Author Archives: swigatha

Swigwatch 1

As age slowed her down, Swigatha produced only one book a year – a “Christie for Christmas”. It looks like BBC1 is going to do likewise: after last year’s triumph with ‘And Then There Were None’, they are showing a new version of ‘The Witness for the Prosecution’, starting on Boxing Day at 9pm. This was originally a short story in The Hound of Death collection, so I suspect they must have added quite a bit to it to spread it over two nights.

Browsing the Radio Times christmas edition, I came across two days of Agatha Christie tribute on the Drama Channel, with a strange mish-mash of programmes, none of which include Poirot. I doubt if anyone could watch this particular channel for two solid days, so here are some highlights lowlights and ok-lights for swigatha fans.


17th December

8am The Agatha Christie Hour

In a Glass Darkly
The Girl in the Train
The Fourth Man

This programme made, in the 1980s, featured short stories from the early 1930s collections Parker Pyne Investigates, The Listerdale Mystery and The Hound of Death.  They are not all great stories and not great programmes – one to watch while stirring the pudding.

11am The Murder at the Vicarage
A faithful version with the excellent Joan Hickson and (equally good) Paul Eddington and Cheryl Campbell as the inhabitants of the Vicarage.
The victim in a particularly dislikeable man, brilliantly played by Robert Lang. Whoever gave him the word “sewer!” to describe someone he found distasteful did him a great favour, and  he revels in it.
1pm Sleeping Murder 
Another good version, and another of the Hickson Marples, which were so much better made than the McEwen, Rutherford and McKenzie Marples. For this story , not the most entertaining one, the production team certainly picked some memorable faces for the minor parts…but the star performer was Frederick Treves, as the dead girl’s creepy brother.
Repeated on Sunday 18th December.
3pm Agatha Christie A Life in Pictures
Episode 1 – but there is no schedule for any other episodes. Apparently “a Drama based on her life”. Worth a look?
5pm Ten Little Indians
1960s Hollywood film with Oliver Reed, Herbert Lom, Charles Aznavour, Richard Attenborough – you can see where that one is heading! Avoid. Also avoid the repeat on Sunday 18th December.
7pm Murder Most Foul
Not a swigatha but included because Margaret Rutherford plays the part of “Jane Marple” investigating a crime loosely based on a Hercule Poirot mystery.  Unbearably awful rubbish, on again the following day.

18th December

3pm At Bertram’s Hotel
One of my favourite Marple books. It is given a fair airing but doesn’t quite work, even with The Two Joans (Hickson and Greenwood) in tandem as Jane Marple and Selina Hazy
7pm Nemesis
Anyone who has not seen this is in for a treat. In my opinion this is the best adaptation of an Agatha Christie story that I have seen. It is that rare beast – something that manages to improve on the original story. It does so by introducing two characters who don’t actually appear in the novel (although one is mentioned often enough!). With Joan Hickson in mesmerising form, and a brilliant supporting cast – one that includes these two, the actors playing the characters that aren’t in the book. Polar opposites, they have become firm friends by the end of the film….
 One Image Only
On Christmas Eve, the Alibi channel, which I cannot receive as it is not on Freeview,  is showing The Hickson Marples (think I’ll keep that expression!) from 7am until 3am on Christmas morning. Buy the box-set and avoid 8 hours of adverts.

The Merger of Roger Ackroyd

As part of the Swigatha project, there will be a website that considers each of Agatha Christie’s detective stories ( Each page will consider not just the story, but also other elements that might add to that story – for example, the background to its writing, the impact of the book on the reader, the reactions both when it was first published and since, adaptations for TV and cinema and so on. These elements all merge into what the story becomes.

Here is an example of a page I am working on concerning possibly her most famous story – The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, which has caused such a stir in the last 90 years that its entry will probably end up being the longest. For me,  Ackroyd  accentuates the idea that a good book is much more than just the sum of its words, and that, whatever she might think,  an author’s work is not complete until her work has been read (and re-read).

Have a look and tell me what you think. I should say that the website will assume that people know the stories: there will be no long plot summaries. In certain cases (and this is one), the identity of the culprit is perforce revealed, so if you don’t want to know it, don’t read the page.

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926)

Poirot has retired to King’s Abbott to grow vegetable marrows. He makes friends with his neighbours by singular means and becomes involved with them in a murder investigation. The story is narrated by one of the neighbours (Dr Sheppard).

The village setting, the local cast of squire, doctor, big game hunter, retired colonel, servants and suspicious butler conjure up an image of a typical Agatha Christie story, but actually it is quite rare to find Poirot in such a setting, one in which “everyone knew their place”. He never did, thankfully.

Possibly because this time the narrator is somewhat shrewder than the vacuous Hastings, the supporting cast is drawn with more sharpness and humour than had been the case in earlier stories. Dr Sheppard’s sister Caroline is described with an obvious affection by him, but he is also speaking for Agatha Christie (Caroline became the template for Miss Marple later). This is one of the snags of having a narrator with intelligence: when Hastings warms to a character you know he or she is a wrong ‘un, with the good doctor it is not so clear. In spite of himself, his depiction of the man he is about to kill is far more sympathetic than that of the “young lovers” (Flora and Ralph) he professes to want to help.

Poirot is wonderfully and humorously drawn, starting with his inverted franglais (see below). For the first, but not the last, time Poirot uncovers the truth but keeps it from the authorities, instead pursuing his own version of justice. From then on during his career, Poirot’s attitude is frequently at odds with the received wisdom and justice system of the time, and certainly not one you would immediately associate with un bon catholique.

I demand of you a thousand pardons, monsieur. I am without defence. For some months now I cultivate the marrows. This morning I suddenly enrage myself with these marrows. I send them to promenade themselves – alas, not only mentally but physically. I seize the biggest. I hurl him over the wall. Monsieur, I am ashamed. I prostrate myself“. Poirot introduces himself to his neighbour.

Blunt said nothing for a minute or two. Then he looked away from Flora into the middle distance and observed to an adjacent tree trunk that it was about time he got back to Africa.

Like many of her novels, it is perhaps most famous for the ingenuity of its conclusion, but I think it is among the best-written and funniest of all of them (the mah jongg evening is a great read). It is not always appreciated how amusing Agatha Christie’s writing can be.

So, the book rates almost – as the mah jongg players might say in the Shanghai Club – “Tin Ho”, the Perfect Winning: it nearly got a 10 but, however brilliant the idea behind the plot is, I don’t think its timing works, especially when you re-read the book.

MY BOOK  Fontana, 1963, 3/6d

ackroyd-front     ackroyd-back

A great Tom Adams cover, referencing the Tunisian dagger used in the murder and made memorable by the inclusion of the insect crawling up the dead man’s back. Insects would feature in many of his later covers.

There is a daft and irrelevant spiel on the back – for a start, the “letter” precipitated the murder rather than coming afterwards.


The “Also available …” section at the back of these books is often entertaining, and this one included a somewhat hysterical extract from A Question of Proof by Nicholas Blake. Blake was the pseudonym of Cecil Day Lewis, poet laureate, father of actor Daniel and an unlikely author for a paragraph such as this.

This is the book with which Agatha Christie came of age as a crime novelist of moment. It was also the one current at the time that she disappeared for 11 days, sparking off a manhunt and a huge amount of publicity, something that aroused the (unfair) suspicions of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle among others as to her motives.

Within a couple of years, the character of Caroline Sheppard had been transformed by Agatha Christie into that of Miss Marple, with the publication of The Thirteen Problems.

For the rest of the literary world, Ackroyd‘s publication sparked a controversy about the “fairness” of the plot that rages to this day. Among those contributing to the debate have been Roland Barthes, Umberto Eco and Raymond Chandler, plus myriad psychoanalysts and literature professors. One such was Professeur Pierre Bayard, whose book Who killed Roger Ackroyd? (“Qui a tué Roger Ackroyd?”) argued that during the case Poirot was suffering from delusions, that Sheppard was innocent and that his confession was made to protect the real culprit, his beloved sister…

It might sound absurd that the minds of the great should be troubled by a whodunit plot twist, but a discussion about what readers can know, and what they fill in for themselves when reading a book for the first time, is interesting in the context of any novel, and especially one like this that is narrated by a liar (by omission, as Sheppard is)*.

It should also be said that the American writer Edmund Wilson wrote an article in the New Yorker in the 1940s entitled “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?”

* For an absolutely brilliant example of  economical-with-the-truth narration, in various guises, Ian Pears’ An Instance of the Fingerpost is highly recommended.

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was the first swigatha to be turned into a play (“Alibi”). The original cast featured Charles Laughton as Hercule Poirot; he later appeared, memorably, as Counsel for the Defence in the film version of one of her own plays, The Witness for the Prosecution. Another version of this is currently (2016) being made.

There was a disappointing Granada TV adaptation in 2000 featuring the estimable David Suchet as Poirot. It reflected none of the charm or humour of the book, and changed the ending to involve Caroline Sheppard as a guilty party. Interestingly, Professeur Bayard’s book was published in the UK in 2000 – maybe the producers had read it…

Swigathas have sold as many copies in foreign languages as in English. There was a Russian film made in 2002: Neudatcha Poirot (“Poirot’s Failure”), of which I have only seen excerpts. The title is an interesting one – maybe the director had also read Bayard (or seen the ITV version)…

In 2007 Gilbert Adair wrote The Act of Roger Murgatroyd, which takes the role of the narrator to yet another level.. A good title if nothing else! And so it goes on, and so it will continue to do.

Swigatha Q&A

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.

crackedf     crackedb

The Fontana books are characterised 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.

linksback1       links22

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 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:

1979:                                               1958:

early-cases-front   7dialsf

And here is the condition of the book produced in 1979:


It’s only been read twice.

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 11 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 which this blog is a part.

What is will be a website that will review each of Agatha Christie’s stories as a swigatha, i.e. the whole book rather than just the story within its pages. It will also look at adaptations of the stories for TV, film and elsewhere. Other elements will include a Swigipedia and a general knowledge Swigword.

And this blog?
This blog will feature short essays discussing some of the less obvious elements of Agatha Christie’s work and that of others that her writing led me to. Planned features (though I’ll need to check they haven’t been covered already) include

  • Cover Versions – Pan and Fontana paperbacks 1963-1970
  • Poirot’s use of French in Death on the Nile
  • Three Interrogations – Jesus, Jesus and Karla
  • Dead and Gone, Lady – Christie’s use of quotations
  • “If you never read another one, read this one!”

It will also signal to the outside world via the swigatha facebook page @swigatha when the website is live and when new pages are added to it.

Peter Sheeran


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”.

The quote on the side panel is taken from “Why be happy when you can be normal?” by Jeanette Winterson