Hutchinson’s Crime Book Society

When Penguin launched in July 1935, Hutchinson as one of the existing publishers of 6d paperbacks, had to respond quickly. Hutchinson’s Pocket Library, in a very Penguin-like format, started just three months later in October 1935. It was followed by a rash of other series in a similar format from different parts of the Hutchinson Group over the next few years, including Jackdaw Books, Toucan Novels and Hutchinson’s Popular Pocket Library.

In June 1936, still less than a year after Penguin had started the Paperback Revolution, the Crime Book Society published its first paperbacks. This was again from the Hutchinson Group, but it was not so much a competitive response to Penguin, as a direct competitor for the Collins Crime Club paperbacks, launched in March 1936. At a time when crime novels were extraordinarily popular, Collins were the clear market leader, although they had allowed Penguin’s green crime titles to steal a march on them.

That Hutchinson saw Collins as their main competitor is clear first from the series name. Collins had their Crime Club series, so Hutchinson launched the Crime Book Society series. It was not a new name and had already been used for some hardback publications and had at least some structure of mailing lists, marketing and book selections, as the Crime Club did, but both were really book series rather than traditional clubs or societies.

It’s also very clear from the cover design. Collins had a stylised design with two masked figures holding a knife and a gun. Hutchinson opted for a single hand with a smoking gun as the main design, and a smaller hand with a dagger in the series panel and on the spine. Collins had the title and author name in a large white circle and the Crime Club logo in a small white circle. Hutchinson had the title and author name in two separate white circles and the logo and series number in smaller circles. On the dustwrappers, Hutchinson replaced the hand with a dagger with the 6d price, while Collins replaced the Crime Club logo with the 6d price.

It should be said though that it was not until a year or so later that Collins adopted ‘White Circle’ as an overall name for their various paperback series, so the use of white circles by Hutchinson was not as aggressive a marketing move as it might appear in retrospect.

Hutchinson also eventually settled on a very similar green to Collins for the colour of its covers, although it didn’t start off like that. The early titles come in a variety of colours, as used for Hutchinson’s Pocket Library, but from about volume 26 onwards they are all green. Green seems almost to have been adopted as an industry standard for paperback crime novels and gradually phased out for non-crime titles.

The one thing that Hutchinson couldn’t easily copy was the quality of authors represented in the Collins Crime Club. Where Collins had Agatha Christie, G.D.H. & M. Cole, Freeman Wills Crofts and John Rhode /Miles Burton, Hutchinson had Hugh Clevely, Seldon Truss and Grierson Dickson. Fine authors they may have been, but it has to be said that they have made little mark on literary history. Other largely forgotten authors in the series included Dawson Gratrix, Leo Grex and Peter Drax – what was it about surnames (or pseudonyms) ending in x?

On the other hand, Hutchinson did have Edgar Wallace and that was almost a guarantee of popularity and of sales. It points though to a suggestion that perhaps the Hutchinson list was biased more towards thrillers than pure detective stories. Collins tended to have a purist approach to crime novels, that treated them almost as puzzles, with appropriate clues for the reader to test himself or herself against the fictional detective. Thrillers, that prioritised excitement and fast-paced adventure, were for Collins a different type of novel, but Hutchinson don’t really seem to have had this distinction.

The first batch of eight titles published in June 1936 actually had quite a distinguished and well recognisable selection of authors, including Baroness Orczy, Eden Phillpotts and Sydney Horler alongside Edgar Wallace. But none of these are really known principally as crime writers in the Collins Crime Club sense, so again the focus seems more to be on thrillers. Some other titles later in the series look to be more like ghost or horror stories than simple crime.

Whatever the genre, the books must have sold relatively well, as the series prospered, or at least lengthened steadily. By the outbreak of war in September 1939 it had reached volume 67 and over the next few months the count increased to 81 by August 1940 and later to at least 85 before the numbering stopped. A few further titles were issued during the war, in a much slimmer wartime economy standard format, first with the price increased to 9d, and later to 1s 6d. Some of these later ones were shown as published by the Readers’ Library Publishing Company in association with Hutchinson, rather than directly by Hutchinson, but I suspect the difference is fairly small.

I know of one single Crime Book Society title published as a Services Edition, although there may well be others. Then after the war, the Crime Book Society seems to have gone back to being principally a hardback series, although a small number of the paperbacks were reprinted in a format very similar to the pre-war editions. These were again priced at 1s 6d, unnumbered, and treated as part of a combined reprint programme of pre-war Hutchinson paperbacks that included books from various series.

Posted on June 7, 2020, in Vintage Paperbacks and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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