One of the joys of collecting is making a new discovery. While these new finds are essentially just ‘unknown knowns’ – i.e they always existed but were just unknown to me (and likely many other collectors) – it is very rewarding to learn about them. There may be some to whom the focus of this article is a ‘known first’, but I hope that my recent discovery is new to many other Agatha Christie collectors and fans alike.
So what did I unearth – a previously ‘unknown’ first edition of Agatha Christie’s Three Blind Mice – the expanded novella of her radio play, on which her historically famous stage play “The Mousetrap” is also based. But first, a little background to put it all in context.
The Nursery Rhyme:
The children's rhyme "The Complete Version of Ye Three Blind Mice" was first published in 1609 in London by Frederick Warne & Co.
It is believed to originally have been a hidden tale about three Protestant loyalists accused of plotting against Queen Mary. The full rhyme in the original book includes lines such as:
Three starved mice, came to a farm. The farmer was eating some bread and cheese so they all went down on their hands and knees, and squeaked ‘Pray, give us a morsel, please’… Three glad mice ate all they could. They felt so happy they danced with glee; But the farmer’s wife came in to see what might this merry making be. Three poor mice soon changed their tune. The farmer’s wife said, ‘What are you at?’ ... ‘I’ll fetch the cat’. Three scared mice ran for their lives. They hid in the bramble hedge. It scratched their eyes and made them blind and soon each mouse went out of his mind… They all ran after the farmer’s wife who cut off their tales with a carving knife… Three sick mice gave way to tears.
These lines were clearly influential to Christie’s decision to use the title for her play and novella given the true story it is based on (discussed below). Fortunately for the mice, there is ultimately a happy ending to the story as they find a chemist who helps them regain their vision, re-grow their tales and they move to a new home.
The True Crime Story:
Around 1940, three boys - Terry (age 5), Freddie (age 6) and Dennis O’Neill (age 8) – were taken from their parents due to 'neglect' and taken charge of by the authorities. In 1944, Terry (age 9) and Dennis (age 12) were sent to live with Reginald (age 31) and Esther Gough (age 29) at a farm in Shropshire, England. It appears Freddie went elsewhere. These boys were essentially the 'three blind mice'. Over the months, representatives of the Newport Council and Education Committee (NCEC) visited the boys in their foster care homes. On December 20th 1944, one of the representatives recommended that the NCEC immediately remove the boys from the Goughs given that they were found to be severely malnourished and covered in bruises.
The NCEC did not act quickly enough and on January 2nd 1945, Dennis died of abuse. An inquest was held on February 5, 1945 at which the jury returned a verdict of Dennis having died due to "acute cardiac failure, following violence applied to the front of the chest and back while in a state of under-nourishment due to neglect".
By mid-March, Reginald Gough was found guilty of manslaughter and Esther - the farmer's wife - was found guilty of having "wilfully ill-treated, neglected and exposed the boy in a manner likely to cause suffering and injury". While it took over a year for a government enquiry to lead to changes in the foster care system, a revised set of rules for the placement of children was enacted at the end of 1946 that became effective on January 1, 1947.
One of the most moving articles related to this story was in The Daily Mirror (March 20, 1944) where the comments of then 10-year-old Terry O’Neill were the headlines:
I would like to go to a nice house in the country where people talk to you. You know when people push you into the kitchen and don’t talk to you that they don’t want you really. I’d like some other children to be there. I want some pals now my brother isn’t here. I’d like the country and the flowers, especially thse big yellow ones – sunflowers I think they’re called. With kind people I’d be good.
Agatha Christie clearly read about this case as it was the inspiration for her now aptly titled radio play – Three Blind Mice. The alternate title for the play (necessary due to conflict with another playwright's extant work) of ‘The Mousetrap’ is also equally suitable given the true story and the original poem.
The Radio Play & Its Adaptations:
In 1947, Britain celebrated the 80th birthday of Queen Mary. On Friday May 30th, the BBC scheduled an evening of programmes in her honour. From 7:15pm until 8:00pm there was a selection of music played by the BBC Orchestra. Then from 8:00 – 8:30 there was ‘An Original Mystery Thriller by Agatha Christie – Three Blind Mice’.
This was followed by more music and a gala variety show. Christie’s involvement was due to the BBC's request given that Queen Mary greatly admired her works. There was a general belief that Queen Mary initiated the request but this appears unlikely.
Five months later, on October 21st 1947, a live production of Three Blind Mice was broadcast on BBC television. Since it only lasted 30 minutes it was likely a visual dramatization of the radio play though no copy is known to survive.
Christie also adapted the play into a novella (91 pages long when first published) - the focus of this article which is discussed below. Christie also saw the potential of expanding the half-hour radio play into a full theatrical production and in 1952 The Mousetrap was staged.
The Previously Assumed First Edition:
As with most of Christie's works, the short story first appeared in a magazine. It was first published in the US in May 1948 in Cosmopolitan magazine (Vol. 124, No. 5). It appeared in the UK across four instalments in Woman’s Own magazine (31 Dec 1948, 7 Jan, 14 Jan & 21 Jan 1949). In the UK, it has not yet been published in a book as Agatha Christie insisted that as long as The Mousetrap is performed in London’s West End, the story cannot be published in the UK.
For book collectors, the hardback first edition of any Christie story is the one you seek. For this story, the only hardback books containing it are those published in the US. According to Agatha Christie Limited's website the first edition is the US collection Three Blind Mice and Other Stories, published by Dodd, Mead & Co in February 1950.
In addition, similar statements are found in most bibliographies – both published and online. These are inaccurate.
The Newly Crowned First Edition:
Recent research has shown me that the true first edition of this novella was actually printed in December 1948 – fourteen months earlier than Dodd Mead & Co. – by Walter J. Black’s The Detective Book Club imprint, in New York (US).
The Detective Book Club was launched through US newspaper ads beginning in February 1942. It’s first published book was in April 1942 and contained three novels – including Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun.
It was not known for publishing first editions as its main business model was a subscription model that delivered a 3-novel compilation or omnibus monthly of relatively new titles. Evil Under the Sun had only been first published in the US in October 1941.
In 1948, The Detective Book Club ran advertisements to encourage new subscribers to join by offering a complimentary bonus books – a new marketing strategy. On December 26th, 1948, The Detective Book Club ran a full-page advertisement in the Pictorial Review – a Sunday supplement inserted into various newspapers around the United States. Research has shown this advertisement appeared in newspapers as geographical varied as the Pittsburg Sun Telegraph on the east coast of the US and the San Francisco Examiner on the west coast (images from this 26th December 1948 paper below).
The promotion being offered by The Detective Book Club was that new subscribers would receive three complimentary ‘double’ books – each containing two stories. Of note, one of these books contained two Agatha Christie stories – The Witness for the Prosecution and Three Blind Mice.
While Dodd Mead & Co had only recently published (September 1948) the first story as part of their similarly titled short-story collection, they had not yet published the second. The other two books contained The Clue of the Runaway Blonde and The Club of the Hungry Horse by Erle Stanley Gardner, plus Not Quite Dead Enough and Booby Trap by Rex Stout.
The cover art on the book featured the two images shown in the promotional advertisement.
On the title page, the Christie double states ‘Published by special arrangement with Dodd, Mead & Company’. In cites 1924 as the copyright date for Witness for the Prosecution and 1948 for Three Blind Mice. This double volume Christie is clearly the true first edition of Three Blind Mice.
In the following month, January 1949, The Detective Book Club included both these Christie stories in their monthly 3-in-1 offering to subscribers – the other stories being Murder is Served by F&R Lockridge and Dark Abysss by C. Knight. It is interesting to note that with regard to the two Christie stories, the cover of this book (front and spine) only references The Witness for the Prosecution.
Given their standardized branding and visual layout, a 4-in-1 was likely too difficult to communicate. This absence of reference to Three Blind Mice on the cover also means that many copies for sale online fail to accurately reflect the contents.
Both the complimentary double volume and the regular monthly offering were available well over a year prior to the February 1950 publication of Three Blind Mice and Other Stories by Dodd, Mead & Co making this is one of the rare instances when The Detective Book Club offered a true first edition – and in this case a Christie.
Values and Scarcity:
The double volume seems to be quite scarce and rarely ever appears for sale. Perhaps a lack of awareness of its status means that there are some bargains to be found on dusty used bookstore shelves. Maybe once its status is more broadly known many copies will appear for sale - time will tell. However, for now since the Dodd, Mead & Co. printing of Three Blind Mice and Other Stories can easily sell for well over $500 in a very good, jacketed state, I believe fair value for the double is likely similar today though time will be needed to see how much supply may or may not exist. Until then bargains will likely abound until the book community is fully aware of its first edition status. The 3-in-1 (technically 4-in-1!) publication does show for sale more often, though commonly without its jacket. Its value is likely far less, but for a very good, jacketed copy $50 US is likely where it will end up shortly.
As always, if anyone has additional insights please share them with me at email@example.com . I'd also be curious to know if anyone was aware of this book's status as a first edition prior to reading this and if you are easily able to find one for your collection or struggle. Likewise, if you are not yet a subscriber please join at this link. By providing your email you will receive an announcement everytime I publish a new article.