Crime author Cecil Street wrote around 150 crime novels, mostly under the pseudonyms of John Rhode and Miles Burton, between about 1925 and 1960. He was writing in the Golden Age of crime fiction and most of his books were published by the leading crime publisher of the time, the Collins Crime Club. That put him in distinguished company, appearing alongside Agatha Christie and a host of other leading crime writers.
Street’s books are still widely collected today, with some of them still in print. But it’s probably fair to say that his critical reputation has not survived as well as some of his contemporaries. Julian Symons, in his history of crime writing, categorised Street as one of the ‘humdrum’ writers, producing stories that were professionally crafted, but almost more like crossword puzzles than literature. A more recent book by Curtis Evans, ‘Masters of the Humdrum mystery’, tries to redress the balance and restore a bit of his battered reputation.
But his books were certainly popular in their time, and at the time of the Second World War they were exactly the kind of book that was wanted for the Services. As Collins produced a long series of paperback Services Editions including many of their Crime Club titles, Rhode and Burton titles inevitably featured strongly.
The series started in 1943 with numbering starting from c201, although numbers were only given retrospectively to the first 16 titles. So the 17th volume, ‘Murder at Lilac Cottage’ by John Rhode was possibly the first one to actually carry a series number, c217. I can’t be sure, as I’ve never seen this in first printing, which would be dated 1943. The only copies I’ve seen, all say ‘Services Edition 1946’ in the printing history, with no mention of the earlier printing. I live in hope of coming across an edition that says ‘Services Edition 1943’ one day. That would also be the paperback 1st printing as it appeared as a standard White Circle paperback only in March 1944.
Two more Street novels were issued in early 1944 – ‘Murder M.D.’ by Miles Burton as volume c248 and ‘Men die at Cyprus Lodge’ by John Rhode as c251. Both also exist as reprints dated 1946, with no indication of the earlier printing, but first printings should say ‘Services Edition 1944’. Inevitably, most of the copies that survive are the later 1946 printing, and first printings are scarce. Again the first printing Services Editions are also the first paperback printings. In fact so far as I know that’s the case for all the Rhode / Burton editions. They were all novels that had been first published in hardback only a year or two earlier, and had not previously appeared in paperback. It was often several years later before paperback editions appeared for non-Services customers.
The two 1944 editions were followed by six in 1945, and so far as I know, none of these were reprinted, so all copies say ‘Services Edition 1945’. ‘Four ply yarn’ by Miles Burton and ‘Death invades the meeting’ by John Rhode appeared early in the year as c291 and c292, then ‘Dead stop’ by Burton as c304, and two John Rhodes – ‘Dead on the track’ and ‘Night exercise’ as c311 and c312. ‘Night exercise’ was the only one of the Rhode Services Editions not to feature Dr. Priestley as the detective. A final Miles Burton novel, ‘The three corpse trick’ was published at the end of 1945 as c348.
Overall then nine of Street’s novels appeared in the series, more than those of any other crime writer. Even Agatha Christie only had eight.
Albatross had many significant achievements to its name in the years from 1932 to 1939. Its books were widely recognised as a design classic and in many respects became the model for Penguin Books, it achieved commercial success and an effective takeover of the old-established firm of Tauchnitz and it published for the first time in Europe many significant novels that went on to become classics. Even surviving, as a firm with a Jewish owner and Jewish managers, was an achievement in Nazi Germany. But it had another ace up its sleeve as well – The Albatross Crime Club.
This was a direct offshoot of the Collins Crime Club in the UK, facilitated by the presence of Ian and William Collins on the Albatross Board of Directors. Collins had become almost the godfather of the Golden Age of detective fiction with their series, launched in 1930. The Collins Crime Club though was essentially a mailing list rather than a book club. Members paid nothing to join and had no obligation to buy the books, which were sold through bookshops in the normal way. But they received a quarterly newsletter and by 1934 the Club boasted 25,000 subscribers. So an extension into continental Europe through Albatross must have seemed attractive to both parties.
The new series launched in 1933, so there was already a sizeable back catalogue of titles in the Collins Crime Club to choose from, but in practice the first batch of titles (from 101 to 114) were all ones that had been published in the UK within the previous year or so. This went against the usual practice at that time, almost always enforced, that a continental paperback edition had to wait at least a year after first UK publication, to avoid eating into sales of the UK hardback. Presumably the close relationship with Collins allowed them to override this. So continental readers in 1933 had access to such recently published titles as ‘The ring of eyes’ by Hulbert Footner or ‘The motor rally mystery’ and ‘The Claverton mystery’ by John Rhode. Pride of place though went to Philip MacDonald,who had three titles in the first batch, with ‘Death on my left’ (volume 101), ‘R.I.P.’ (vol. 109) and as Martin Porlock, ‘X v Rex’ (vol. 107).
Over the next 6 years through to the outbreak of war, Albatross published a total of 109 Crime Club titles, gradually bringing in most of the authors who had appeared in the Collins Crime Club. There were 14 titles by Agatha Christie, although even she had to take second place to Cecil John Street, with a total of 17 under his two pseudonyms of John Rhode and Miles Burton. Most of the books that appeared came relatively quickly after UK publication, and in most cases they are not only the First Continental Edition, but also the First Paperback Edition. Collins didn’t start to sell paperback editions themselves until the launch of their White Circle series in 1936, and even then they usually left a longer gap after publication of the hardback.
As with Collins, the Albatross Crime Club was really just a marketing device and mailing list rather than a real club. I have never seen any evidence of newsletters for club members, although I do have a copy of one flyer about new titles that might have been sent out to the mailing list. I’d love to hear of, or see, any evidence of other marketing materials.
From 1937 the Crime Club was joined by the Albatross Mystery Club, again publishing books previously published by Collins, and a further 23 books were included in this series before war intervened. There were also crime and mystery books not coming from Collins that were published in the main Albatross Modern Continental Library. Both of those developments though are a story for another day.