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.
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.
The Collins White Circle books are probably best remembered these days for their crime novels, but they were also a major publisher of westerns for a period of over 20 years. I wrote recently about the origins of the White Circle series as a paperback imprint of the Collins Crime Club. This post looks at the Wild West Club paperbacks, which joined them shortly after and led the move into other areas of genre fiction.
It may be different in the US, but in the UK for much of the twentieth century, western stories seemed a bit like the poor relation of crime novels. They were categorised in the same way as genre fiction, but they never had the cultural or intellectual status that has been given to crime novels, or at least to the best of them.
They were certainly popular, selling in huge quantities for many years, but they were generally seen as a downmarket product. They appeared mostly in paperback rather than hardback and were often passed around from reader to reader until they disintegrated, so that copies can now be very difficult to find. In my experience, western paperbacks are usually rarer than the equivalent crime paperbacks, but certainly not as popular with either readers or collectors these days, so rarely sell for more than a few pounds.
Shortly after launching the Collins Crime Club as a hardback series in 1930, the publisher turned its attention to westerns and to an equivalent Wild West Club. It must have seemed a natural development, but it never caught on in the same way. The middle class buyers who could afford 7s 6d for a Crime Club novel, perhaps did not want to be seen reading westerns. The intellectual challenge of solving crimes and the upper class setting of many crime novels (and many of the crime authors) made detective novels thoroughly respectable, while western stories were pure escapism. Paperbacks selling at 6d, or even 2d or 3d, seemed to be their natural habitat, rather than hardbacks at 7s 6d.
Early Collins Wild West club hardbacks
So when Collins launched a series of Crime Club paperbacks in April 1936 to counter the threat from Penguin Books, a similar series of Wild West Club paperbacks was an obvious follow-up. The first 6 books appeared in August of the same year, adopting a very similar format, again strongly influenced by Penguin.
In particular the success of Penguin (which at this point was little more than a year old) meant that the books had standard designed covers rather than garishly illustrated ones. It stills seems astonishing to me that Penguin’s influence was so strong that it effectively led to a 20 year gap in the use of cover illustration on paperbacks across a wide section of the UK market, even including westerns. Both before and after, cover illustration was a vital aspect of selling paperbacks, but for that 20 year period, the normal rules of marketing seem to have been suspended.
The design of the Collins Wild West Club paperbacks was clearly intended to be consistent with the design of the Crime Club paperbacks, even though at the start there was no overall series branding and the term White Circle was not used. The green of the crime titles was replaced with yellow for westerns and the hooded murderers gave way to a cowboy with his lasso neatly framing the same white circle for title and author. As with the early Crime Club titles, the back cover of the first 6 books was predominantly black, before switching to yellow. Numbering started from 101, leaving the first 100 for Crime Club paperbacks.
The blurb on the back cover explicitly sold them as ‘healthy outdoor fiction’ in contrast to many of the alternative stories available. ‘Thousands of readers, tired of sex novels and seeking the ‘escape’ which only a really good yarn can bring, are turning to good, clean stories of life and adventure in the open spaces’. The front cover again referred to the Wild West club as the ‘guarantee of a clean open air story’. Westerns it seems, were the antidote to sex.
I haven’t read enough to know whether they delivered on their promise of clean and healthy fun, but the list of titles and authors doesn’t seem to me to have aged well. Writers such as ‘Robert J. Horton’ and ‘C. Wesley Sanders’ are little remembered today so far as I know. While the Crime Club was genuinely publishing the leading crime authors of its day, the Wild West Club perhaps had to settle for some of the second rank authors in its genre. This may just reflect the reality that Britain could never claim any leadership in wild west fiction to compare with its position in crime fiction in the 1920s and 1930s. Western stories would always come from across the Atlantic and Collins may not have been best placed either to identify or to obtain the leading authors and titles.
Nevertheless the first 6 books in August 1936 were followed by 3 more in February 1937 and a further 3 in April, to take the series up to volume 112. By the time volumes 113 to 115 appeared in February 1938 the ‘White Circle’ name had been adopted. The books and the dustwrappers started to carry advertising for books across the series, including Crime Club novels, mystery novels and romance as well as the other Wild West Club novels.
The series continued to grow at a fair rate and by mid 1941 Collins had published over 50 novels as Wild West Club paperbacks. There was then a bit of a gap as paper rationing started to bite and attention switched to some extent to the series of White Circle Services Editions, which included a lot of westerns. A relatively small number of books continued to be published in the main series and it revived after the war and continued right through until 1959. There were occasional bursts of activity, but rarely more than half a dozen books a year. A final total of 123 books in the series (from 101 to 223w) is an impressive total, although less so when you think that it stretched out over a period of 23 years from 1936 to 1959.
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.
Albatross Books was founded in 1932 in Paris as a direct rival to the long-established firm of Tauchnitz, which had had a near-monopoly on the sale of English language books in Continental Europe for 90 years. It was phenomenally successful in the period up to the Second World War, and its effects were felt long after that, particularly in its key influence on the launch and development of Penguin Books.
In that period, from 1932 to 1939, it would have been difficult to ignore Agatha Christie. She dominated crime writing at the time, and crime writing was enjoying its golden age. Yet in some ways it was just a happy coincidence that she was able to appear in the series. There was no tradition of publishing detective stories in English on the continent. Tauchnitz had published the Sherlock Holmes books from 1891 onwards, but had shown relatively little interest in other developments in crime fiction after the First World War. Albatross too seemed at the start to be primarily interested in publishing literary fiction, championing D.H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce and Aldous Huxley amongst others. In its first 50 books, there were just 7 crime stories.
All that was to change though with the launch of the Albatross Crime Club in 1933. It was effectively a joint venture with the Scottish publisher, Collins, and came about because of the presence of two of the Collins family on the Albatross board. I don’t know how much of the initiative came from Collins, eager to establish a European outlet for their Collins Crime Club novels, and how much from Albatross, keen to expand their list into more crime novels. But either way, it provided the platform for Albatross to publish the works of Agatha Christie, as well as other leading crime writers.
And they seized the opportunity. Over the six years of the Albatross Crime Club, it included 14 Agatha Christies, starting with ‘Lord Edgware dies’ as volume 115 in 1933. Each volume followed shortly after its first appearance in the Collins Club, usually within a year, sometimes much quicker. And although overall the Albatross Crime Club published far fewer books than the Collins Crime Club, it seems to have taken all the Christies it could get. As far as I can tell, every Christie novel that appeared in the Collins series between ‘Lord Edgware dies’ in 1933 and ‘Appointment with death’ in 1938, was also published in Albatross.
The Albatross editions are not only the first continental European editions, they’re also the first paperback editions. Collins didn’t launch the White Circle series of paperbacks in the UK until 1936, after Penguin’s launch. The first volume in that series was ‘Murder on the Orient Express’, which had already been published by Albatross in 1934 (volume 121) and so far as I know all 14 of the pre-war Christie books published by Albatross were first paperback editions.
Albatross Crime Club edition (1934) and Collins Crime Club (1936)
Like all the Albatross editions, they’re beautiful books, and mostly not too difficult to find. The print runs would have been relatively low, possibly only a couple of thousand copies of each book, so it’s unlikely that more than a couple of hundred survive, but they’re still out there to be found and usually not too expensive. The first book, ‘Lord Edgware dies’ would have had a transparent dustwrapper, although these were naturally fragile and I have never seen a copy with the dustwrapper intact. All the later books had paper dustwrappers in the same style as the covers. I don’t think any of the books were reprinted, so all copies are first printings.
When Albatross attempted a revival after the Second World War, it still had some support from Collins, but it was much less successful and there was to be no re-launch for the Albatross Crime Club. Instead a small number of crime titles were published in the main series, just four in total, but two of those were by Christie. ‘Ten little niggers’ (since renamed as ‘And then there were none’ and televised recently by the BBC) appeared as volume 554 in 1947, followed by ‘One, two, buckle my shoe’ as volume 575 in 1950. The first of these was again a paperback first printing, but the second may just have been beaten by the White Circle edition that appeared the same year. It’s probably significant that unlike the pre-war publications, these were not recent novels, hot off the press. Both had been written, and published in the Collins Crime Club, several years earlier. Albatross was no longer the cutting edge publisher it had been in its pre-war glory.
Overall though 16 Agatha Christie novels, all of them continental European first printings, and possibly 15 paperback first printings, is not a bad representation for the ‘Queen of Crime’ in Albatross.
For other paperback first printings, see also the story of Agatha Christie in UK Services Editions.
There seem to be surprisingly few early paperback editions of Rex Stout novels in the UK, but perhaps fittingly, one area where he was well recognised was in the Services Editions produced for the British Armed Forces. I say fittingly, because it was Stout who established the Writers’ War Board in the US, and he was heavily involved in American efforts to use books to help win both the physical war and the “war of ideas”.
His early books had been published in the UK by Cassell & Co., but by the time war broke out, like most other crime writers, he had been enticed to the Collins Crime Club, and it was Collins who were by far the largest publisher of Services Editions. The Guild Books series was longer, but as the Guild was an association of publishers, their series included books from a wide range of different companies, including both Cassell and Collins.
The first Stout novel to appear in a Services Edition was ‘Black Orchids’, a combination of two Nero Wolfe short stories that had been published in the US in 1942 and then in a Collins Crime Club edition in the UK in July 1943. The Services Edition was not long after, published in 1943 as number c218 in the Collins series (which started at c201). I’ve never seen a copy, and I’d love to hear from anyone who has one or knows of one.
The same goes for the next Rex Stout novel to appear in a Services Edition. I’ve never seen a copy of ‘The red box’, but again I know it exists as number S133 of the Guild Books series, published in 1944. This was one of the early Nero Wolfe novels, first published in the UK by Cassells. So Stout became one of the very rare authors to appear in both the main series of UK Services Editions.
After that it was back to the Collins series for two volumes published together in 1945 and featuring other private investigators. Volume c313 was ‘Alphabet Hicks’ and c314 ‘The broken vase’, both stories that had been published in the US in 1941 and then in the Collins Crime Club in 1942. Alphabet Hicks is a one-off mystery featuring Alfred ‘Alphabet’ Hicks and ‘The broken vase’ is the third Tecumseh Fox story. These two are perhaps a little bit easier to find in Services Editions, but that’s only in relative terms. Both were later published by Collins in standard White Circle paperbacks – The broken vase’ as volume 185c in 1950 and ‘Alphabet Hicks’ as 208c in 1952, and these editions are certainly easier to find.
And finally in 1946, there was a Services Edition of ‘Double for death’, the first of the Tecumseh Fox novels. This had already been published in the main White Circle series, as volume 153c in 1945 and by the time it came out in a Services Edition, the programme was almost at an end. Many, if not most, of the Services Edition copies never reached the armed forces, and were released for general sale. So they’re mostly found these days with a WH Smith sticker on the front or the remains of one, authorising their sale, which at least means that they do turn up more often.
The timing of this post is to coincide with a series of posts on Rex Stout by the Tuesday night bloggers. Click on the link to see other posts by the group.