I’m still on a bit of a personal mission to show that Penguin revolutionised, but did not invent, the sixpenny paperback. The success of Penguin was so overwhelming that in retrospect it has obscured what went before and rather created the impression that Penguins appeared out of nowhere. In practice Penguins evolved from a long history of sixpenny paperbacks going back to Victorian times. I’ve already written about the Chatto & Windus series that ran from 1893 to the 1920s and about the Hutchinson series that ran roughly from 1925 to 1935. There are still many more to cover and this post now looks at pre-Penguin sixpenny paperbacks from Collins.
Collins are an interesting example, because for a long time after Penguin’s launch they were perhaps their closest competitor, with the Collins White Circle series. To see the effect that Penguin had, it’s interesting to compare Collins paperbacks from just before and just after that 1935 watershed.
The immediate changes caused by Penguin’s launch are not hard to see. Almost overnight, paperbacks became smaller, lost their cover illustration (other than a stylised design), gained a dustwrapper and generally became a bit more sober, respectable and middle class. As I’ve pointed out before, almost all of these changes were an aberration in historical terms and the earlier ones look rather more like modern paperbacks than the later ones do.
Collins had experimented with paperbacks over many years in various different formats and prices. They published a traditional series of large format 6d paperbacks in the early years of the twentieth century and then after the First World War tried out books in a smaller but chunkier format at ninepence.
Collins 6d from around 1905 and a 9d paperback possibly from the 1920s
But then towards the end of the 1920s they launched a more modern looking sixpenny series. The design clearly owes something to the Hutchinson series of Famous Copyright Novels. Where the Hutchinson covers were predominantly red, Collins were predominantly green (and incidentally, Hodder & Stoughton’s were yellow). Where Hutchinson had the title in yellow and the author’s name in white, Collins often had the title in red and the author’s name in yellow, although sometimes the colours switched round. Significantly in the light of what was to follow, both series moved away from fully pictorial covers to a more restrained design where the picture takes up only part of the cover.
Collins on the left, Hutchinson on the right
My guess is that this Collins series started around 1928. That’s largely based on the fact that several of the early books were first published in hardback around 1924/5, and one seems to be from 1927. Others went back much further, including books by Walter Scott, Charles Dickens and George Eliot. Most of the books were romances, adventure stories, crime stories or westerns.
Collins was starting to build a speciality in the fashionable field of crime fiction and this was cemented by the launch of the Collins Crime Club in 1930. It helped of course that they were the publisher for Agatha Christie, whose books were setting the standard for crime writing. The Crime Club was followed by the Wild West Club and as the 6d series went on, it was increasingly dominated by these two genres.
As with most pre-Penguin paperbacks, little is recorded of the Collins series, and I don’t know of any collectors, although I would have thought it was fairly collectable. It almost certainly includes the first paperback printings of many Agatha Christie stories as well as those of many other crime writers. I have a partial listing , drawn from the covers of the few copies I have, or have seen, which I’d be happy to share, and I’d like to hear of any other lists.
A few of the books seem to have switched away from the standard green covers to other colours, most strikingly a copy I have seen of Agatha Christie’s ‘Partners in Crime’ in red covers and a western from Hugh Pendexter in orange. As far as I can tell though these were exceptions and the vast majority of books were in green.
Unfortunately the books are undated and I can’t be sure for how long they continued. But I think the series went on right up to the launch of Penguin in July 1935. Suddenly then it looked old-fashioned and down-market in comparison to Penguin’s stylish but unillustrated covers. The inclusion of an Agatha Christie novel, ‘The mysterious affair at Styles’, in Penguin’s first ten was also an arrow aimed directly at the heart of Collins. This was Christie’s first novel and was (thought to be) available to Penguin because it had been published by the Bodley Head, before her move to Collins. Problems with the copyright led to it later being withdrawn and replaced by an alternative Christie title, but that didn’t help Collins.
By March 1936, the new Collins series was ready for launch. The first books in Penguin format were branded only as Crime Club books, but before long the overall ‘White Circle Books’ brand started to be used and it continued to be a significant challenger to Penguin, particularly on Crime and Mystery books, for the next 20 years.
By the 1950s though, Collins were starting to bridle at the self-imposed restrictions on the use of cover art, as indeed Penguin were. They started to experiment with going back to illustrated covers and a few books were issued that look remarkably like the 1930s predecessors to Penguin (although no longer at sixpence). Going back to the past was not the answer though. Cover art would of course return, but in a more modern form.
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.
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.
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.
I used to work for a company, Eagle Star Insurance, which claimed to have been founded in 1807. It was useful for an insurance company to have been around for a long time. It gave you more confidence that it might still be around when you came to make a claim, or when your 30 year pension policy finally matured.
The claim was nonsense, really. Eagle Star had actually been founded by Edward Mountain as the British Dominions Marine Insurance Company in 1904. It later bought up older companies, including the Eagle Insurance Company (founded in 1807) and the Star, before renaming itself as the Eagle, Star and British Dominions in 1917. Twenty years later it dropped the British Dominions bit to become just Eagle Star, and adopted the history of the Eagle company, as well as its name. In my time there, Eagle Star employed an archivist and had a small museum with such treasures as an insurance policy issued to Charles Dickens.
But when Eagle Star in turn was bought up by Zurich Insurance Company, that history was no longer wanted. Zurich had a little earlier celebrated the 125th anniversary of its founding in Zurich in 1872 and had its own museum. It had no interest in tracing new roots back to London 65 years earlier. The Eagle Star museum was closed and a new home was sought for the archive. It ended up in the City of London’s Guildhall Library, where it still is, including that Dickens policy.
Publishing is another industry, like insurance, where large numbers of companies have been amalgamated into a small number of modern conglomerates. So when HarperCollins, a business that has been around for less than 30 years, announces that it is celebrating its 200th anniversary, it’s a reasonable question to ask exactly what it is that goes back 200 years. For example, Thomas Nelson, one of the many publishing companies belonging to HarperCollins, was founded in Edinburgh in 1798. It could have celebrated its 200th anniversary almost 20 years ago. ‘William Collins, Sons’ was founded in Glasgow in 1819, so still has two years to wait.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the company that dates back 200 years is the American firm of J & J Harper. I suppose they’re regarded as the company that came out on top in the various mergers, and it’s the winners who get to write the history. So the history of HarperCollins starts in 1817. And it has to be said that it’s an impressive history, showcased in their wonderful anniversary website at http://200.hc.com/
The business has combined so many publishing companies over the years that the list of books first published by its various subsidiaries is long and includes many titles that have become part of the culture. William Collins was Agatha Christie‘s publisher for most of her books, J. B. Lippincott was the publisher of ‘To kill a mockingbird’ and Lippincott’s Magazine saw the first publication of the Sherlock Holmes novel ‘The sign of (the) four’. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings was first published by George Allen and Unwin, C.S. Lewis’s early Narnia books were published by Geoffrey Bles, and Harper Brothers published American classics such as ‘A tree grows in Brooklyn’, ‘Charlotte’s Web’, and later ‘The Exorcist’. All of these are now part of HarperCollins. It has collected history as if it were collecting stamps.
So Happy Birthday, HarperCollins, and congratulations on your first 200 years … or so.
The launch of Penguin in July 1935 changed many things in British paperbacks. Most of their design innovations were copied from the continental publisher Albatross, but other publishers quickly copied them from Penguin and in just a few years they became the standard market practice.
One of these changes was the use of colour to signify the genre of the book. For Penguin, orange meant fiction and crime was green. These two became the dominant colours in the Penguin series, although there was also blue for biography, cerise for travel, red for drama and so on.
For Albatross though, green had meant travel, and they had used red for crime, both in the main series and in the Albatross Crime Club series, which had distinctive red and black covers. Was red a more appropriate colour for crime? On the other hand Collins had already issued Crime Club paperbacks in the UK, predominantly in green, so perhaps it was the more natural choice in the UK.
Pre-Penguin crime paperbacks in the UK were often green
But for Albatross in continental Europe, crime was always red
When it became clear that Penguin’s experiment was a success, others rushed to follow, including of course Collins, who relaunched their Crime Club paperbacks in 1936 in a Penguin style format, with no cover art. They naturally chose green, using a stylised illustration of two figures with knife and gun, later adding westerns in yellow and mysteries in purple.
Hutchinson had launched its rival Penguin-style series in October 1935, using a variety of colours, but no clear indication of genre. In June 1936 it added an associated crime series under the ‘Crime Book Society’ brand, and again used a range of colours.
Early Crime Book Society titles used all sorts of colours
But their distinctiveness didn’t last for long. Within a year or so they too had accepted that crime meant green. From about September 1937 onwards, all Crime Book Society paperbacks appeared in green covers. They were soon followed by two other imprints, both related to the Hutchinson Group, the Jackdaw Crime series and the Crime Novel Library. Both series used only green covers and the convention now seemed to be well established – green means crime.
New Zealand is a stunningly beautiful and successful country with much to celebrate in its own right, but seen from much of the rest of the world its fate is often to be considered as an add-on to Australia, a mere 1000 miles away. Travellers plan a trip to Australia, and think about whether they can visit New Zealand on the way home. Politicians talk to the Australian Prime Minister and wonder if they should contact the guy from New Zealand as well – if only they could remember his, or her, name. Businesses set up in Australia and then think about whether to add on a New Zealand branch. Publishers issue Australian Editions – and wonder if they should think about New Zealand.
It’s far from alone in this. Scotland has long suffered from being seen as an afterthought to England, and the Australia / New Zealand relationship parallels the England / Scotland one in very human terms as well. There are still a lot of New Zealanders of Scottish descent, and a lot of Australians with English heritage. So the Scottish publisher Collins had good reason to remember New Zealand, when it started to issue Australian editions during the Second World War.
The move by British publishers to print local editions in their former export markets was driven by the introduction of paper rationing in Britain. It no longer made any sense to print books in Britain and send them on a long and hazardous journey around the world. So Collins started to print its White Circle paperbacks locally in Canada, in India, in Ceylon (India’s New Zealand?), in Australia … and of course in New Zealand. Canada, India and Australia got long series and a wide choice of titles. Ceylon and New Zealand had to settle for just a handful of different titles.
I’m sure that today book-buyers in New Zealand have just as wide a choice as those in Australia. But back in the 1940s their choice may have been severely restricted. Presumably the logic for issuing only a few titles was that they needed a long print run to keep the price down and the only way to sell a long print run in a small market was to restrict the choice. Penguin did much the same, publishing a long series of books in Australia during the war and a much shorter series of titles in New Zealand.
So from Collins, New Zealand got a selection of titles that may have been as few as 6. There’s no record of what they published and there’s no advertising for other titles within the books themselves, so the only way of knowing what exists is to find them. John Loder’s pamphlet on the White Circle books in Australia lists 6 titles known to exist and I only have a copy of one of those.
It’s a Peter Cheyney novel, in an unusual Crime Club cover. Unusual because in the UK, Cheyney’s novels were not published in the Crime Club. They were considered Mystery novels, published in a separate Mystery series with its own cover style. That distinction, which seems to have been important in the UK, for reasons that I don’t understand, rather broke down outside the UK, and there are several examples in Australia too of books appearing in the ‘wrong’ cover style.
Otherwise the books look very like UK, or Australian, or Indian White Circle editions. Appropriately they were printed in Dunedin, a city named after the Gaelic name for Edinburgh, in another reminder of the historic links between Scotland and New Zealand.
I’ve recently come across a small pamphlet by John Loder on the Collins White Circle editions published in Australia. The books themselves I’ve seen from time to time and without trying to collect them systematically, I’ve put together a small group of them over the years. I’ve never known much about them though and certainly never had any knowledge of what titles existed, or how many. So it’s great to find that somebody else has had enough interest to produce a checklist and a short history.
As I’ve found before with series that are little researched, there are more books than you might think. They’re not numbered, so there’s no easy indication of how many there might be, and most are also undated, so I wasn’t even sure when they were published. It’s no surprise that they come from the 1940s, starting around 1942, possibly even a bit earlier. But I am a bit surprised to find that there are over 100 different titles. That includes several I have copies of that are not in John Loder’s checklist, so there are probably still other unrecorded ones as well.
The stimulus for the creation of the series was probably the introduction of paper rationing in the UK and the increasing difficulty of shipping books out to Australia. At much the same time, and for the same reason, Collins started local printing of paperbacks in Canada, in India and in Ceylon, Penguin started local printing in the US, Australia, New Zealand and Egypt, and Guild Books also started an Australian series. The Australian market must have been getting quite crowded.
All three of the UK publishers starting to print locally in Australia stuck with their basic UK format. Penguin’s launch in 1935 had transformed the UK market, with standard designed covers almost universally adopted, so that was what Australia got too. Over the years the design of White Circle covers in Australia gradually diverged from the UK original, but they never seem to have followed Canada or India in rejecting the UK orthodoxy and adopting fully illustrated covers.
The basic UK design with some unusual colour combinations
As in the UK, Australian White Circles come in different sub-series – Crime Club novels in green, Westerns in yellow, Mysteries in purple / magenta and ‘Famous Novels’ in mauve / lilac. There were about 30 to 35 titles in each of the first three sub series, but only around 13 titles in the Famous Novels series, which seems to have been principally aimed at women, combining the general fiction and romance categories in the UK. I think it’s fair to say that few of the titles could be described as famous today.
I’ve never quite understood the distinction between Crime novels and Mystery novels that applied in the 1930s and 1940s, although I imagine it was something to do with the rules of fair play between author and reader in classic stories of detection. In Australia though the rules seem to have been slightly different, with more than one title switching to a different category from the one applying in the UK.
The books sold at 1s 3d, equivalent at the fixed exchange rate of the time to 1 shilling in British currency. This was more or less in line with post-war prices for paperbacks in the UK, although double the standard pre-war price. Only around half of the titles published in Australia were also in the UK White Circle series, but the others are mostly books published by Collins in hardback in the UK and quite a few also appeared in the Canadian White Circle paperbacks. There are though a few by local Australian authors, which were not all published elsewhere by Collins. In particular, two ‘Jeffery Blackburn’ thrillers by Max Afford and two novels by Eleanor Dark.
I’m sure there’s much more to discover about the Australian editions, so I’ll come back to this another time. Some day there are also a few New Zealand editions to investigate.
Launched in May 1930, the Collins Crime Club had been a huge success, surfing the wave of public interest in the golden age of detective fiction. By 1936 it had published around 200 titles and claimed to have around 20,000 subscribers, although it was not really a club – just a mailing list of potentially interested readers. The star writer was undoubtedly Agatha Christie, but there was a wide range of other writers including John Rhode, Freeman Wills Crofts. Philip Macdonald and G.D.H & M. Cole.
The books sold at 7 shillings and sixpence, a fairly standard price for UK hardbacks at the time, but one that put them out of the price range of most ordinary people, who perhaps borrowed them through libraries or waited for cheap editions to be published. A selection of the books was published in cheaper paperback editions in continental Europe through Albatross Books, with which Collins were associated. The Albatross Crime Club published only books from the Collins Crime Club, in distinctive red and black covers, but these could not be imported into the UK.
It was the success of Albatross in Europe that gave Allen Lane the idea for Penguin Books. Possibly Collins should have seen it coming, but they were experimenting in a rather different direction in the UK at the time, with a series of cheap hardbacks sold at 7d, less than 10% of the standard hardback price. This series certainly included crime novels, although I am unsure whether any of the titles had previously appeared in the Crime Club.
Quite why hardbacks at sevenpence were a failure, while Penguin’s paperbacks at sixpence were a roaring success is hard to say, but they were. Penguin’s launch in July 1935 was transformational. Within months, perhaps even weeks, it was clear that their format was a success. By October, Hutchinson had launched their own paperback series in a very similar format to Penguin, and a new market had been established.
Hardbacks at 7d, or paperbacks at 6d – the public knew which they preferred
Collins could see now that Penguin represented a threat to their core market. There had been only a handful of crime novels in the early titles, but enough to warn them of what could happen. In fact Penguin had issued what almost amounted to a direct challenge to Collins by including a novel by Agatha Christie in their first ten titles. ‘The mysterious affair at Styles’ was the first of Christie’s novels and like her other early novels had been first published by The Bodley Head, before she moved to Collins in 1926.
The Bodley Head was the Lane family company that Allen Lane worked for up to the launch of Penguin, so this was a book he had access to, or at least thought he did. As it happened, a copyright dispute over ‘The mysterious affair at Styles’ led to Penguin withdrawing it a few months later and replacing it with another early Christie novel ‘The murder on the links’, but the episode made clear that Penguin’s ambitions included becoming a major publisher of paperback crime.
Penguin’s original volume 6 and its replacement soon after, volume 6A
So Collins were now fighting a rear-guard action as they started to plan a paperback series of Crime Club novels. Some aspects were almost a given. The price would be 6d, the size would be the Albatross and Penguin size (using the golden ratio) and the books would have a dustwrapper in the same design as the cover. These were basic features of the market established by Penguin.
But the most important feature of the Penguin revolution was no cover illustrations, other than a standard logo. This feature, again copied from Albatross, seemed fundamental to Penguin’s success. It conveyed an image of seriousness and established a break with the traditions of earlier paperbacks, which had often had lurid cover illustrations. For the Collins Crime Club, cover illustrations had been an important part of their marketing, so it was a big decision to replace them with a standard designed cover.
In the end, Collins settled for a new design that created a standard identity for the series and established its up-market credentials, while still having a nod to the earlier Crime Club branding. It was sufficiently similar to the Penguin format to make clear that it was a direct competitor, but sufficiently different to be instantly recognisable as a Collins Crime Club novel.
Instead of Penguin’s central white band, Collins introduced a large white circle for the title and author. And as well as using colour to indicate genre (again green for crime), Collins splashed across the cover a stylised picture of two masked murderers carrying a pistol and a knife that was effectively a development of the original Crime Club branding.
In its own way this cover was as classic a design as was Penguin’s three bands, and indeed it lasted rather longer. It was still being used right up to the end of the series in 1959, long after Penguin had abandoned its three horizontal bands in favour of various experiments with vertical bands, other grids and even cover illustrations. But it has never quite achieved the iconic status of Penguin’s design, now used for everything from t-shirts and bags to deckchairs, and I have been unable to find out who the designer was.
It’s not clear that there was any intention at the start to use the white circle on the cover as a unifying element across different types of fiction, or to develop it as the name of the overall series. It’s not even clear that there were any plans at the start to publish fiction from other genres in similar paperback editions. It is very clear in the early books that the brand is ‘The Crime Club’ and there is no mention of ‘White Circle’ at all. It’s only from about July 1937 onwards, once other types of book have been published, that ‘White Circle’ starts to appear as a series name.
The next key decision of course was which books to publish, and here Collins were spoilt for choice. Penguin, in its early days, had to search across the market and negotiate with various hardback publishers, who were often reluctant to allow cheap paperback editions. As a result, they ended up with a lot of older books, where hardback sales had declined to a trickle. But Collins had a treasure trove of around 200 recent titles that had already been published in the Collins Crime Club and could take their pick.
Unsurprisingly they chose a more recent Agatha Christie novel ‘Murder on the Orient Express’, for volume number 1. The first 6 titles, published in March 1936, also included an Edgar Wallace and novels by John Rhode and Freeman Wills Crofts. The other two were by Philip Macdonald, one of them under the pseudonym of Martin Porlock. The next batch in June included further titles by Christie, Rhode and Macdonald as well as one from G.D.H. & M. Cole and these writers between them accounted for most of the first 30 titles, although other authors were gradually introduced.
By the time war broke out in September 1939, the series of Crime Club paperbacks had reached around 80 titles, and the wider White Circle series had extended to cover westerns, mysteries, romantic fiction, general fiction and even a small number of non-fiction titles. It was certainly in some respects a serious rival to Penguin, at least in the area of crime fiction. Even in that area, Penguin would eventually triumph, but not before the Crime Club paperbacks had reached almost 300 titles, published over a period of more than 20 years.
Was it a success in terms of broadening the reach of classic crime fiction and extending its popularity? I imagine it must have been. The print runs were probably at least 20,000 and quite possibly 50,000 or more, so sales are likely to have been far higher in paperback than they ever were in the original hardback editions. The wartime Services Editions will have extended that reach even further. But in the end, the Crime Club paperbacks did fail, presumably as another victim of Penguin when they ended in 1959, and it was the hardback editions that outlasted them, continuing right through to 1994.
This is the second of two posts about the continental European editions of major crime writers in Albatross Books. The first one reviewed the Agatha Christie editions and this one goes on to look at Dorothy L. Sayers, her great rival for the title of ‘Queen of Crime’ in the 1930s. There are quite significant differences in the way that the two authors appeared in the series that raise some interesting questions.
The two writers did not share a UK publisher. While most of Christie’s novels appeared in the Collins Crime Club, Sayers used a number of different publishers, but in the 1930s, mostly Gollancz. That was no barrier to being published in Albatross, which took books from across the range of UK publishers, but it was in practice a barrier to the Albatross Crime Club, which was effectively the continental arm of the Collins Crime Club. So instead of appearing in Crime Club branding, ‘The nine tailors’, the first Sayers novel to appear in Albatross in 1934, was in the main series as volume 212 of the Albatross Modern Continental Library.
This was the ninth book in the already well established series of stories featuring Lord Peter Wimsey, and it appeared very quickly after first publication in the UK. I don’t know the exact dates of either UK or European publication, but both were in 1934 and judging by the numbering sequence, the Albatross edition must have been around the middle of the year. Although it had once been normal for European editions, particularly by Tauchnitz, to appear simultaneously with the UK editions, this had largely died out. By the 1930s it was relatively unusual for UK publishers to allow a paperback continental edition within less than a year of the original hardback publication in the UK.
Perhaps allowing such an early continental edition was a mistake, because there was no repeat of it when the tenth story ‘Gaudy Night’ appeared the following year. There was a gap of two to three years before that appeared as volume 364 of the Albatross series in February 1938, with the next story, ‘Busman’s honeymoon’, following in March 1939.
‘Busman’s honeymoon’ was not only the last Lord Peter Wimsey novel, it was effectively Sayers’ farewell to crime writing. Marriage turned out not to be good for Wimsey’s crime fighting abilities and Sayers turned instead to religious writing and to translation, most notably producing an acclaimed translation of Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’.
In any case the war was coming and there was little time left for Albatross. But they had already gone back to some of her earlier crime writing, starting with ‘Whose Body?’, the story that had first introduced Lord Peter Wimsey. That had been first published in the UK in 1923 by Unwin, but the rights had subsequently been acquired by Collins.
For reasons that I don’t fully understand, Collins considered the book to be a mystery story rather than a crime story, so that it did not appear in the Collins Crime Club or the Albatross Crime Club. I suspect that the distinction has something to do with the rules established for classic detection novels to ensure that authors played fair with the readers, although to me ‘Whose Body’ looks remarkably like a crime and detection novel. I’d be delighted if anyone can explain to me why this is considered to be a mystery rather than a crime novel and whether the same applies to all of Sayers’ work.
Anyway the distinction seemed to be important to Collins, who established a separate series for mystery stories in their UK White Circle paperbacks and a separate series too, with its own logo, for the Albatross Mystery Club. The Mystery Club series started in 1937 with volume 401 and ‘Whose Body?’ appeared in July 1938 as volume 418. It was quickly followed by ‘Unnatural Death’, another early Wimsey story that had been acquired by Collins, again in Mystery Club branding, as volume 425 in October 1938.
Both books, like almost all of the Albatross Mystery Club titles, are now pretty difficult to find. The main series books are perhaps a little easier. ‘Gaudy Night’ and ‘Busman’s honeymoon’ were both reprinted after the war, probably with a longer print run, and copies dated 1947 are now much more common than the pre-war editions (and since they carry no mention of the earlier printing, very easy to mistake for first printings).