styles’ by Agatha Christie so despite it’s popularity, it was reprinted twice in 1935, the book was pulled from the list of available titles leaving a gap in the neat numbering system. What to do? Well by early 1936 Penguin definitely had the rights to another book by Agatha Christie, ‘The Murder on the Links’ and in March that year this replaced ‘The Mysterious Affair at Styles’ but numbered 6A, see below.

Using an A to differentiate between the two books looked odd so in September 1936 the A was quietly dropped and ‘The Murder on the Links’ became number six. In the meantime however Penguin had sorted out the rights over ‘The Mysterious Affair at Styles’ but this couldn’t go back to being book six without renumbering ‘The Murder on the Links’ and causing even more confusion so in June 1936 ‘The Mysterious Affair at Styles’ was published again, this time as number sixty one. ‘The Mysterious Affair at Styles’ as number sixty one is relatively easy to find but the book as number six is extremely rare despite the original print run. I have collected Penguin Books for over thirty years and only obtained a copy of this version in the last few days and fortunately didn’t have to pay the £750 that a similar condition copy apparently recently sold for. All of Christie’s first five books were published by The Bodley Head which at the time of publication was the home of Penguin Books whilst its Managing Director, Allen Lane, got Penguin started before leaving to run Penguin as a separate entity at the start of 1937. This interconnection between the two businesses is probably the cause of the confusion over rights.

So let’s look at the two books:

The Mysterious Affair at Styles

Originally published in 1920 this was Agatha Christie’s first book and introduced her most famous creation Hercule Poirot to the world. It was only when flicking through the book when it arrived that I realised that I hadn’t actually read it before, which was a considerable surprise. When we first meet Poirot he is with a group of other Belgian refugees from the First World War living in a house in Styles St Mary, a small village near the grand house of Styles Court. The man who would be Poirot’s chronicler and friend, Arthur Hastings, was staying at Styles Court whilst recuperating from being invalided out of the war. He is greatly surprised to find Poirot, whom he had met in Belgium before the war living so close and when Emily Inglethorp, the elderly owner of the manor house, dies, apparently of strychnine poisoning, he suggests getting Poirot involved in solving the case. The plot is surprising well constructed for a first novel and numerous family members and other guests at the house are suspected before Poirot explains the true solution in the final chapter. According to the rear flap of the dust wrapper the book was a result of a bet that Christie couldn’t write a detective story where the reader only discovered the true murderer in the last chapter. I have to say the final twist is most ingenious and yet the reader cannot say that any clues were not available to them in trying to solve the case themselves.

Poirot and Hastings would return to Styles Court in his last appearance, ‘Curtain’, only this time the house is no longer a family home but has been turned into a guest house.

And now for the second number six, this is one of only two times two completely different Penguin books shared the same catalogue number that I have been able to find in the almost ninety years Penguin Books have been publishing, the other being number 305 which was allocated to the first two volumes of Penguin New Writing before that was spun off into its own series. There are however several examples of books by that publisher being re-issued under a different number to that originally assigned so six becoming sixty one, whilst it is unusual and is the first such renumbering at Penguin is certainly not unique.

The Murder on the Links

Agatha Christie’s third book and the second to feature Hercule Poirot must presumably have been already planned for publication by Penguin before it suddenly appeared as 6A, the book had been first published in 1923 and like ‘The Mysterious Affair at Styles’ had gone through numerous editions before appearing in Penguin. This time Poirot and Hastings are trying to solve a murder in northern France, in the imaginary small coastal town of Merlinville-sur-Mer which is apparently an up and coming destination and is constructing a golf course and casino in order to attract more wealthy visitors. Poirot had received a letter from Paul Renauld at his home in London, showing a considerable step up from his shared refugee home in Styles St Mary, which requested his urgent assistance in France so off they both go only to discover when they arrive that Paul Renauld was murdered the previous night. The plot has the addition of humour with Inspector Giraud, a modern detective from the Sûreté in Paris, whose methods amuse Poirot and the obvious resentment Giraud has for Poirot leads to a rivalry in which a five hundred franc bet is made between the two detectives as to who will solve the case. The case is more complicated than Poirot’s first appearance showing a growth in confidence by Christie after the very positive reception of her first two novels and I enjoyed this book more than the first.

Poirot and Hastings are so often seen as a double act, clearly based on Holmes and Watson, that it is perhaps surprising that of the further twenty Poirot novels Christie would write Hastings is only in five of them and she would later rewrite two of those removing Hastings as she did so. Indeed she is clearly trying to get rid of him in this book as he meets his future wife during this case and subsequently moves to Argentina to run a ranch with her. I like Hastings, although he can be a bit irritating but I have definitely enjoyed reading the two number sixes from Penguins catalogue.

3 thoughts on “The Strange Case of the Sixth Penguin Book

  1. Fascinating! I only found out about the first 10 titles this year when I read The Mysterious Affair at Styles and am keeping my eyes set on finding 1935 (or near abouts) copies of the 10, all fun!

    Like

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