When Services Editions were first printed in 1943, Peter Cheyney was one of the most popular and the most prolific authors in Britain. His first novel had been published only in 1936, but had been an almost immediate success and it was rapidly followed by many others. By the end of 1942 Cheyney had around fifteen novels in print.
Most of them were available only in hardback through his publisher Collins, and hardbacks novels were not only expensive, but also limited by paper rationing. To achieve a wider readership they needed to appear in paperback and the natural route was through the Collins White Circle paperback series, probably the most successful of the many rivals to Penguin launched in the late 1930s and early 1940s.
‘Poison Ivy’, one of Cheyney’s early novels featuring the private eye Lemmy Caution, was the first to appear in a White Circle edition in July 1939, and four others followed over the next four years, gradually building the author’s readership. But paper rationing was a problem for paperbacks too and by 1943 the flow of new additions to the White Circle series had slowed to a trickle.
Almost the only remaining route to achieving a mass readership was through the Services Editions, which had a dedicated paper ration for a long print run, typically at least 50,000 copies. The books were then held in the libraries of battalions or other units, or passed around from hand to hand, with each copy possibly read several times. I doubt they paid the author much, but they could certainly build the readership and popularity of an author and anyway it was the patriotic duty of the author to participate in the scheme. Fortunately for Cheyney, Collins were the most enthusiastic of participants, contributing books to the multi-publisher Guild Books series, as well as running their own series.
In 1943 Collins offered ‘Poison Ivy’ to the Guild Books series as volume S61 and for their own series chose ‘Dangerous Curves’ to be included in the first batch of books. Both are now very difficult to find in first printing. As far as I know there was only one printing of ‘Poison Ivy’, but ‘Dangerous Curves’ was reprinted in 1945 and the reprint is much more common. The first printing is dated ‘Services Edition 1943’ and has no spine number, while the reprint is dated 1945 and numbered c207.
There were to be no further Cheyney novels published in Guild Books. All the later books issued were in the Collins series of Services Editions. ‘Dangerous Curves’ was quickly followed by ‘You’d be surprised’ (1943, volume c224), by ‘You can always duck’ (1944, c276) and ‘They never say when’ (1944, c284). I’m reasonably confident of the dates and numbers here, although there’s a little bit of guesswork involved as I have never seen first printing copies of any of these three. I do have a reprint of ‘You can always duck’ dated 1946.
I also have first printing copies of the remaining two Cheyney novels issued in the series, which were issued together in 1945 – ‘Dark duet’ as volume c315 and ‘Sorry you’ve been troubled’ as volume c316. ‘Dark duet’ is notable as the only one of Cheyney’s ‘Dark’ series of spy stories to appear in a Services Edition. The other six novels are all detective stories featuring either Cheyney’s American FBI agent / Private eye Lemmy Caution, or his British equivalent Slim Callaghan.
A total of seven books published in Services Editions makes Peter Cheyney one of the most published authors, almost on a par with Agatha Christie. It was however a small fraction of his output and only a first indication of what was to come. His popularity surged after the war and with the end of Services Editions he went on to become the principal author of ‘mystery stories’ in the White Circle series of paperbacks as well as a mainstay of Pan Books, selling sometimes over a million books in a year.
The distinctive red and black covers of the Albatross Crime Club books from the 1930s will be relatively familiar to anyone with an interest in continental English language editions. I’ve written before about how they resulted from a partnership between Albatross and Collins, publisher of the Collins Crime Club in the UK.
The grey and green covers of the Albatross Mystery Club may be less familiar, partly just because there were far fewer of them, but they may also have been printed and sold in smaller quantities. Certainly some of them are now quite difficult to find, not helped by the fact that they were all issued from 1937 to 1939 in the last couple of years before the Second World War.
The distinction between Crime books and Mystery Books was a peculiarity of Collins. Books published in the Collins Crime Club series in the UK had to conform to certain criteria that defined what a crime story was. Books that didn’t qualify as crime, were published instead as ‘A Collins Mystery’. Since the Albatross Crime Club published only books that had appeared in the Collins Crime Club in the UK, they inherited the problem from Collins, although their answer to it was rather different.
For Collins, ‘The Collins Crime Club’ was a little bit more than just a marketing description. It was at least a mailing list and possibly a bit more than that, if not really a club in the traditional sense. There was no parallel organisation for mystery stories, so no corresponding Collins Mystery Club. For Albatross though, the Albatross Crime Club was purely a brand for marketing purposes. As far as I can tell, it didn’t even have a mailing list or any other pretence of club membership or organisation. So creating a parallel ‘Albatross Mystery Club’ was not at all difficult. All it required was a new logo and a new colour scheme for the books.
It still took them quite a long while to get round to it. The Albatross Crime Club was already four years old and had published some eighty titles before the first Albatross Mystery Club title appeared in 1937. By this point, Collins had also started their own paperback ‘White Circle’ series in the UK, initially only with Crime Club titles, but from January 1937 with a separate Mystery sub-series as well. So Albatross were playing catch-up.
The Albatross Mystery Club began with a run of nine titles numbered from 401 to 409 and dated 1937, while Albatross Crime Club titles continued to be published with numbers in the 100 series. But then in early 1938, all Crime Club titles started to be issued using numbers in the 400s and mixed in with Mystery Club titles. So 410 and 411 are Crime Club titles, then 412 is from the Mystery Club, all these three issued in May 1938. In May, June, July and August there was a consistent pattern of two Crime Club books and one Mystery Club in each month. Then from September 1938 to June 1939, one in each series appeared each month, before the Mystery Club titles came to an end. One Crime Club title a month continued to be published for another four months, before the war finally put an end to them.
So overall nine Mystery Club titles in 1937 then one a month for fourteen months in 1938/39, giving a grand total of 23 books in the grey and green livery of the club. The mix of authors is similar to those published in the White Circle Mystery sub-series in the 1930s, although David Hume is a bit more prominent and J.M. Walsh a bit less so. Hume has 5 of the 23 titles followed by Peter Cheyney with three. Interestingly the White Circle series in the UK didn’t publish its first Cheyney title until July 1939, after all three of these continental editions, although Cheyney went on to become the dominant author for Collins White Circle after the war.
The only books in the Albatross Mystery Club that have really achieved any lasting fame are the two Dorothy L. Sayers novels, both early Lord Peter Wimsey novels – ‘Whose Body?’ and ‘Unnatural Death’. Both had been first published in the UK more than ten years earlier, and were probably already seen as classics of the genre. Indeed later Sayers novels had already appeared in the Albatross main series with red crime branding, but these were books for which Collins did not hold the rights, so they came to Albatross by a different route and under a different policy.
When Albatross came briefly back after the war, there was no longer any role for the Mystery Club, or the Crime Club. Those 23 books represent the entire output of the Albatross Mystery Club.
I wrote recently about the important distinction that Collins made between Crime stories and Mystery stories – important to them, that is. It had its origins in the exclusivity of the Collins Crime Club series, so when Collins launched a new series of Crime Club paperbacks in March 1936 – the series that eventually became the White Circle paperbacks – it was natural that to start with, it excluded ‘mystery’ stories.
But once a parallel series of western paperbacks was added a few months later in a similar format and also with a large white circle as the title panel on the front cover, it was perhaps inevitable that mystery stories would follow. The westerns started in August 1936 with numbering from 101, leaving the first 100 numbers for crime titles, and mystery stories launched in January 1937, starting from number 201.
Where the Crime Club titles had featured two mysterious figures in green and black, and the westerns were in yellow with a cowboy on a rearing horse, the mystery titles used purple and a policeman blowing a whistle as their design motif.
The back cover of the first six titles explained what the mystery classification meant: ‘While the Crime Club issues books based on a definite detective process, Collins’ famous series of Mystery Novels sponsor equally exciting books of a different kind – mainly Secret Service stories and thrillers of the type for which Edgar Wallace was famous. The Mystery Novels now published in this new pocket format have been selected from the most successful in this series.’
I still struggle to understand why, to take one example – ‘Unnatural death’ by Dorothy L. Sayers (published as one of those first six mystery titles), is not a Crime novel, or not considered as being ‘based on a definite detective process’, but it matters little. By the time the next batch of 6 mystery novels, numbered 207 to 212, appeared in September / October 1937, the White Circle name had been adopted for the overall series, with crime stories, westerns, mysteries and romances identified as sub-series, each with their own identity, but clearly part of a larger whole. The series continued with this structure for the next 20 years.
The pattern of issuing books in batches of six at a time gradually broke down, but new books continued to be added at a steady rate throughout 1938 and 1939, so that over 40 mystery titles had been published by the time war broke out in September 1939. That inevitably slowed things down a bit and by 1943, with the constraints of paper rationing, the overall series more or less ground to a halt. It effectively continued in a different form through the Collins series of Services Editions, but that’s another story.
Wartime restrictions also killed off the dustwrappers that had been used on the early volumes up to the end of 1939 – the first 45 volumes in the mystery series.
The main authors in those early years included J.M. Walsh / Stephen Maddock, David Hume, Arthur Mills, Sydney Horler and Edgar Wallace. Peter Cheyney, who came to dominate the list later on, made his first appearance in 1939 and gradually rose in prominence through the 1940s. So far as I can tell, none of the authors other than Dorothy L. Sayers are much read or much collected today, and again with the exception of Sayers, none of the individual titles have become anything resembling classics of the genre.
By 1943, just over 80 mystery titles had been published, numbered from 201 to 282, and a handful of further titles after the war took the numbering up to 300 by 1950. Numbers from 301 onwards had earlier been allocated to an odd mix of Galsworthy’s Forsyte Saga novels and romantic fiction, but a precedent for dealing with this had already been set by the crime sub-series. Numbers 98 and 99 had been followed by 100c, 101c etc,, so that 101c (crime) could be distinguished from 101 (western). On this basis, the mystery titles should have gone from 299 or 300 on to 301m, 302m etc. They did eventually adopt this format, but only from 308m, so that the numbers from 301 to 307 are used twice. There’s a more detailed look at some of the numbering peculiarities of the White Circle series on this link.
The post-war revival of the series didn’t really get going again until about 1950, but from then on around 10 mystery titles were added each year, reaching number 350m by 1955 and continuing up to a final 397m in 1959. However not all were entirely new, as several titles were re-issued under a new number. Throughout the final decade of the series, the list was dominated by two authors – Peter Cheyney and Edwy Searles Brooks, who wrote under the pseudonyms of Berkeley Gray and Victor Gunn. Cheyney was the undoubted star, and many of his books featured a special front cover with his image replacing the usual policeman. But Brooks was prolific too and between them these two authors accounted for around 60 of the approximately 100 titles published between 1950 and 1959.
The final book in the Mystery sub-series was ‘The lady is poison’ by Berkeley Gray, number 397m, published in August 1959 shortly before the end of the overall White Circle series. Over a period of almost 25 years it had included almost 200 ‘mystery’ books and certainly made its mark as a leader in this area.