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Mystery stories in Collins White Circle

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.

White Circle 202

White Circle number 202

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.

White Circle 219

One that has become a classic.  White Circle number 219.

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.

Cheyney front cover

White Circle number 354m

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.

 

 

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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

Just think what Toucan do

Having recently written a post about the Jarrold’s Jackdaw Library, it seems appropriate to follow it up with one about the Toucan novels.   The two series seem to go together in several ways.  They both came from the Hutchinson group of publishers, and they share a physical similarity, not only with each other, but with almost all the new paperback series launched in those few years after Penguin’s breakthrough.  They also share, with each other and with Collins, the use of a white circle as the main title panel.

And of course they both use a bird as their brand and series title.   They were far from the only series to do so in the period after the launch of Penguin Books.

  toucan-1-dw  jackdaw-16-dw

Toucans and Jackdaws – birds of a feather

In choosing a Toucan as their brand, Hutchinson may have had one eye on Penguin and on Jackdaw, but they probably had the other eye on Guinness, whose famous toucan had appeared just two years earlier.  What would previously have been a rather obscure bird, had been propelled to the centre of media attention by the Guinness advertising campaign.

guinness-toucan-advert-1

In reviewing Jackdaw, I asked the question why Hutchinson needed another paperback series in October 1936.  At that point  they already had the Hutchinson Pocket Library, the Hutchinson Popular Pocket Library and the Crime Book Society series, all launched within the previous 12 months.  So it’s even more strange that just 4 months later they launched yet another new series and another new brand.  Was there really a market space left for the Toucan Novels when they appeared in February 1937?

I can’t work out whether it was a deliberate strategy not to put all their eggs in one basket, or just a lack of strategic co-ordination within the group.

 Hutchinson-PL5  hutchinson-ppl10

Other Hutchinson 6d series from 1935 / 1936

Toucan at least showed some evidence of co-ordination, as the books came from several different publishing imprints within the Hutchinson Group.  Most of the first group of titles came from Hurst & Blackett, although there were two from Hutchinson itself.  Then a group of books from Stanley Paul and another from John Long.  But like Jackdaw, and like several other new paperback series in the 1930s, there was then a pause after an initial rush of titles.  It took time for the market to adjust to yet another new paperback series, and time for the initial print run to sell out.

After volume 20 appeared in June 1937, there were no new titles for almost a year, then a small group of titles in summer 1938, but it was not until May 1939 that the series really got going again.  The main publisher in this second phase was Stanley Paul, although there were also books from Hurst & Blackett and a few from Skeffington & Son.

The covers of the early books were printed in two colours to highlight the Toucan’s yellow beak, and most of the early books were in a purply crimson colour, with a few in green. The group of books from volumes 17 to 20, all published by John Long, are missing the yellow highlighting on the book covers, although it is still there on the dust-wrappers.  Was this an economy measure, saving on two colour printing in a place where it would not normally be noticed by the purchaser?  Or was it just a mistake?

  toucan-17  toucan-17-dw

Front cover and dust-wrapper of volume 17

It turned out, perhaps inadvertently, to be a herald of the future.  From around volume 32 onwards, possibly earlier, all or almost all books were printed with yellow covers.  This allowed the toucan’s beak to be yellow without the need for two-colour printing, although it did lose some of the earlier impact.  A little while later, dust-wrappers were dropped, and then prices started to creep up, with some volumes selling for a while at 7d, before wartime economy measures really started to bite.

  toucan-6  toucan-62

An early Toucan in green and a later one in yellow

By mid 1940 it was impossible to continue on anything like the pre-war basis, and the numbered series came to an end with volume 62.  A few more books were published during the war, effectively as one-offs, but they had to meet the war economy standard, which meant low paper quality, small fonts and small margins, making the most of the paper rationing that was hitting all publishers.   I know of two wartime Toucans at 9d, although there may well be others.  Then later, at least three books at 1s 3d, and post-war others at 1s 6d.

The books published in the Toucan series had no great literary pretensions, and few of them are much remembered today.  The authors are generally pretty obscure, although there is one Edgar Wallace title and perhaps most significantly, two of the Maigret books by Georges Simenon.  Simenon was at that time so little known in Britain that he had to be described on the book cover as ‘The Edgar Wallace of France’.

As a final comment, seven books in the Hutchinson Group series of Services Editions were also referred to as Toucan Novels in a brief mention at the top of the cover.   It’s not entirely clear what the point of this was, as there was no other Toucan branding, and only one of the books had previously appeared as a Toucan novel.  Indeed three were from a publisher, Rich and Cowan, which had not previously contributed books to the Toucan series.  But it’s one of many examples of confusion in branding within the Hutchinson Group at that time.

hutchinson-se-ttn4

 

The Yellow Jackets go to war

In the years both before and after the Second World War, Hodder & Stoughton were well known for their Yellow Jacket books, often stories of adventure or crime, from writers such as John Buchan, Rider Haggard, Edgar Wallace and Baroness Orczy as well as the Bulldog Drummond stories by ‘Sapper’ and ‘The Saint’ stories by Leslie Charteris.   The books appeared in both paperback and hardback editions.

Pre-war Yellow Jacket

A typical Hodder & Stoughton Yellow Jacket

During the war, their range of titles looked well suited to the demands of the Central Services Book Depot for ‘warm’ fiction, westerns and crime, but so far as I know they didn’t contribute any books to the Guild series of Services Editions.   Instead they bided their time and in 1944 launched their own series, spurning the generic description of ‘Services Editions’ for their own ‘Services Yellow Jackets’.

Hodder 1

For a company that clearly then had an eye to its own brand image, it’s perhaps surprising that they didn’t go for bright yellow jackets on their services series.  Instead they opted for a stylised design, apparently based on white cliffs overlooking a blue sea and a yellow sky.  Do the blue swooshes, apparently representing waves on the sea, also contain a hint of the ‘blue birds over, the white cliffs of Dover’ that were a feature of “We’ll meet again”, the most popular song and the most popular film of the time?  Most copies of the books would after all have been sent abroad to troops serving far from home, and perhaps dreaming of returning home (or dreaming of Vera Lynn?).

Hodder 10

I don’t know of any list of the books published as Services Yellow Jackets, other than the list I’ve put together myself, from my own collection and ones I’ve seen elsewhere.  I can identify at least 15 titles, published between September 1944 and September 1945, listed below, but it seems a fair bet that there are more.   Please let me know if you come across any other books in the series.

EPSON MFP image

List of known Services Yellow Jackets

A wrong turning

Why was it Allen Lane and the Lane brothers, rather than William Collins and the Collins brothers, who launched Penguin Books and the paperback revolution in the UK?   In a previous post I suggested that Collins, through their key role in Albatross, were in a much better position to see the way the wind was blowing.   Before launching Penguin, Allen Lane had been in discussions with Albatross about a possible joint venture.   As Directors of Albatross, William and Ian Collins would surely have been aware of those discussions,, and so knew the way Lane was thinking.  They could hardly have been totally surprised when he went ahead with a paperback launch in the UK.

Part of the answer seems to be that they did indeed see the market opportunity and had a strategy to exploit it, which would have seemed entirely reasonable at the time.  It’s just that with hindsight their strategy turned out to be the wrong one.   They had launched a new series of cheap hardbacks in 1934 called the Collins sevenpence novels.   Sevenpence looks to be a very impressive price for a hardback, given that many new novels in hardback sold for more like seven shillings and sixpence at the time.  The list of titles in the series looks like a reasonable mix of popular fiction – novels from Somerset Maugham, Rose Macaulay and Michael Arlen, crime titles from Agatha Christie, John Rhode and G.D.H. & M. Cole, mysteries from Edgar Wallace and a selection of westerns.  Many of these same authors had already appeared in Albatross and would later appear in Penguin.  Yet this series was completely blown away by the launch of Penguins a year later and Collins had to scramble to replace it with a new paperback series.

Collins 7d The lone house mystery

So what went wrong?   Why were paperbacks at sixpence such a success when hardbacks at sevenpence weren’t?   Why did customers rush to buy Agatha Christie’s ‘The mysterious affair at Styles’ from Penguin, rather than Agatha Christie’s ‘The murder of Roger Ackroyd’ from Collins?

Certainly it’s possible that Penguin got the price right and Collins just missed it.   Sixpence was just one penny less, but it would have had a different feel to it, just as £1 now feels different from £1.20.   Penguin may also have got the distribution right, famously selling through Woolworths as well as through bookshops.   But the big difference seems to be the marketing, the brand and particularly the cover design, all elements that Penguin copied from Albatross.   The Collins sevenpence novels had illustrated dustwrappers, designed to appeal to the mass market they were aiming for, rather than the typographical covers of Albatross, designed to appeal to the much more select group of people who would buy English books in continental Europe.

The genius of Allen Lane seems to have been to realise that a mass market product didn’t have to look mass market.   The same design principles could be applied to it as to a much more up-market product.  Customers might only be buying an Agatha Christie or a Michael Arlen novel, and might only be paying sixpence or sevenpence, but they wanted it to look like serious literature, not look trashy.   That might seem obvious in retrospect, but at the time it would have been much less so.   The strategy of Collins to sell hardbacks at sevenpence in bright dustwrappers would have seemed entirely reasonable and perhaps much more likely to succeed than Lane’s sober paperbacks at sixpence.   It’s also worth remembering that Lane’s strategy was to some extent an anomaly in both historical and geographical terms.   The US market never embraced soberly designed paperbacks, and the UK market has moved a long way away from them now, but in Britain, in 1935, that was the right strategy.  Collins were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.