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  • Writer's pictureDavid Morris

ANTHOLOGY INSIGHT: Poirot's Three Chess Problems!

Updated: Mar 5

A series of articles I've been writing is about anthologies that contain a first printing of an Agatha Christie story. Numerous true firsts of short stories appeared in anthologies – collections of short stories from many different authors in a single volume - as opposed to an omnibus collection of stories solely by Christie. The goal of this series of articles is to raise awareness of these anthologies and provide tips and insights into collecting them. At the foot of the article is a list of the prior anthologies we've discussed with links to each.


Hercule Poirot & A Chess Problem:

This article looks at the first stand-alone book printing of the Hercule Poirot short story "A Chess Problem". In addition, this printing has been edited and differs from the prior two versions of the story used in either the initial magazine runs or the book The Big Four.


The Backstory:

This story was first published under the title The Chess Problem on the 13th February, 1924, in the London periodical The Sketch (issue 1620). When published is was the seventh instalment in a series being grouped under the title "The Man who was Number Four: Further Adventures of M. Poirot". In all, The Sketch published twelve stories under this title from the 2nd January until 19th March, 1924 (issues 1614 - 1625).


In 1926, Agatha Christie slightly modified the stories to imbed additional linkage text so that a novel could be created. This novel became The Big Four and was first published in January 1927 by Collins, London and then in September 1927 by Dodd, Mead & Co, New York. The Chess Problem was chapter 11, though now referred to as A Chess Problem. The first Collins printing in very good condition with a like jacket would likely command £20,000 - 25,000. The US Dodd Mead printing has the same cover art as the Collins printing (a rare practice) and is worth $10,000 - 12,000 in very good condition with a like jacket.

Serialisation rights in the US were granted to Blue Book magazine who started printing the chapters from January 1927 through to March 1928 - so while some chapters came earlier than the full Dodd Mead book's release, some came later. Under the original title The Chess Problem, the Blue Book published this story in Volume 45, Issue 5 in September 1927. It used the text from the Collins book not The Sketch.

Typically early The Sketch or Blue Book magazines can be acquired for £30-40 or $30-40. Patience will be needed though.


Text Variances: The Sketch vs. The Big Four.

Both The Sketch and the novel referenced both 'Big Four' and 'Number Four' in numerous places. For example "The girl is an agent of the Big Four" and "I strongly suspect that Ivan is none other than the famous Number Four" appear in both versions. However, The Sketch states "At the mention of the Countess, who was a prominent agent of the Big Four, my face clouded over". In the novel and Blue Book versions the middle of the sentence re: being an agent is fully removed. The version in The Sketch ends with "But one thing I swear to you, Hastings, Number Four and I will meet again - many times perhaps, but in the end Hercule Poirot will be victorious. It must be so". This ending aligns with a serialisation in a magazine periodical - a hook to keep you motivated to get the next issue. However, the novel The Big Four and the Blue Book edition adds the text "I begin to understand our friend and his psychology" and "Poirot has his virtues, but modesty is not one of them". There are many other variances, but these are a good sampling. So here are Poirot's first two Chess Problems. But now to the third!


101 Years Entertainment - The Great Detective Stories 1841-1941.

In November 1941, Ellery Queen (the joint pseudonym of American crime writers Dannay & Lee) published this anthology of detective fiction. In it they included one Agatha Christie short story - A Chess Problem. Incorrectly, they dated it as a story from 1920. In addition, the introduction to the story states it is not found in any short story collection published by Christie - even claiming boldly "it's a new Poirot story".

In reality this is a modified version of the chapter from The Big Four. However, there are no references to the Number Four or the Big Four anywhere in the story. Thus, this is the third Chess Problem - an amended variant. For example, while earlier texts stated "...Ivan is none other than the famous Number Four" this version states "...Ivan is the girl's confederate". In fact any reference to Number Four is replaced with identifying him as Savaronoff's "impersonator" or the "false Savaronoff". For example, at the end of the novelised version of the story Poirot states "No; if Number Four had not made one small mistake..." while this third version Poirot states "No; if the false Savaronoff had not made one small mistake...". While this is how 'Number Four' is handled, all the sentences that discuss the Big Four are fully deleted. Aside from these modifications, the ending of the short-story in this collection more closely matches the ending of the chapter in the novel The Big Four, not the ending in The Sketch, where Poirot states he "has his virtues, but modesty is not one of them".

This book is very affordable without a jacket - typically under $50 in very good condition. However, the jacket appears particularly elusive (later jacket shown) and should one appear for sale I would expect a fair value of $200 or less.


Sporting Blood - The Great Sports Detective Stories.

In 1942, Ellery Queen compiled and edited a collection of twenty short stories all related to sports. Titled Sporting Blood it was first published by Little, Brown & Co., Boston, USA in November 1942. At the time this collection was publicised as 'the only sports detective anthology ever compiled'. The collection includes Arthur Conan Doyle's Silver Blaze (horse racing). E.C. Bentley's The Sweet Shot (golf), Dashiell Hammett's His Brother's Keeper (fighting) and, again, Agatha Christie's A Chess Problem. For collectors Sporting Blood is fairly uncommon in a very good jacket, and is fairly valued at $150 - 200. Unjacketed copies can be found for significantly less.

This version's text was the same as the modified text published by Queen one year earlier. However, now it states 'From THE BIG FOUR (1927)' below the story's title. One can speculate that feedback was provided to Queen after the incorrect date and statement made in his 1941 anthology.


Ellery Queen Archives:

I had the opportunity to visit the Ellery Queen archives at Columbia University in New York to see how Frederic Dannay made these changes The images below show how Dannay took the pages from The Big Four and then crafted the changes. This allowed the story to become a stand-alone short.

I also have had the opportunity to visit Christie's archives at the University of Exeter where one can see the correspondance confirming Christie and her agent approved Queen's use of these stories and the ability to edit them, as well as the royalty fee to do so. Despite the fact that Queen made the edits, I actually found the story quite satisfying without the encumbrance of trying to tie it in to a larger scheme or plot. For those that haven't read this version I encourage you to seek out a copy to read.


Reprints of Note:

In March 1931, The Detective Story Club published a small format version of the book, joining their printing of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd issued as a film tie-in to Alibi. This book used the text from the novel The Big Four. It is very scarce in jacket (whose cover art is the same on the front and rear panel). One sold at auction in February 2022 for £435.

In 2017, HarperCollins published a 90th anniversary edition of The Big Four under the Collins Crime Club imprint. With an introduction by Karl Pike, this small format hardback reuses the original cover art of the 1931 Detective Story Club edition on the front panel only. However, this printing reverted to the original texts used in The Sketch. Thus for completists this book is an easier and more affordably way to gain access to those original stories. Copies routinely sell for £30-40.


Comments?

As always, if you have insights about this story that I've missed do let me know at collectchristie@gmail.com . Likewise, if you have an anthology you'd like me to profile do let me know. I will slowly work my way through all of them!


Prior Anthologies Reviews:

The Best Detective Stories of the Year, Faber & Gwyer, UK, 1929: Contains the first Miss Marple story in book form (link).

Best Detective Stories of the Year - 1929, Faber & Faber, UK, 1930: Contains two short stories first printings - S.O.S. and The Third Floor Flat (link).

Many Mysteries, Rich & Cowan, UK, 1933: contains the first book printing of the Hercule Poirot story The Second Gong (link).

The Hospital Centenary Gift Book contains the first UK hardback printing of The Veiled Lady (link).

Fifth Mystery Book, Farrar & Rinehart, NY, USA, 1944: Contains the first hardback printing of Tape Measure Murder (link).









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