INSIGHTS: Rare Agatha Christie 1940s "Cheap" Paperbacks
Updated: Aug 25
During World War II, paper shortages heavily impacted the printing of books in much of the world, especially in the UK. With the advent of paperbacks in 1935, the category was still relatively new as the war progressed. The confluence of war time shortages, cost cutting, & paper rationing led to a variety of publishers entering the space offering customers cheap, quick reads. Many of these were designed for a spontaneous purchase - sold on railway platforms and at newsagents. Short stories were perfectly suited for this burgeoning market. By now, Agatha Christie was an extremely successful and popular author, plus she had a large back catalogue of short stories. Consequently, her stories were highly appealing to publishers in this space.
The three primary cheap paperback publishers in the UK in the years towards the end of the war were Todd Publishing, Polybooks, and Vallancey Press. The latter is arguably more well known from this period because of their publishing of Poirot and the Regatta Mystery and Crime In Cabin 66 - both of which are more common (relatively!) and periodically show up for sale at auctions, online sites and through dealers. See our prior article on these two books by clicking here.
While Todd and Polybooks actually published more titles than Vallancey Press, copies of their books are incredibly rare and elusive for collectors. This is likely due to a smaller print volume and the somewhat disposable nature of these books. If you are lucky enough to find Agatha Christie short-story paperback books published by these firms during those years, then it will be one of the following:
The Mystery of the Baghdad Chest (Todd Publishing, 1943)
The Mystery of the Crime in Cabin 66 (Todd Publishing, 1943)
Poirot and the Regatta Mystery (Todd Publishing, 1943)
Two Story Collections:
Problem at Pollensa Bay and Christmas Adventure (Todd Publishing, June 1943)
Poirot on Holiday (Todd Publishing, Nov 1943). Contains two short-stories: (1) The Regatta Mystery and (2) The Crime in Cabin 66.
The Veiled Lady, and The Mystery of the Baghdad Chest (Polybooks, June 1944)
Three Story Collections:
Poirot Knows the Murderer (Polybooks, March 1946). Contains three short-stories: (1) The Mystery of the Baghdad Chest, (2) Crime in Cabin 66 and (3) Christmas Adventure.
Poirot Lends a Hand (Polybooks, March 1946). Contains three short-stories: (1) Problem at Pollensa Bay, (2) The Regatta Mystery and (3) The Veiled Lady.
If we’ve missed any - which is always possible - do let us know.
First Printings: All of these stories had a magazine print run and many of them had been previously published in the USA, either as part of Poirot Investigates (1924) or The Regatta Mystery collection (1939), both published by Dodd Mead. However, these paperbacks commonly contain a 'first book printing' of these stories in the UK. For example, The Mystery of the Baghdad Chest wasn't published again until its inclusion in Harper's While the Light Lasts (1997). Also of note, Christmas Adventure was never published in the USA and didn't show up in the UK again until 1997 with its inclusion there also. In the USA, it only appeared as The Theft of the Royal Ruby in Double Sin and Other Stories, which was a slightly modified version of The Adventure of The Christmas Pudding, which in itself was an expanded story based on Christmas Adventure. While The Veiled Lady was originally thought to have first appeared in book form here, more recent research shows that it was actually published in 1935 in a very uncommon book - The Hospital Centenary Gift Book (about which we have written separately). It did not show up again in book form until Poirot's Early Cases (1974) published by Collins.
Value: These small paperbacks are fragile and delicate. Condition is often worn, creased and damaged. They are arguably harder to find than their Vallancey Press peers, especially in very good or better condition. The best place to find them is typical online book resellers as well as mainstream auction sites. Prices will vary based on condition but a 'very good' copy of each is likely worth £100 - £150 ($130 - $200 US). Unfortunately there are rarely documented sales of these Todd and Polybook paperbacks given their scarcity, so who really knows. General guidance would be pay what you want if you find one for sale because chances are these are the type of things you only see once. That said, they are out there and often scarcity is unknown by the seller (and buyer). Anything under £50 ($65 US) a book would be an absolute bargain.