The artist Tom Adams & Agatha Christie. The lost plot twist that no one saw coming: The Hawaiian Skimpy Bathing Dress Affair.
At 12 years old, I learned that you can indeed judge a book by its cover. A cover can magically change the way reading a book feels.
My childhood family holidays were spent at the seaside town of Felpham in West Sussex. Felpham is next door to Bognor Regis, officially the sunniest town in Britain and home to The Paperback Book Exchange. It wasn’t complicated. You brought in a few books and if the lady behind the counter wanted them, she gave you points toward new books. When I wasn’t reading, eating ice cream, scrabbling to catch crabs in rockpools at low tide, swimming in the freezing English Channel or working on my parents for more ice cream, I was in The Paperback Book Exchange. Every single surface was books; books stacked against the windows and blocking out the daylight, books stacked so tightly to the ceiling it was book Jenga removing one. I spent hours in there, because I loved it, because I took forever to choose and because the the categories were so very fluid. Books from one category would merge into another. I was into sci-fi (Asimov’s Foundation series), fantasy (Robert E. Howard’s Conan books and Micheal Moorcock), war non-fiction (Dambusters, The Great Escape, Colditz), and horror (Hammer House of Horror, Dennis Wheatley).
In amongst the horror I found a book that belonged there but looked different. On its cover, a blood red apple was melting like a candle on top of a disembodied human skull. Behind the skull, two hand mirrors floated in an oily mist. In one, the face of an innocent looking child was reflected, in the other floating mirror appeared an old hag. Behind the old hag hung a Halloween pumpkin. The image felt off kilter somehow. Abstract, blatantly cruel, macabre and illicit. The book was Halloween Party by Agatha Christie – a writer I’d never heard of. I remember hiding the book under a couple of others in the stack I was buying when “exchanging” at the counter. When I got it home I hid the book from my parents.
I recently remembered that cover. I google image searched. The artist’s name is Tom Adams.
Of course Agatha worked her dark magic on me, but without that cover as the gateway, she wouldn’t have had the chance. Adams plus Christie was the potent “1 + 1 = 3” formula. I became a child book junkie for those covers and the chills they promised. I coveted and collected them. I lined them up on their own shelf in my bedroom. I never bought an Agatha book without one of those covers. It wouldn’t have been the same.
A year ago – before it changed hands and name – I went back to The Paperback Book Exchange. I remembered the shop being a lot bigger because I was a lot smaller when I was last there. The work of Tom Adams however, has grown in stature over the years.
Tom Adams created for Agatha Christie one of the most famous paperback art series ever produced by a single artist. His first was A Murder Is Announced in 1962 and his last Miss Marple’s Final Cases in 1979. Commissioned by Fontana and Pocket Books in the USA, he painted the cover of almost every Agatha Christie book, most of them more than once – around 150 different covers in 20 years. The Tom Adams covers appeared all over the planet in many languages and are a 1960s/1970s paperback design icon.
Adams also painted covers for Raymond Chandler, John Fowles (The Collector, The Magus and The French Lieutenant’s Woman), Patrick White (The Vivisector), David Storey (Saville), Peter Straub (Ghost Story), and Kingsley Amis (his James Bond pastiche, Colonel Sun). Also, Lou Reed and Iron Maiden commissioned him to paint album covers.
But it’s the Agatha Christie covers that Tom Adams will be remembered for. His personal interpretation of the books breathed new life into them, adding an extra layer of mystery, and the tantalising plot clues he sometimes hid within his covers were a unique recipe that left a mark on readers. The Agatha Christie experience was better with a Tom Adams cover.
Only outsold by the bible and Shakespeare, Agatha Christie went on to become the best selling author – or “authoress” as she liked to put it – of modern times, selling over 2 billion copies in 44 languages earning $4 million per year.
In and Agatha Christie book, nothing is ever as it seems, there’s a twist at the end and it’s always a surprise.
You never would have guessed it.
Life imitates art.
In January 1922, the author and her first husband Archie left their young daughter in the care of Agatha’s sister and sailed off on a 10 month tour of the British Empire as part of a trade mission to promote the forthcoming British Empire Exhibition. The couple visited Hawaii, Canada, America, New Zealand, Australia and South Africa. Agatha took photos with her portable camera and – in a series of letters discovered and published in 2011 – she wrote home to her mother keeping her up to date with what she was doing.
And the signature, unexpected 90 year old plot twist you didn’t expect?
Paddling out, duck-diving into the waves of Honolulu and surfing back in standing up on a Malibu longboard. What’s more, research done by Pete Robinson, from the Museum of British Surfing in Devon, reveals that Agatha and her first husband Archie, were among the first Britons ever to stand up on a surfboard.
Soon after they arrived in South Africa they were introduced to bodyboarding on surfboards on Capetown’s Muizenberg beach, “The surf boards in South Africa were made of light, thin wood, easy to carry, and one soon got the knack of coming in on the waves”, wrote Christie. Christie told her mum that she’d bought soft leather boots to protect her feet from sharp coral and, “a wonderful, skimpy emerald green wool bathing dress, which was the joy of my life, and in which I thought I looked remarkably well!”
There was no surf jargon from early surf chic Agatha as she talked about getting drilled by waves, just wonderful BBC English: “It was occasionally painful as you took a nosedive down into the sand, but on the whole it was an easy sport and great fun.”.
The tour took them to Australia and New Zealand followed by Honolulu in August. It was there at Waikiki beach, that the Christies finally mastered standing up.
Her elation at actually standing up is palpable, “Oh, it was heaven! Nothing like it. Nothing like that rushing through the water at what seemed to you a speed of about two hundred miles an hour; all the way in from the far distant raft, until you arrived, gently slowing down, on the beach, and foundered among the soft flowing waves.”
Agatha remained in Hawaii until October of 1922, “I learned to become expert – or at any rate expert from the European point of view – the moment of complete triumph on the day that I kept my balance and came right into shore standing upright on my board!” She returned home in December.