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.
Anybody who collects early Penguins knows two things:
- the crime titles (in green covers) are rarer than the standard novels (in orange covers).
- The wartime editions, particularly those published from 1942 onwards, up to the end of the war, are much rarer than both earlier and later editions
Put those two things together and a third thing becomes obvious – wartime crime titles are very rare.
Rarity alone doesn’t make books valuable, but the combination of rarity and high demand does. And since there are a surprising number of people interested in early Penguins, often trying to collect the first 1000 in first printings, demand for the wartime crime titles is high, and so are prices.
Change was gradual at the start of the war, for paperbacks as for many other things, and early wartime Penguins from late 1939 and much of 1940 are not too difficult to find. But with the Battle of Britain in mid-1940 and the introduction of paper rationing around the same time, wartime conditions were really starting to bite by the end of the year. From about Penguin volume 300 onwards, the books start to get thinner and start to become much rarer. Volumes 301 to 304, all crime titles published at the end of 1940, are really the first of the rarities.
For some reason that I can’t explain, the next three or four crime titles seem to be a little easier to find, but from then on there’s no let up. The twenty-seven crime Penguins numbered between 350 and 500 and roughly published between mid-1942 and mid-1945, are unremittingly difficult to find, often expensive to buy and often in very poor condition.
Penguins from this period were printed to the ‘War Economy Standard’ on very poor quality paper. They are usually very thin, with small type and small margins to cram as much as possible onto the minimum amount of paper. They fall apart very easily and would not last long with repeated use. The popularity of crime titles at the time, and the shortage of books, meant that many of them were passed around, read and re-read and would naturally have disintegrated. Those that survived at all, usually survived in poor condition. Even reprints from this period are scarce.
Many of the books are of dubious quality. Penguin was not the leading UK publisher of crime novels at the time, and Collins probably had the pick of the best writers. Writers such as Eric Bennett, Stuart Martin, Lewis Robinson and Richard Keverne didn’t leave much of a collective mark on the history of crime writing. But there was still room in this group for two titles by Margery Allingham, three by Ngaio Marsh, and one from Mignon Eberhart, amongst writers whose reputations have stood the test of time.
There are of course differences of opinion about which are the rarest books. Some say ‘Panic Party’ by Anthony Berkeley (volume 402), but there’s a good case to be made also for the two Georgette Heyer titles – ‘The unfinished clue’ (volume 428) and ‘Why shoot a butler?’ (volume 429). Two earlier titles, ‘The general goes too far’ by Lewis Robinson and ‘William Cook – Antique dealer’ by Richard Keverne (volume 383 and 384) are certainly very rare as well, as are others from the same period.
But then others say that the rarest of all is not even a crime Penguin, but is the one Biggles book to be published by Penguin – volume 348, ‘Biggles flies again’ by W.E. Johns. There’s competition for that one from collectors of Biggles stories as well as Penguin collectors. Good luck if you’re searching for it – but you may need deep pockets as well as luck.
It’s usually only people from Norwich who recognise the name Jarrold. In that area it’s well known as the name of a big department store, and was for a time the name of a stand at Norwich City’s football ground. The Jarrold Group that run the store was also for many years involved both in printing and in publishing. The John Jarrold Printing Museum in Norwich is a lasting reminder of their connection with printing.
The name is less well remembered in publishing, but it has a history stretching back almost 200 years. According to the history on the company’s website, John Jarrold had established a printing press in 1815 and was moving into publishing by 1823. Jarrold & Sons, as the business became known, was never a major publisher, but it had some striking successes, notably publishing the first edition of ‘Black Beauty’ in 1877.
After that the company history becomes a bit vague about what happened to the publishing business. Wikipedia says Jarrold Publishing was sold to Sutton Publishing in 2007, but the story must be more complicated than this. It seems clear that at least by the end of the 1930s, the publisher Jarrold & Sons was part of the Hutchinson Group, the group of companies put together by Walter Hutchinson. The group included John Long, Hurst & Blackett, Stanley Paul, Rich & Cowan, Skeffington and others, as well as Jarrold and Hutchinson itself. I’m not clear how separate all these companies were. Each continued to publish books under its own imprint, but particularly in paperback, the books increasingly resembled each other, and sometimes books from different publishers appeared in the same series.
By October 1936, when Jarrold launched a new paperback series, the Jarrolds’ ‘Jackdaw’ Library, the whole paperback publishing industry in Britain was in turmoil. Penguin’s launch a year earlier had completely changed the basis of competition in the industry. Illustrated covers suddenly looked either old-fashioned or down-market or possibly both.
The Hutchinson Group had already reacted by launching a new Penguin-style series, the Hutchinson Pocket Library, just three months after Penguin. Alongside this, it had started the companion ‘Crime Book Society’ series, and also a more down-market series of mostly romances, the Hutchinson Popular Pocket Library.
So quite why it needed another paperback series competing in the same market, is far from obvious. Perhaps Jarrold was at this point operating independently from the Hutchinson Group? Perhaps there was some perceived distinction between the type of stories in the Hutchinson Pocket Library and the sort published by Jarrold? In retrospect it seems surprising that they didn’t just combine the series, but at the time they no doubt had their reasons.
They were far from the only company to choose another bird’s name for a series competing with Penguin, and the choice of Jackdaw probably owed something to alliteration. In most other respects they followed the Penguin model directly – same size, same price, same standard designed cover with a strong series branding, same variety of bold colours, same use of dustwrappers in the same design as the covers.
In some of the details though they were a bit quirkier. Their title panel, a white circle on the cover, was copied directly from Collins rather than Penguin, and the choice of colours on the books seems initially to be fairly random, rather than representing genre. Later on they came into line with almost everybody else by mostly allocating green covers to crime books. Another quirk was the picture of the jackdaw, which varied slightly from book to book. There were at least five different drawings, all perched on a post and creating much the same visual impact, but adopting different positions.
The type of book published was very similar to Penguin. One of Jarrold’s leading authors at the time was Ethel Mannin, and they had already sold paperback rights for two of her novels to Penguin before starting their own series. Now another five appeared in the Jackdaw Library, alongside three others by Margery Allingham, later acquired by Penguin. The highlight of the short series though was Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s ‘Scots Quair’ trilogy. All three volumes appeared in the series, although slightly oddly, not in the ‘right’ order. Also included was ‘Spartacus’ written under the same author’s real name, as J. Leslie Mitchell.
The first eight Jackdaw books appeared together in October 1936 and were followed by another eight in the first three months of 1937, bringing the series up to volume 16. Volumes 17 to 20 were published in June 1937 before they seemed to run out of steam. Perhaps they weren’t selling well, or perhaps it was just that as a small publisher they didn’t have enough titles to maintain such a fast pace.
A further two titles appeared a year later in June 1938, both crime titles, and after another year’s gap the series re-launched as the Jackdaw Crime Series, with the numbering starting again from one. Presumably the crime titles were selling better than the general fiction.
An early Jackdaw Crime Series title and a later one, unusually in yellow
But by this time war was on the horizon. Eight Jackdaw Crime Series titles were published in 1939 and another eight by about the end of 1940. But the books became thinner and lost their dustwrappers as wartime conditions and paper rationing started to bite. The numbered series ended at volume 16, with a few more unnumbered books appearing later, with the price increased to ninepence.
A wartime unnumbered title at ninepence
The Hutchinson Services Editions later included a small number of Jarrolds Jackdaw titles and there were even a few more Jackdaws published after the war, but that’s another story. As a branded series of paperbacks, the Jarrolds Jackdaw Library really lasted only about four years, between 1936 and 1940. I don’t imagine many people collect them today, or even remember them. They were though an important part of the great flourishing of paperback series that occurred between the launch of Penguin and the Second World War.
When Albatross Books was launched in 1932 to compete with Tauchnitz selling English language books in continental Europe, the name was said to have been chosen because it was almost the same word in all European languages. The elegant silhouette of an Albatross was a nice design touch, but it seems unlikely that they started off with the idea of having a bird as a motif and then settled on an Albatross as the most suitable bird.
But that seems to be precisely what many other publishing companies did in the years that followed. The first imitator was Penguin Books, who launched their paperback series in the UK just 3 years later. Before the launch Allen Lane, the founder of Penguin, had explored the possibility of a joint venture with Albatross. When that didn’t work, he decided to go it alone, but copied all the principal design features of Albatross, including the use of a seabird as the logo and name of the series.
Penguin’s launch in the UK was such a success that a large part of the UK publishing industry felt it had to respond by launching similar series, copying many of the design features that Penguin in turn had copied from Albatross. Perhaps most importantly this meant scrapping cover art and using instead a standard cover design, mostly typographical, and designed to provide a strong identity for the series rather than the individual book.
But for several publishers, copying Penguin’s design features also meant copying their use of a bird as a logo. The Hutchinson Group even had two goes at it, with the series of Toucan novels, and the Jarrolds Jackdaw series. When the Lutterworth Press launched a series of children’s books, it looked for a correspondingly small bird and came up with Wren Books. Another publisher of children’s books, Juvenile Productions Ltd., started the Martyn Library, featuring a bird that is presumably meant to be a martin, although I can’t explain the slightly odd spelling.
One publisher, Methuen, settled on the kingfisher as a logo, but resisted the temptation to call their series Kingfisher books, choosing instead the more prosaic ‘Methuen’s Sixpennies’. Penguin meanwhile, perhaps concerned that it was losing its distinctiveness, decided to lay claim to all the other birds it could think of that began with a P. So its non-fiction series was called Pelican Books, its children’s series was called Puffin and there was even a short-lived series of miscellaneous titles at the end of the war called Ptarmigan Books.
I make that at least eight series of paperback books in the UK given bird logos just between 1935 and 1939, with one later on in 1945. Not bad for the brood of a single Albatross.
The launch of Penguin in July 1935 changed many things in British paperbacks. Most of their design innovations were copied from the continental publisher Albatross, but other publishers quickly copied them from Penguin and in just a few years they became the standard market practice.
One of these changes was the use of colour to signify the genre of the book. For Penguin, orange meant fiction and crime was green. These two became the dominant colours in the Penguin series, although there was also blue for biography, cerise for travel, red for drama and so on.
For Albatross though, green had meant travel, and they had used red for crime, both in the main series and in the Albatross Crime Club series, which had distinctive red and black covers. Was red a more appropriate colour for crime? On the other hand Collins had already issued Crime Club paperbacks in the UK, predominantly in green, so perhaps it was the more natural choice in the UK.
Pre-Penguin crime paperbacks in the UK were often green
But for Albatross in continental Europe, crime was always red
When it became clear that Penguin’s experiment was a success, others rushed to follow, including of course Collins, who relaunched their Crime Club paperbacks in 1936 in a Penguin style format, with no cover art. They naturally chose green, using a stylised illustration of two figures with knife and gun, later adding westerns in yellow and mysteries in purple.
Hutchinson had launched its rival Penguin-style series in October 1935, using a variety of colours, but no clear indication of genre. In June 1936 it added an associated crime series under the ‘Crime Book Society’ brand, and again used a range of colours.
Early Crime Book Society titles used all sorts of colours
But their distinctiveness didn’t last for long. Within a year or so they too had accepted that crime meant green. From about September 1937 onwards, all Crime Book Society paperbacks appeared in green covers. They were soon followed by two other imprints, both related to the Hutchinson Group, the Jackdaw Crime series and the Crime Novel Library. Both series used only green covers and the convention now seemed to be well established – green means crime.
New Zealand is a stunningly beautiful and successful country with much to celebrate in its own right, but seen from much of the rest of the world its fate is often to be considered as an add-on to Australia, a mere 1000 miles away. Travellers plan a trip to Australia, and think about whether they can visit New Zealand on the way home. Politicians talk to the Australian Prime Minister and wonder if they should contact the guy from New Zealand as well – if only they could remember his, or her, name. Businesses set up in Australia and then think about whether to add on a New Zealand branch. Publishers issue Australian Editions – and wonder if they should think about New Zealand.
It’s far from alone in this. Scotland has long suffered from being seen as an afterthought to England, and the Australia / New Zealand relationship parallels the England / Scotland one in very human terms as well. There are still a lot of New Zealanders of Scottish descent, and a lot of Australians with English heritage. So the Scottish publisher Collins had good reason to remember New Zealand, when it started to issue Australian editions during the Second World War.
The move by British publishers to print local editions in their former export markets was driven by the introduction of paper rationing in Britain. It no longer made any sense to print books in Britain and send them on a long and hazardous journey around the world. So Collins started to print its White Circle paperbacks locally in Canada, in India, in Ceylon (India’s New Zealand?), in Australia … and of course in New Zealand. Canada, India and Australia got long series and a wide choice of titles. Ceylon and New Zealand had to settle for just a handful of different titles.
I’m sure that today book-buyers in New Zealand have just as wide a choice as those in Australia. But back in the 1940s their choice may have been severely restricted. Presumably the logic for issuing only a few titles was that they needed a long print run to keep the price down and the only way to sell a long print run in a small market was to restrict the choice. Penguin did much the same, publishing a long series of books in Australia during the war and a much shorter series of titles in New Zealand.
So from Collins, New Zealand got a selection of titles that may have been as few as 6. There’s no record of what they published and there’s no advertising for other titles within the books themselves, so the only way of knowing what exists is to find them. John Loder’s pamphlet on the White Circle books in Australia lists 6 titles known to exist and I only have a copy of one of those.
It’s a Peter Cheyney novel, in an unusual Crime Club cover. Unusual because in the UK, Cheyney’s novels were not published in the Crime Club. They were considered Mystery novels, published in a separate Mystery series with its own cover style. That distinction, which seems to have been important in the UK, for reasons that I don’t understand, rather broke down outside the UK, and there are several examples in Australia too of books appearing in the ‘wrong’ cover style.
Otherwise the books look very like UK, or Australian, or Indian White Circle editions. Appropriately they were printed in Dunedin, a city named after the Gaelic name for Edinburgh, in another reminder of the historic links between Scotland and New Zealand.
I’ve recently come across a small pamphlet by John Loder on the Collins White Circle editions published in Australia. The books themselves I’ve seen from time to time and without trying to collect them systematically, I’ve put together a small group of them over the years. I’ve never known much about them though and certainly never had any knowledge of what titles existed, or how many. So it’s great to find that somebody else has had enough interest to produce a checklist and a short history.
As I’ve found before with series that are little researched, there are more books than you might think. They’re not numbered, so there’s no easy indication of how many there might be, and most are also undated, so I wasn’t even sure when they were published. It’s no surprise that they come from the 1940s, starting around 1942, possibly even a bit earlier. But I am a bit surprised to find that there are over 100 different titles. That includes several I have copies of that are not in John Loder’s checklist, so there are probably still other unrecorded ones as well.
The stimulus for the creation of the series was probably the introduction of paper rationing in the UK and the increasing difficulty of shipping books out to Australia. At much the same time, and for the same reason, Collins started local printing of paperbacks in Canada, in India and in Ceylon, Penguin started local printing in the US, Australia, New Zealand and Egypt, and Guild Books also started an Australian series. The Australian market must have been getting quite crowded.
All three of the UK publishers starting to print locally in Australia stuck with their basic UK format. Penguin’s launch in 1935 had transformed the UK market, with standard designed covers almost universally adopted, so that was what Australia got too. Over the years the design of White Circle covers in Australia gradually diverged from the UK original, but they never seem to have followed Canada or India in rejecting the UK orthodoxy and adopting fully illustrated covers.
The basic UK design with some unusual colour combinations
As in the UK, Australian White Circles come in different sub-series – Crime Club novels in green, Westerns in yellow, Mysteries in purple / magenta and ‘Famous Novels’ in mauve / lilac. There were about 30 to 35 titles in each of the first three sub series, but only around 13 titles in the Famous Novels series, which seems to have been principally aimed at women, combining the general fiction and romance categories in the UK. I think it’s fair to say that few of the titles could be described as famous today.
I’ve never quite understood the distinction between Crime novels and Mystery novels that applied in the 1930s and 1940s, although I imagine it was something to do with the rules of fair play between author and reader in classic stories of detection. In Australia though the rules seem to have been slightly different, with more than one title switching to a different category from the one applying in the UK.
The books sold at 1s 3d, equivalent at the fixed exchange rate of the time to 1 shilling in British currency. This was more or less in line with post-war prices for paperbacks in the UK, although double the standard pre-war price. Only around half of the titles published in Australia were also in the UK White Circle series, but the others are mostly books published by Collins in hardback in the UK and quite a few also appeared in the Canadian White Circle paperbacks. There are though a few by local Australian authors, which were not all published elsewhere by Collins. In particular, two ‘Jeffery Blackburn’ thrillers by Max Afford and two novels by Eleanor Dark.
I’m sure there’s much more to discover about the Australian editions, so I’ll come back to this another time. Some day there are also a few New Zealand editions to investigate.
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.