Who or what is a Swigatha?
Swigatha with a capital ‘S’ is short for Swigatha Whiskey, a child’s-play on the name of the writer Agatha Christie. A swigatha with a small ‘s’ is a specific type of pulp fiction written by Agatha Christie.
What is pulp fiction?
Pulp fiction was the name given to stories printed on paper produced by the wood-pulping process. Previously, the paper in books and other reading materials had been created from linen. Pulping enabled the cheaper mass-production of books to meet the demand for escapist entertainment from the start of the 20th Century onwards, and particularly in the aftermath of WW1.
Chief among the achievements of this process was the creation of the original paperback, a reader-friendly combination of paper, print, font and binding that, properly-made, could withstand the attention of many readers. Such paperbacks have thus long been a mainstay of second-hand bookshops, with the result that they were for many years available at a price that an eleven year old might be able to afford.
What specifically is a swigatha then?
A swigatha is a cheap, well-produced second-hand paperback book, specifically one printed in the mid-to-late 1960’s by Fontana or Pan. Each book contains a detective story by Agatha Christie.
The Fontana books are chacterised by a painting by Tom Adams on the front, topped and tailed by white strips with the name of the author and title in a particular font, one which differs from the text inside. That text is usually about 192 pages long. The books are priced 3/6.
Pan books usually display a photograph of some of the clues with the title on top. If the story features Hercule Poirot it is announced on the cover (but not if it features Jane Marple). The price is usually 4/- and the back cover features a monochrome photo of Swigatha.
I think these books are beautiful. Some seventy or so of Christie’s whodunits appeared in either one, or both, of these editions. Some of them are now extremely difficult to get hold of, and I am hoping that http://www.swigatha.com and this blog will help fill the gaps in my collection…
What about the books that were not published until after the 1960s, or the editions produced before then?
Professors of literature and philosophy will long debate whether the post 1969 paperbacks of Agatha Christie’s late novels, or the 1930-50’s editions of her earlier ones should not also qualify as swigathas – here are a couple of pictures of Fontana editions that may help their thought processes:
And here is the condition of the book produced in 1979:
Surely there is more to a swigatha than how the book was produced?
There is. The content of the stories and the style in which they were written are also quite important, plus the fun of reading them, the humour, the suspense, the puzzles, the throwaway quotations from Shakespeare and the Victorian poets, the bizarre French expressions employed by Poirot, the pharmaceutical know-how and in-depth knowledge of the ancient Middle East: all these define swigatha, because Agatha Christie has thrown so much of herself into it.
As with every book, there is the unique element of the reader, and the time and location when a book is first read. Most readers silently narrate the words to themselves when reading, and will hear and see the characters differently to other readers. An eleven year old on holiday in Brighton would not see and hear the same things that a 61 year old at home might.
Many swigathas already have a narrator. Thus the reader is actually playing the part of a character-narrator such as Captain Hastings or Dr Sheppard, potentially adding something of their own to a book that the author would not have imagined. Some French professors of literature and philosophy were so outraged when they found out that they had been playing the part of the murderer (i.e. Sheppard) when reading The Murder of Roger Ackroyd that a book was produced by one of them to prove it was actually someone else who dun it! *
Just as a work of art is not finished until it has been exhibited, a book is not complete until it has been read, or, as Vladimir Nabokov would say, re-read. **
What has the eleven-year-old go to do with it?
Well, I was eleven when I first read Sparkling Cyanide. It is the perfect age to pick up your first swigatha. Everything about it, from the cover to the contents, was completely new and fresh and made an impression on an impressionable child. I have since found that many of the people who treasure Agatha Christie’s work as adults also say that they first came across her books, second-hand, between the ages of 11 and 14. The swigatha package is one that can hook young adolescents and make them want to read more of them. This can instil a love of books and lead to other types of reading and areas of interest. In my case, it led indirectly to a love of languages, the ability and wish to memorise Shakespeare and the desire to write a swigatha of my own (which I did, with a friend, when I was 14 and was growing out of hers). It also led to Dostoevsky…
Re-reading old swigathas as an adult made me finally realise that a book is far more than the words within it, thus opening up a whole new world to explore, of all of which this site is but a part.
* Prof. P Bayard: “Who Really Murdered Roger Ackroyd?” (Qui a tué Roger Ackroyd?)
* V Nabokov : “You do not read a book, you re-read it”.