INSIGHTS: National Variants ~ the Christie books you didn't know about.
While many collectors of novels may prefer a certain type, such as UK first editions or Fontana paperbacks or Bantam leatherettes, what is often missed by collectors is that there are numerous national “variants”. A variant is a version of a book that is meaningfully different beyond just a title change depending on which country published it. Agatha Christie’s national variants include short story collections with different stories contained within, abridged novels lacking the full depth of the original manuscripts, books with different chapter structures and even one book with a complete change in the motive of the murderer. As such, both collectors and readers of Christie’s works need to be aware of these variants so that they have an opportunity to either own or read all of Christie’s writings as she wrote them.
While there are numerous examples where Christie reworked stories or plays over the years, these changes were consistent regardless of where one acquired the copy. As global readers know, the titles used around the world often changed too, aligning with regional norms and marketing strategies. However, what we are referring to as “National Variants” are books that will give the reader a different reading experience depending on where (and often when) their book was published. This article focuses on examples of national variants between the UK and USA. To the best of our knowledge, these are Poirot Investigates, Three Act Tragedy, Murder in the Mews, Murder is Easy, Five Little Pigs and The Moving Finger. We welcome readers to share other titles we may have missed that fit the definition of a national variant, especially those knowledgeable in non-English translations.
Poirot Investigates: A short story collection first published in the UK by The Bodley Head in 1924. In this collection are eleven stories featuring Hercule Poirot. A year later, the American version of this book, published by Dodd, Mead and Company, had three additional stories added to the collection that did not appear in the UK version. These are The Chocolate Box, The Veiled Lady and The Lost Mine. These three stories did not appear in book form in the UK until 1974 with the publication of Poirot’s Early Cases. Thus, collectors of first editions would generally seek both The Bodley Head and Dodd, Mead printings, as both contain first printings of short stories. For casual readers, the US version should be the one you seek as all stories are contained within it.
Three Act Tragedy (UK) aka Murder in Three Acts (USA): First published in the USA in 1934 and in the UK in 1935. While the title was different, which was not uncommon as the US publishers generally wanted “murder” in the title to make it clear to their readers what the genre was, this novel's difference occurs in the last chapter and focuses on the motive of the killer. Christie’s original manuscript was used in the UK version, which is generally viewed as a more plausible reason for the criminal. However, Dodd Mead (the US publisher) actually published the book first, but asked Christie to revise the motive for the U.S. audience. Dodd Mead was concerned that the motive would not be believed by U.S. readers due to different laws between the countries. This variance is preserved in future US paperback versions too. For those who would like to know the gist of why the ending was changed, please see the very end of this article for the reason (it'll take some work to decipher, but that way no one stumbles on a spoiler).
Murder in the Mews and Other Stories (UK) aka Dead Man’s Mirror (US): This short story collection was first published in the UK by Collins Crime Club in March 1937. In the US the book was published by Dodd, Mead and Company in June 1937. However, in this case the US version had one story missing - The Incredible Theft. It is believed to have been cut to save paper. It wasn’t until the late 1980s that a US paperback version finally included this short story. Collectors and readers alike will want to obtain the UK version.
Murder is Easy (UK) and Easy to Kill (US): First published in the UK by the Collins Crime Club in June 1939 and in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company in September 1939 under the alternate title - though "murder" was already in it... so this change is baffling. Murder is Easy represents the complete novel Christie wrote while Easy to Kill is a substantially shorter book with significant removal of text throughout. What caused this meaningful difference was that Dodd Mead based their version of the book on the serialized version that was published a year earlier in the Saturday Evening Post across seven installments. While the book was also serialized in the UK, Collins used the complete manuscript when the book was published. It should be noted that paperbacks still carried this difference in the US when published under the Easy to Kill title. At least the US version has the basic chapter structure intact - a small victory. To provide a short example of how different the two novels are, on page one alone significant portions of the full novel are omitted in the US version. This removes the following text:
‘England on leave was one thing. Plenty of money to blue (to begin with anyway!), old friends to look up, meetings with other fellows home like himself—a carefree atmosphere of “Well, it won’t be long. Might as well enjoy myself! Soon be going back.”
But now there was no question of going back. No more of the hot stifling nights, no more blinding sun and tropical beauty of rich vegetation, no more lonely evenings reading and re-reading old copies of The Times.’
This excerpt is illustrative of the lost depth and richness in the US version. This level of redacting continues throughout the story reduces the total word count by close to 20% or about 8,000 words. When books were serialized, magazine publishers believed they needed to draw readers into the story quickly and provide incentive to purchase the next installment. It is believed Dodd Mead retained these short versions to save paper and printing costs.
Five Little Pigs (UK) and Murder in Retrospect (US): First published in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company in May 1942 and in UK by the Collins Crime Club in January 1943. The novel was first serialized in the US in Collier's Weekly in ten installments from September to November 1941 under the alternate title to make it clear it was a murder book. While the text is the same, Dodd Mead again chose to use the serialized version of the story for its hardback which was framed significantly differently than the manuscript version used by Collins. In the UK version the novel is framed into segments – an ‘Introduction’, ‘Book I’, ‘Book II’ and ‘Book III’. Each ‘book’ is then further delineated into titled chapters – many playing off the novel’s nursery rhyme theme of ‘Five Little Pigs’. When the book was serialized in Collier’s Weekly, each episodic installment needed to be similar in length. To accomplish this Collier’s eliminated the entire structure of the novel and repackaged all the edited chapters into ten new equal length segments – Chapters 1 – 9, plus a ‘Conclusion’. Dodd Mead used this format when they printed the novel, which meant readers of the US version lose the framing and structure Christie created.
The Moving Finger: First published in the US in 1942 and in the UK in 1943. While the title did not change, the book is substantially different. Most American editions of The Moving Finger had close to 20% of the content redacted and closely resembles the Collier's serialization. It is particularly galling that Avon Books even states on the front of their 1948 paperback “complete and unabridged”. While it may be unmodified from the Dodd Mead version, it is still missing about 9000 words! Hardly complete. For example, the US book omits the whole of Chapter 1, part I, which is five full pages at the start of the novel that provides a lot of the background to the characters and sets up the story narrative. These large-scale omissions continue throughout the US version. Because of this, while the title remains the same these are two very different novels and anyone who has only read the US edition should seek a UK version in order to experience the full novel as Christie wrote it.
Sourcing the complete, and original, novels: Generally, for those where the US versions were heavily abridged, the cheapest way to secure a correct copy of the novel would be to buy a UK paperback, such as any of the Fontana editions.
Spoiler information: To understand how and why the motive was changed between Murder in Three Acts and Three Act Tragedy, copy and paste the following Czech into “google translate”. The ‘auto-translate’ has some issues, but it will give you enough to decipher: Podle britského práva nemůžete rozvést bláznivé ženy. Americké právo vám umožnilo rozvést bláznivou ženu. Motivem v Anglii bylo zabít ty, kteří věděli, že je ženatý s šílenou ženou. Pak se mohl znovu oženit. Americká verze uvedla, že se vrah bál, že by se lidé dozvěděli, že je šílený muž.