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.
When Services Editions were first printed in 1943, Peter Cheyney was one of the most popular and the most prolific authors in Britain. His first novel had been published only in 1936, but had been an almost immediate success and it was rapidly followed by many others. By the end of 1942 Cheyney had around fifteen novels in print.
Most of them were available only in hardback through his publisher Collins, and hardbacks novels were not only expensive, but also limited by paper rationing. To achieve a wider readership they needed to appear in paperback and the natural route was through the Collins White Circle paperback series, probably the most successful of the many rivals to Penguin launched in the late 1930s and early 1940s.
‘Poison Ivy’, one of Cheyney’s early novels featuring the private eye Lemmy Caution, was the first to appear in a White Circle edition in July 1939, and four others followed over the next four years, gradually building the author’s readership. But paper rationing was a problem for paperbacks too and by 1943 the flow of new additions to the White Circle series had slowed to a trickle.
Almost the only remaining route to achieving a mass readership was through the Services Editions, which had a dedicated paper ration for a long print run, typically at least 50,000 copies. The books were then held in the libraries of battalions or other units, or passed around from hand to hand, with each copy possibly read several times. I doubt they paid the author much, but they could certainly build the readership and popularity of an author and anyway it was the patriotic duty of the author to participate in the scheme. Fortunately for Cheyney, Collins were the most enthusiastic of participants, contributing books to the multi-publisher Guild Books series, as well as running their own series.
In 1943 Collins offered ‘Poison Ivy’ to the Guild Books series as volume S61 and for their own series chose ‘Dangerous Curves’ to be included in the first batch of books. Both are now very difficult to find in first printing. As far as I know there was only one printing of ‘Poison Ivy’, but ‘Dangerous Curves’ was reprinted in 1945 and the reprint is much more common. The first printing is dated ‘Services Edition 1943’ and has no spine number, while the reprint is dated 1945 and numbered c207.
There were to be no further Cheyney novels published in Guild Books. All the later books issued were in the Collins series of Services Editions. ‘Dangerous Curves’ was quickly followed by ‘You’d be surprised’ (1943, volume c224), by ‘You can always duck’ (1944, c276) and ‘They never say when’ (1944, c284). I’m reasonably confident of the dates and numbers here, although there’s a little bit of guesswork involved as I have never seen first printing copies of any of these three. I do have a reprint of ‘You can always duck’ dated 1946.
I also have first printing copies of the remaining two Cheyney novels issued in the series, which were issued together in 1945 – ‘Dark duet’ as volume c315 and ‘Sorry you’ve been troubled’ as volume c316. ‘Dark duet’ is notable as the only one of Cheyney’s ‘Dark’ series of spy stories to appear in a Services Edition. The other six novels are all detective stories featuring either Cheyney’s American FBI agent / Private eye Lemmy Caution, or his British equivalent Slim Callaghan.
A total of seven books published in Services Editions makes Peter Cheyney one of the most published authors, almost on a par with Agatha Christie. It was however a small fraction of his output and only a first indication of what was to come. His popularity surged after the war and with the end of Services Editions he went on to become the principal author of ‘mystery stories’ in the White Circle series of paperbacks as well as a mainstay of Pan Books, selling sometimes over a million books in a year.
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.
There are lots of people who collect crime fiction and many who research it and blog about it. There seem to be rather fewer these days who are interested in westerns, and less is written about western fiction, but it certainly still has many devotees. Even gangster novels and other specialist genres are well collected. So I suppose there must also be people who collect romantic fiction and are passionately interested, if that’s the right word, in the genre. I’ve never met any of them though, and prices of romantic novels in vintage paperbacks remain generally very low, so I doubt there can be very many collectors around.
All of which means that despite the prominence of the general Collins White Circle series over a period of almost 25 years, its sub-series covering romantic fiction has attracted little attention.
It was in any case a bit of an afterthought to the White Circle series. The Crime Club novels had first appeared in 1936, followed later that same year by the launch of western novels, numbered from 101, and in January 1937 by a mystery sub-series numbered from 201. The name ‘White Circle’ for the overall series started to appear about July 1937, although the use of a large white circle as the title panel was a unifying element in the branding long before then. Each genre though had its own colour and its own standard cover design as well as its own block of numbers.
When three volumes of Galsworthy’s ‘Forsyte Saga’ appeared in February 1937, it was obvious from their appearance that they were intended to be part of the White Circle series, although they were unnumbered and not obviously part of any sub-series or genre. They were followed in April / May by a group of six romance novels, numbered from 304 to 309, and with the listing of other novels at the back now including the Forsyte Saga novels as numbers 301 to 303.
So the ‘300 series’ now seemed to be established as a slightly odd combination of Galsworthy and Romance. Three further Forsyte Saga novels appeared in August / September 1937, oddly again unnumbered, but quickly identified in other volumes as 310 to 312. Then more Romance novels in early 1938 with numbering from 313 and from this point on, the 300 series of numbers is essentially reserved for romantic fiction. A sort of turquoisy blue was established as the colour for the genre, and a stylish lady’s head as the distinctive symbol in the bottom right of the cover. The series was clearly aimed at women readers and although the image looks a little quaint and demure to modern eyes, it must have been an aspirational look at the time. At first it appeared only on the dustwrappers and the covers of the books themselves were left plain.
The authors of the early novels included Renee Shann, Pamela Wynne (a pseudonym of Winifred Mary Scott), Betty Trask and Henry de Vere Stacpoole, each with several novels in the series. None of the names mean much to me and I don’t think they’re much remembered, although I see Betty Trask’s name is still attached to a fiction prize for young authors. It’s described as being established from money left in her will by the ‘reclusive author of over 30 romance novels’.
The list gradually extended up to volume 330 by the end of 1939 and continued well into the war years, reaching volume 359 by March 1942. There was one interloper – volume 321 in August 1938, was a special film tie-in edition of ‘A Yank at Oxford’ by A.P. Garland in a specially illustrated cover, but mostly the books followed a fairly standard format. The lady’s head on the dustwrapper was altered at some point in 1939 (making her look slightly older and with a less prominent nose?), the ‘White Circle’ branding was introduced, and the words ‘A love story’ added to the cover.
At least one of the two Philip Hughes novels in 1940 / 41 appeared with an alternative purple cover featuring a head and shoulders portrait of the author (a format more consistent with the later ‘500 series’ of volumes), but otherwise there was little change. In line with the rest of the series and most other paperbacks, dustwrappers disappeared from about 1940 and from that point on the illustration was carried on the front cover of the book itself.
Romantic novels did not re-appear with the other sub-series after the war and it was not until 1950 that the series started again in a rather different format. From here on they are still branded ‘A White Circle Pocket novel’ but they have pictorial covers and as a result look very different from other books in the series. The Penguin hegemony that had imposed non-illustrated covers on the market for any paperbacks with up-market pretensions, for 15 years by this point, was now starting to break down. Collins must have felt it was worth breaking away from it for romance novels, although perhaps oddly, they stuck with non-illustrated covers on westerns and other genres for another nine years – almost as long as Penguin themselves did.
I wrote recently about the important distinction that Collins made between Crime stories and Mystery stories – important to them, that is. It had its origins in the exclusivity of the Collins Crime Club series, so when Collins launched a new series of Crime Club paperbacks in March 1936 – the series that eventually became the White Circle paperbacks – it was natural that to start with, it excluded ‘mystery’ stories.
But once a parallel series of western paperbacks was added a few months later in a similar format and also with a large white circle as the title panel on the front cover, it was perhaps inevitable that mystery stories would follow. The westerns started in August 1936 with numbering from 101, leaving the first 100 numbers for crime titles, and mystery stories launched in January 1937, starting from number 201.
Where the Crime Club titles had featured two mysterious figures in green and black, and the westerns were in yellow with a cowboy on a rearing horse, the mystery titles used purple and a policeman blowing a whistle as their design motif.
The back cover of the first six titles explained what the mystery classification meant: ‘While the Crime Club issues books based on a definite detective process, Collins’ famous series of Mystery Novels sponsor equally exciting books of a different kind – mainly Secret Service stories and thrillers of the type for which Edgar Wallace was famous. The Mystery Novels now published in this new pocket format have been selected from the most successful in this series.’
I still struggle to understand why, to take one example – ‘Unnatural death’ by Dorothy L. Sayers (published as one of those first six mystery titles), is not a Crime novel, or not considered as being ‘based on a definite detective process’, but it matters little. By the time the next batch of 6 mystery novels, numbered 207 to 212, appeared in September / October 1937, the White Circle name had been adopted for the overall series, with crime stories, westerns, mysteries and romances identified as sub-series, each with their own identity, but clearly part of a larger whole. The series continued with this structure for the next 20 years.
The pattern of issuing books in batches of six at a time gradually broke down, but new books continued to be added at a steady rate throughout 1938 and 1939, so that over 40 mystery titles had been published by the time war broke out in September 1939. That inevitably slowed things down a bit and by 1943, with the constraints of paper rationing, the overall series more or less ground to a halt. It effectively continued in a different form through the Collins series of Services Editions, but that’s another story.
Wartime restrictions also killed off the dustwrappers that had been used on the early volumes up to the end of 1939 – the first 45 volumes in the mystery series.
The main authors in those early years included J.M. Walsh / Stephen Maddock, David Hume, Arthur Mills, Sydney Horler and Edgar Wallace. Peter Cheyney, who came to dominate the list later on, made his first appearance in 1939 and gradually rose in prominence through the 1940s. So far as I can tell, none of the authors other than Dorothy L. Sayers are much read or much collected today, and again with the exception of Sayers, none of the individual titles have become anything resembling classics of the genre.
By 1943, just over 80 mystery titles had been published, numbered from 201 to 282, and a handful of further titles after the war took the numbering up to 300 by 1950. Numbers from 301 onwards had earlier been allocated to an odd mix of Galsworthy’s Forsyte Saga novels and romantic fiction, but a precedent for dealing with this had already been set by the crime sub-series. Numbers 98 and 99 had been followed by 100c, 101c etc,, so that 101c (crime) could be distinguished from 101 (western). On this basis, the mystery titles should have gone from 299 or 300 on to 301m, 302m etc. They did eventually adopt this format, but only from 308m, so that the numbers from 301 to 307 are used twice. There’s a more detailed look at some of the numbering peculiarities of the White Circle series on this link.
The post-war revival of the series didn’t really get going again until about 1950, but from then on around 10 mystery titles were added each year, reaching number 350m by 1955 and continuing up to a final 397m in 1959. However not all were entirely new, as several titles were re-issued under a new number. Throughout the final decade of the series, the list was dominated by two authors – Peter Cheyney and Edwy Searles Brooks, who wrote under the pseudonyms of Berkeley Gray and Victor Gunn. Cheyney was the undoubted star, and many of his books featured a special front cover with his image replacing the usual policeman. But Brooks was prolific too and between them these two authors accounted for around 60 of the approximately 100 titles published between 1950 and 1959.
The final book in the Mystery sub-series was ‘The lady is poison’ by Berkeley Gray, number 397m, published in August 1959 shortly before the end of the overall White Circle series. Over a period of almost 25 years it had included almost 200 ‘mystery’ books and certainly made its mark as a leader in this area.
Many of the books I write about on this blog are so little known, little researched and little collected, that I can be reasonably confident that anything I write adds to the stock of recorded knowledge. That’s why I do it. No doubt I occasionally get things wrong, but the risk of being contradicted is fairly low. The bigger risk is of not being contradicted and errors surviving uncorrected.
Some other books, like Penguins, are so well researched that I can draw on the existing stock of knowledge, while trying to find an angle that adds something new.
The Canadian editions of Collins White Circle fall somewhere inbetween. As far as I can tell they’re not collected or researched by very many people, but there are certainly a few people who are far more knowledgeable than I am about them. For a comprehensive listing and identification guide, see the Wollamshram World website, or for various blog posts, see the Canadian fly-by-night blog. I can’t add much to that wealth of knowledge, but I want to put the Canadian editions into the context of the Collins White Circle editions in the UK and other countries.
The White Circle series was launched in the UK in 1936, replacing previous Collins paperback series with a new format much more similar to Penguin Books, whose own launch a few months earlier had so disrupted the UK paperback market. All the books in the UK featured a large white circle on the cover as the title panel right from the start, and this served as the unifying feature of the designs used for the various sub-series. However the White Circle name for the series only started to be used in early 1938.
The initiative to move overseas arose from the wartime conditions in Britain and the introduction of paper rationing. Exporting books from the UK no longer made any sense, so setting up local publishing operations suddenly seemed the way forward. Penguin started publishing in the US, Australia, New Zealand and Egypt, Collins in Australia, New Zealand, India and Ceylon as well as in Canada. All of these ventures started around 1942.
White Circle editions from Australia and India
In all these cases, the British publishers started off with what had become the market norm in the UK since the Penguin launch – standard designed covers with a strong series identity and no cover illustration. In Australia, New Zealand, India and Ceylon they were more or less able to impose this format, but neither Penguin in the US, nor Collins in Canada could make it work. The North American tradition of garishly illustrated covers was too strong and both companies eventually had to fall into line.
The first 50 titles for Collins White Circle in Canada, issued up until the end of 1942, were in a UK style format with standard designed covers. Oddly the design didn’t feature a white circle, other than a very small circle for the Crime Club logo. If anything it was more like the design used by Penguin in the UK, with large horizontal blocks of colour, although not I think as well designed.
The vast majority of the early books were either Crime or Mystery novels, all with the main cover panel in green and no real distinction between the two other than the small logo. A handful of western titles were distinguished by a lighter green and blue cover, and general fiction / non-fiction titles had covers in orange.
By the beginning of 1943 though, Collins had concluded that standard designed covers could not work in the Canadian market in competition with the brightly illustrated covers of local and American paperbacks. Like Penguin in the US at much the same time, they switched to illustrated covers, at first dipping their toe in, with restrained, stylised cover illustrations. By the end of the war though, the covers were becoming noticeably brighter, usually featuring pictures of girls, often in various states of undress or submission. And any evidence of white circles on the cover seemed to become even less prominent.
Editions from 1942 and 1946
The type of book was changing too. The proportion of crime and mystery books was falling and in the post-war period there were more westerns and more romances. There was a sprinkling of American authors, particularly of course for the westerns, and the occasional Canadian author, like Roderick Haig-Brown, but still most books were by British authors. It looks as if books were almost entirely chosen from what the British parent had available, rather than being sourced locally. Two books by Canadian broadcaster Kate Aitken – a cook book and a book on beauty for women, were a rare exception.
The series continued through to 1952 before Collins called it a day. Canada could no longer be treated as a market that would naturally take what British publishers had to offer. Over a period of just over 10 years though, from 1942 to 1952, the series ran to well over 500 titles. By my count that’s about the same as the number of titles published in the main UK series up to that point (excluding Services Editions). In the end there were more UK editions, but only because the UK series continued for another 7 years, through to 1959.
It also seems to me that today there are more second-hand Canadian editions for sale than British editions, raising the possibility that print runs may actually have been higher in Canada than in the UK. Far from being the junior partner in the arrangement, the Canadian business may actually have been stronger than the UK.
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.
As India celebrates the 70th anniversary of its independence, here’s a short look back at one little known aspect of those last pre-independence days – its Wild West paperbacks. I’ve written before about the Collins paperbacks published in India during the war and in the years immediately afterwards. They’re now generally very difficult to find, although I’m not sure there’s anybody other than myself searching for them. But if most of them are difficult to find, the Wild West paperbacks seem to be almost impossible.
Judging by the lists of titles in the other books I have, Collins published over 40 westerns in paperback in India in the 1940s, most of them as White Circle paperbacks and a few in their general series. There seem to have been a further 12 westerns in the series of Services Editions, printed specially for the British forces in India and SEAC, and at least three more published by Collins in what was then Ceylon, now Sri Lanka. That’s over 50 different books, that would have been printed in large quantities – I’d have thought at least 10,000 copies of each book and possibly several times as many. In total surely at least half a million books. Yet in thirty years or so of searching, I had never seen a single copy of any of them.
There are reasons of course. They were printed on poor quality paper and seen as disposable items. Many would have been sold to British expatriates or British troops in India and would not have been thought worth transporting home. The westerns may have survived less well than the crime stories and other novels, because they were more avidly read and passed around, or perhaps because they were seen as more disposable. And even if copies have survived in India, they’re inevitably difficult to track down from Britain now. Perhaps one day I’ll be able to search for them on the ground and find they’re not as rare as I think.
But this week I finally found one. It’s in appalling condition, worn and dirty with the front cover missing and the spine disintegrating. Even at £5, including postage, it was hardly a bargain. But it’s the first Indian Wild West paperback from Collins that I have ever seen. A small piece of history has been preserved.
Not a pretty sight, but possibly unique
And it follows an earlier success, just over a year ago, in finding a western paperback from Ceylon, this one in much better condition. So the search is not impossible after all. There are westerns out there waiting to be found. I’d love to hear of others.
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.