Cecil John Street, the author behind the two pseudonyms of John Rhode and Miles Burton, was certainly prolific. Over a 35 year career writing detective novels from roughly 1925 to 1960, he wrote more or less continually at the rate of something like 4 books a year, to end with not far short of 150 novels to his name, or rather to his pseudonyms.
He was at the peak of his popularity in the 1930s and 1940s and I’ve written before about his books published in Services Editions for servicemen in the Second World War. They appeared as part of the long series of Services Editions from Collins White Circle, the books having been originally published in the Collins Crime Club series.
Collins also had a close connection with Albatross Books, the European publisher of English Language novels launched in 1932, to rival the long-established Tauchnitz business. Ian and William Collins were on the board of Albatross and were instrumental in the launch a year later of the Albatross Crime Club. All the titles for this series came from the Collins Crime Club and the books were initially printed for Albatross by Collins in Scotland.
John Rhode featured early in the series, with ‘The motor rally mystery’, a new Dr. Priestley novel, included in the first batch of titles. Numbering for the Crime Club titles started from 101 and ‘The motor rally mystery’ is number 105. ‘The Claverton mystery’ was not far behind at number 114, later in 1933, and ‘The Robthorne mystery’ at number 122, early in 1934.
The first two titles would originally have had a transparent dustwrapper, as on The Claverton Mystery above, although few of these survive and those that do are usually torn and tattered. Later issues had a paper dustwrapper in the same design as the book. Most of the early books in the series are not too difficult to find now, although the Rhode and Burton books seem to be a bit harder, and certainly more expensive than most other books in the series. I don’t think any of the books were reprinted, so all copies are first printings.
Each of the first three books was published in Albatross only very shortly after first hardback publication in the UK and long before any of them appeared in UK paperback editions. After that though, a gap was allowed to build up between first publication in the UK and publication in the Albatross series. So ‘Shot at dawn’, first published in the UK in 1934, didn’t appear in Albatross (as volume 136) until 1935. By the end of that year, with the Crime Club series having reached 45 volumes, there were still only four titles by John Rhode and none by Miles Burton.
That was to change though, as a rush of new titles started to appear in 1936. ‘Hendon’s first case’, another Rhode novel, came first as volume 148 of the series, followed by ‘The milk churn murder’, the first Burton title, as volume 150. From then on a pattern was established of issuing Rhode and Burton titles alternately. ‘Mystery at Olympia’ by Rhode appeared as volume 154 and ‘Death in the tunnel’ by Burton as volume 155, both still in 1936. Then in 1937, ‘Death at breakfast’ by Rhode as volume 161, ‘Murder of a chemist’ by Burton as volume 163, ‘In face of the verdict’ by Rhode as 167, ‘Where is Barbara Prentice?’ by Burton as 178 and ‘Death in the Hopfields’ by Rhode as 186.
Then, as far as I can tell, there was a bit of a pause, accompanied by a change of printer and a change in the numbering system. Volume numbers from 188 to 200 seem never to have been used, and all future Albatross Crime Club titles are numbered in the 400s and mixed in with Albatross Mystery Club titles. The Mystery Club had been launched in 1937 for books that didn’t fit into the Collins definition of what a Crime novel should be, with numbers starting at 401.
Numbers 401 to 409 are all Mystery Club titles published in 1937 and printed in Scotland. But from 410 onwards, Crime Club and Mystery Club titles alternate in a more or less regular pattern, and all are printed in Germany, starting in May 1938. In June ‘Death at the Club’ by Miles Burton appeared as volume 414 and then in September ‘Death on the Board’ by Rhode as volume 422. Volume 436 in April 1939 was ‘Murder in Crown Passage’ by Burton and finally, volume 440 was ‘Proceed with caution’ by Rhode. These later titles seem more difficult to find now, although I’m not clear whether this is because of lower print numbers or because of disruption caused by the war that was about to break out.
Certainly the war ended the series in late 1939 and the final tally of 11 John Rhode titles and 6 from Miles Burton gives a total of 17 books for Cecil Street, just ahead of Agatha Christie and more than for any other author in the Albatross Crime Club series.
Penguin’s attempt to woo the American market had started in 1939 with the establishment of an office in New York under the twenty-three year old Ian Ballantine, importing Penguins from the UK. It was not a great time though to be shipping books across the Atlantic and by 1941 it was clear that the operation had no future unless books could be produced locally.
A small number of UK books were reprinted in the US, but to extend the operation and move into local publishing, Allen Lane would need a more experienced publisher. He was perhaps lucky to find Kurt Enoch, one of the founders of Albatross Books, and a Jew who had been forced by the Nazis to leave Germany and then subsequently had had to flee for a second time from Paris, after it fell to the German army ( for the full story, see ‘A strange bird’ by Michele Troy).
Enoch had recently arrived in the US, was looking for work, and suggested to Lane that he could raise the capital to launch a local publishing programme. Lane took him on as Vice President responsible for production and design, with Ballantine in charge of distribution / sales. That leaves it a little unclear who was responsible for the core function of choosing and commissioning new titles. Enoch was the one with experience in this area at the time, so presumably took the lead, although Ballantine later went on to become a hugely successful publisher in his own right.
Albatross Books had been in many ways the model for Penguin, so Allen Lane might reasonably have expected to find in Kurt Enoch somebody who shared his ideals and vision for the business. But from the start Enoch seems to have had doubts about key parts of the Penguin brand that had been so successful in the UK.
The parents of American Penguins – rather different from the child
Penguin’s UK launch had been almost an overnight success and had transformed the UK paperback market, with almost all competitors adopting the main elements of the Penguin ‘package’ – size, price, colour coding, dustwrappers and so on, but above all, no cover illustration. The first tentative steps in the US market had not triggered any similar revolution and Enoch seems to have been sceptical that it ever could. Almost from day one, he seems to have had his eye on illustrated covers.
For Allen Lane and others back in Harmondsworth though, this was an article of faith. Before Penguin’s UK launch, there had been plenty of people saying that non-illustrated covers could never work in the UK market and they had proved them all wrong. Now they saw the brightly striped and immediately recognisable covers of Penguin Books as their main weapon in conquering new markets. The scene was set for a struggle that could have profound consequences for Penguin’s future.
In early 1942 the new US Penguin series launched, with numbers starting from 501. The first two books, numbers 501 and 502, appeared with the iconic striped covers. First blood to the Brits. But by volume 503 the design had changed significantly to one that allowed space on the front for a brief written description of the book, and on the back for advertising or for information about the author. Enoch must have been planning this for some time, perhaps waiting for approval from Head Office.
While Lane may not have been happy with any move away from the classic design, this change looks as though it may have been deliberately designed to get approval. It retains enough elements of Penguin identity to still look Penguin-ish and it’s still a very restrained design that doesn’t introduce any illustration to the front cover. It also retains the principle of colour coding used in the UK. Crime is still green, although perhaps strangely, the classic Penguin orange for novels is replaced by red, and yellow is more widely used for a range of books including non-fiction and westerns.
But this was by no means the limit of Enoch’s ambitions. He wanted cover illustration, and as it happened he had the right opportunity to get a foot into the door. A short series of classic texts illustrated by woodcuts had appeared in the UK in 1938 as Penguin Illustrated Classics. They had used illustration on the covers and had included ‘Walden’ by Thoreau, an American classic that would fit well into the new US Penguin series. How could the UK Head Office possibly object to a cover illustration that they had themselves used? The book appeared as volume 508 and was the first American Penguin to feature cover art.
Once the principle had been breached, Enoch was not going to let go. He had shown how a simple illustration could (not coincidentally?) fit well into the cover design he had introduced and others would follow. The first was ‘Tombstone’ by Walter Noble Burns, volume 514 published in October 1942, and from then on illustrated covers were the norm. It may have grated even more in the UK that the process started with a western – at this stage considered too down market for Penguin in the UK, although later on in the series, a few did appear.
The first illustrations were quite small, but it was not long before they were taking up the entire panel. And in the meantime, Enoch was attacking another of Penguin’s key brand attributes – the size of the books. Penguins had always been roughly 11 cm by 18 cm, a format based on the golden ratio and again copied from Albatross. But paperbacks in the US and particularly those from the main competitor, Pocket Books, were shorter and squatter. So Penguin moved in line with them.
This was in November 1943, barely 18 months after the launch and already Penguins had little in common with their UK parents and looked more like the local competitors. Even the glossy card covers and the red page edges looked more American than British. Any idea of changing the market had been abandoned. It was the Penguins that were having to change.
From late 1943 onwards, the rate of new titles started to increase and the cover illustrations became more and more dominant, with the single colour of the covers increasingly used within the picture as well. From volume 566 in October 1945, a second colour is used on the cover before moving on to full colour shortly afterwards.
This was though another turbulent period for the business. Some time around the end of 1944 or the beginning of 1945, Ian Ballantine resigned to work on the launch of a competitor, Bantam Books. He had learned what he could from Enoch and was ready to take the next step in his publishing career. Allen Lane however was not prepared to leave Kurt Enoch in sole charge of Penguin’s US business. Eunice Frost, originally Allen Lane’s secretary and still in her twenties, but in practice one of his closest aides in London, was sent out to New York to hold the fort, while Lane attempted to make more permanent arrangements.
That eventually led to the appointment of Victor Weybright to work with Enoch, and to a whole series of other developments. I’ll come back to them in another post and also look separately at the US Penguin Specials, an important series in their own right, which had been published alongside the main series throughout the period I’ve been talking about.
By the time P.G. Wodehouse first appeared in a Tauchnitz Edition in 1924, he was already a well-established and successful writer with around 20 novels to his name. For an author who went on to have around 40 books published by Tauchnitz, this was a surprisingly late start. But Wodehouse had started to come to prominence just as the First World War effectively took the German firm out of the market for new English language books, and the effects of the war lingered on for several years afterwards.
It was at least 1923 before Tauchnitz could get back to anything like a normal publishing programme and it never really recovered its former dominance of the market. The ability to spot promising new writers and publish their latest works almost simultaneously with the first UK editions, had been a defining feature of the business for much of the nineteenth century, but by the mid-1920s it was a fading memory. And Tauchnitz was entering a period that would prove to be one of the most turbulent of its existence. So we should perhaps be grateful that they were able to publish Wodehouse at all.
As usual with a new writer, Tauchnitz were keen to start with Wodehouse’s latest new work, rather than going back to earlier works. So the first in the series was a volume of short stories, ‘Ukridge’, published in the UK in June 1924, and then two months later in Tauchnitz as volume 4651, dated August 1924 at the top of the back wrapper on the first printing.
As always with Tauchnitz paperbacks, it’s the date on the back wrapper that’s important for dating, rather than the date on the title page, which remains fixed at the first printing year, even on reprints many years later. First printing paperbacks from this period also have a distinctive two column format for the latest volumes, which was not used on reprints.
For Tauchnitz Editions from the 1920s and 1930s far more copies do survive in paperback than is the case for 19th century novels and they’re much easier to date than bound copies, so I’ve focused on these.
Wodehouse’s next new novel was ‘Bill the Conqueror’, published in the UK in November 1924 and again following rapidly in Tauchnitz as volume 4669, dated January 1925 in the first printing (and listing only ‘Ukridge’ on the back of the half-title). Another volume of short stories, ‘Carry on, Jeeves’, appeared in the UK in October 1925 and the novel ‘Sam the sudden’ came out in the same month. Both were taken up by Tauchnitz – ‘Carry on, Jeeves!’ as volume 4710, dated November 1925 and ‘Sam the sudden’ as volume 4714, dated January 1926.
The pattern seemed to be set, with Tauchnitz taking each new work of Wodehouse’s as quickly as possible after UK printing. But prolific as Wodehouse was, new works were not coming fast enough to satisfy the appetite of continental readers, and there was still a temptingly long list of older works that could be issued. So along with the next volume of short stories, ‘The heart of a goof’ (volume 4641, dated July 1926), Tauchnitz also published a much earlier work ‘ Love among the chickens’ (volume 4640, July 1926), that Wodehouse had first written in 1906 and then rewritten in 1921.
Two other older works, ‘Psmith, journalist’ (vol. 4776, April 1927) and ‘Leave it to Psmith’ (vol. 4777, April 1927) followed in 1927 and from then on two or three new volumes were added almost every year, in a mix of completely new works and older works, both novels and short story collections. By mid 1929, when Curt Otto, the Managing Director, died, fourteen volumes of P.G. Wodehouse had been issued by Tauchnitz.
The incoming General Manager, Christian Wegner, set about making some significant changes, starting with a modernisation of the cover design for the series. After keeping essentially the same cover design for the first 70 years of its existence, a first real change had come in 1914, and now it was entering on a period of continual change. The new design appeared on a Wodehouse novel for the first time, with publication of ‘Mr. Mulliner speaking (vol. 4963, November 1930), followed quickly by ‘Very good, Jeeves!’ (vol. 4983, March 1931) and ‘Summer lightning’ (vol. 4995, June 1931).
Fourteen books appeared in the revised design taking the total to 28 and then from 1935, there was another change. Wegner had left under a cloud, but by mid 1934 he was effectively back as one of the managers of Albatross Books, which took over editorial control of Tauchnitz. The two lists for Albatross and Tauchnitz were managed together, but with Wodehouse remaining very much a Tauchnitz writer, with no entry to the (arguably more prestigious) Albatross list.
Another new cover design was launched in mid 1935, this time colour-coded to indicate genre. All Wodehouse volumes were coded orange, the colour for ‘tales and short stories, humorous and satirical works’. Shortly afterwards the size of the books changed to match the size of the Albatross volumes and dustwrappers in the same design as the covers were introduced, again in line with Albatross.
A further new design was introduced in 1938 that used colour more strikingly, but by this time war was approaching fast, and with it the end of the Tauchnitz series.
‘The code of the Woosters’, issued in June 1939 as volume 5357, was the last Wodehouse title to appear in the series before the outbreak of the Second World War, but it was not to be the last title of all. Wodehouse had been living in Le Touquet in France and was interned by the Germans after the invasion of France. He wrote ‘Money in the Bank’ on a typewriter provided by the Germans while in internment and the text was made available to Tauchnitz. It appeared in August 1943 as the very last volume in the Tauchnitz series, volume 5370, bringing the total number of Wodehouse works published in the series up to thirty-nine. It was the only new writing in English to be published in the Tauchnitz series after 1939.
Along with the infamous broadcasts on German radio, this was another example of Wodehouse being perhaps too willingly duped by the enemy. Certainly for them it was a publicity coup, and the book seems to have been printed in substantial numbers, although it’s hard to imagine much market in Germany in 1943 for Wodehouse’s brand of comedy.
The story should really end here. Shortly after publication of ‘Money in the bank’, the Tauchnitz premises were destroyed in an Allied bombing raid and after 100 years and 5370 volumes, the Tauchnitz Collection of British (and American) Authors came to an end.
But in fact it’s not the end of the story. After the war there were various attempts to revive Tauchnitz. A series of books reprinted from Hamburg, included ‘Money in the Bank’ as volume 16 in 1949. Then a short series of mostly new works published from Stuttgart, included two Wodehouse volumes -‘The mating season’ (volume 107 in 1952) and ‘Ring for Jeeves’ (volume 137 in 1954).
Neither of these post-war ventures was much of a success, and although no new volumes were published after 1955, unsold stock hung around for many years. In an attempt to shift it, more modern covers were added in the early 1960s and ‘Ring for Jeeves’ was certainly one of the books to appear in this style, at least the eighth style of wrapper to be applied to Wodehouse volumes by Tauchnitz.
The recent news of the death of Charles Aznavour reminded me, like many others, that this most French of singers, was born as Shahnour Vaghinag Aznavourian, the son of Armenian immigrants. To the British at least, he had an impeccably French accent, sang quintessentially French songs about French passions and in an unmistakably French way.
Which reminds me in turn of Michael Arlen, that most English of early twentieth century writers, who was though born as Dikran Kouyoumdjian, the son of Armenian immigrants to Britain. He himself was born in Bulgaria, but came to England with his parents in 1901 at the age of 5. He was sent to Malvern College, which no doubt turned him into the perfect English gentleman, as it no doubt still does for his modern equivalents. He remained a Bulgarian citizen though throughout the First World War (in which Bulgaria was aligned with Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire) becoming a British Citizen only in 1922 and changing his name at this point to Michael Arlen.
My interest in him is focused on the books he had published in Continental Europe by Tauchnitz and Albatross and in the UK by Penguin and Hutchinson. He first appeared as a Tauchnitz author in 1930, one of the new authors introduced by Max Christian Wegner, who had been appointed as General Manager of the company in 1929. The first of his books to appear was ‘Lily Christine’ as volume 4926. As usual Tauchnitz preferred to start by publishing his latest work, rather than going back to the earlier works that had made his name.
‘Lily Christine’, a tangled romance chronicling the lives of upper class society in the 1920s ‘Jazz Age’, had been published in the UK in 1928. It is probably fairly typical of the novels that led to Arlen being described as the English F. Scott Fitzgerald. The first printing in Tauchnitz is dated March 1930 at the top of the rear wrapper, and like all first printings from this era, has a two column list of latest volumes on the back and inside wrappers. Later printings have a single column listing on the back only.
It was followed shortly after by ‘Babes in the Wood’, a collection of short stories that begins with an apparently autobiographical story called ‘Confessions of a naturalised Englishman’ (although a note adds that all characters are fictitious, including the author). It appeared as volume 4943 and the first printing is dated June 1930 at the top of the rear wrapper. In the three months between publication of the two books, Tauchnitz had introduced a modernised design for the front wrappers, so that they look rather different at first.
A final Tauchnitz volume, ‘Men dislike women’ appeared the following year, as volume 5001, dated July 1931 on the rear wrapper. By this time Christian Wegner had been fired by Tauchnitz and was shortly to re-appear as one of the founders of the rival Albatross series. Albatross was hugely successful in persuading leading British and American authors to publish with them rather than Tauchnitz, and Arlen quickly switched allegiance to the new firm, no doubt partly because of his earlier relationship with Wegner.
‘Young men in love’, an earlier novel by Arlen, first published in 1927, appeared as volume 40 of the Albatross series in late 1932, in the blue covers used to identify love stories. Then in 1934, ‘Man’s mortality’, a rather different type of novel from his usual romances, was published as volume 211. This is more like science fiction, set 50 years in the future and often compared (almost always unfavourably) with Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’, published the previous year. Albatross gave it the yellow covers representing ‘psychological novels, essays etc.’, although perhaps slightly oddly ‘Brave New World’ had been given the orange covers of ‘tales and short stories, humorous and satirical works’.
Arlen’s third and final book in Albatross, was a book of short stories though, and so was given orange covers, making him one of only a handful of writers to have books published in Albatross in three different categories / colours (Evelyn Waugh, Aldous Huxley and Katherine Mansfield were others, and D.H. Lawrence managed four). ‘The Crooked Coronet’ was published in March 1938 as volume 362.
This was long after Albatross had taken over editorial control of Tauchnitz in 1934, with the two series being managed jointly from then on. Arlen could presumably have been published in either series, and the criteria for determining which series was used, are not entirely clear. Most authors stayed with the series they were published in before the two came together, generally with more of the edgier modern authors in Albatross and more of the longer established or more conservative authors in Tauchnitz. That fitted the harsh reality that authors banned by the Nazis could not be published by the German-based Tauchnitz. I don’t think that Michael Arlen was ever banned (or could ever be described as edgy and modern), so presumably he stayed in Albatross just because that was where he was at the time of the coming together.
Meanwhile in the UK, Penguin had been launched in 1935 and was buying up paperback rights where it could, mostly for books published several years earlier, rather than the latest novels. They obtained the rights to Michael Arlen’s ‘These charming people’, another collection of short stories that had been first published by Collins in 1923, and this appeared as volume 86 of the Penguin series in 1937. It includes a story called ‘When the nightingale sang in Berkeley Square’, a title that was later appropriated for a song that became one of the most popular songs of the second world war.
I think ‘These charming people’ was the only one of Michael Arlen’s works to appear in Penguin, but at least two others appeared in Hutchinson’s Pocket Library. Hutchinson was the original UK publisher for several of Arlen’s books, so they were in a stronger position to publish paperback editions in their series competing against Penguin. ‘Young men in love’ appeared as volume 50 of the series in May 1938 and ‘Lily Christine as volume 59 in October of the same year.
There may have been other paperback editions in other series, but by this time Arlen’s style was going out of fashion. He wrote mainly about an era and a society that had vanished, at least from public sympathy, with the depression of the 1930s and that was totally out of tune with the conditions of the second world war. For a few short years though he had been one of the most popular writers in Britain. His most successful novel, ‘The green hat’, first published in 1924, doesn’t seem to have ever appeared in paperback.
Arlen himself had left Britain in 1927, first joining D.H. Lawrence in Florence and then moving to Cannes, where he married a Greek Countess, Atalanta Mercati. He returned to Britain during the war, but then moved to the US for the last years of his life. His son, Michael J. Arlen, an American with Armenian / British / Greek / French / Bulgarian heritage, has written ‘Exiles’, a memoir of his parents and his childhood, itself published many years later in Penguin.
The distinctive red and black covers of the Albatross Crime Club books from the 1930s will be relatively familiar to anyone with an interest in continental English language editions. I’ve written before about how they resulted from a partnership between Albatross and Collins, publisher of the Collins Crime Club in the UK.
The grey and green covers of the Albatross Mystery Club may be less familiar, partly just because there were far fewer of them, but they may also have been printed and sold in smaller quantities. Certainly some of them are now quite difficult to find, not helped by the fact that they were all issued from 1937 to 1939 in the last couple of years before the Second World War.
The distinction between Crime books and Mystery Books was a peculiarity of Collins. Books published in the Collins Crime Club series in the UK had to conform to certain criteria that defined what a crime story was. Books that didn’t qualify as crime, were published instead as ‘A Collins Mystery’. Since the Albatross Crime Club published only books that had appeared in the Collins Crime Club in the UK, they inherited the problem from Collins, although their answer to it was rather different.
For Collins, ‘The Collins Crime Club’ was a little bit more than just a marketing description. It was at least a mailing list and possibly a bit more than that, if not really a club in the traditional sense. There was no parallel organisation for mystery stories, so no corresponding Collins Mystery Club. For Albatross though, the Albatross Crime Club was purely a brand for marketing purposes. As far as I can tell, it didn’t even have a mailing list or any other pretence of club membership or organisation. So creating a parallel ‘Albatross Mystery Club’ was not at all difficult. All it required was a new logo and a new colour scheme for the books.
It still took them quite a long while to get round to it. The Albatross Crime Club was already four years old and had published some eighty titles before the first Albatross Mystery Club title appeared in 1937. By this point, Collins had also started their own paperback ‘White Circle’ series in the UK, initially only with Crime Club titles, but from January 1937 with a separate Mystery sub-series as well. So Albatross were playing catch-up.
The Albatross Mystery Club began with a run of nine titles numbered from 401 to 409 and dated 1937, while Albatross Crime Club titles continued to be published with numbers in the 100 series. But then in early 1938, all Crime Club titles started to be issued using numbers in the 400s and mixed in with Mystery Club titles. So 410 and 411 are Crime Club titles, then 412 is from the Mystery Club, all these three issued in May 1938. In May, June, July and August there was a consistent pattern of two Crime Club books and one Mystery Club in each month. Then from September 1938 to June 1939, one in each series appeared each month, before the Mystery Club titles came to an end. One Crime Club title a month continued to be published for another four months, before the war finally put an end to them.
So overall nine Mystery Club titles in 1937 then one a month for fourteen months in 1938/39, giving a grand total of 23 books in the grey and green livery of the club. The mix of authors is similar to those published in the White Circle Mystery sub-series in the 1930s, although David Hume is a bit more prominent and J.M. Walsh a bit less so. Hume has 5 of the 23 titles followed by Peter Cheyney with three. Interestingly the White Circle series in the UK didn’t publish its first Cheyney title until July 1939, after all three of these continental editions, although Cheyney went on to become the dominant author for Collins White Circle after the war.
The only books in the Albatross Mystery Club that have really achieved any lasting fame are the two Dorothy L. Sayers novels, both early Lord Peter Wimsey novels – ‘Whose Body?’ and ‘Unnatural Death’. Both had been first published in the UK more than ten years earlier, and were probably already seen as classics of the genre. Indeed later Sayers novels had already appeared in the Albatross main series with red crime branding, but these were books for which Collins did not hold the rights, so they came to Albatross by a different route and under a different policy.
When Albatross came briefly back after the war, there was no longer any role for the Mystery Club, or the Crime Club. Those 23 books represent the entire output of the Albatross Mystery Club.
The Albatross editions in Portuguese that I wrote about in my last post, were far from being the business’s only experiment in foreign language translations of English novels. Perhaps not surprisingly they also tried Spanish, publishing about ten translations between about 1947 and 1950.
The Spanish books looked completely different, although the design is clearly a development of the classic Albatross design. The same colour coding is used, but the writing around the border becomes much larger and rather dominates the central section. It produces a design that is quite striking, but to me seems to lose the simple elegance of the original. The books are also larger than the standard Albatross size, again losing in elegance what they may gain in impact.
They were published by Ediciones Albatros, a Spanish company based in Madrid and presumably set up for the purpose. Unlike most of the other post-war ventures by Albatross, there is no evidence in the books of this being a joint operation with a local partner, although it may have been.
The series started with ‘Diplomaticos en Pekin’, a translation of ‘Peking picnic’ by Ann Bridge, a book that had not previously been published in English by either Albatross or Tauchnitz. It was followed by translations of ‘Highly inflammable’ by Max Saltmarsh, which had been published as Tauchnitz volume 5242 in 1936 and ‘Soldiers from the war returning’ by Jerrard Tickell, which had appeared as Albatross 552 in 1946. Six of the seven other books I know about had previously been published by either Tauchnitz or Albatross.
The books are numbered from 1 to 13 but I have never seen books numbered 4, 7 or 12 so I only know of ten titles. Although the series lasted only for a couple of years and I doubt that any new titles were published after 1950, it appears that some of the books were reprinted later under different covers – showing even less respect to the traditional Albatross design.
In the 1930s, Albatross Books had been massively successful in selling English language novels in continental Europe. But by the end of the Second World War, Europe was a completely different place. Attempts to recreate the series in the new circumstances were doomed to failure. The market for English language novels could be more efficiently served by the cheap paperbacks that flooded in from Britain and from the US. In the end it was probably Penguin, that owed so much in concept and in design to Albatross, that was to kill off its own inspiration.
But if there was to be no future in selling English literature in the original language, what about English literature in translation? In the years from 1946 through to about 1950 there were various attempts to create new Albatross series in local languages. A small number of Albatross Books appeared in German, others in Swedish and Norwegian, in Portuguese and in Spanish.
Of these various series, the one that looked physically most similar to the classic Albatross design was the short Portugese series. It was produced in collaboration with Portugalia Editora, the local publishers who were also the post-war distribution partners for Albatross in Portugal and in Brazil. As far as I can tell, only three books ever appeared, although more were clearly planned. A leaflet launching the series explains the colour scheme that would apply, as with other Albatross books – red for crime and adventure, blue for love stories, green for travel and so on. Only yellow and red seem in practice to have been used.
In typically enthusiastic style, the leaflet reports that the books would be rigorously selected by a committee in London from amongst the works of leading contemporary novelists and assigned to the best translators. The first book was to be ‘Myra Carrol’ by Noel Streatfeild, a book that had earlier appeared in the Albatross series as volume 572 in 1947. The exact date of the Portuguese publication is not entirely clear, but my best guess would be 1948 or 1949.
Surprisingly the next two books to appear had not already been published in the English language series. ‘Died in the wool’ by Ngaio Marsh was translated as ‘Um cadáver na lã’ (which I suspect loses some of the nuance) and ‘The case of the constant suicides’ by John Dickson Carr appeared as ‘O caso dos suicidios’. I’m not sure why these books took precedence over the many other crime novels that had already been published by Albatross in English, but it may have been to do with rights for translation, or perhaps even the availability and preferences of translators.
And that it seems was that. I’ve seen these books several times, but never any other Portuguese Albatross books, so I suspect the series ended there, presumably because of poor sales. Albatross had other problems anyway, so may not have had the time, the money or the inclination to continue.
I have no idea when the first wrap-around bands for books were introduced. But I do know that Tauchnitz were already using them by 1926, so their history is certainly a long one. They typically feature a short blurb about the book or a quote from a review, and are presumably intended to make the book stand out in the shop display. Just another marketing tool, but as they’re still used today, I suppose they must be reasonably effective.
The earliest band I’ve seen on a Tauchnitz book is from August 1926. It exists for volume 4743, ‘The secret that was kept’ by Elizabeth Robins, and it’s in full wrap-around style, glued together at the back. The book can only be opened by either slipping the band up and over the top of the book or by tearing it. Presumably most people tore it off and discarded it. Even those readers who carefully removed it without tearing, would hardly be tempted to put it back on later, so again would end up throwing it away. It’s surprising really that any of them have survived.
But one careful owner of a selection of books I bought a few years ago, slipped the bands in between the pages of the books, perhaps using them as bookmarks, and preserved them. Some are torn, others intact, but overall they’re in surprisingly good condition. I have eight of them, for books published between August 1926 and July 1929. The Todd & Bowden bibliography of Tauchnitz Editions records one other known band in this style, so nine in total are known, but it’s possible that they existed for all 150 or so books published over this period. An alternative is that they were only used to boost sales on slower-selling volumes, but in this case it seems unlikely that they would have been so clearly dated. All the bands in this style are in white, and wrapped around an off white paperback would not have stood out particularly well.
So it was a natural next step to introduce coloured bands, which happened from around February 1930. With this change came also a change in format, so that the band was tucked in under the front and back covers, rather than glued at the back. Crucially this change meant that the book could be opened without removing the band. This allowed prospective buyers to open and look at the book in the shop, without taking the band off. If they were careful enough, they might even be able to leave it on while reading the book. Of course most were still removed and discarded, but more of these later bands survive. They’re mostly on books that were never read, which is the fate of many copies. Few buyers are so uninterested in a book that they will not even want to pick it up and flick through it, which involves taking off a full wrap-around band, but many buyers never get round to reading their book, so a tucked-in band has a better chance of survival.
The colours of the bands were not random. They were coded to indicate the genre of the book – red for crime and humour, blue for ‘serious’ books, yellow for novels and short stories of adventure, social life or historical novels, and green for love stories. The colour-coding seems to have been the brainchild of Max Christian Wegner, then Managing Director of Tauchnitz. Two years later, by then in charge of the rival Albatross Books, he developed the idea further, using the entire paperback cover for colour coding by genre, a practice also taken up by Penguin when it launched in 1935.
At Tauchnitz the colour-coded bands continued for over four years, through to mid 1934, at which point the firm more or less collapsed into the arms of Albatross. I’m aware of surviving bands for around 20 volumes, but again they may have been used on all the more than 200 volumes published over that period. The bands did their bit to brighten up the rather drab Tauchnitz books, but they were still unable to compete against the more colourful Albatross volumes.
After mid 1934 the two series were managed jointly by the Albatross management team and Tauchnitz fell into line with the Albatross practice of colour-coded covers with dustwrappers, but no wrap-around bands.
But it wasn’t quite the end of the story. After the end of the war, a number of attempts were made to revive both Tauchnitz and Albatross, one of which involved a short series of 40 volumes published from Stuttgart under the Tauchnitz brand from 1952 to 1955. Dustwrappers on paperbacks had by then gone rather out of fashion and wrap-around bands were again used. As ever, it’s impossible to verify that all volumes were issued with bands, but many of them may have been, with again only a small number surviving.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The launch of Albatross books in 1932 was a key moment in the paperback revolution, even if not fully recognised as such at the time. It signalled the imminent demise of Tauchnitz, which had dominated English language publishing in Continental Europe for almost a century. It was to be the inspiration for the launch of Penguin Books three years later. And it was in some respects the moment that paperbacks came of age in the twentieth century.
A lot of planning and preparation had gone into the launch, which brought together three remarkable men, John Holroyd-Reece, Max Christian Wegner and Kurt Enoch. Their stories are too long and varied to cover here, but all three played important roles in publishing history, even apart from their time at Albatross. It was important for them that the first list of Albatross titles made a statement about the ambitions of the new series.
It was a mixed list, establishing the principle that the series would cover a range of genres and styles. A crime story and a romance rubbed shoulders with more literary fiction. A volume of short stories was published alongside the first volume of an historical family saga. There was something for everyone, and importantly, with colour coding by genre, the mix of types of book was reflected in a mix of colours for the first six books.
The choice of the first three authors – James Joyce, Aldous Huxley and Sinclair Lewis, seemed to say that the series would be more at the cutting edge of modern literature than Tauchnitz had been in recent years. It also said something about the ability of Albatross to attract authors away from Tauchnitz.
James Joyce in particular had been neglected by Tauchnitz. They had eventually published ‘A portrait of the artist as a young man’ in 1930, some ten years after being offered it, but had shown little interest in his other works. So for Albatross, publishing ‘Dubliners’ as volume 1 was an open goal.
Huxley and Lewis had been treated better, with Tauchnitz publishing six volumes of Huxley and three from Lewis, arguably including their most important works. But that was far from comprehensive coverage and as with Joyce, Albatross was able to target earlier works, overlooked by Tauchnitz, before later publishing new works. Sinclair Lewis had in 1930 become the first American author to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, so it was a good time to be revisiting his earlier works.
The next three titles were perhaps a bit lighter, but Rogue Herries by Hugh Walpole was a significant prize. It was the first of the Herries Chronicles, a trilogy of books set in the Lake District, and probably the work for which Walpole is best remembered now. He too had to be attracted away from Tauchnitz, which had published several of his earlier works, as did Warwick Deeping. As Tauchnitz had had a near monopoly on publishing English literature in Europe, it was almost inevitable that the authors Albatross wanted to publish would already have had dealings with Tauchnitz.
The launch of the first six titles was also marked by the issue of a boxed set of the six books. I have little idea how many of these were produced or sold, or indeed the price at which it was offered. I have only ever seen the one example, illustrated below, and that is in less than perfect condition. Although the box has no Albatross branding, I am pretty sure that it was produced for Albatross, rather than just being a home-made affair. It’s possible though that it was produced only for presentation copies, offered to business contacts and colleagues.
Just one of the books in this box still has its transparent dustwrapper, and that is in poor condition, but all the books would originally have had them. They were easily damaged and after a year or so, new titles were instead given paper dustwrappers in the same design as the books.