Agatha Christie caught a break early in her career when her second novel “The Secret Adversary” was syndicated in American newspapers.
Yes, American newspapers published fiction – real fictional stories in addition to the usual collection of fake, pseudo-fake, trendy, and actual facts. American newspapers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, American newspapers resembled a mix of the internet and email. Alongside the serious news stories were comic stories, jokes, advertisements disguised as articles, and in the small-town newspapers, a list of who was visiting, who was traveling, who was in town, even who had fallen ill or died. The news hole was big. It had to be filled every day. And in a time when all entertainment was live (no movies, TV, or radio), newspapers and magazines filled the hole.
Then there was the fiction. Newspapers published short stories by authors who would last, such as Mark Twain and O. Henry, and pieces hacked out by penny-a-line journalists on a tight deadline. It was mass entertainment for a mass audience. In the days before wire services such as The Associated Press, they also published news from the “Exchanges,” a pool of newspapers who agreed to send their copies to be distributed to other papers and reprinted (with credit) free of charge.
When you look through a lot of newspapers from the time, you can see the hierarchy. The prime stuff, like the Sherlock Holmes parodies by John Kenneth Bangs and Carolyn Wells, (published in the 223B Casebook series) were placed in prominent spots with banner headlines and illustrations from the best artists. Sometimes, they’d appear on the newspaper’s front page!
Christie’s first novel, “The Mysterious Affair at Styles,” was reviewed by a few American newspapers. The book sold, but not in any great numbers, so getting a syndication deal for “The Secret Adversary” was a great opportunity for the little-known author. Over 18 installments, the readers would see her name and read her words, and possibly pick up her next book, “Murder on the Links,” when it appeared the next year.
The syndicated “Adversary” was given first-class treatment. The syndicate gave newspapers a promotional package with “house” ads in varying sizes. A banner headline was made available that can be dropped in easily. Most installments came with two and sometimes three pieces of art. I found 29 of them, all 1-column wide. They were drawn by D.J. Lavin, an excellent illustrator who was also head of the Chicago Tribune’s art department.
For “The Deluxe Complete, Annotated Secret Adversary,” I found several versions of each piece and painstakingly cleaned them up. Some of them were in poor condition even for the times, and appear to have been modified in-house. One in particular, showing Mrs. Vandemeyer trying to drug Tuppence (in disguise as her maid), shows a black curtain on the left side of the frame.
No one will ever know if syndicating “Adversary” in Fort Covington, Clinton, and Mancelona resulted in greater sales. It certainly didn’t hurt to present Christie’s name before newspaper readers who had never heard of her before, and the money for her share of the serial rights gave her a boost of confidence at a time when she needed it most.
The Peschel Press edition of “The Complete, Annotated Secret Adversary” contains all 29 pieces of art from the syndicated version, plus extensive footnotes and essays. Agatha Christie history, reviews, timelines and booklists included. Give “a Christie for Christmas” again!