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The Albatross Mystery Club

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.

Albatross 401 Brighton Alibi

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.

Albatross 423 Captain Samson AB

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.

Albatross 431 Dames don't care

The only books in the Albatross Mystery Club that have really achieved any lasting fame are the two Dorothy L. Sayers novels, both early Lord Peter Wimsey novels – ‘Whose Body?’ and ‘Unnatural Death’.  Both had been first published in the UK more than ten years earlier, and were probably already seen as classics of the genre.    Indeed later Sayers novels had already appeared in the Albatross main series with red crime branding, but these were books for which Collins did not hold the rights, so they came to Albatross by a different route and under a different policy.

When Albatross came briefly back after the war, there was no longer any role for the Mystery Club, or the Crime Club.  Those 23 books represent the entire output of the Albatross Mystery Club.

The mystery of Collins mysteries

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.

The girl on the train

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.

Parker Pyne Investigates

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.

Edgar Wallace The Brigand

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.

Penguin 313

Dorothy L. Sayers in Albatross Books

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.

Albatross 212 The nine tailors

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.

Albatross 418 Whose body.

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.

Albatross 425 Unnatural death

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).