The mystery of Collins mysteries

What is a mystery story?  Wikipedia defines mystery fiction as a genre usually involving a mysterious death or a crime to be solved.  That seems clear enough.  To take one example, ‘The girl on the train’ by Paula Hawkins, which I’m reading at the moment, is surely a mystery story.  Certainly it has a mysterious death at its core and the author tries constantly to keep the reader guessing about what’s really going on.

The girl on the train

On the other hand, you won’t find the word ‘mystery’ in the description of the book on its covers.  It’s described as the author’s first thriller.  Comments from reviewers describe it as ‘crime fiction’ or ‘noir’.  Do authors or publishers still use the term ‘mystery story’ much, or make any distinction between a crime novel and a mystery novel, or between a thriller and a mystery story.

For Collins, long-time publisher of the Collins Crime Club, there certainly used to be a distinction.  Crime novels were published in the Collins Crime Club, and in the ‘Golden Age’ of detective fiction there were various written and unwritten rules about what constituted a crime or detective novel.  Other stories that we might think of today as crime novels, were published as ‘A Collins Mystery’.  Did they meet some parallel definition of what a mystery story was, or were they just crime stories that didn’t meet the Crime Club rules?

The distinction was carried across to the Collins White Circle series of paperbacks, which contained separate sub-series for crime novels and mystery novels, each with their own distinctive covers.  Crime was green and black with two mysterious figures, while mysteries were purple or magenta with a policemen in a helmet.  On the face of it, the other way round might have been more appropriate?

Collins also provided most of the crime and mystery books for the Continental European Albatross series, and again kept them separate – Albatross Crime Club books in red and black, Albatross Mystery Club in grey and green.

For the most part, writers were assigned to one or other category.  Agatha Christie for instance was a crime story writer, almost by definition.  But there was still at least one of her books, ‘Parker Pyne investigates’, that was originally categorised as a mystery story, with its author described as an ‘unrivalled writer of mysteries’.  It’s a collection of short stories that are more about romantic problems and the theft of jewels than the solving of murders, so it’s perhaps not too difficult to see why it might have been put into a different category.  It was nevertheless reissued in the Collins Crime Club many years later.

Parker Pyne Investigates

Dorothy L. Sayers, on the other hand and for reasons that are not obvious to me, was categorised by Collins as a mystery writer.  Three of her Lord Peter Wimsey stories were published in the White Circle mystery series, with two of them also appearing in Albatross Mystery Club editions.

Just  to confuse things even more, Albatross also published three of the later Wimsey novels in red crime branding.   These had not been published by Collins and the distinction is probably more to do with the publisher than anything in the nature of the stories themselves.  ‘Busman’s honeymoon’, the last of the series, was originally described as ‘a love story with detective interruptions’, so perhaps could have been categorised, neither as crime or mystery, but as romance!

Edgar Wallace was another writer that Collins assigned to the mystery genre, although his main publisher, Hodder and Stoughton, had firmly categorised him as a writer of thrillers.  ‘It is impossible not to be thrilled by Edgar Wallace’ went the tagline on many of his books.

Edgar Wallace The Brigand

Other writers with several books published in the mystery series included Peter Cheyney, J.M. Walsh / Stephen Maddock and David Hume.  Stephen Maddock was a pseudonym for Walsh, with books under both names classified as mysteries.  David Hume however was a pseudonym for J.V. Turner, whose books under his own name were classified as crime.  I suspect that most people who remember these writers today would consider them all to be writers of crime novels, or perhaps thrillers.

As far as I can tell, the distinction between crime and mystery stories was specific to Collins, and not adopted by other publishers.  Certainly Penguin made no distinction between them.  Their iconic green banded covers were from early on described as ‘Mystery and Crime’ books, although the use of both words suggests they did recognise that they might not mean the same thing.

Penguin 313

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Posted on September 30, 2017, in Vintage Paperbacks and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. As you know, I’m not very familiar with Albatross publications but the simplicity of the covers represents a major element in their modern-day appeal. It is perhaps surprising that they include inappropriate imagery in some of the covers you illustrate. Why include a picture of an owl on the cover of an albatross? Anyway, a most interesting posting. I think genres are rather elastic as you demonstrate.

  2. Hi Roger,
    Yes the owl symbol is bizarre and doesn’t fit at all with the clean lines of the Albatross design, or with the symbol for the Crime Club issues either. It was a rare slip-up in design terms for Albatross. I can see that the policeman with a whistle symbol used for mysteries in the UK would be inappropriate in continental Europe, because policemen didn’t look the same, but surely they could have produced something better. Also not clear why they invented the Albatross Mystery Club as a marketing device, when there was no UK equivalent Mystery Club alongside the Crime Club.

  1. Pingback: Canadian White Circle books | paperbackrevolution

  2. Pingback: Mystery stories in Collins White Circle | paperbackrevolution

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