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.

Murder on the Orient Express – Agatha Christie

20200728 Murder on the Orient Express 1

This is not a traditional review of Christie’s most famous book hence it’s inclusion in the ‘Book Tales’ category on the blog. How could I say anything about the story that has not already been said? Sharp eyed readers will have noticed that despite me being English my copy of the book featured above is an American Pocket Book edition and there is a very good reason  for that which gives a personal link to the story. Thirty three years ago I travelled on the Orient Express with my then girlfriend, who was American, and she brought a copy of this book for me which we both read whilst on the train.  Another thing you may notice is right at the bottom ‘Formally titled MURDER IN THE CALAIS COACH’ this is a reference to the habit Christie’s American publishers Dodd, Mead & Co. had of altering the titles of her books which does make any bibliography quite messy. Other examples (Original English title first) include:-

  • The Sittaford Mystery – The Murder at Hazelmoor
  • Lord Edgeware Dies – Thirteen at Dinner
  • Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? – The Boomerang Clue
  • One, Two, Buckle My Shoe – The Patriotic Murders
  • Dumb Witness – Poirot Loses a Client

and many more.

Rereading the novel again, probably for the first time in three decades, I was struck by how well it was written. Even though I of course knew the solution, as does almost everyone with an interest in detective novels, it didn’t matter, I still enjoyed how Christie developed the story and Poirot’s slow realisation of just what a fantastic solution it is. It is also a ‘locked room mystery’ in that the train is stuck in a snowdrift on its way from Istanbul to Paris so the murderer could not have escaped from the train and it is also impossible for Poirot to verify any clues he may discover or even who anybody is with the outside world as they are completely cut off. The train gets stuck just after Vinkovci (spelt Vincovci in the book) which is now in Croatia so on the southern route on the map below just as the line turns north to head to Budapest.

20200728 Murder on the Orient Express 3

This poster is from the winter season of 1888/9, forty years before the book is set but gives a hint of the glamour associated with the journey. It’s a trip Christie made several times whilst visiting her husband on his archaeological digs in Iraq so she knew the operation well and the story of the Armstrong family with the kidnapping of the baby daughter and the subsequent deaths which is the background to this book is a straight borrowing from the Lindbergh case which had happened a couple of years earlier. Everyone reading this book when it first came out would have been familiar with the Lindbergh story which had been a worldwide sensation in 1932, to my mind it was somewhat tactless of Christie to so obviously take this tragic case and turn it into a murder mystery of her own, there are too many similarities to be comfortable if you know about the original.

I also included the poster in this blog as it was this, rather than Christie’s novel, which inspired a trip on what was left of the Orient Express back in the late 1980’s. By then, although it still left Paris at 9am each day it only made it to Bucharest and by the time it got there it was hardly an express and the glamour was long gone on the entire journey. By adding on extra trains from Bucharest to Belgrade and then on via Sofia to Istanbul I did manage to stay at least one night in all the cities listed in the poster heading. It was natural that we would read Murder On The Orient Express whilst travelling on it. Nowadays there is only the luxury private train that carries that name and recreates the glamour that Agatha Christie would have known in the 1920’s and 30’s when she was a passenger and which she used as the setting for, if not her best then certainly her best known work.

A somewhat scary flashback photo below, reading this very book whilst travelling between Paris and Munich on the first stage of our Orient Express journey back in 1987.

20200728 Murder on the Orient Express 2

Poirot and Me – David Suchet

20200414 Poirot and Me

A fascinating description of the years David Suchet took to film almost all the Hercule Poirot novels and short stories written by Agatha Christie over thirteen series comprising of seventy episodes. The first day of filming was the 1st July 1988 and the final one was on the 28th June 2013, so almost exactly twenty five years from start to finish. Right at the end of the book he admits that one very short story never got adapted which was The Lemesurier Inheritance, apart from that everything was either specifically filmed as an individual story or merged into another short tale.

But I feel I must get one major failing of the book over and done with right at the beginning of this review. Suchet is completely obsessed with his reviews, after each story about a series or sometimes even an episode you get two or three, or maybe five or six, newspaper reviews saying how wonderful it was. It’s not just a quick one line either some of them are longer and it really get tedious. It is also completely unnecessary, if the reader didn’t think that his performance as Poirot and indeed the series itself was good it is highly unlikely that they will have picked up the book in the first place. He also comes over as a terrible ‘luvvie’ every actor he refers to has done a magnificent performance in such and such, or was fabulous in the role of whoever, everybody is announced with gushing compliments. Having said that, you can just skip the reviews and the overblown introductions and in there is a very enjoyable book.

Suchet covers the entire story of the series from his first being offered the part and getting to meet Christie’s daughter Rosalind Hicks who controlled the rights to her mothers works. She wanted to be sure that he understood what she expected from his portrayal. The book though starts at Pinewood Studios with the death of Poirot in the filming of ‘Curtain’ as part of the thirteenth, and final, series. From having explained his sorrow and what it means to him and those who have worked with him over the years to film these scenes he sets the tone before we jump back to his first being offered the part. His descriptions at the beginning of the book of his struggles to find the voice for Poirot whilst filming another TV series set on the Isles of Scilly before starting filming at Twickenham studios and only then suddenly realising after seeing the first test shots that he simply had no idea how he should walk are interesting insights into how an actor approaches a role. What was really surprising was that despite the massive hit that the Poirot series became this first series was the only time that any of the TV companies involved actually had an option on Suchet doing another series, after that he went for months or sometimes years without knowing if he would ever play the character again.

What does become very clear is Suchet’s devotion to the Belgian detective, before starting to play him he read all the stories and made a list of ninety three characteristics that made him who he was so that he could play him as a real person rather than the caricatures that he feels have been Poirot’s fate with previous portrayals.

He was a character that demanded to be taken seriously. He wasn’t a funny little man with a silly accent any more than Sherlock Holmes was a morphine addict with a taste for playing the violin.

He carried this ‘Dossier of Characteristics’ with him throughout the twenty five years of playing the part and gave a copy to each director so that they could understand what he was trying to do, I love some of the examples he gives in the book, some of which are emphatic like number one

Belgian, not French

Others are more idiosyncratic, like number eight

Regards his moustache as a thing of perfect beauty, uses scented pomade.

And one that had only partly registered with me in reading the books, number ten

A man of faith and morals, regards himself as ‘Un bon Catholique’, reads his bible every night before he goes to sleep.

This was a side of Poirot that hadn’t been seen in previous screen representations of Poirot but Suchet shows him with his rosary several times during the films revealing a side to the man which helps flesh out his need to see justice be done. This was particularly a feature in ‘Curtain’ and the death scenes in that where Poirot is seen preparing himself for the end that he recognises is soon to come. Just as Agatha Christie wrote ‘Curtain’ many years before it was published, filming this episode was not the last that Suchet did, instead it was filmed first in that final series several months before the other four episodes that concludes the story arc, so allowing him to finish his portrayal of the Great Detective on a high rather than a low point. Fittingly the last part of filming was at Greenway, Agatha Christie’s own home and added an extra poignancy to Suchet’s final day as Poirot.

The book appears to have been remaindered, judging by the sheer number of copies some secondhand book dealers have available even now. This does mean that it is easily available for very little money on either Biblio or Abebooks should you wish to obtain a copy.