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  • Writer's pictureDavid Morris

Agatha Christie's Fontana Paperbacks - Part 1: 1953 - 1957

Updated: Jun 4

The paperback revolution was moving full steam ahead in the 1950s.  While Allen Lane’s Penguin books had been launched in 1935 and Collins White Circle paperbacks appeared the following year, it wasn’t really until after the end of World War II that paperback publishing hit its stride. With the appearance of Pan Books in the mid to late 1940s, competition ramped up and by the 1950s the era of colourful, mass market paperbacks was in full swing.  Collins clearly wanted to be more deeply involved in this shift in the market and not just be a supplier of titles to Pan.  So Collins launched its own brand to compete directly with Penguin and Pan in 1953.  This new division was named Fontana Books and it also choose to utilize cover art, like Pan, differentiating themselves from Penguin and White Circle. In addition, Fontana mostly focused on select mainstream titles with a broader audience. It certainly was not lost of them that they held the publishing rights to the best selling author so there is no doubt they were optimistic about the future for this business venture.


For Agatha Christie fans, it is often Tom Adams' covers that immediately come to mind when one thinks of Fontana paperbacks. However, the era of Fontana's Tom Adams covers started 10 years after their launch, and stretched from the early 1960s until 1980.  While those covers are beloved by many, there was a decade of Fontana books prior to Tom Adams’ first cover.  I would argue that this period from 1953 until late 1963 has been under-appreciated for its important earlier role in building Christie’s fan base by providing affordable books with attractive covers.  During this first decade, Fontana published over 500 titles of which approximately 10% were Christie titles – and many of them first paperback printings - and all were numbered sequentially as they printed them.


Fontana & Christie: The Early Period.

In this article, I look at the first 15 Christie titles published by Fontana between 1953 and 1957. In these first few years all the Agatha Christie Fontana paperbacks were uniform in design – artwork with a broad blue stripe at the bottom of the cover. In that blue stripe were two black ovals – the one of the left stated ‘Collins’ while the one on the right had the price 2/- shown if produced for UK distribution. Those printed for the export market had no price stated but did have the initials ‘fb’ in the black oval. In overseas markets often a sticker was often placed on this oval to show the price. Between the two black ovals it stated ‘fontana books’. It is also worth noting that during this period the cover art was less "pulpy" than Pan books and only a few covers had an element of a damsel in distress.


Any titles from 1953-1957 that have a yellow stripe and the price 2/6 are reprints from 1958 or later. Where I'm missing the images for any of these original first printings, I've shown a later version. If any readers have the correct 2/- blue stripe book in their collection, please do send me an image so I can update the article (contact details at the bottom). In future articles, I’ll catalogue all the books from 1958 to 1963 which are the rest of the Christie titles in this pre-Tom Adams period.


First Paperbacks vs. First Fontana Books.

Many titles had previously been published in paperback form by the Collins White Circle imprint, Pan books, or even earlier by Collins or John Lane. For each Fontana paperback below, I've noted that it is either a "1st", "1st UK" or a "1st Fontana". The "1st" notation means this is the first paperback printing (globally), while a "1st UK" means that it has been printed as a paperback elsewhere in the world previously. The "1st Fontana" means it is just the first time Fontana printed this title.

 

1953

Fontana launched their new brand in 1953 with The Crowthers of Bankdam, by Thomas Armstrong. The first Christie was No. 7 - though the month of publication is not known.


7: A Murder is Announced (1st UK). The cover artist for this book was John Rose. While artists were often not credited, it is known that he created this cover plus the covers for Nos. 23, 41, and 70. It is possible he did others. Of note, he also created the cover art for the first edition Collins hardback for Christie Evil Under the Sun.


1954

15: They Came to Baghdad (1st UK). The cover art was created bty the Scottish artist Robert Johnston.

23: The Seven Dials Mystery (1st Fontana). Cover artist: John Rose.

31: Lord Edgware Dies (1st Fontana). Cover art: Surprisingly sourced from the 1950 US Cosmopolitan magazine cover and used on the 1953 Collins hardback reprint also.


1955

41: Mrs. McGinty’s Dead (1st UK) (January 1955). Cover artist: John Rose.

Going forward the artist is rarely ever given credit for the cover design.

70: The Hollow (1st Fontana). Cover artist: John Rose.

80: They Do It with Mirrors (1st UK) (October 1955).


1956

110: After the Funeral (1st) (May 1956).

114: Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? (1st Fontana).

(note: 114 is an export addition with a price sticker affixed).


1957

155: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1st Fontana).

166: Cards on the Table (1st Fontana). 

175: Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (1st Fontana).

(note: 155 and 166 are 2nd printings)


184: Three Act Tragedy (1st Fontana).

195: Death in the Clouds (1st Fontana).

212: Evil Under the Sun (1st Fontana).

(note: 212 is an export edition)


Values

Most of these books can be obtained for used book prices, but several do appear particularly challenging to find in the correct UK first printing as can be seen by those I am missing images for. In addition, books in a 'very good' condition are scarcer as these are now essentially 70 years old and likely have been well read. For collectors, strive to find copies where the number is present at the foot of the spine. For a very good, UK first printing, showing the 2/- price and the edition number on the spine, an appropriate price would be up to £20 ($30). Given this pricing, this era of Fontana books are affordable collectibles that I expect will gain value as the scarcity of collector quality copies becomes clearer and awareness grows.


Corrections?

As I usually do, I've likely missed a few things or made a few errors and I'm still in need of a few images to replace those with the yellow stripes above - so do get in contact with me if there's an improvement to be made to this article (email: CollectChristie@gmail.com ). I view all my articles as collaborative efforts and want them to be an accurate resource for collectors.


Podcast: Tea and Murder.

Exciting news: I was recently invited onto the podcast "Tea and Murder" - part interview show and part book club. While I provided some comments and insights into the world of collecting, the host (Rebecca Thandi Norman) and I dove deep into Christie's wonderful novel The Hollow. I hope you'll find some time to listen to it and that you enjoy it. You can find it on any podcast platform (Season 3, Episode 1) or by clicking this link.


Subscribe & the Socials:

If you are not a subscriber to my website, please consider subscribing here: link. This ensures you receive an email any time I write and post an article. Also, consider following me on X (formerly Twitter) @collectchristie and on Facebook (link). The content varies across platforms.


2024 International Agatha Christie Festival:

Also, tickets are still available for my presentation at the 2024 International Agatha Christie Festival, though the remaining slots are starting to dwindle down, so if you do plan on coming please consider acquiring tickets soon. I hope to see you there. For more details or to obtain tickets go to this link: Festival Link.

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