Peter Cheyney in Services Editions

When Services Editions were first printed in 1943, Peter Cheyney was one of the most popular and the most prolific authors in Britain.  His first novel had been published only in 1936, but had been an almost immediate success and it was rapidly followed by many others.  By the end of 1942 Cheyney had around fifteen novels in print.

Peter Cheyney NPG

Peter Cheyney (from the National Portrait Gallery)

Most of them were available only in hardback through his publisher Collins, and hardbacks novels were not only expensive, but also limited by paper rationing.   To achieve a wider readership they needed to appear in paperback and the natural route was through the Collins White Circle paperback series, probably the most successful of the many rivals to Penguin  launched in the late 1930s and early 1940s.

‘Poison Ivy’, one of Cheyney’s early novels featuring the private eye Lemmy Caution, was the first to appear in a White Circle edition in July 1939, and four others followed over the next four years, gradually building the author’s readership.  But paper rationing was a problem for paperbacks too and by 1943 the flow of new additions to the White Circle series had slowed to a trickle.

Almost the only remaining route to achieving a mass readership was through the Services Editions, which had a dedicated paper ration for a long print run, typically at least 50,000 copies.   The books were then held in the libraries of battalions or other units, or passed around from hand to hand, with each copy possibly read several times.  I doubt they paid the author much, but they could certainly build the readership and popularity of an author and anyway it was the patriotic duty of the author to participate in the scheme.  Fortunately for Cheyney, Collins were the most enthusiastic of participants, contributing books to the multi-publisher Guild Books series, as well as running their own series.

Guild S61

In 1943 Collins offered ‘Poison Ivy’ to the Guild Books series as volume S61 and for their own series chose ‘Dangerous Curves’ to be included in the first batch of books.  Both are now very difficult to find in first printing.  As far as I know there was only one printing of ‘Poison Ivy’, but ‘Dangerous Curves’ was reprinted in 1945 and the reprint is much more common.  The first printing is dated ‘Services Edition 1943’ and has no spine number, while the reprint is dated 1945 and numbered c207.

Collins c207

There were to be no further Cheyney novels published in Guild Books.  All the later books issued were in the Collins series of Services Editions.  ‘Dangerous Curves’ was quickly followed by ‘You’d be surprised’ (1943, volume c224), by ‘You can always duck’ (1944, c276) and ‘They never say when’ (1944, c284).   I’m reasonably confident of the dates and numbers here, although there’s a little bit of guesswork involved as I have never seen first printing copies of any of these three.  I do have a reprint of ‘You can always duck’ dated 1946.

Collins c276

I also have first printing copies of the remaining two Cheyney novels issued in the series, which were issued together in 1945 – ‘Dark duet’ as volume c315 and ‘Sorry you’ve been troubled’ as volume c316.  ‘Dark duet’ is notable as the only one of Cheyney’s ‘Dark’ series of spy stories to appear in a Services Edition.  The other six novels are all detective stories featuring either Cheyney’s American FBI agent / Private eye Lemmy Caution, or his British equivalent Slim Callaghan.

A total of seven books published in Services Editions makes Peter Cheyney one of the most published authors, almost on a par with Agatha Christie.  It was however a small fraction of his output and only a first indication of what was to come.  His popularity surged after the war and with the end of Services Editions he went on to become the principal author of ‘mystery stories’ in the White Circle series of paperbacks as well as a mainstay of Pan Books, selling sometimes over a million books in a year.

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Posted on August 31, 2018, in Vintage Paperbacks and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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